Friday, November 27, 2015

NFL Called for Intentional Grounding, Penalty is Loss of Credibility

Back in 2012, the NRL was eager to tout the urbanist pleasures of Superbowl XLVI in Indianapolis, where many of Superbowl week venues, including the stadium, were within walkable distance of the host hotels.  Four years later, the NFL keeps stubbing its urbanist toe.

The first urbanist bust was at Superbowl XLVIII.  The NFL failed to account for the increasing use of transit to reach major sporting events and gave New Jersey transportation officials bad estimates of the division between car passengers and transit riders for game day planning.  When far more fans used transit than expected, the results were overcrowded cars and long wait times.

 And now, in the run-up to Superbowl L, the NFL has misread the changing urban realities once again.

Having decided that most Superbowl festivities should be in San Francisco, rather than 45 miles south in Santa Clara where Levi’s Stadium is located, NFL officials have been meeting with representatives of the City of San Francisco to discuss event coordination.  One request recently made of the City was for the temporary removal of the overhead electric bus wires along Market Street.

I understand the motivation behind the request.  The overhead wires are ugly and detract from the vista down Market Street toward the Ferry Building and San Francisco Bay.  I’ll celebrate on the day when evolving technology allows the wires to be removed.

But until then, the overhead wires and the buses fed by them are key links in the San Francisco transit system.  While the NFL reportedly offered to reimburse the City for the estimated $1 million cost to remove and later replace the wires, no acknowledgments were offered to the commuters or businesses who would be inconvenienced by the weeks when the transit system would be compromised.

Luckily for all, the NFL recognized the problems with the request and soon withdrew it.  But having made the request at all shows urban colorblindness in NFL headquarters.

Choosing San Francisco over Santa Clara as the center of Superbowl festivities correctly acknowledged the fundamental role of major cities.  But cities are multi-layered entities with complex internal logic.  To blithely tinker with one element, such as a portion of the transit system, without trying to understand the integrated whole was akin to buying the Mona Lisa because of her enigmatic smile, but with the intention of adding braces.

It’s not that cities can’t be modified.  Indeed, they can be and must be.   But those changes must be carefully proposed and vetted considering all the ramifications, not suggested only to provide better photo opportunities for a week of football tourists.

Hopefully, the NFL will begin to grasp that urban reality before Superbowl LI.

Milestone Note: The first post in this blog was published on the Monday after the Thanksgiving weekend of 2011.  Thus, this post is the end of my fourth year.  When I began, I had no expectation of how long I would continue.  But I kept finding topics about which I wanted to write and somehow the years passed by.

Thanks for coming along, reading, commenting, and being tolerant when I struggled to find my voice.

I have no plans yet to cease my efforts.  Instead, I’ll be back here in couple of days, starting my fifth year.  I hope you’ll be here also.  And if you want to bring a friend, I wouldn’t complain.

Speaking of coming back, my next post will be a look back at Black Friday Parking, with thoughts on my personal interaction with an over-filled parking lot and links to some of the better writing on the subject by others.

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Successful Planning Requires Game-Management Quarterbacks, Not Delusions of Grandeur

The French Quarter in New Orleans before the tourists arrive
I’ve written twice about “The Trouble with City Planning” by Kristina Ford.  In the first post, I found the middle of the book to have useful insights into the planning process, particularly on the role of general plans.  Later, I described the same worthwhile middle section as awkwardly conjoined to ill-conceived introductory and closing sections that seemed to have been the ideas of a market-focused editor rather that of the author.

Despite the latter concern, I still found the book sufficiently useful that I kept it on my reading table for the occasional riffle through the stronger portions.

It was during one of those riffles when I again came across a paragraph that was a particularly egregious example of another concern with the book.  Not enough of a concern to cause me to set the book aside, but one that made me twitch.  Before I expound, let me share the section.

