Durable Growth, Transportation

Driving downtown in my toaster oven

150318001 Prius on Kentucky StreetI took ownership of my brand-new Prius during the third week of April 2005, so its ten-year anniversary is nigh.  It’s been a remarkably good car, probably the best car buying decision of my life, although spending several years behind the wheel of a 1965 Mustang gets honorable mention.

The Prius has needed few repairs and none that were catastrophic.  Only once did it fail to start and a single dead battery in a decade is barely worth mentioning.

When I’d had the car about two years, I conveyed a group of friends to a ballgame.  During the drive, I mentioned my intention to drive the Prius for fifteen years, perhaps leaving myself only one car away from the end of my driving days.  The others scoffed, arguing that no one keeps a car for fifteen years.  But, with the ten-year anniversary nearly upon us and the Prius running as dependably as the day I first took possession, I’m guessing the scoffing has ceased.

All of which led me to be offended when Leah Garchik, a Herb Caen-lite columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle, reported a comment overhead by one of her correspondents in an Oakland parking garage, “Owning a Prius isn’t like owning a real car.  It’s more like owning an appliance.”

What?!  How could someone demean my dependable Prius that way?  How dare they compare my car to a mere household appliance?

But then I fell to thinking.  Isn’t it right for an urbanist to think of a car as a convenience?  The goal of a meaningful daily life shouldn’t be to style one’s way between Point A and Point B.  It should be to get to Point B in the most reasonable and appropriate manner, whether on foot, by bicycle, in a car, or on a city bus, so that the friends, good food, or other adventures at Point B can be enjoyed.  A car shouldn’t be life, but an effective tool to take pleasure in life.  Or, in other words, an appliance. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Fast food burgers shouldn’t trivialize downtowns

Downtown Petaluma

Downtown Petaluma

Take a look at the photos to the right. Do they all look alike?  If so, congratulations, you can work in corporate marketing.  If not, I’m sorry but you seem destined for a career that involves a higher level of truthfulness.

I can make this judgment because it appears that the corporate marketing department of McDonalds thought all three scenes were of a piece and that there would be nothing deceitful in using the bucolic rural surroundings and walkable downtown of Petaluma to promote a McDonalds in front of a strip mall a mile and a half from downtown.

If you haven’t yet seen the resulting commercial, it’s embedded in this article in a local newspaper.   The video is worth a view, if only to allow you to form your own opinion about the marketing strategy.

Petaluma McDonalds on N. McDowell Boulevard

Petaluma McDonalds on N. McDowell Boulevard

Not surprisingly, there’s controversy.  As covered in the newspaper article, in the coverage by the Bay Area NBC affiliate, and also as expressed by those with whom I’ve chatted, some find that any publicity is good publicity and that showing the best elements of Petaluma in a national ad campaign overcomes any negatives of being associated with a fast food chain.

Others find the connection to McDonalds odious and believe that Petaluma suffers by association.

I can see the merits in both arguments, but lean to the former argument, perhaps giving television viewers too much credit for their ability to distinguish between a worthwhile place and a consumer product.

However, as is my wont, my primary allegiance goes to a third opinion that I’ll formulate below.   Continue reading

Durable Growth

Casting shadows on urbanism

Park in Petaluma

Park in Petaluma

Two posts ago, I introduced an argument put forth by renowned baseball analyst Bill James, who also comments with acuity and insight on any other subject that interests him.  In his non-baseball role, he contended in his book “Solid Fool’s Gold” that if infinite value is assigned to any single element of a complex decision, the resulting decision will be distorted.

As James describes it, any two values, no matter how individually worthy on their own, will eventually come into conflict.  Whether those values are honesty and modesty, cleanliness and punctuality, generosity and thriftiness, or any number of other combinations, there will be some set of circumstances that brings them into conflict.  When that conflict occurs, having the flexibility to balance competing objectives is essential.  And giving infinite weight to one of the values eliminates that flexibility.

In James’ monograph on the subject, he challenged the TSA airline safety measures implemented after 9/11.  He also noted the changing approach to the criminal justice system under the Earl Warren Supreme Court.

I thought his argument had merit and immediately applied it to a balancing of traffic congestion versus youth sports that recently occurred in Petaluma.

But then a possible better example came to my attention just a few miles south.  Although subsequent information seemed to undermine the value of the example, the story still contains lessons. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government, Site News

Pondering City Repair Petaluma and the small successes it may have helped feed

Sharing library at 638 E Street

Sharing library at 638 E Street

In the fall of 2013, a small group came together to consider the possibilities of City Repair Petaluma.

