Transportation

New service comes to GGT today, but nothing restored

GGT_MCI_D4500CT

Image from Golden Gate Transit.

The latest schedule adjustment to GGT’s buses goes into effect today, and it offers mixed news for commuters. While GGT did expand service between San Francisco and Sonoma on the 101X, service cuts from earlier this summer remain in effect. In short, this adjustment is somewhat of a wash.

­The cut runs

To deal with ongoing personnel shortages, GGT cut eight commuter runs: one in the morning and evening on Route 4, two in the morning and evening on the 24, and one in the morning and evening on the 54. People weren’t too pleased, but it was better than unplanned cancellations the morning of. (These continued, but at least they became more rare.)

The new schedule doesn’t restore any of these runs. Though the latest crop of drivers, who start today, were supposed to have alleviated the service cuts, apparently GGT thought they should assign drivers elsewhere.

Elsewhere in the schedule, Route 2’s first run (5:15am) was folded into Route 4’s first (5:10am, which is rescheduled to 4:58am). Both runs used to arrive at San Francisco at the same time, so consolidating saves a bit of money and manpower. Route 70’s 4:30am run, which left from the San Rafael Transit Center, was also cancelled, as the first 27 duplicates the run just five minutes later. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Petaluma’s Measure Q: The argument over government efficiency

Downtown Petaluma

Downtown Petaluma

My last two posts have been about Measure Q, which will be on the Petaluma ballot this fall.   It’s a sales tax measure intended to address the municipal budgetary issues lingering after the great recession.  There are many similar tax measures on ballots across the country, so in writing about Measure Q, I hope that I’m touching up the issues that are being raised in many municipalities.  Although I’ll leave it to individual readers to translate the discussion below to their particular communities.

The connection between urbanism and Measure Q, and its multitude of siblings, is clear, but nonetheless awkward.  Much of the municipal financial malaise which Measure Q targets is the result of 70 years of unjustified faith in the land-use paradigm of drivable suburbia.  As has been long predicted, the costs of the failed experiment are coming home to roost and cities everywhere are struggling with the results.

But the response of too many cities, including Petaluma, isn’t to use the requested new tax proceeds to change land-use models, but instead to use the dollars to double down on their bets on drivable suburbia.  This decision leaves urbanists, such as me, in a quandary.  While willing to help pay off the debts of failed suburbia, we’d prefer not to be a part of further wrong-headed “investments”.

In my last two posts, I wrote about how genetic codinglingering in my DNA after four centuries may be leading me to support Measure Q and about my responses to objectionsraised by readers.

Before leaving Measure Q, at least for awhile, I want to touch upon one final objection that is often made to increased municipal taxes.  Perhaps it hasn’t been raised on my blog or in emails to me, but it requires only a short search to find the objection splattered around the internet.

And that argument is that cities have plenty of money to fulfill their mission and only fail because they are appallingly inefficient.  Admittedly, it may be only a few folks who hold that opinion, but elections something swing on a few folks or the few other folks who listen to fringe opinions.

So, I want to write about the fallacy of government inefficiency.  If you still choose to vote against Measure Q, that’s your decision.  But I don’t want government inefficacy to be one of your reasons, because we’ll need to believe in government if we are to make the turn toward urbanism.  It was government that played a key role in codifying and organizing our turn toward suburbia and we’ll need government to play a similar role as we back out of that failure and head elsewhere.

By chance, I wrote about the fallacy of government inefficiency in a draft post several months.  I excised the words in final editing because the post ran too long, but I saved the text and it works fine here.

“Let me touch upon a couple of points that are often raised in opposition to proposed tax hikes.  First, some will claim that if government was more efficient, then the new taxes wouldn’t be needed.  Second, some will argue that they can’t afford the new taxes.

“In response to the former, I agree that government is inefficient.  So are households where, on average, 40 percent of purchased food is thrown away because of spoilage and where many spare bedrooms are filled with unused exercise equipment.  So are corporations which often make poor strategic decisions and fail to support important initiatives because of board room politics.

“It’s the nature of people, especially groups of people, to be inefficient.  Given an adequacy of resources, we often let inattention, personal agendas, and bickering take priority over efficiency.

