Are We Sure It Shouldn’t Be Now?

Increasing the urbanism of our communities has usually been seen as a long-term goal. But perhaps the need for urbanism is becoming more urgent. And the StrongTowns hypothesis is the reason.

It’s Monday morning and the holidays are officially behind us. Children are back in school and most decorations have been returned to the attic for another eleven months. It’s time to look ahead at urbanism in 2013.

I recently spoke with a friend who has tried his hand at urbanist development and hopes to do so again. He commented that a particular city "was waiting for the economy to improve before refocusing on downtown redevelopment."

I recognize the attitude. I’ve had it myself. The thinking is that urbanism is a future necessity, but that we still have time to move that direction. That we should have working toward a more urbanist world for the past decade or two, but another few months or years of foot-dragging, while unfortunate, can be accommodated.

I’m not sure anymore. It’s possible that the time when urbanism is essential has arrived. And that waiting until the economy recovers is a fool’s errand.

Those who have followed this blog have read various reasons why we should be pursuing increased urbanism. Because we’ve suppressed urbanism for decades by ill-conceived public policies. Because there are people who prefer an urbanist life and deserve a reasonable opportunity to live that lifestyle. Because diminishing petroleum reserves will force changes in transportation options. Because climate change will be lessened with a more urbanism lifestyle. Because there is increasing evidence that public health improves as urbanism grows.

All of those reasons remain valid and all have some degree of urgency attached. But a different reason may have now pushed its way to the front of the line, especially in a time of ongoing economic duress. That reason is the StrongTowns hypothesis. The StrongTowns folks argue that we’ve already built more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain. That the burden of the infrastructure maintenance deficit is an anchor on the economy. And that a principal course of action to redress the problem is urbanism.

I still retain a trace of hesitancy about the StrongTowns hypothesis. It fits the facts remarkably well, but is so startling and far-reaching in its implications that a lingering bit of skepticism is appropriate.

However, the credibility of the hypothesis is sufficiently high that we should all be thinking about it. It would be irresponsible to blindly proceeding with new and expensive infrastructure requiring ongoing and as yet unfunded maintenance without pondering the StrongTowns hypothesis.

Furthermore, every day brings news of more people buying into the hypothesis. As Canadian Jesse Paulson writes on Twitter, "Canada's costs of replacing roads in fair to very poor condition: $7,325 per household! We've built too many roads, eh!"

Meanwhile, Calgary has hired a planning director who brings an occasionally overboard but always enthusiastic endorsement of urbanism. Among his quotes, "The best places to visit have the worst traffic. Who in here has gone on vacation in Houston?" And "Other than saying they serve horse meat, nothing kills a restaurant faster than locating on a one-way street. ... We want people to slow down, look out the window at the retail environment and have street parking to liven up the sidewalk."

Also, the EPA reports that infill development is increasing across the U.S. 

The tide may be turning, with additional support flowing toward urbanism. But tides often turn with agonizing slowness. And every bit of new infrastructure, especially that which will require unfunded maintenance, has the potential to create a burden that will bedevil our economic health for years.

It’s likely that we can no longer delay our move toward urbanism. Waiting to do so until the economy improves may be like waiting for Godot.

This is a good time to note that Charles Marohn of StrongTowns will make a presentation via the internet to Petaluma Urban Chat on the evening of Tuesday, February 12. He was originally scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, January 8, but will be spreading the StrongTowns word in Pennsylvania, so asked to delay his presentation by a month. Everyone is encouraged to join us that evening.

Petaluma Urban Chat will still meet tomorrow, Tuesday January 8, 5:30pm, at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. We’ll continue our discussion of the StrongTowns Curbside Chat booklet in preparation for Marohn’s February presentation. Please take a look at the booklet and then enter the conversation.

