Friday, November 21, 2014

Failing to Accommodate a Better Parking Solution

In my New Year’s resolutions for 2014, I committed to delving deeply into a pair of urbanist topics of personal interest, senior living and parking.  It took me much of the year to get around to the senior living issue, but I finally tackled the subject in a number of posts in September and October.  (This one and this one were the most popular of the senior living posts.)  My coverage wasn’t complete, so it’s a subject to which I must return in future posts, but at least I gained a foothold.

I didn’t do as well on parking, which is a shame because it’s a subject that’s at least as important to urbanism as senior living.  (I continue to be stunned when I ponder the sea change that occurred in the 20th century, when the concept that customers would only patronize a shop if a free holding space was provided for their 3,000 pounds of steel and plastic.  As other observers have noted, the 20th century was the first time in history when we gave greater consideration to our machines than to our children.)

Nor will I be able to embark upon my consideration of parking during December as I already have a well-populated writing plan for the holiday season.  But at least I know what resolution will be on the top of my 2015 list.

However, I can offer a parking insight today that will help set the scene for my 2015 efforts.

A significant change that has begun to take hold in the world of parking is a decoupling between homes and parking.  Twenty years ago, virtually any new home that one could buy would be bundled with a parking space or two.  Both zoning codes and the market demanded it.

But gradually the idea took root that some buyers no longer wanted the parking space and would prefer to purchase a home that didn’t include the cost of the parking space.

In rough numbers, a surface parking place has a cost of $5,000 to $10,000, which includes both the land cost and the pavement.  For structured parking, the cost would be at least $20,000, with much higher number possible depending on the structure.

Including a $20,000 cost for a parking place, a similar cost for a car, and reasonable allowances for insurance, gasoline, maintenance, and parking when away from home, a homeowner could spend perhaps $300 per month on bus passes, ZipCars, Uber, and the occasional car rental and still come out ahead.  It’s a trade-off that interests an increasing number of home-buyers.

So many recent buildings in urban settings include two types of parcels, individual living units and individual parking places.  Buyers can decide how many parking places to include in their purchase, much like ordering sides for a meal.

It’s a very reasonable and appropriate solution to parking in modern cities.  Except when reason falls apart.

In recent years, voter-approved parcel taxes have become a common approach to funding specific needs through increased property taxes.  (Personally, I still favor ad valorem taxes and don’t understand the lean toward parcel taxes, but that’s not today’s topic.)

In 2008, San Francisco voters approved a $259 parcel tax for the San Francisco Unified School District.  And the County Assessor began collecting the tax on residences and parking places.  Someone who owned a home and a parking place in a multi-family building with a modern, leading-edge approach to parking paid for the privilege with a new tax that’s twice the amount charged to single-family home with a three-car garage.

It would seem to be fixable problem.  And indeed San Francisco City College when faced with the same situation found a way to refund the second tax payment.  But somehow the Unified School District thus far hasn’t gotten to the same solution, instead trying to pass the buck to the Assessor.

I don’t want to paint this situation as another form of anti-urban bias.  It’s fairer to describe it as an unintended consequence at the confluence of property taxes and emerging urban thinking.  Even if legislative action is required, I hope and expect that a remedy will soon be in place.  But it illustrates the myriad unexpected challenges to be overcome in moving to a more urban world. 

Urbanism is never easy.

Next time, I’ll write about the “urbanist” solution being proposed for the former site of Candlestick Park.  The quotation marks should offer an insight to my thoughts.

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Saving the Good Stuff

A few months back, the Petaluma Planning Commission was forced to make a regrettable decision about a building for which the community had great fondness.  The French Laundry was a well-known and photogenic landmark on the west side of town, with a history that extended far back into Petaluma’s past.

But, although the building was on a local historic list, it had remained in private ownership with little tangible community support for its restoration.  As a result, it deteriorated over time.  Eventually, there was little of the building that could be retained.  The Planning Commission was compelled into the sad duty of removing the French Laundry from the historic list and approving its demolition.

The deed done, the Commission Chair turned to the audience (all three of us) and anyone watching on television and opined that the community had to work harder and smarter to preserve historic buildings or more would be lost to the wrecking ball and bulldozer.

Since that time, Petaluma has put forth a $300 million tax increase without historic preservation anywhere close to the intended funding priorities.   It would appear that few were listening, or cared, when the Commission Chair made his plea.