“In preparing for public discussion, planners rely on their professional training.  They of course are aware of the more generalized textbook ways by which various uses of land produce adverse effects.  Planners can, for instance, accurately predict the amount of increased traffic a new commercial enterprise will occasion, and can predict in advance the air and water pollution caused by new industrial plants.”

Really?  Land planners can model traffic generation and perform environmental science?  And those are only examples of the skills that planners have, meaning they have even more talents?  Why would they ever need anyone else on the team if they have all those abilities?  Ford makes it seem as if planners can play all the instruments in the orchestra and then fly home with capes fluttering behind and giant red P’s on their chests.

I’ve known many land planners in my years as a civil engineer.  Sometimes, I’ve sat across the table from them.  Other times, we’ve been members of the same team.  But I’ve never come across a planner who had the skills implied by Ford or even pretended they did.  Nor do I want to. 

For most planning tasks, the role of a planner is to assimilate and process information that has been developed by others and is beyond the range of their own technical expertise, such as predicted traffic or environmental contaminants.  It’s not a trivial task.  To integrate technical data from multiple specialists into a coherent document and to later defend that document in public hearings takes a special ability.  But it’s a different ability from having the full breadth of technical skills that Ford implies.

If the offending paragraph noted above had been the only instance of this attitude in the entire book, I would have ascribed it to sloppy editing and never mentioned it here.  But it’s not.  Throughout much of the book, Ford offers glorious testimony to the vast breadth of technical knowledge possessed by planners. 

I’m perplexed by how Ford came to have her overinflated opinion of the skills of planners.  I can’t imagine she’s come across planners with the breadth of skills she describes.  And yet, with a nearly decade as the New Orleans Planning Director and other earlier planning employments, she must have worked with hundreds of planners.  It’s a puzzle.

Is it a problem that Ford has an odd view of planners?  Not really.  If a reader’s first introduction to planning is this book, they may come away with a false impression of the breadth of planners’ technical knowledge.  But if a reader is first encountering planning through this book, they already have a problem.   This tome better serves as a source of helpful nuances and alternative perspectives to a planning education begun elsewhere.

At the bottom line, my point is that, while the beginning and end of the book have a tacked on feel and while the author has an overly exalted view of her profession, the book still offers points worth pondering.  Readers shouldn’t be easily deterred, but should instead brush away the dross and keep digging.  I found the effort worthwhile.

In my next post, I’ll describe an anti-urban overreach by the NFL in their planning for Superbowl 50.  Although it seems that common sense will prevail, the story still provides an object lesson.

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

Monday, November 23, 2015

Calling Friday Black for a Better Reason

About this time of year, perhaps a decade ago, a coworker described the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday.  I was puzzled by the reference.  To me, Black Friday referred to the 1929 stock market crash.  I assumed my coworker was mistaken.

Although I still remain dubious about the cultural references of the coworker, it turned out that he was right and I was wrong.  In fact, I was doubly wrong.  In the stock market, Black Friday refers not to the 1929 crash, but to the much earlier 1869 crash.  The worst day of the 1929 crash was a Tuesday, now known, predictably, as Black Tuesday.

Meanwhile, when I wasn’t looking, the Black Friday name had been co-opted in the past few decades to describe the pre-Christmas retail frenzy of the day after Thanksgiving.

Even with knowing that bit of common culture, I’m puzzled by the ascribing of “black” to a pre-Christmas retail event.  I would have expected red or green to be better color choices.  However, I’m told that black refers to how the day helps ensure that retailers will finish their years with a profit, or “in the black”.  As much as anyone, I value the need of businesses to be profitable in order to remain in business.  But I still find it perplexing that we use a bookkeeping benchmark to describe a mass of people descending upon malls and big boxes.

Luckily for common sense, StrongTowns and others are retasking the name Black Friday with a definition of “black” that seems more appropriate.  Their subject, and the target of their frustration, is retail parking.  In particular, the surfeit of retail parking.