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

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. 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 three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.comHe can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Dan Lyke January 09, 2013 at 05:54 PM
(Whoops: Addendum: It seems like some of that CMAQ money could have been spent on automobile facilities, though it was unlikely to be, and $3 million doesn't go very far on additional lanes. Sorry, my misconception.)
Dave Alden January 09, 2013 at 11:28 PM
Dan, I want to make sure that I understand your position. Are you arguing that, in our design of new transit, we shouldn't worry about the existing development pattern, but should build transit solely to conform to the development pattern that would have existed if we hadn't made the turn in a car-centric world? If so, I don't completely agree with you, but I see some logic. Furthermore, I heard Jeff Speck, author of "Walkable City" make a similar argument last week. He suggested that the post-war subdivisions were so bad that we shouldn't spend any money trying to make them walkable, bikeable, or transit-friendly, that the return on investment would too low. Instead, we should focus on remedies for pre-war subdivisions. I found his argument interesting, but too extreme. I just don't see blithely writing off perhaps two-thirds of our land use as irredeemable. But it is certainly a topic for further discussion.
Dave Alden January 09, 2013 at 11:31 PM
David, thanks for commenting. If your schedule permits, you (and everyone else reading this) needs to join us for the StrongTowns virtual chat on February 12. Charles Marohn comes at the subject from a slightly different angle than you, but you would find much common cause with him.
Dan Lyke January 09, 2013 at 11:59 PM
I'm still trying to decide what my argument is, but I do know that in aggregate our current bus transit system is at best an extremely inefficient wealth transfer system, and is only serving to perpetuate bad development patterns. Maybe it's an intractable problem and there is no reasonable step from here to there, but in our geographic area the places the buses are making sense are along high density commute corridors, and attempts to push them into general use (ie: Sonoma County Transit) appear to just be pushing empty vehicles around empty neighborhood streets. And rather than encouraging transit-friendly development patterns, we're reinforcing the "buses are slow and populated by the homeless and developmentally disabled and uncomfortable" message. So, yes, I think I'm currently leaning towards serving the neighborhoods it makes sense to serve, figuring out an interim lower impact way to handle the income redistribution effects of transit, and concentrating on moving people between urban centers rather than dawdling through the residential areas trolling for passengers that have no incentive to ride.
Dave Alden January 10, 2013 at 12:01 AM
John, I mostly agree with Dan and remain amazed at his ability to marshal the facts to buttress his arguments. But I want to comment about several points you made. First, perhaps you and I have attended different meetings, but I find that "Tea Party" has generally been self-applied as a term of praise, while "Agenda 21" has been been applied to others as a term of derision. I don't find any parallel in the way the terms are used But I agree that the people who call themselves Tea Partiers aren't necessarily the same ones applying Agenda 21 to others. Regarding "forced urbanism", there are probably some who think in those terms. But I don't think they are more than a fringe. Instead, I think most share my belief that you should be allowed to live wherever you wish. But that you should pay the full financial burden of that choice. Too much of our current housing paradigm is constructed around urban areas subsidizing suburban and rural areas. In the spirit of free enterprise, we need to wring that out of the system and then let people make their own decisions. I don't recall the SMART supporters disavowing TOD. Indeed, I don't see how they could have. The Santa Rosa Railroad Square project was in planning long before the SMART vote. On SB 375, that is California legislation, but the Agenda 21 reaction is national, so I suspect your connection of the two doesn't work. Unless one argues that the Agenda 21 issue went national from California roots.
Dan Lyke January 10, 2013 at 12:07 AM
Dave, feel free to double-check me on those facts. Every time I feel tempted to write "they" or "it seems", I end up Googling extensively, but that doesn't mean I'm always finding a complete picture, or even that all of my sources are good. I also try to do sanity checking on numbers (as you saw last night with discussion of supermarkets), but that also just means I'm checking external numbers against my preconceptions... I could very well be spouting well documented hoohey.
Dave Alden January 10, 2013 at 12:12 AM
Wire, roundabouts are a far more efficient approach to intersection management than signals. Over a life of fifty years, I would estimate that the average savings would be in the range of a half milliion dollars. If we're going to ask government to be more efficient with our dollars, we should endorse roundabouts.
Dave Alden January 10, 2013 at 12:17 AM
