Durable Growth

Two old subjects and one new

Petaluma Boulevard during Salute to American Graffiti

Petaluma Boulevard during Salute to American Graffiti

Even on a day when my only intention was to check back on past stories, a new story still popped into view.  Such is what happens when one looks at the world through urbanist glasses.  So I’ll touch upon the Popsicle Index, the Petaluma Boulevard road diet, and how urbanism affects job creation.

Popsicle Index: I’ll tackle the easiest topic first.  In my last post, I wrote about the Popsicle Index, a simple but reasonable measure of neighborhood urbanism.  During my research, my initial impression was that Catherine Austin Fitts had borrowed the idea from a Vancouver urban planner.

But the more I looked, the less sure I was.  When I published the post, the earliest internet reference still belonged to the urban planner, but the time gap was closing.  So I acknowledged the possibility that either or both had invented the index.

It seems that I was trending in the right direction, but stopped too soon.  Fitts herself emailed me with a link to a 1998 paper in which she described the Popsicle Index.  The 1998 date was five years before the first reference to the urban planner.  My job here is urbanist, not fact-checker, so I won’t dig any deeper.  But it does appear that Fitts was truly the inventor of the Popsicle Index, with others borrowing her idea since 1998.  My apologies to Ms. Fitts.

However, my original point still stands.  It’s a grand thing when people in other walks of life, such as international finance, think and speak in terms that are decidedly urbanist.

Petaluma Boulevard Road Diet: The Petaluma City Council met a few days ago to review the results of the Petaluma Boulevard road diet.

Despite the rhetoric around town since the road diet was complete, the City Council session was sedate.  At the start of the evening, the chamber was overflowing, but most were there either for recognition of the local American Legion ballclub or for a land use hearing later on the agenda.  Only a few folks seemed to have attended for the road diet discussion.

The City Engineer made a dispassionate, fact-based presentation showing that traffic along the Boulevard seemed to have increased since the road diet.  He also noted that traffic accidents were down, although the sample size was small.

There were reports of stores seeing declining sales, but other factors, such as nearby construction and the opening of a new mall, were noted as other possible causes.  Nor is there is an apparent way to unravel the multiple factors.  (As sales tax reports come available in a few months, a more complete picture of the financial changes in downtown will become available.)

Perhaps the most insightful comments of the night dealt with the mid-block crosswalks, pedestrian-activated flashing-light crossings that interfere with the carefully regulated automobile flow from the downtown traffic signals.  If pedestrians arrive at the crosswalks sufficiently staggered that the cycle of flashing lights is repeatedly restarted, traffic backups become inevitable.  It’s akin to having a finely-tuned candy-making machine at one corner and a finely-tuned candy-packing machine at the next, with Lucy Ricardo doing quality control in between.

Obviously, I’m a big proponent of walkability.  But I’m also a big proponent of downtowns, which require a careful balance of vehicles and pedestrians.  And the crosswalks are disrupting that balance.  The mid-block crossings are essential to the pedestrian health of downtown, but perhaps an alternative solution is needed whereby permission to cross is delayed until it fits with the traffic flow.

Overall, the road received a good report card.  There are areas that still need work, but Petaluma seems to have successfully adjusted the downtown modal balance.

Attracting Businesses/Employees: Also during the Petaluma City Council, the Economic Development Director spoke about a newly-started effort to attract business to Petaluma.  Overall, the approach was graphically interesting and creatively clever, although largely focused on traditional concepts of business attraction.

But there was a small point that piqued my interest.  The Economic Development Director spoke about the campaign having two audiences, business owners and potential employees.  It was said only once and her focus quickly returned to business owners, but it may have been a glimpse of the future.

A growing number of young adults are selecting the place where they want to live and then reviewing employment opportunities.  When I was a young adult, I declined an employment opportunity or two because I didn’t want to live in the city where the job was located, but I certainly didn’t make location my primary filter.  But young people are looking at the world differently today which is probably a good thing.

And where do more and more young people want to begin their adult lives?  In walkable urban settings.  The furor about high-tech employee buses clogging up the streets of San Francisco shows that many high-tech employees would rather live in San Francisco than Silicon Valley.

With the U.S. economy increasingly reliant on innovation and innovation largely the domain of the young, economic health of communities may depend on providing walkable urban locations that attract the young.

And perhaps the best way to attract business is to have a pool of attractive employees.

The Petaluma Economic Development Director may not have connected all those dots for the City Council, but her comment about having two audiences was the first step toward dot connection.

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

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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