This story came to mind because I’ve been part of an effort over the past few weeks to restore a fine old building in a North Bay city, a building that a city planner called the “crown jewel of the community”.

I’m not always enamored of historic preservation, finding sometimes that the needs of the city must outweigh the value of saving history.  But this isn’t one of those times.  The building with which I’ve become involved is a grand building for which new uses, fitting within the needs of the community, can be readily envisioned.

(Note: The building in the photo isn’t the building of which I’m writing.  Instead, the building in the photo is one of a number of well-preserved buildings in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York.  But it illustrates the value that historic preservation can bring to a community.)

My involvement with the North Bay building has given me new insights about what we, as represented through our government and directly, can do to help return useful older buildings to their glory.   In this case of the North Bay building, the story is fairly good, although perhaps not quite good enough

To begin, the building is on the National Historic Register, which means that tax credits are available for qualified building renovation costs.   Many historic specialists point to this provision as sufficient to ensure historic preservation.  However, the tax credits are bundled with the obligation to conform to historic preservation standards, which can sometimes add as much cost to the projects as the tax credits provide relief.  As a result, sometimes developers are thrilled to have their buildings on the Historic Register and other times they would prefer for the designation to disappear.

In this case, the tax credit is anticipated to provide a net benefit, although perhaps not a huge one.

Likely of more importance were representations made by City staff during an initial coordination meeting.  Staff suggested the possibility of an expedited entitlement process along with favorable interpretations of impact fees.  Not relief from the fees, but a willingness to interpret grey areas in favor of historic preservation.  Both suggestions were welcomed.

In a subsequent meeting with a possible financial partner, he suggested another way in which a municipality can assist in historic preservation, which is through becoming a building tenant.

One of the hurdles in historic preservation is convincing lenders that there is a market for the new and often unique space that will result.  Having a tenant committed to a lease as early as possible can provide a critical boost to construction financing.  The municipality needn’t pay a high rate for the space, but only market rate.  It’s the early commitment that can be key. 

We haven’t yet pursued this possibility in regard to the North Bay building, but will be doing so.

Lastly, citizens needn’t always act through government to assist with historic preservation.  The city of Fergus Fall, Minnesota has been looking for a developer to rehabilitate Kirkbride, an enormous and abandoned state hospital.  The selected developer asked for the city to provide $700,000 of the $21 million cost, but the city balked.  (The refusal wasn’t surprising.  Few cities of 13,000 can muster a $700,000 tab, regardless of the value to the community.)

To fill the gap, a citizens group instead pledged the $700,000 and immediately began a fundraising effort, reporting within days that $500,000 had already been collected.  (Although one fundraising makes the amount look closer to $5,000.)

There is no single magic bullet for historic preservation, but there is a collection of tools that can be used in various combinations.  The proposed preservation of the North Bay building hasn’t yet come together, but we’ll continue to work to find the right combination.  The Petaluma Planning Commission Chair would be pleased.

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

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds Re-Use: Sorting Through the Options

I’ve written several times about the looming opportunities at Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma.

Regular readers can probably repeat the key facts by heart, so I’ll offer only a brief recap.  The current lease between the City and Fair Board for the Fairgrounds will expire in nine years.  The two parties are engaged in closed door negotiations over the future of the site.  The Fairgrounds are located in the heart of Petaluma so the result of the negotiations could change the course of the town’s future.

To be prepared to comment effectively on the result of the negotiations, Petaluma Urban Chat has been engaging in an independent consideration of site options.  Initially, the approach was fairly unstructured.  As a result, the process didn’t move ahead as well as we might have hoped.

To remedy the slow process, we rebooted the effort into a more rigorous and directed format.  The first meeting under the new format was held on November 11 and seemed successful.  (For those who want further background, earlier posts about the Fairgrounds can be found here, here, here, here, and here.)

I’ve termed the new process a “mini-charette”, with all the goals of a full charrette but with a quarter of the hours that a full charrette might take.

To make the mini-charette as broad-based as possible, we assembled a steering committee for the effort.  Joining me on the committee were Ross Jones, an architect and downtown developer, and David Powers, a long-time Urban Chat participant.

The goal for the first mini-charette meeting structure was to take an initial cut at the preferred land uses that might occupy a portion of the current Fairgrounds.