Dan, I completely agree with you that the current bus paradigm is that "buses are slow and populated by the homeless and developmentally disabled and uncomfortable". And I dislike the paradigm. But what do we do with the people who fit those descriptions? It's an uncomfortable symptom of the land-use pattern we've created. And "intractable problem" may be the best description.
Dave Alden January 10, 2013 at 12:20 AM
Dan, I'm sure you use the occasional incorrect but widely reported "fact". And so do I. It's the nature of the internet world. But you are far more rigorous in your fact-checking than most. Which I greatly appreciate.
Dan Lyke January 10, 2013 at 12:45 AM
Dave, the "what do we do with the people who fit those descriptions?" question is hard, and part of the reason I'm diving into discussions of these issues heavily. As I've probably mentioned, Charlene and I run a program we call Family Build Night to help kids who've been through the COTS shelters build stuff and have the sort of experiences that people who had relatively privileged childhoods (like me) learned from. We've spent a lot of time at the Vida Nueva community in Rohnert Park, and it's absurd: It's a great little closed community, but it's a mile from any useful bus stops; walking distance from Food Max and Target, but nowhere near actual jobs. It takes people who can't afford cars (we know, we donated two cars and the people who got them could drive them until they needed maintenance, then the best case was that they sold them after much hassle) and puts them away from any resources, and in the midst of a bunch of other people who are trying to escape the same bad life experiences, not somewhere they can mingle with the general neighborhood. (And when we bought our house, one of our big priorities was an economically mixed neighborhood, though it turns out we really got "upper middle class" and "rich". Yes, I contain multitudes and contradictions...) And John Parnell's points about TOD as it is often practiced are well taken: Putting that development right beside the freeway would lead to all sorts of health problems. (continued in the next message)
Dan Lyke January 10, 2013 at 12:54 AM
(continued from previous message; I'm waiting for a vendor to upgrade their stuff...) So part of what I'm trying to figure out is: How can we do something other than putting that housing development on the butt-end of acres of asphalt parking lots? Turning those two-story buildings out on the east side of Rohnert Park into 3 or 4 story buildings closer to the Cotati Hub, or over on State Farm Drive, would both let that population be served by transit as we try to lift them out of the cycle of poverty (and improve all of our economies). The bus system inefficiently (at least from the perspective of someone like me trying to blast from Petaluma to Santa Rosa) already stops there, so that'd be an improvement. Maybe the option really is to fix our development patterns to match the buses, but even in the case of extreme low-income housing it's not happening. So, yeah, if the transit system isn't inducing good development patterns and the development patterns aren't serving an economically sustainable transportation system, one or both of those things has to change. And frankly it's easier to point at the flaws of transit and say 'that's not working!" than to point at housing development patterns which most people are entirely happy with and say "that could be better!"
Dan Lyke January 10, 2013 at 01:04 AM
(And, as I re-read that last comment and see "3-4 story buildings" I'm reminded of all of the reasons housing projects fail. Poverty and mental illness are *hard*, but if we don't figure out some way to break the cycles we're going to continue to have to carry those folks as economic liabilities rather than assets. My experience is that we have a *huge* legacy problem, and if we can break that legacy and those patterns and lift those folks up we'll both do better economically, and socially. I tend to think big and work small.)
Wire January 10, 2013 at 06:31 AM
John Parnell, I heard that Novato imported some Richmond residence into it's low cost housing as there not enough low wage earners there. Is this true? I see turn abouts or run abouts at 45 mph not very SMART on a main drag or is this what big government wants. Checkout: CAPR: Citizens Alliance for Property Rights www.bayarealiberty.com/ Don't let the sun set on LIBERTY in the Bay Area ... Demand Honest and Open Input at Winter One Bay Area/Plan Bay Area Public Outreach Meeting This person is a Democrat real-estate sales person 2013 one bay area meetings for this year. http://www.bayarealiberty.com/libertyblog/?page_id=516
Wire January 10, 2013 at 06:45 AM
Novato City Council Gets Earful from Residents on Affordable Housing on Jun 22, 2011
Tina McMillan January 10, 2013 at 07:06 AM
As my Tanta Kitty would say, "We need New Urbanism, like a hole in the head!" If you read Bob Silvestri's blog he explains the link between SB375 and Agenda 21: http://millvalley.patch.com/articles/op-ed-the-truth-about-sb375-and-the-one-bay-area-plan "The stated goal of Senate Bill 375, which was signed into law in 2008, is “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) 15 percent by 2035.” Its premise is that building high density development with an affordable component, close to public transportation, will decrease GHGs and thereby have a positive effect on global warming." Steinberg used climate change to create a new approach to developing California cities by providing corporations with a loophole that negates property taxes if housing is built for low income tenants. When SB3375 became law it forced the poor along urban corridors that put housing on freeways poisoning residents and further diminishing any hope for a better future. To say that Agenda 21 has no connection to SB375 is to ignore the very real profits and kickbacks that occur between the government and developers. To believe that everyone in this country should give up the choice of a better future and allow the government to decide where and how they live defies the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As technology increases the ability of people to work from home also increases. We are outgrowing the need for urban centers. The real hope for the future is in the land itself.