The City Repair idea began in Portland, Oregon and has spread to communities across the west.  City Repair is based the possibility of community improvements, on public property, that would improve the civic life of the community, but that fall outside of the responsibilities of city hall and can therefore be best accomplished by groups of neighbors.

In many cases, the improvements are technically in violation of various municipal statutes, but the good will and good sense behind the efforts often drives necessary changes in the statutes.

Seeing possibilities in the City Repair concept, a local community advocate embraced the concept and helped organize an ad hoc committee to consider the role that City Repair could play in Petaluma.  I was asked to serve on the committee.  We came together with enthusiasm, met several times with various members of the community, and eventually hosted an evening meeting in conjunction with Petaluma Urban Chat.  The meeting was attended by about forty folk.  A video on City Repair Portland was played and possible projects were discussed.

At the time, I wrote a series of posts on the City Repair concept, including a summary of possible City Repair concepts.

It’s now about a year and a half since the meeting that was the high point of the City Repair Petaluma effort.  With one possible exception, little has happened. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Environment

Ooh, ooh, ooh, call on me, Mr. Kotter, I have an answer

Urban corner in Napa, California

Urban corner in Napa, California

I recently sat in a North Bay City Council chambers and watched as the Regional Climate Protection Authority made a presentation on their Climate Action 2020 effort.  The experience left me feeling deflated.

To be clear, I’m happy to live in a part of the country where we can have an honest, fact-based discussion about climate change, unlike Florida where the very words are forbidden.   However, I was underwhelmed by the direction that the Climate Change 2020 initiative was going.

To illustrate my concern, there was a presentation graphic showing that greenhouse gas emissions from housing and transportation make up over 80 percent of all GHG emissions.  As an urbanist, that number gives me a sense of a hope and a sense of mission because it makes the climate change challenge more manageable.  A major thrust of urbanism is reducing transportation energy usage.  And the energy use of buildings could also be reduced through effective urbanism.

I don’t have a citation, but it has been often reported that urban dwellers use up to 70 percent less energy than suburban dwellers.  If we equate energy to fossil fuel use, which is a reasonable approximation, that would also be a 70 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

There may be other factors that currently reduce energy use in urban settings, such as the presence of poor whose lack of resources constrict their consumer behavior and the possibility that the first wave of urban converts had a bent for conservation that subsequent converts won’t, but a 70 percent energy use reduction can be whittled down and still represent a significant GHG reduction.

So, if sizable GHG emissions can be effected through urbanism, that would seemingly make urbanism a key element of the Climate Action 2020 program, right?  Not that I could tell. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

Reflections on being a nincompoop

Current Petaluma athletic field

Current Petaluma athletic field

Early in the history of this blog, I wrote about three key steps on my path to becoming an urbanist.   One of those was being exposed to pioneering baseball statistical analyst Bill James when still at an impressionable age.  (I was probably in my mid-20s.)

Baseball number-crunching may seem a long way from urbanism.  And it truly is.  But there’s a connection in the way of thinking, particularly in the upsetting of entrenched paradigms, at which James excelled.  As I wrote about James over three years ago, “his work provided the life lesson that conventional wisdom can be wrong and that we should be open to those who offer new ways of viewing reality.”  For me, that was a key step on the path to becoming an urbanist.

James continues to put forth baseball work, although it seems less ground-breaking than it did forty years, with many good young writers tackling the subjects into which James opened the doors.  Sometimes revolutionaries are overtaken by the forces they set loose.

But James still has moments of eye-opening insight.  To me, the best of those moments come when he digresses from baseball and applies his incisive and paradigm-rejecting mind to other areas of life.  I’m currently reading a book by James in which my favorite section is his rumination on the fallacy of assigning infinite value to any element of a decision.

The immediate target of James’ attention is the air safety program in the aftermath of 9/11.  He argues that, by assigning an infinite value to preventing terrorist attacks on commercial airliners, we effectively waste many more lifetimes, in ten, twenty, and thirty minute chunks, than we save by preventing the occasional attack.

James notes that there are many areas of life in which assigning infinite value to any single element can lead to flawed decision-making.  He particularly cites the criminal justice system. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

Induced traffic comes in different flavors

E. Washington Street in Petaluma

E. Washington Street in Petaluma

On several earlier occasions, I’ve written about the phenomenon of induced traffic.  In one post, I used a hypothetical Yosemite campground to illustrate the theory.  Several months before that, I yielded the floor to walkability expert Jeff Speck for a video explanation of induced traffic.