To conform to a likely result of the City/Fair Board negotiations, we made the decision that the re-use would occupy 30 acres of the current 63-acre Fairgrounds.  I developed a form listing the possible site uses, including a range of residential densities, possible retail uses, public facilities, and recreational amenities.  The form also included rough estimates of how each option might affect the finances of the City.

To help people visualize the possibilities, Jones gave an introduction to the flexibility and opportunities within each of the land-use possibilities.

Under the structure of the meeting, I asked the participants to individually prioritize their desires and to target a package of land uses that would total 30 acres.  After they had made their first choices, groups of three or four people met to discuss their individual wishes and visions, with the steering committee helping to facilitate.  Representatives of each group then conferred with representatives of the other groups to argue for their visions.  The result was an initial set of land-use preferences.  About 27 people attended the meeting, which was a sufficient group to reach reasonable decisions.

At least a few of the folks felt initially overwhelmed by the choices presented to them.  And that was okay.  The process was the urban planning equivalent of immersion training for learning foreign languages.  In effect, in order to teach people to swim, we pushed them into the deep end of the pool.  But once folks realized that we weren’t going to let them sink, they bought into the process, bringing insight and passion to their choices.

Powers acted as scribe for the final discussion group.  The results as presented below are based on his report.  Time ran short for the combined group to put acreages to their choices, but their priorities were well-established.  The acreages noted below are my estimates of where they would have put the acreages if time had permitted.

Residential: The strong consensus was for a mix of high density housing (14 to 25 units per acre in buildings of up to three stories) and very high density housing (more than 25 units per acre in buildings of up to six stories).  I’ll assume a total of seven acres of residential, which would imply perhaps 175 to 200 new residences.

Retail: The strong consensus here was for a public market, especially one that included a farmers’ market.  The Ferry Building in San Francisco and the Barlow in Sebastopol were noted as possible models.  (I’ll suggest the Oxbow Public Market in Napa as another possible model.)  It was felt that the regional farm to table model had to be represented.  A hotel and more general retail were also noted as possibilities, but with little enthusiasm.   I’ll assume four acres for a public/farmer’s market.

(Note: It is also expected that some of the sidewalk frontage in the residential buildings would be also occupied by storefront retail or offices.)

Office: There was only limited support for office buildings, so that use was excluded for now.

Manufacturing: The strong consensus was for small-scale agricultural processing/manufacturing, something more on the scale of the Cowgirl Creamery rather that the Clover-Stornetta plant.

Also, people were excited by the idea of a licensed and certified commercial kitchen that could be used by upstart food producers to bring small batches of locally sourced food products to market.  The concept of an incubator which would combine manufacturing opportunities and business skills training for entrepreneurs in food production resonated strongly with the group because of its fit with the needs of the community and its fit with the historic role of the Sonoma Marin Fair.  Powers reported that this possible use elicited the strongest emotional response of all the site uses.

I’ll assume six acres for processing and manufacturing, including an incubator space.

Recreation: There a good consensus for a public park or plaza, particularly because of the higher density housing, and more moderate enthusiasm for a ballfield.  It was noted that a ballfield could also serve as an outdoor concert venue, but enthusiasm was still limited, so I’ll exclude that option.  Instead, I’ll assume three acres of park or plaza.

Public Facilities: There was strong support for a public arts center that would house a theater space (perhaps something like the Cinnabar Theater), a venue for music, public art studios, and accompanying exhibit space.  There was lesser support for connecting the public arts center to a convention center or for moving City Hall.  I’ll assume three acres for a public arts center and exclude the latter two options.

The total is twenty-three acres.  Assuming that public streets consume another seven acres, which is a typical ratio, that gives us the target thirty acres.

Is this the best possible combination of land uses?  Probably not.  I can already see decision points that I’d like to further explore.  But it’s a fine starting point for our mini-charette and sets the stage for our next meeting.  Before we conclude the mini-charette several months hence, we’ll circle back to decide if we wish to revisit any of the decisions above.

Even more importantly, the Urban Chat gathering was a good evening of public involvement.  To quote Powers, “The evening revealed how much people are willing to buckle down and address a very difficult issue, and how much the Fairgrounds issue captures the imaginations of people from a wide range of community interests.” (This is an appropriate moment to express my appreciation to both David Powers and Ross Jones for their assistance with first meeting of the mini-charette.  Their continued participation will be essential as we move ahead.)

