Suburban home near Santa Cruz
In the spring of 2009, I attended a series of public lectures about urbanism on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Among the speakers was a representative from Calthorpe Associates, the firm founded by leading edge urbanist Peter Calthorpe.
I’ve forgotten the name of the Calthorpe person, but one of his comments stuck with me. In looking at the long-range market for American housing, he and his associates had calculated the number of large-lot single-family homes that would be needed in 2037. It was fewer than the number of large-lot single-family homes that existed in 2009. We could have immediately stopped building homes in that category and, assuming that we preserved much of the current stock, still met demand thirty years in the future.
Among the professionals with whom I attended the lecture series, several were openly skeptical of the projection, noting the urbanist slant of Calthorpe Associates. Personally, I found the forecast intriguing and would have appreciated the opportunity to dig into the data and assumptions behind it. I thought the prediction might well have been accurate.
But I didn’t foresee that the implications of a reduced demand for large single-family homes would begin impacting seniors within only a few years. Indeed, it is one of the largest stumbling blocks to finding a better solution for senior life in the U.S., a topic that I began considering in my previous post. Continue reading
Typical Venetian scene
In the early days of this blog, when I was still young and naïve, I described three seminal steps in my progress from being someone who accepted drivable suburbia as eternal to someone who would call himself an urbanist.
One of those steps was an observation made during a 2007 trip to Venice. Below, I quote my younger and more naïve self.
“One evening, I dined in a trattoria on the Piazza San Toma. (Best gnocchi I’ve ever had.) As I ate, an elderly gentleman entered. He was perhaps in his late 70s, tall and fit. His clothes showed wear, but were in good repair and nicely pressed. He carried a sparklingly clean pottery bowl.
“My Italian was limited, but I could discern that he wanted a double order of a favorite pasta to take it back to his apartment to share with his wife, who was physically unable to come to the trattoria. The proprietor of the trattoria knew the gentleman and greeted him with warmth and enthusiasm. Several friends who were dining in a rear room were advised of his presence. They came forward to sit with him as he awaited his order.
“The conversation, although far beyond my ability to understand, was voluble and good-natured. Even the son of the proprietor, who clearly wanted to be elsewhere on the warm spring evening, talked familiarly with the gentleman and smiled for the first time all evening.” Continue reading
Despite promises to the contrary, Golden Gate Transit’s personnel woes have continued. Despite yet another opportunity to make their schedule match their personnel for a second time, GGT cancelled a run of Route 54 on Friday and another on Monday. What started as a headache is fast becoming a glaring indictment of GGT’s scheduling and personnel management.
In June, GGT’s drivers announced that, thanks to scheduling changes, the agency would not have enough drivers to meet its scheduling obligations. Soon, riders who went through the hoops to get text and email alerts started receiving cancellation notices the morning of their ride. For people who catch the same bus every day, this was frustrating. Questions mushroomed: if GGT knew it couldn’t meet its new scheduling obligations, why did it bother to write an unrealistic schedule?
Not to worry, said GGT. We’re hiring more drivers, so in September cancellations will be a thing of the past. In the interim, the agency permanently cancelled four morning and four evening runs on the 4, 24, and 54.
Still, the unscheduled cancellations mounted, so that up to 7 runs would be cancelled in a single morning.
With the release of its fall schedule and the graduation of its new class of drivers, GGT had a chance to put its terrible summer behind it. Yet, both the scheduled cancelations as well as the unscheduled cancellations continue.
That they continue raises some troubling questions about GGT’s approach to customer service, scheduling, and personnel. Were schedulers informed of how many drivers to expect on a given day? Were they instructed to exceed standard personnel schedule padding? Or, did personnel managers not know how many drivers to expect? No answer to these questions would shine well on the agency.
GGT needs to get its house in order, and fast. Transit riders need consistency to plan their morning. With constant cancellations despite promises to the contrary, GGT is simply driving away the riders it is supposed to serve.
Block party sign
While attending a block party yesterday on the west side of Petaluma, I chatted with a young woman who was enthusiastic about her recent move to Petaluma. As she described it, “I grew up in Hawaii. Here in the North Bay, I’ve lived in Rohnert Park, Novato, and San Rafael, but always wanted to live in Petaluma because the local friendliness felt most like Hawaii.”
When she noted that the block party was an example of the Petaluma camaraderie for which she had longed, I was hooked. It was time for another block party post.