But for those who aren’t yet familiar with the concept, I’ll offer this short explanation.  Drivers have a limited tolerance for congestion.  When they encounter congestion above their tolerance, they find another route, defer their trip to another time, or redirect themselves to a less congested destination.

Therefore, when new traffic capacity is provided, perhaps through the construction of additional travel lanes, drivers who were previously avoiding trips began again to take those trips.  The result is that congestion, after an initial drop, soon returns the same level that it had before the construction, even in the absence of new development creating new trips.

This is a non-intuitive result that conflicts with our instinctive expectation that additional traffic capacity should result in reduced congestion.  But if we seriously consider our own travel decisions, deferring trips when possible to avoid congestion, the validity of the theory soon becomes clear. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Changing the ground rules to cease subsidizing sprawl

141606003 Buffalo Skyline from Hotel RoomIn my last post, I took the post-recession temperature of sprawl.  I was checking the hypothesis that sprawl had succumbed to changing housing desires about the time the recession took hold.

Although I found evidence that that sprawl isn’t the dominant paradigm that it had once been, I also found evidence that it still lingered, ready to reassert itself given the opportunity.  (Voldemort comes to mind.)  The one battleground I described was a large development outside of Las Vegas where the developers were arguing that the public prefers the types of housing that sprawl provides, while urbanists were arguing that there was still insufficient choice in the marketplace to truly judge what the public prefers.  (And I argued that both sides were ignoring the roles of economic incentives.)

My conclusion was that we can’t consider sprawl to be securely in the rearview mirror, but must continue to have a strategy for dealing with possibility of sprawl reasserting itself.

The unabashed perspective of this blog is that sprawl needs to be curtailed for the long-term environmental and financial health of our communities and our world.  But that doesn’t mean that I want the curtailment to occur by government fiat.  Instead I believe that the primary reason sprawl has lived past its expiration date is because we propped it up with economic advantages when it began to falter and have continued to do so for far too long.

Ultimately, I believe that people who choose to live in sprawl settings should bear the true costs of those choices, just as one bears the mostly true costs of other aspects of life, whether travel, cuisine, or attire. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Checking up on sprawl

141008005 West HavenSprawl largely stopped dead during the recession, leaving analysts pondering whether the development paradigm had truly changed or if the slowdown was solely the result of a lack of demand in a stalled economy.

Today, I remain skeptical about the long-term strength of the economy, fearing that more bumps will come our way from the accumulated debt of our failed dalliance with suburbia.  However, with the economy showing at least temporary signs of life, it’s worth checking to see if sprawl is making a comeback.

There’s much evidence that the past momentum of sprawl has been reversed.  Driven by the lifestyle choices of younger demographic segments, the outflow of jobs from urban centers has reversed and jobs are returning downtown in most markets.

Also, the sprawling and half-completed subdivisions that were stranded throughout the west by the recession remain enough of a phenomenon that the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has prepared a position paper on “zombie subdivisions”, suggesting strategies for resolving the current half-defunct subdivisions and proposing policies to preventing another generation of failed subdivisions during future economic hard times.

But these indications that sprawl is truly dying are somewhat balanced by a story out of Las Vegas in which a stalled subdivision outside of the city is being rebooted after a change in architecture from a more dense, alley-based urbanist style to more stand-alone suburban-style homes. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Make better-informed decisions

Transit-oriented plaza at Fruitvale BART station

Transit-oriented plaza at Fruitvale BART station

In my last post, I wrote about the recently published book What Counts: Harnessing Data for America’s Communities, co-edited by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Urban Institute. The book speaks to the improved application of data to community planning, including urbanism.

Today, I’ll let my fingers do some walking, sampling among the range of topics covered in the book. To be fair, the reading isn’t light-duty. Big Data isn’t called that because it readily spits out answers. Instead, the mass of data must be tickled and prodded to yield valuable insights, which sometimes results in prose that reads as if it has spent years in the dust-choked halls of academia.

But the insights are there. And those who wish to read along can download their free copy of the 441-page book here.

These are three insights that intrigued me:

Financial Reporting: I learned during a recent urbanism conference that the federal government has 23 categories of land-use assets for financial management reporting, 21 of which don’t fit well with an urbanist world. This lack of categories complicates financial reporting which can in turn inhibit investment. Continue reading