In the next Urban Chat meeting, we’ll determine which 30 acres of the Fairgrounds would be best suited for redevelopment.  To make that assessment, we’ll consider community issues, including existing uses and facilities within the Fairgrounds and the adjacent land uses.  Make plans to join us on Tuesday, December 9 for the discussion.

In my next post, I’ll offer some updated thinking about the preservation of historic buildings.


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

Friday, November 14, 2014

Identifying and Building Urbanist Visions

In a couple of recent posts (here and here), I wrote about the dichotomy between vision and incrementalism.  The difference between focusing on the small steps toward a big goal and focusing on the goal itself.  The difference between awaking in the morning thinking about winning the World Series or awaking thinking about spending a hour in the batting cage learning to hit a curve ball.

In some ways, it’s a silly distinction to try to draw.  No one can reasonably reach any desirable goal without being able to embrace both the goal and the incremental steps.  One doesn’t win the World Series without spending time in the batting cage.  But one doesn’t spend the time in the cage without having the World Series, or at least the high school varsity, as a goal.

This topic is pertinent to urbanism because the vision of urbanism is grand indeed, with cities that are financially stable and secure from the threat of environmental degradation.  Even the more immediate visions, the downtown residences where seniors can live their later years without the need of a car or the public plazas where all a city’s inhabitants can mingle comfortably, are enticing.  But the steps, the grinding, trudging steps that are essential to get from the world of today to the vision of the future, can’t be overlooked.

I remain an incrementalist.  To me, land use is like crossing a rock-strewn field to a desirable destination in the middle distance, perhaps a spreading shade tree along a babbling brook.  Yes, looking up occasionally to check that I’m remaining on line to my goal is essential, but I still must spend much of my time watching my feet, not the destination, if I’m not to end up on my face.

But others may have different strategies for crossing that field.  Perhaps they can spend more time with their eyes on the destination without sprawling over a rock.  As long as we keep making progress, all is good.

In response to my earlier posts, a North Bay architect and planning commissioner emailed me in general concurrence with my thinking, but with the thought that compelling urbanist visions were sometimes lacking in the public forum.  To my eye, the vision is always there, but I’ll concede that he may be right, that many people may not see the urbanist vision with the same clarity as I do.

So I want to write today about a couple of different Petaluma situations, one in which a vision is being developed and another in which a vision is seemingly being overlooked. 

Redevelopment of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds: I’ve previously written on several occasions about the possible redevelopment of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, most recently here.  With the expiration of the lease agreement between the City of Petaluma and the Sonoma Marin Fair Board looming, the two parties have been engaged in discussions about the future of the site for over a year.  The possible new uses of the site is a remarkable opportunity for the community.

But because of the nature of the process, little information has reached the public about the possible new uses, which is unfortunate.  As a result, Petaluma Urban Chat has been trying to build a public vision in the expectation that the vision will provide the public with a basis from which to review whatever proposal results from the City/Fair Board negotiations and also with the emotional commitment to keep pushing for the best possible redevelopment over the years to come.

The most recent Urban Chat meeting on the subject was held a few days ago and was the best meeting yet on the subject.   Nearly thirty folks participated, most of whom grasped the nature of the process and participated in the meeting with vigor.

Considering that implementation of a new vision for the Fairgrounds may still be a decade away, thirty folks in a ninety-minute meeting likely didn’t create the momentum necessary to roll to the finish line, but it was a start and the process will continue.

Hopper Street: As an apparent counterexample, the City Petaluma has recently been processing the land-use applications for the River Front project within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan.  To set the background for a land-use conundrum in the permitting process, I recently gave an overview of the project, including the quote below.  The quote was inspired by the intended improvements to Hopper Street that would provide a direct route between River Front and the coming SMART station while also providing improved access to several parcels in between that are now in industrial use.

“I can foresee a better future, perhaps thirty years from now, when the parcels between River Front and the train station have all been redeveloped, when transit is stronger, when the current generation of young adults that is less attached to their cars has reached full maturity, and when River Front will be among the most desirable addresses in town.”

I believed those words when I wrote them and I believe them now.  However, I may have been largely alone in that belief.  I didn’t read every word written about River Front or attend every public meeting, but I didn’t come across a single other person who was fired by that vision.