Having spent years participating in the land-use process, both working with developers and reviewing projects from the public perspective, I have a good handle on how developers view surface parking.  They love it.  And they love having lots of it.  Their affection has several reasons beyond the obvious one of providing places for customers to leave their cars while spending money.

Developers like having surface lots that are half empty because those lots send a message to consumers that the stores aren’t busy.  Even if the aisles inside are packed tight, a half-empty parking lot is an advertisement for drivers to stop and to join the throng.  So large parking lots allow developers to more easily attract retail tenants.

Also, parking lots aren’t considered very productive spaces, so don’t carry large property tax assessments.  (Those who have read the StrongTown Curbside Chat booklet will remember the Taco John example of recent redevelopment having a lower assessed value per acre that the previous
“blight”.  Much of the pervasive anomaly is the result of redevelopment including lightly-taxed parking lots.)

 So, with a good reward and a low cost, it’s not surprising that developers want lots and lots of lots (parking lots, that is).

However, urbanists have a different view on the subject.

Harkening back to what Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable City”, wrote about walkability, three of his four essential elements for walkable places are comfort, interest, and usefulness.  Parking lots undermine all three.  There’s not much comfort in walking on a sidewalk bounded by speeding cars on one side and an expanse of asphalt with scattered cars on the other.  The setting also lacks interest.  And even usefulness doesn’t thrive when useful places are separated by open expanses.  There’s a reason that few folks arrive at shopping malls on foot.

At a more visceral level is the challenge faced by transit riders when the stores are pushed to the back of their sites behind parking lots.  Transit riders, who often have less personal mobility than average citizens, must navigate their way from a bus stop to a distant store and back again, a longer walk than anyone arriving by car must traverse.

To make the situation even worse, the parking is often described as free, even though we all understand that the costs are folded into the retail pricing.  So transit riders are paying for “free parking” they don’t use both at the cash register and in their knees.

(A frequent question at this point is why transit buses aren’t routed through parking lots to bus stops closer to stores.  It’s a fair question, but the problem is that bus routes through parking lots are usually slow and often prone to delays, which inconveniences the transit riders with destinations elsewhere.  Delivering one passenger directly in front of a store might result in another passenger missing a connection needed to reach a place of work on time.  It becomes a Hobbesian choice for transit managers that is usually resolved in favor of curbside bus stops.)

Now that the developer and urbanist sides of the parking question have been introduced, we can look at how parking resolution is typically reached in the drivable suburban world.  Virtually all zoning codes specify minimum parking requirements, but far fewer put a cap on the maximum number of parking spaces.  That fact alone gives developers more power than urbanists.

Furthermore, the oft-stated goal of parking standards is to accommodate the peak day parking demand.  It’s a curious and perverse standard, putting the one-time convenience of the last driver to arrive on the busiest day of the year on a higher plane than the everyday convenience of transit riders, but it’s the standard we have.

But it needn’t be the standard that we keep forever.

Many, including StrongTowns, as an entry into the argument that we can survive with less parking, contend that we don’t even meet the busiest day standard with much accuracy.  They argue that many parking lots are less than fully utilized on the day after Thanksgiving.  So StrongTowns is retasking the name Black Friday to describe this phenomenon of demonstrable overparking.  As a reference both to the color of asphalt and to the land-use implications of too much parking, it seems a more reasonable use of “black”.

To make their point, StrongTowns use Black Friday to highlight the role of parking in our communities.  Taken from their words, “Black Friday Parking is a nationwide event drawing attention to the harmful nature of minimum parking requirements, which create a barrier for new local businesses and fill up our cities with empty parking spaces that don’t add value to our places.

“On Black Friday, people all across North America will snap photos of the (hardly full) parking lots in their community to demonstrate how unnecessary these massive lots are.  Participants will then upload those photos to Twitter, Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #blackfridayparking.  More can also be learned here.”

Unfortunately, I’ll be traveling between family holiday commitments on Black Friday, so will have limited opportunities to take photos of half-empty parking lots, although I may be able to sneak by a mall or two in the college town of Chico.