Dave Alden January 10, 2013 at 06:36 PM
Tina, thanks for the comment. However, what Silverstri is arguing is that Agenda 21 and SB 375 spring from the same scientific concerns, which is very different than arguing than SB 375 was driven by Agenda 21. Correlation is not causation. I'd seen arguments similar to Silvestri's before, although not this particular piece. Space doesn't allow a detailed review of his comments. But I will point out one particular bit of logic that struck me as particularly odd. He argues that the OneBayArea plan "calls for the construction of 8,150 new homes" in Marin. No, it doesn't. It estimates that 8,150 new homes will be built in Marin due to supply and demand and then tries to find the best way to accommodate that growth. Indeed, its approach to those home probably reduces the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. To argue that those homes are built as a result of the OneBayArea plan and then to blame the plan for the resulting emissions is reversing the cart and horse.
Tina McMillan January 10, 2013 at 07:10 PM
Dave Novato's draft housing element was returned because HCD wanted proof that housing would be built on the sites that were proffered. It is no longer a question of if but when. The individuals supporting this response to climate change do not consider the fiscal ramifications in communities whose tax base cannot support additional housing. Bob has a book on Amazon where you can read his series of columns in one place. He was an AH developer himself. His arguments are not against housing but against the current approach taken by regional agencies that have grown far beyond their original intent. One example is MTC's purchase of the old Post Office building in SF using bridge money when they have offices in Oakland that are far more reasonably priced. This agency also promotes the One Bay Area plan and ties transportation funding to low income housing that is developed. Your argument for Urbanism makes no sense given the development of technology that will eventually allow many people to work from bases closer to home if not at home. Allowing people to live closer to the land, with the ability to develop a relationship with the land that make them stewards will not be achieved by putting the poor along transportation corridors. Segregation of any kind will breed discontent and in the end bring about revolution. The state needs to rethink SB375's impact.
Wire January 10, 2013 at 07:15 PM
The One Bay Area plan, is going on under our noises, the cities are told you need so many new homes by a time period, that does need approval by MTC -- Funding -- OneBayArea Grant Program, as an carrot, or your city won't get any State grants. One city fighting back in Marin is Corte Madera in the north bay. PDF] 08/21/2012 Final Minutes - Corte Madera www.ci.corte-madera.ca.us/town_council/.../08-21-12FinalMinutes.p... File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat - Quick View In the Town Hall of the Town of Corte Madera, on August 21, 2012 at 7:30 p.m. ..... grants from OneBayArea with the idea that streets incorporate multiple
Wire January 10, 2013 at 07:16 PM
Sorry they removed that file.
Wire January 10, 2013 at 07:32 PM
MTC is not the whom holds the carrot it's the CMA. One Bay Area Grant ... preservation in Priority Conservation Areas (PCA). ... The County Congestion Management Agencies (CMA)
Wire January 10, 2013 at 07:41 PM
Here is another book on Amazon, she from around here, BEHIND THE GREEN MASK: U.N. Agenda 21, out of 141 reviews, only seven people gave it a two or worst.
Tina McMillan January 10, 2013 at 08:35 PM
Wire Actually MTC is the money that drives the infill development by tying funds for transportation costs to building Affordable Housing. Since we closed the Redevelopment Agencies we see far more money coming out of MTC. ABAG works with the state on the RHNA numbers but doesn't necessarily provide funding although Steinberg is trying to create yet another tax to fill the coffers left empty when Brown closed the RDA. Novato's RHNA numbers were significantly reduced when the council pushed back after a year and half of residents speaking out against growth without consideration for our structural deficit and the AH already zoned and built. The five bay area agencies include transportation, housing, air, water and land: Association of Bay Area Governments, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. http://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/district-5/hottopics/sustainable-communities-strategy?p=1 Here they refer to it as the sustainable communities strategy.
Dan Lyke January 10, 2013 at 09:34 PM