“It’s an intriguing goal to suggest that government be more efficient than the rest of us.  But as a basis for ballot box decisions, it’s idealistic and misguided.

“In response to the concern about the affordability of new taxes, it’s certainly possible that a tax increase will be difficult for some to afford.  But I suggest that the difficulty is more related to how we distribute income and share tax burdens.   These are worthy topics of discussion, although far beyond the scope of an urbanism blog.  And I don’t think we can afford to hamstring our governments while we pursue philosophical discussions on topics that we’ve ducked for years.”

At the time, I exchanged emails on the subject with an economist cousin, who also had thoughts to share.  (A note about my family: I have a remarkable set of cousins, all of whom have attracted similarly remarkable spouses.  There may not be many of us, I have only three first cousins, but when we sit down over a holiday dinner, there is a mechanical engineer, a forester, an attorney, an artist, a former economics professor, and others.  Even better, we all get along, with conversations that are as insightful as they are spirited.  I deeply appreciate having this family.)

My cousin’s comments, only slightly edited for clarity, follow:

“I agree with your thoughts about government, although I would also add this: Government is more inefficient than people or private companies because it takes on more difficult tasks.  It’s relatively easy for the private sector to be efficient.  Farmers, for example, know the prices (even future prices) of what they produce, so it’s easy for them to optimize.  But government undertakes a task only when the market prevents the private sector from operating efficiently.  And these tasks are often very hard:

  • “Public goods, e.g. national defense, fireworks, lighthouses – Due to the free-rider problem, the private sector won’t provide these kinds of goods, so it’s up to government to do it.  This is hard enough in itself because it’s hard to decide how much of different kinds of defense services to provide without price signals to guide you, but it also allows public officials to misallocate resources, e.g., by insisting that obsolete defense programs be funded so as to create jobs in a certain district.
  • “Natural monopolies, like the postal service – With farmers, the profit motive leads to a somewhat efficient outcome.  But with a natural monopoly, the profit motive leads to an inefficient outcome.  So when the postal service loses money (which is optimal), it’s seen as confirming the idea that government does things inefficiently.  Congress also interferes here, e.g., by insisting that post offices be run out in the middle of nowhere.
  • ”Transfers – Any organization that gives out money and benefits is going to have to deal with fraud, even private companies, e.g., double-dippers at the free sample booths at Costco.  The government does more of this than the private sector, and is therefore more vulnerable to fraud.
  • “Externalities – Economists have long advocated market-based solutions to externalities, but these would involve taxes, which are often unacceptable, and subsidies, which are counted as expenditures in budgets.  Congress often prefers regulation because the costs are hidden in that they’re passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

“Ultimately, government has an imposingly difficult set of tasks, much like Ginger Rogers dancing backwards in high heels.”

I’m not sure I grasp every point she offers, but at least I know where to begin the Christmas dinner conversation.

In my next post, I’ll speculate about why it’s so hard to start community discussions about urbanism.  After that, I’ll tackle football and urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Durable Growth, Environment

Petaluma’s Measure Q: The arguments roll in

Typical suburban arterial

Typical suburban arterial

In my last post, I wrote about my reasons for supporting Measure Q in Petaluma, a sales tax measure intended to replenish municipal coffers after the great recession.  I suggested that my distant roots in Puritanism may induce me to insist on paying my own way, rather than transferring the costs of municipal upkeep to other segments of the population or other generations, and leading me to vote for Measure Q even though I find some aspects flawed.

The specific circumstances around Measure Q are unique to Petaluma, but there are similar tax measures on ballots around the country as the costs of the failed 70-year experiment in drivable suburbia continue to be tallied.  So I feel comfortable writing about Measure Q and letting the readers draws the parallels to their own communities.

From my email inbox, it appears that I may be in a minority among urbanists in my support of Measure Q.  And I’m fine with that.  Writing this blog is indicative of my willingness to not conform.  I can’t see the harm in finding yet one more isolated island to inhabit.