But I encourage those who care about their towns to look around on the day after Thanksgiving, to ponder how much parking we really need, and to follow the StrongTowns campaign on social media.  Even if you’re an urbanist of long standing, I promise the experience will still provide an eye-opening insight or two.

Next time, I’ll make one last visit to the “The Trouble with City Planning” by Kristina Ford.  I’ll highlight a flaw that marred the book for some, but also offered a worthwhile talking point.

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

Thinking about Paris

This will be relatively brief post.  In part because I need to practice brevity.  And in part because I’ve chosen a topic on which I could get into trouble if I ramble overly long.

I’ve only seen Paris once.  My wife had a life-long dream of visiting the City of Lights.  So, for our fifth anniversary, we broke away from a bargain vacation in London, took the Chunnel, and spent three days in a fine hotel in the heart of Paris, across from the Tuileries and not far from the Louvre.

They were a fine three days.  Having different interests, my wife and I spent much of our time in different pursuits.  I visited the Rodin Museum and the sarcophagus of Napoleon while she wandered shops, in particular the Parisian perfumeries.

But we met up under the Eiffel Tower at the exact time of our wedding five years earlier (ignoring the time zone difference), took a cab to the Arc de Triomphe, and ambled down the Champs-Elysees, stopping for beverages at a sidewalk cafĂ©.  It was a great way to commemorate an anniversary.  And then we returned to our rented flat in London.

It’s likely that we’ll never again visit Paris, but those three days remain bright in our memories.  Bright enough that the recent terrorist attacks had a particularly sharp impact on us.

One can look at the Parisian attacks from several different urbanist perspectives.

The first is distress that people enjoying the fruits of urban life in one of the great cities of the world can have their lives ended or irremediably changed in a matter of minutes.

I fear that many will respond to the events in Paris by withdrawing into their suburban castles and lifting the drawbridges.  But that would be the wrong response.  Cities are our source of commerce, culture, and education.  Our civilization would regress without them.  When cities hit bumps, our job is to fix the bumps, not to turn our backs.

As Richard Florida notes in CityLab, there is strong correlation between the absence of vibrant cities and the instability of nations from which terror can flow.  Florida is careful to note that correlation isn’t causation, but it seems likely that strengthening the cities of unstable countries would simultaneously brace up the troubled nations and weaken the roots of terrorism.

Next is discomfort that the source of these particular attacks was the urban neighborhood of Molenbeek-St. Jean in Brussels.  Also in CityLab, Feargus O’Sullivan writes about what has gone wrong in the neighborhood, which is modestly attractive but permeated by despair.  Something has gone wrong in a culture when jobseekers in Molenbeek must use non-Molenbeek addresses when submitting resumes.

The roots of Molenbeek as described by O’Sullivan may be unique to Brussels, but similar pockets of despair and hopelessness are found in many cities.  However, they needn’t be.  Tools like inclusionary housing, walkable settings, and strong transit can make a difference.  We know how to implement those actions.  It’s up to us to make the necessary commitments.

Last is hope that comes from big city mayors, unlike many governors, continuing to welcome refugees, many of whom are fleeing violence even worse than seen in Paris.  Again in CityLab, Kriston Capps writes of the mayors who understand the renewed vitality that immigrants can bring to communities, while also sympathizing with the plights that forced them to become refugees.

Security measures on immigration remain appropriate, but warm welcomes should be waiting beyond the security checkpoints.  Mayors get that, which should make us optimistic about the future of cities.

The political and social conditions that underlay the Paris terrorism can’t be solved solely with urban solutions, but good urbanism can play a role.  A big role.

In my next post, I’ll look at the coming retail extravaganza that is the Christmas season and what it tells us about the flaws of suburban parking.  For many, the meaning of Black Friday have moved from the 1929 stock market crash to the post-Thanksgiving shopping crush and onward to an ominous message about our times.

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Were None of Us Ever Kids?