Instead, the public became mired in questions about developer exactions and architectural standards.  Those questions are valid and I certainly have my own opinions on them, but I was disappointed that no one, with the exception of me, even noted the long-term vision.

So the planning commissioner may have been right when he doubted the existence of good visions.  I still believe the incrementalism is the better path for me.  One footstep at a time.  But we also need a vision to guide those footsteps.  This blog has always had and will continue to have the goal of establishing those visions.  The absence of a vision around Hopper Street reinforced that need for that goal.

In my next post, I’ll provide a more complete description of the recent Urban Chat meeting on the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  It was a successful meeting, with folks embracing the need to make tough choices and passionately defending their preferences. 

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Futile Search for “Achievable Alternatives”: What Urbanism Offers Instead

In my last two posts, I’ve tried to respond to a question from a correspondent.  His query was about a vexing traffic problem in Petaluma, the town we both call home, but the response applies to traffic issues in many towns across the U.S.

His question pertained to congestion on E. Washington Street and the traffic relief that the Rainier Connector was purported to offer.  (As a further bit of background, funding of the Rainier Connector was a key element in a tax measure on which Petalumans voted, and soundly defeated, last week.)

In my first post on the subject, I noted the reasons why arterials often become congested.  In the second, I explained why new road capacity is often sucked up by “induced demand”, so that new road construction often provides less traffic relief than hoped.  I offered a campground analogy in an effort to explain the induced traffic phenomenon, which many find non-intuitive.

The reader’s initial question had been about “achievable alternatives” to the Rainier Connector.  Having established, to my satisfaction and hopefully to his, that there no achievable alternatives and also that even the Rainier Connector wouldn’t have provided the promised benefits, I’ll close by noting the insights that urbanism provides on the subject.

The urbanism thinking falls into three categories: acceptance, alleviation, and avoidance.

Acceptance: Urbanism argues that traffic congestion, while perhaps unpleasant, is a sign of economic vitality and should be tolerated as such.  The only communities that solved traffic problems were those that managed to tank their economies.  (I haven’t visited either extensively, but have encountered few traffic problems in either Detroit or Stockton.)

The quote often put forth by urbanists regarding traffic congestion is “If you have an economically vital district with a traffic problem and manage to solve the traffic problem, you’ve probably killed the economic life.”

Alleviation: But even if traffic congestion can’t be solved, it can still be better managed.

In my last post, I offered a hypothetical example of a free campground on the valley floor of Yosemite.  It was my way to explain induced traffic.  The campground can now offer further insights.

If we decide that the campground is worth continuing, but wish to reduce the overcrowding without instituting a reservation or lottery system, what would be the best tool to reduce the number of campers?  Pricing.  Bump up the cost of an overnight stay until the demand drops to the desired level. 

Similarly, pricing is the obvious tool for managing road usage.  However, we don’t use pricing at all.  Urban streets are generally built with property tax revenues, so local residents pay the same amount whether they use Main Street through downtown once a month or five times a day.

There are three mechanisms generally available as pay-per-use models, vehicle mileage tax (VMT), congestion fees, and gasoline taxes.  All have worth, but all also have downsides.

VMT is a flat rate per mile traveled.  Car owners might report odometer readings once per  month, with the resulting mileage charge then assessed.  It’s a simple system to manage, but charges the same for a mile driven on a county road at 5am as for a mile in a congested downtown core at 3pm.  (Oregon has implemented a pilot VMT program.)

Congestion fees are daily fees for entering into districts with established traffic problems.  A fee of perhaps $10 is charged to all cars entering the district during business hours.  Charges are assessed from license plates collected by automated readers.  The logic behind congestion fees is valid, but the cost of administration generally matches the revenue generated, so there is little net revenue to address traffic improvements.  (I believe the City of London has implemented congestion pricing and several American urban cores, such as lower Manhattan and the financial district in San Francisco have begun considering it.)

Which brings us to the most significant tool available, gasoline taxes.  I’ve long advocated significantly higher gasoline taxes so the costs related to the use of gasoline, such as the geopolitical and environmental costs, can be covered by gasoline taxes rather than general fund dollars.  But higher gasoline taxes would also reduce driving and thereby reduce congestion.  Plus, higher gasoline taxes would encourage behavioral changes such as downtown living and transit use, which would also reduce congestion.