However, the emails make legitimate comments about Measure Q, which I think are worthy of discussion.  So today’s post will summarize the comments and my responses. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Urbanism shouldn’t be a forbidden topic

European mixed-use neighborhood

European mixed-use neighborhood

The upcoming elections have been a recent emphasis of this blog.  Within the past couple of weeks, I’ve written about looking for traces of urbanism among the candidates, about the tax measuresthat Petaluma and other cities have put forth to address their financial malaise, about the objections from urbanists to the tax measures , and about the misconceptions about government inefficiencythat may affect voting on the ballot measures and perhaps also undermine the future of urbanism.

In keeping with my personal philosophy, I was looking at public policy from an urbanist perspective.  But to what extent is that perspective a factor in the general public discourse on these subjects?  Not the discourse in the obscure corners of the internet such as this blog, but the everyday discourse of average citizen?  To put it another way, how often is urbanism discussed at dinner parties, family picnics, or church socials?  And does it receive as much attention as the reigning suburban paradigm?

The answer, at least in my observation, is that urbanism is rarely a factor in the public forum.  And I’m troubled by that answer.  As I wrote a few weeks back, urbanism is the study of strategies for municipal success and the advocacy of the best practices.  How could such a key subject not have found its way into daily discourse?  Especially when we regularly talk about how to perpetuate the current suburban paradigm in our discussions about the need to widen streets, to approve a new big box, or to endorse a new subdivision for the jobs it would create?

It’s a question about which I’ve often thought.  I have a working hypothesis about why urbanism remains in the shadows while suburbanism is well-established in the public forum.  However, it’s only a hypothesis.  Readers are encouraged to respond with concurrence or disagreement. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

We built this stuff, we really should take care of it

Replica of the Pilgrims' Mayflower in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Replica of the Pilgrims’ Mayflower in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

When I was a young engineer, long before the days of electronic communication, I often found myself giving my name when leaving a message.  If the person taking the message was of a certain age, let’s say at least two decades older than me, the response upon hearing my last name was often, “Any relation to John?”

Over time, the frequency of the question waned.  The older message-takers retired and their younger replacements were from an era after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish” had disappeared from high school syllabi.  I can guess a number of reasons why Longfellow was dropped, but still miss the days when I was regularly asked about John Alden.

(For those not familiar with the narrative poem, Longfellow writes of the early days of the Pilgrim settlement in what is now Massachusetts.  The photo above is of a replica of the Mayflower, the ship in which the Pilgrims arrived.

Miles Standish was a military officer for the colony, responsible for maintaining peace with the Native Americans.  But whatever confidence he may have shown in military affairs was lacking in his relationship with the opposite gender.

Arguing that his time was better spent in managing the weaponry of the colony, he asked his good friend John Alden to ask on Standish’s behalf for the hand of Priscilla Mullins, another young Pilgrim.  John, although he also fancied Priscilla, agreed to undertake the duty for his friend. Continue reading

Durable Growth

“The Planners”: Getting underway

Front door near Kew Gardens, England

Front door near Kew Gardens, England

I’ve mentioned the BBC show “The Planners” several times.  The show is English reality television, showing land use permitting processes on the other side of the pond.  In those earlier mentions, I expressed the hope of learning something about land use entitlement under a different set of rules and complained that I couldn’t find the show on my cable system or on the BBC website.

Eventually, a reader took pity on my naiveté and emailed me that all the episodes were available on YouTube.  He was right.  Nuts.

So I was finally able to begin watching the show.  As I had expected, there were differences between the land use processes in England and California.

But what was more striking was the similarity between the personalities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  For nearly every person I watched on “The Planners”, from self-righteous applicants to dowdy planners to haughty planning councilors to unhappy neighbors, I’d seen their parallels during my years in land use.

Starting today and continuing occasionally, I’ll provide links and comments about episodes.  If your time permits, I recommend watching the show.  It’s not necessarily great television.  If you have fun social plans on your calendar, I wouldn’t cancel them to watch the show.  But if you were planning on watching “Big Brother” or another of its ilk, I’d encourage you to try “The Planners” instead.  You might gain some insight to land use planning, and to the personalities that populate the land-use world. Continue reading

Durable Growth

River Front: Sorting through the arguments

Turf athletic field at Lucchesi Park in Petaluma

Turf athletic field at Lucchesi Park in Petaluma

In a pair of recent posts, I introduced River Front, a proposed mixed-use project within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan, and wrote about the controversy that developed over whether the athletic field proposed by the applicant should be natural grass or artificial turf.