As block parties go, yesterday’s party was a relatively modest affair. No bounce houses or water slides. No elaborate bars in garages. No mass of noisy children roaming between attractions. No crowds of 200 or more.
I departed before yesterday’s party reached full fruition, but I doubt it was going to be more than about forty folks, most of them adults although with a couple of youths on skateboards. And the principal event was casual chatting, before tucking into a potluck dinner.
In its sedateness, the party had a comfortable neighborly feeling. Middle-aged adults enjoying a rare opportunity to catch up with busy neighbors and to remind themselves about the multi-faceted neighborhood they shared. Although I was an outsider, continuing my summer-long past-time of party crashing, I enjoyed talking with several folks and even made tentative plans for a trip to Italy. Continue reading
A typical small town main street
Over recent posts, I’ve become ensnared by a daisy chain of subjects. I argued in favor of the tax measures on November ballots in many communities. My argument was “We built this stuff, we really should take care of it.”
That stance led me to a proactive argument against those who might argue that government doesn’t deserve more revenue because it’s inefficient. My grounds for this second argument were that most human activities are inefficient and it’s unrealistic to ask government to exceed our own skills. Besides, we ask government to do a number of tasks that are particularly prone to inefficiency.
From there, I nominated the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, as a particular cause of government inefficiency, including an analogy and a handful of anecdotesto support my argument.
Today, I’ll conclude my thoughts on the Brown Act with a case history of open versus closed meetings, a silly result from the literal application of a Brown Act equivalent, and a timid suggestion about an alternative approach to the open meeting law.
Throughout these arguments, I’ve been explaining that, as an urbanist, I care about these issues because it’ll be harder to turn ourselves toward urbanism if we continue to hamstring government with ill-fitting laws and paltry revenue. When we lack resources, we tend to stay in our rut, even when the rut is what is causing us to lack resources. Continue reading
Urban street scene in London
In my last post, I began expounding on my theory that the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, is a source of government inefficiency. I wasn’t suggesting that open meetings are a bad idea, but only arguing the Brown Act, as it has come to be written and interpreted, results in a policy-making process that is less than optimal.
I also explained that an effective and efficient government is important to urbanists because government-adopted laws and policies are much of the reason drivable suburbia continues to dominate our landscape. It will be hard to unwind the current paradigm and to turn toward urbanism if government is ineffectual. And it will be even harder if government is chronically short of funds because the electorate is unwilling to fully fund a government that they find inefficient.
However, the burden of proof is on me. I must convince the reader that my perspective on the Brown Act is legitimate. I understand that I have a difficult task. Having spent years on the outside looking in, I know that it’s difficult to grasp how being under the restrictions of the Brown Act can feel like being encased in a mummy bag made of fly paper.
And so, to make my case as best I can, I’ll rely on my old tools of analogy and anecdotes. I know that they’re not the best tools of argument, but they’re probably the ones I wield best, especially on the slippery task before me. Continue reading
California Memorial Stadium
The last few posts, about the candidates and tax measures on the upcoming election ballots, have been a trudge. I’ve been wearied by the effort of picking my way through a minefield of possible misstatements, trying to find the best words to explain how I’ll vote. And I suspect that many readers have been similarly wearied in their efforts to follow my carefully-placed footsteps.
Nor am I quite finished with the elections. I have at least two more election-related topics that remain untouched. But those can wait until next week.
Today will be lighter fare, as I acknowledge the beginning of football season by telling a personal anecdote about my first experience with football. I’ll end with drawing a parallel between urbanism and football knowledge. It isn’t my best insight ever, but it makes me smile, which is a pleasant sensation after the disheartening task of scanning the ballot options. Continue reading
Urban setting in Boston
In recent weeks, I’ve been writing about the upcoming elections, including the tax measures on many ballots that would buttress municipal solvency in the aftermath of the great recession. Among my subjects was a pre-emptive argument against those who would offer government inefficiency as grounds for voting against tax measures.
My urbanist reason for defending government is that we need an effective and adequately-funded government if we’re to abandon the reigning land-use paradigm and to move toward one that is more environmentally and financially sustainable.
In the previous post, I argued that it wasn’t fair to blame government for inefficiency when most households and corporations are similarly inefficient. A well-educated reader, who also happens to be a cousin, added her explanation that the types of services provided by government, most of which aren’t suited to private enterprise, are prone by their nature to be inefficient.
But that post didn’t exhaust the topic of government inefficiency. At least in California, there is one more cause of inefficiency that justifies its own discussion. That cause is the Brown Act. Continue reading
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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)