it's still there, your copy-and-paste just got the wrong stuff (or the commenting system here chewed it up). Let me try: http://www.ci.corte-madera.ca.us/town_council/minutes/08-21-12FinalMinutes.pdf Unfortunately there's not much there other than mentioning that a presentation occurred. The summary of the presentation doesn't match what I understand the current proposals for study to be, and may or may not be a fair assessment of the long-term ramifications of such a program if the pilot studies turn up useful information.
Dan Lyke January 11, 2013 at 12:50 AM
So back to Marohn's thesis about transportation spending being a Ponzi scheme, I was reading David Levinson and ran across this: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/levin031/transportationist/2013/01/transportation-benefits-too-li.html in which he suggests that transportation spending returns are falling dramatically. Interestingly, he suggests that this is across all modes. If, as Steve Heminger has threatened, MTC is actually going to start doing serious benefit/cost analysis of new transportation projects, we're going to have to start adjusting no matter what.
Wire January 11, 2013 at 02:29 PM
MTV gives SMART 12.5 million to extend their rail service to the airport . This can't be more street-highway repair tax dollars could it? Possible PORK from the storm SANDY relief money bill.
Dan Lyke January 11, 2013 at 03:17 PM
Oh c'mon: if you honestly don't know, that's one thing. If you're just throwing speculation up in order to obscure honest discourse, that's just trolling. You're trolling. http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20130109/articles/130109546 says "The money comes from Bay Area toll bridge revenue.". No need to read through MTC budgets (unless you want to audit that statement), it's right there in the freakin' article. And as of this writing "the storm Sandy relief money bill" is still hung up in negotiations in the U.S. House of Representatives. I'm all for having conversations with people who have differing views if they're willing to have fact based discussions in good faith, but if all you're doing is reading the occasional headline and making crap up, that's not a basis for a discussion which educates or edifies anyone.
Dan Lyke January 11, 2013 at 03:19 PM
(Whoops: Apparently there was an initial Sandy relief bill passed back on the 4th, the one I'm reading about is one that actually contains real dollar amounts. The rest of my comment still stands.)
Tina McMillan January 11, 2013 at 04:08 PM
The problem with spending at the five Bay Area Regional Agencies is lack of oversight. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/matier-ross/article/MTC-project-may-cost-Bay-Area-drivers-more-3822760.php "The Metropolitan Transportation Commission's purchase and spiffing-up of an old post office building in San Francisco for its headquarters was already costly - try nearly $170 million - but now comes word that it could cost Bay Area drivers millions more." http://sd07.senate.ca.gov/news/2012-05-08-state-s-lawyers-call-mtc-s-building-purchase-improper-opinion-fuels-regionalism-refo "The same week legislative lawyers declared improper the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's use of bridge tolls to purchase of an eight-story San Francisco building, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier introduced a bill to put the agency underneath a new, directly-elected regional board. It's the Concord senator's latest move in his unflinching, 15-year stance that the transportation commission and other regional Bay Area agencies governed by a roster of local political appointees are out of touch with residents." None of our elected officials seems as interested as they need to be with creating government that is fiscally responsible and accountable. MTC has its share of questionable decisions but it is not alone in this regard.
John Parnell April 01, 2013 at 11:09 PM
Wire - Thanks for the kind words, but my knowledge-base probably is about the same as yours. There are others blogging on here who really know their stuff, whether you agree with them or not. I enjoy reading Dave Alden & David Edmondson (San Rafael Patch), as they are bright guys. (I just don't happen to agree with everything they write.) Bob Silvestri is also quite brilliant in the Mill Valley Patch, and perhaps more in line with your philosophy...check him out. Roundabouts/rotaries: I spent 4 years in Boston & lived a summer in Rome, so personally, I love rotaries (roundabouts), as long as they make sense. However, the ones I've seen in Sonoma are an absolute joke. A one-lane rotary, where a big truck can't even make the turn, for "traffic calming" purposes seems downright asinine to me. They should call them "oxymoronic roundabouts", and I think they give rotaries a bad name. Dave, why are they doing it that way & why not a bit bigger, so it actually makes sense?
Dave Alden April 07, 2013 at 04:14 AM
John, the theories on roundabouts are continually evolving. The current findings are that roundabouts are safest if the lanes are constricted so that car must be driven with care. But recognizing that larger vehicles can't stay in the small lanes, the center includes a roll-up curb so the rear tires can track into the center. The roundabout at McDowell and Baywood in Petaluma is a marvelous example. I never would have thought that it could be made to work in the small space available. But I was wrong. Where is the Sonoma roundabout to which you're referring? I'll drive by the next time I'm in Sonoma.


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