I recently recounted the story of a Petaluma land use hearing during which I missed an opportunity to suggest a project change that should have been obvious to me as an urbanist.

The hearing addressed a proposed apartment complex.  An element of the project was repainting the fronting street to reduce the travel lanes from four to two, with the surplus width being redistributed to a center turn pocket, bike lanes, and parking.  The preliminary plan showed the remaining travel lanes retaining the current lane width of 12 feet, a typical width for public streets ranging from residential roads to arterials and even to older freeways.

The neighbors had a number of objections to the project.  One of those concerns was excessive driving speeds through the neighborhood.  A subsequent traffic speed study found that the 85 percentile speed was 38 mph, which is moderately fast for a largely residential neighborhood.

The point that I failed to make is that the 12-foot travel lanes were a part of the travel speed problem.  Reducing the lane widths below 12 feet would have has the effect of slowing cars.  The reduction happens because drivers feel confined by the narrower lanes.  It’s a point of which I was well aware and on which I’ve previously written, but I’d become somnolent in my backrow seat

Despite whiffing on my chance at the hearing, the door for the comment remained open because the Planning Commission decided to seek additional input on several points and continued the hearing to a later date.  I used the second chance to chat with the City Engineer and several Planning Commissioners about my lane width thoughts.

The project returned for future consideration a few days ago.  I eagerly read the updated staff report to learn if there was any revised thinking on the lane widths.

I was moderately satisfied.  The staff report acknowledged the possible value of reduced widths and then took the decision away from the Planning Commission and instead made the City Engineer responsible for the final determination during his review of the construction drawings.  It was an approach in which I could see both good and not so good.

On one hand, I find the City Engineer a reasonable sort and I trust him to make good decisions.  Although I’ll also forward to him this post and my earlier one for his consideration.  Also, as a civil engineer, I’m always pleased when issues that are largely in the realm of engineering are determined by engineers and not by laypeople. 

But on the other hand, I wished there had been the opportunity for the Planning Commission to affirmatively endorse the concept of reduced lane widths as a traffic speed management tool in Petaluma.

With issue at rest until construction drawings, there wasn’t much reason for me to attend the hearing.  But I’m a sucker for the stuff, so again found myself hanging out in the backrow.

And I’m glad I did because another facet of travel lane widths arose.

Late in the hearing, as the Commission was homing in on their decision, a Commissioner, noting a pair of convenience stores directly across the street from the proposed apartment site and shown in the photo from the project site, suggested that children living in the apartments would occasionally visit the stores.  The Commissioner asked the City Engineer about the possibility of a painted crosswalk.

The City Engineer, correctly in my opinion, demurred.  He noted that drivers, because of a curve in the road, might not have a clear view of the crosswalk so would be prone to responding to it inadequately.  At the same time, the children might be emboldened by paint on the pavement and would be too quick to assume that the cars would honor it.  The result could be a more dangerous situation that without the crosswalk.

Another Commissioner then asked what the City Engineer believed children should do to reach the convenience stores.  He said that they should walk down the sidewalk to a nearby arterial, cross the street with the signal, and then walk back on the other side, a route that would add 1,000 feet to their route.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed the several Commissioners, and perhaps also the City Engineer, were uncomfortable with his answer but, without another solution to offer, the discussion moved onward.

At that point of the hearing, I had no opportunity to contribute to the discussion, but if I had, I would have said something like.

“Are you people kidding me?  Have none of you ever been kids?  Even if a child is willing to walk the extra 1,000 feet, his companions would call demean his timidity and pressure him into joining them in jaywalking.  And that peer pressure would be far mightier than any assumptions we make this evening about the walking routes children should follow.

“I know this instinctively because I remember being a kid.  And yes, I was more of a rule follower who had to be egged into pushing the envelope.  I’m only now catching up on the rebellions that I missed in my youth.

“And I’d be surprised if many of the Commissioners don’t have similar memories from their childhoods.