Like VMT, a higher gasoline tax wouldn’t be able to differentiate between miles driven on empty country roads and miles driven in downtown setting, but overall justification for higher gasoline taxes is sufficiently strong that this objection seems relatively minor.

Others have presented reasonable arguments that the “correct” cost of gasoline should be at least $10 per gallon, which would mean taxes in the range of $6 to $7 per gallon.  Admittedly, imposing a tax of that amount would cause significant economic dislocations, but a gradually increasing tax, perhaps at the rate of 25 cents per year, would allow a period of adjustment.

A higher gasoline tax is an idea that has come.  Indeed, its time came ten years ago but we’ve managed to ignore it thus far.  But we should ignore it no longer.

Avoidance: This is the point when urbanism truly shines.  Don’t like spending a good part of your day stuck in traffic?  Live in a walkable urban setting where much of your daily life can be accomplished on foot or on bike and where transit is readily available for longer outings.  Living in an urban setting doesn’t necessarily mean living without a car, but it might mean putting one’s car in a garage and not thinking about it for a week or more.

Admittedly, there are still too few urban residences where this kind of life can be lived.  And the ones that do exist are often expensive.  But following the alleviation steps above can begin to remedy those deficiencies.  Indeed, that’s the central thrust of urbanism.

Okay, this subject has been well and fully covered.  Next up, I’ll return to the topic of incrementalism versus vision, offering a few illustrative examples.  And then I’ll summarize the successful Urban Chat meeting on the re-use of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Futile Search for “Achievable Alternatives”: Why the Apparent Solution Fails

In my last post, I introduced a question from a correspondent about “achievable alternatives” for traffic congestion relief.  The particular question pertained to the congested E. Washington Street in Petaluma and the proposed Rainier Connector that many believe would provide relief, but the question could apply to overloaded arterials everywhere.

In the earlier post, I explained how E. Washington Street became congested.   I also presented the Rainier Connector as the apparent solution in the minds of many.  Today, I’ll try to offer an explanation on why that conventional wisdom is wrong.  In my next post, I’ll offer the alternative ways of thinking about traffic that are provided by urbanism.

The Problem with the Proposed Solution:  The reason that the Rainier Connector likely won’t provide significant traffic relief is induced traffic.  It’s a concept that I’ve noted before, but today I’ll try to provide a deeper and more complete explanation.

Economists have a well-evolved vocabulary for many of the concepts I’ll try to explain below.  But I’m not an economist and would likely trip over my word choices if I pretended to be one.  So I’ll write in my own lay words.  And if the economists among the readers want to recast my arguments into the economist dictionary, please do so.

The root of traffic congestion, and the resulting problem of induced traffic, is related to how public agencies set, or don’t set, prices on scarce resources.

In the private world, the free market system with its rules of supply and demand usually governs.  Given tee times to fill at a top-rated golf course, the green fees are set high.  If surplus demand still remains, the green fees are bumped even higher until the demand for tee times eventually matches the number of tee times available.  Given rooms to fill at a nice hotel, the same rules apply.  Diamonds to sell?  Same rules.  Adjust the price until supply and demand meet.

The supply and demand system is marvelously elegant and intuitive.  And for the most part, it works well.  Some may not like the answers that pop out, but the market usually tends toward logical and rational.

But we, as represented by our various levels of government, typically have an aversion to the applying the same market rules to public resources.  We don’t want the best camping places going to millionaires driving tricked out recreational vehicles.  And we don’t want to dole out hunting permits only to the well-heeled.

So instead, we devise a range of non-price systems to allocate scarce resources.  Have a campground that’s usually full all summer?  Institute a policy that requires advance reservations on a first-come, first-served basis.  Managing a trail that has excess demand?  Devise a lottery for hiking permits.  Afraid that unfettered fishing will exhaust a stream?  Implement rules like catch-and-release, closed seasons, and catch limits to reduce pressure on the fishery.

But there are also public resources to which we don’t choose to apply significant impediments.  At the top of that list is street capacity.  Given that most people already have cars and drivers licenses, the only barriers to driving extra miles, whether on open country roads or congested downtown streets, is the incremental vehicle wear-and-tear and the cost of gasoline, neither of which is a significant barrier.

To understand the implications of this absence of obstacles to driving, let’s try a thought experiment.