I closed the second post with the questions I was pondering as the climactic City Council session, reaffirming the decision in favor of grass, came to an end.  Did we identify all the reasons for turf versus grass?  Does the community have the right to require that a park be a community athletic field rather than a neighborhood park?  What should have been correct decision for the community?  And even if a turf athletic field is the right answer, is it fair to require the applicant to cover the cost?

In this post, I’ll provide my personal answers to those questions.

On the arguments for grass versus turf, I’ll add another pro-turf argument, traffic.  Turf fields are generally available for use twice as many hours per year as grass fields, so are the backbone of an athletic program.

East Washington Park

East Washington Park

And yet, when the under-construction East Washington Park is complete, all three turf athletic fields owned by the Petaluma Park and Recreation Department will be east of Highway 101, requiring ever more trips on E. Washington Street from west Petaluma.  (As a Parks Commissioner, I’m fully supportive of East Washington Park.  It was badly needed.  But I still regret the resulting geographic imbalance.)

Petaluma has an election approaching in which funds for street improvements and repair will be a major issue.  Against that backdrop, it seems odd to blithely accept the additional traffic generated by parks at the urban fringe without trying to reduce the impact.

It’s also indicative our approach to traffic and why we seem unable to manage traffic.  We put new uses where the land is available and/or the development costs are affordable, under the assumption that users can drive to the site.  But it’s expensive to build a road system to keep up with that increasing demand.  And the induced traffic phenomenon often makes it impossible to keep up. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Delay tactics plague the county housing element

by Lotus Carroll, on Flickr

by Lotus Carroll, on Flickr

As the county comes down the home stretch of approving its housing element (HE), opponents of the element, led by Marin Against Density (MAD) and Community Venture Partners (CVP) have taken up a tactic of delay. Calling the effectively two-year process a fast-track giveaway to developers, they have called for extending the process out from the end of January to the end of next May.The delay is simple political posturing. Opponents should return to debate over substance, not timetables.

The current HE finds its roots in the 2013 County Housing Element, passed before Plan Bay Area and its raft of tweaks to affordable housing policy in the region. In essence, the county copied the list of affordable housing sites from the 2013 element, developed after an intense yearlong debate, into the 2014 element.

This has opponents crying foul. The 2013 element was based on an old housing needs assessment, when the region required the county to find room for affordable 781 units. The 2014 element needs to only find space for about 185 units. By copying over the last element’s list to the current list, opponents argue the county is accommodating many more homes than the state requires.

This position glosses over the effect of the 2013 element: the Housing Element simply identifies sites already zoned for housing.   The affordable housing sites declared to the state through that element are in the general plan today. Whether the county lists these sites or not, these sites’ legal status will remain unchanged.  The opponents’ argument, that this increases housing opportunities in Marin, is flat wrong.

To fight this, opponents are apparently planning on delay tactics.

Led by Community Venture Partners (CVP), an anti-Smart Growth nonprofit run by Bob Silvestri, opponents are arguing the county timetable is a “fast-track.” First, they were upset that the county was submitting the element to HCD for review without apparently realizing the review was non-binding. CVP declared on their website:

On Monday, August 25th, the Draft of the Marin County “Housing Element” (HE) for the 2015-2023 planning cycle will have its final review by the Planning Commission before being sent to the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) in Sacramento.

The Planning Commission will actually hold their last hearing on November 17 to review feedback from HCD, followed by at least two hearings by the Board of Supervisors that have yet to be scheduled. CVP goes on:

The County is fast-tracking the review, submittal and approval of the HE unnecessarily. The County has until May 31st of 2015 to gain final certification of the HE from HCD, without risk of penalty of any kind.

CVP is mistaken here, too. While Marin would not be subject to state penalties, MTC has declared it will prioritize regional transportation funding for cities and counties that submit their HE by January 31, 2015. CVP is gambling the county can challenge MTC’s rulemaking, but that’s hardly “without risk of penalty of any kind.”