“But if we acknowledge that children will jaywalk and that the City Engineer is correct in nixing a crosswalk, what’s the alternative?

“It’s the tool that has already been given to the City Engineer in the staff report.  This is the chance for the Planning Commission to strongly encourage the City Engineer to make full use of that tool and to reduce the lane widths to 10-1/2 feet.

“At that width, the 85th percentile speed will drop from 38 mph to perhaps 32 mph.  At the lower speed, children would be more likely to see approaching cars, drivers would be more likely to see pedestrians, and, if the worst occurs and a pedestrian is hit, the likelihood of survival would be higher.

“Although not going as far as the Vision Zero folks, who target no pedestrian fatalities, or the Twenty is Plenty folks, who argue for 20 mph speed limits on many streets, would have us go, encouraging reduced lane widths and the resulting lower driving speeds is a firm step in their direction.

“Ultimately it comes down to what our roles as adults should be.  Should it be to piously tell kids not to make stupid choices so we can claim blamelessness when they do so anyway?  Or should it be to build a world in which kids can make stupid choices without spending the rest of their lives in a wheelchair or worse?  I vote for the latter.”

Perhaps I didn’t have the opportunity to make this plea, but I will continue to look for windows to push this perspective, both on this project and elsewhere.

In my next post, I’ll touch lightly upon the recent events in Paris.  Without claiming to be an expert on terrorism, I’ll note that there are aspects of the situation that bump against urbanism.

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

Monday, November 16, 2015

Induced Traffic, Congestion, and Peak Spreading Redux

I’ve written often about induced traffic and its near cousin congestion.  But they’re topics for which the lessons are non-intuitive and therefore bear frequent repetition.  There were times in my life when I would have looked askance at the concept of induced traffic and been in personal need of recurring lessons.  (I’ve learned to be more humble about my intuition.  The world is often more complex and counterintuitive than my instincts tell me.)

I’ve had conversations with folks to whom I carefully explained the phenomenon of induced traffic, including how it makes congestion almost impossible to solve.  The other parties nodded knowingly as I spoke, apparently following the thread of the argument just fine, and then, as their first question after I finished, asked “So what new roads must we build to solve congestion?”

Luckily, there are plenty of folks who are eagerly accepting the challenge of explaining induced traffic, including the answer that, within practical limits, there are no roads that will solve congestion.   (For the benefit of those in Petaluma, the answer has significant implications for the on-going Rainier Crossing discussion.)  Today, I’ll share the work of a couple of those folks.

Writing in Wired magazine, and a veteran of the Los Angeles freeways since early childhood, Stuart Dee reviews the current academic thinking on induced traffic, reporting the finding that traffic seems to increase in lockstep with newly constructed road miles.

As Dee summarizes the conundrum, “… we humans love moving around. And if you expand people’s ability to travel, they will do it more, living farther away from where they work and therefore being forced to drive into town.  Making driving easier also means that people take more trips in the car than they otherwise would.”

Dee’s solution is one that I’ve previously endorsed, congestion pricing, which is a modulated approach to a vehicle mileage tax.  Drivers, faced with a steep fee to drive through a particular location at a specific time, let’s say the financial district of San Francisco during the working day, will look for options to make their trip at another time.  If even just a few drivers adjust their trips, traffic congestion would ease and the streets would be more efficiently used for more hours of the day.

Looking at the same problem but from a different angle, Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns, based in Brainerd, Minnesota, likens a hierarchical road system, with local streets feeding onto collectors feeding onto arterials, to a water basin, with brooks feeding into streams feeding into rivers.

Marohn notes that downstream flooding is almost always the result of too much water escaping the upper elevations of the basin and overtopping the riverbanks in the lower elevations.  He then argues that the same is true of traffic systems, with too many trips congregating on the arterials where they become congestion.

The current regulatory approach to flooding is to require strict controls on the outflow from new development, typically through detention or retention.