Presumably all are familiar with the scenic wonders of Yosemite National Park.  Access to Yosemite is well-regulated by entrance fees, high cost hotel rooms, advance registration campgrounds, and hiking trail lotteries.

But imagine if Yosemite management decided that the barriers to park use were too high.  To allow more folks to partake of the park, they clear a meadow on the valley floor, throw a fence around it, and open it to unlimited camping use.  No reservations, no fees, no designated camp sites.  Just an open gate.  People could pitch tents wherever they wished, with no standards about how far they needed to be from other tents.  (To be clear, I’m not suggesting this idea.  I’m only offering it for thought purposes.)

What would happen?  Obviously, the campground would fill quickly and campers would soon be stepping on each other’s toes.  Some campers would give up and go home, deciding that a vista of Half Dome wasn’t worth being unable to warm one’s hands at one’s campfire without burning one’s backside on a neighbor’s campfire.  But plenty of campers with a high tolerance for crowding would remain.

Now let’s say that Yosemite management, looking at the “success” of the new campground, decided that the concept was valid, but that the overcrowding had become too burdensome.  To allow more spacing between tents, they decide to open a second campground with the same set of rules, arguing that the density of campsites will thereby be halved.

But that’s not what would happen.  Remember the campers who went away, turned off by the lack of space between tents?  They’d come back, happy to camp with even a little more space.  The congestion in the second campground would quickly rise to nearly the same level as the first campground.

Obviously, there would some number of campgrounds that would satisfy the demand for cheap, no-frills Yosemite experiences, but the entire valley floor might be consumed before that point is reached.

And that’s exactly what happens with congested city arterials.  Some may argue that traffic congestion would disappear with new road capacity, but the reality is that campers, I mean drivers, who had previously deferred trips would return to congest the new roadway.

Nor is this a hypothetical supposition.  Study after study shows that a large chunk of new roadway capacity is consumed on the day it opens, with the remainder consumed in next few years, even in the absence of new development.

This finding is why the State of California is implementing new rules to judge environmental impacts based on traffic generation, not congestion.  Unwilling to await the new state rules, the City of Pasadena implemented their own rules to the same end.

(Side note: When the Petaluma Planning Commission reviewed the Draft Environment Impact Report for the Rainier Connector, some Commissioners noted the surprisingly small congestion relief benefits projected as a result of the new road.  But under the pending revised California rules, which measure traffic generation in place of congestion relief, the balance would make the outlook even worse.  Instead of a minor benefit, the traffic impacts of Rainier Connector would be judged a negative.)

So when the correspondent asked about “achievable alternatives”, his underlying supposition was flawed.  Not only are there no achievable alternatives, but even the preferred solution of the Rainier Connector wouldn’t provide the promised benefits.  Induced traffic undermines any attempt to reduce traffic congestion by building new roads.

Urbanism can’t solve the problem of induced capacity, but it can offer a different land-use paradigm and set of tools that would make traffic congestion less of a daily problem.  The paradigm and those tools will be covered in my next post.

Schedule Reminder

The meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat to take a renewed look at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds is rapidly approaching.  It’ll be Tuesday, November 11.  To accommodate the anticipated larger than normal attendance, the meeting has been moved to Taps at 54 E. Washington Street in the River Plaza shopping center.  We’ll convene at 5:30 and likely conclude shortly after 7:00.  Please be on time because the evening is expected to be full.

Some have asked about a recap of earlier meetings.  The topic of the fairgrounds was originally broached back in July.  As the early meetings progressed, two updates were provided here and here, and then a couple of points required clarification.  The coming meeting won’t necessarily build on the earlier meetings, but familiarity with the previous conversations may be useful.

I look forward to a successful meeting and to chatting with many of you.

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

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Futile Search for “Achievable Alternatives”: Defining the Problem

I recently attended a meeting of North Bay writers talking about the business of writing.  Among folks with filmed screenplays and published novels, I felt presumptuous calling myself a writer based on this modest blog, but hoped that, if I can kept my ears open, I might learn something.

I was correct.  Among other insights from the evening, a novelist suggested that I should remain continually aware of barriers to new readers.  Readers who don’t have a grasp on the rudiments of urbanism might not glean as much from a blog post, so might be less likely to become regular readers.