Testimony from MAD supporters at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting indicate the aim isn’t to allow more time for public comment but to give opponents a chance to organize. They begged the supervisors to do what the Larkspur City Council did with their Station Area Plan: accede to opponents’ demands. If the county does not, CVP has issued a fundraising appeal for a $15,000 legal team to sue the county over the HE.

From a political standpoint, MAD and CVP are working with a shrewd strategy. A delay that allows them to organize hands them a victory and momentum, which will make the extra four months of organizing that much more effective. As well, a delay keeps housing in the news. The unusual back-to-back Housing Element processes has served as kindling to their cause. Keeping the news cycle on housing will help them maintain the angry fires for a bit longer, which will bleed into the next election cycle.

Unfortunately for the county, this strategy is terribly unproductive. Rather than focus on solutions to the regional housing shortage, CVP and MAD have chosen to set themselves up as populist outsiders. CVP’s policy proposals, such as they are, are buried beneath cries of an unjust fast-track bureaucracy. And, by using a strategy of delay, both CVP and MAD are placing their own political needs above the county’s policy needs. They are putting millions of dollars in regional, state, and federal transportation funds at risk for political gain; whatever legal mess comes from it will be left to taxpayer-funded county lawyers.

There are sites within the Housing Element that deserve scrutiny because of their location. However, this is not a reason to delay the HE or to put county transportation funds at risk. Democracy must be about compromise, not threats of lawsuit.

—–

Coalition for a Livable Marin (CALM) has a new petition out that asks the Board of Supervisors to respect the original timetable for approving the HE and support the housing element more broadly. Emails from CALM have asked supporters to make their concerns known in a way that doesn’t put the county’s future at risk. I and other steering committee members of CALM have pushed to include more about the organization’s stances against greenfield development and auto-oriented density.

What you can do today is sign up for CALM’s newsletter and sign the petition to the Board of Supervisors.

Durable Growth, Government

Labor Day is here, elections can’t be far behind

Walkable neighborhood in Buffalo

Walkable neighborhood in Buffalo

I’m not a proponent of voting by mail.  I think there’s value in bumping into one’s neighbors while voting.  Just like I believe that there’s value in bumping into one’s neighbors at a grocery store or a pub in a walkable neighborhood.

Living in a precinct where walking to the polling place is reasonable for most voters, I expected for a long time to see neighbors there.

But I rarely did.  And after the last few elections where the poll watchers were almost pathetically happy to see me because it gave them a respite from staring at the ceiling, I’ve given up.  I’ll vote by mail for the foreseeable future.

However, there is a benefit from much of the population voting by mail.  The election season is shorter.  To reach many voters, arguments must be made and minds swayed before the early October date when voting begins.

And so, with the days of summer only beginning to fade, I’ll offer my thoughts on the upcoming election.  As always, I wouldn’t mention names.  But I’ll give the general rules that I’ll use in selecting the candidates to whom I’ll give my votes and my donations this time around. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Looking around town: Checking on continuing stories

Petaluma block party

Petaluma block party

I describe this blog as a perspective, with an urbanist eye, on land use in the entire North Bay.  However, I live, work, and participate in the Petaluma community.  Unless I watch myself carefully, I can easily find myself writing only about Petaluma.  Lately, I haven’t been watching myself carefully.

That became evident when I began to write updates on several stories I’ve been following.  All of the stories were based in Petaluma.  Oops.

I promise in the near future to again begin traveling beyond the Petaluma city limits.  At least I’ll do so as soon as the broken glass is swept up.  (For those not in the Bay Area, the North Bay sustained a 6.0 earthquake early Sunday morning.  The entire household was awakened, except for the 14-year-old Golden Retriever who continued to snore blissfully.  We sustained no damage, not even a picture askew, but the towns of Napa and Sonoma weren’t as lucky.)

I have a working list of projects which I intend to visit around the North Bay.  But if readers have particular projects they’d like me to visit, or public hearings they think I should attend, let me know.  I’m always interested in inside information.

So, today will be a summing up of older Petaluma stories.  My next post will be final thoughts on the athletic field at the River Front project in Petaluma (where else?) about which I’ve recently written twice.  And then I’ll take a quick look at planning in England.  But after that, I promise, I’ll widen my perspective to include more of the North Bay. Continue reading