Her comment was appreciated.  Within the constraints of relatively short blog posts, I think I do reasonably well at staying in touch with the fundamentals of urbanism, but it would be impossible to begin each blog post with a complete recap of urbanist principles.  Therefore, I’ll begin 2015 with a series of posts laying out the urbanist philosophy as perceived and expounded by me.  My hope will be to attract new readers whose New Year’s Resolutions included greater community involvement.

Meanwhile, the exercise will also be good for me because my grasp of urbanism has deepened, broadened, and evolved since I began this blog.  It’ll be helpful for me to recheck and to solidify the fundamentals of my own understanding.

So if you have friends who have been interested in this blog, but have been unsure where to start, tell them to mark January 5th on their calendars.  On that day, I’ll begin a recap that will hopefully provide benefits to all.

But even while acknowledging that some potential readers might need a remedial symposium on the fundamentals of urbanism, I felt comfortable that my current readers had a good grasp on the principles and the logic of urbanism.

It’s possible I was wrong.

In an email exchange about Measure Q and the proposed Rainier Connector in Petaluma, a reader advised me that traffic congestion was a continuing concern to him and that he was likely to support the Rainier Connector “in the absence of a good achievable alternative”. 

The reader was someone with whom I’ve chatted many times, both electronically and face-to-face, so his position surprised me.  And to the extent it reflected a misunderstanding of the nature of traffic congestion, it was a rebuke to me and my apparent inability to correctly convey the pertinent information.

Accordingly, I’ll use the Rainier Connector as an example to present urbanist thought on traffic congestion.  It’s a bigger topic than I want to cover in a single day, so today I’ll define the problem as created by town planning and as generally understood by the public and then identify the generally perceived “solution”.  In my next post, I’ll explain why the solution doesn’t work and what urbanism offers instead.

The Problem: Like most cities that grew in the years after World War II, the street system of Petaluma is largely organized in a hierarchical form, with arterials at the top and local streets and alley at the bottom.  The expectation is that drivers will use local streets to access collectors and then arterials which they’ll use to reach their general destination, at which point they’ll return to local streets for the final distance.

(In comparison, consider older cities such as San Francisco or New York.  A street hierarchy still exists, but the extent of the differentiation is reduced.  Market Street is still a major arterial, but Mission, Folsom, and Howard offer alternative routes that more hierarchical towns don’t.)

When a town such as Petaluma is divided by a river or another geographical feature, traffic is further concentrated on arterials.  The costs of bridges or tunnels allow fewer crossings, forcing all traffic to the limited crossings available.  That concentration becomes troublesome as population growth, increased affluence, and land use decisions result in increased traffic.

Which brings us back to Petaluma.  Many destinations are clustered in two areas, the downtown and the development around the freeway.  E. Washington Street, which crosses over the Petaluma River, is the most direct route between the two, so is the logically preferred route for many.

There are three alternatives to E. Washington Street that also cross the river.  However, Corona Street is too far north for many drivers, Lakeville Street is oddly skewed across the city grid and doesn’t meet the needs of many drivers, and D Street is well located, but heads into a limited capacity residential neighborhood east of the river.

So, E. Washington Street remains the preferred route for many.  And, as traffic grew over the years, many became convinced that the street was impossibly congested.

(To be fair, the congestion can be a matter of perspective.  The traffic consultant on the Petaluma Station Area study, having heard horror stories about E. Washington, spent time studying it.  He reported back that he found the congestion far less than reported.  Instead, he noted that the development pattern along the street is ugly and that drivers are more frustrated by congestion when their surroundings are unappealing, so over-report congestion.  He thought that E Washington was an aesthetic problem as much as a traffic problem.  I suspect there is at least some truth in his comments, although I doubt that public perception was swayed by his argument.)

So that brings us to today.  E. Washington Street is perceived as congested and the existing alternatives don’t provide much relief.

The Solution: The most generally understood solution is the Rainier Connector, a new street that would cross the Petaluma River between E. Washington and Corona and connect into the existing street grid on both ends.  (The Caulfield Extension and Bridge might actually be more effective than Rainier, but hasn’t grabbed the public attention.)

The Rainier vision is appealing, but the likely practical effect is less promising.  The reasons for the shortfall are complex, but I’ve already taken too much of your attention today.  I’ll defer the discussion to my next post.

And be sure to remember January 5.

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