Marohn contends that same approach would address congestion.  He argues that we need to build neighborhoods from which car trips never reach the arterials or in which daily tasks can be accomplished without cars.  In Marohn’s words, "For nearly seven decades, our national transportation obsession has been about maximizing the amount that you can drive.  We now need to focus on minimizing the amount you are forced to drive."  Luckily, we know how to do the latter.  It’s urbanism.

Two insightful writers with different life histories and different lifestyles looking at induced traffic and congestion and reaching similar and complementary solutions.  I use find that a sign of a fundamental truth, which beats the heck out of flawed intuition.

Before closing, I should note a related concept I recently came across.  At a public meeting of the Sonoma County Transit Agency, I asked a couple of SCTA planners and traffic engineers about their thoughts on induced traffic.  They admitted that their task was more the building of roads, but they were nonetheless well aware of the induced traffic phenomenon in their work.

But rather than calling it induced traffic, they called it “peak spreading”.  Their observation was the drivers who had time flexibility and an unwillingness to spend time in traffic adjust their travel times to drive or after the known peak time.  As a result, the duration of peak traffic gets longer over time.

I can confirm the description.  When my wife and I have a late afternoon appointment in Marin County, we make plans for dinner and perhaps shopping afterwards, preferring to burn a couple of hours rather than sitting in traffic.  We are induced not to travel during peak congestion and instead induced to travel at a slightly off-peak time.

And of course, the SCTA observation of peak spreading gives a window on the future when the third lane of 101 is built between Novato and Petaluma.  Rather than peak congestion diminishing, the principal effect will be reduction in its duration.  And then the duration will re-expand as induced traffic takes advantage of the new lane.

It’s a painful, but quite real, truth.  We’re not going to build our way out of congestion.  We’ve had a nearly hundred years of trying and it just doesn’t work.  Not only is the failure empirically evident, but we now have a theoretical basis that confirms the empiricism.  And we have solutions, in congestion pricing and urbanism, to better manage congestion.

Do I think that all readers now fully grasp induced traffic and the resulting congestion?  Nope, I know that counterintuitive realities take time to gain a foothold.  But I’ll keep sharing the work of engaging writers like Dee and Marohn and hope to someday have worn away the granite of flawed intuition.

In my next post, I’ll muse upon a discussion from a recent hearing I attended, a discussion that led me to think that too many of us have forgotten what it’s like to be a kid.

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

Friday, November 13, 2015

We’ll Talk About Murals, But Only After Transit

I promised that today’s post would be about the murals newly adorning American Alley in Petaluma.  And it will be, but only after I chat about a transit issue that is even more essential to the future of Petaluma.  It’s a challenge that will be faced by many North Bay communities in the coming year.

I sit on Petaluma’s Transit Advisory Committee.   As such, I’ve had a front row seat for the magic that the Petaluma Transit staff has worked over the past few years.  With less than two-an-a-half full-time employees, transit ridership had nearly tripled since 2010.  Rider satisfaction is increasing.  The bus maintenance facility was expanded.  And technology such as an automatic vehicle locating system for the buses is being rolled out.  (While the Transit Committee has made a handful of useful suggestions, most of the credit must go to the staff.)

But the most significant opportunity yet may now be arriving at the two Petaluma train stations.  Late in 2016, the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) will begin running trains between San Rafael and Santa Rosa.  With the Petaluma prospects for station parking ranging from inadequate to non-existent, with bike routes degraded by hazardous segments that deter casual riders, and with transit-oriented development still nothing more than a glimmer on the horizon, there is a potential deficiency in the delivery of passengers to the train stations.  Petaluma Transit may be able to help.

Furthermore, with the success of the SMART likely to span transit-oriented development and walkable connections into existing neighborhoods, Petaluma Transit’s ability to deliver passengers to the train, if it can make the train successful, could be a critical step toward a more urbanist future.

But Petaluma Transit is already heavily stretched in meeting its current obligations of serving the segments of the community that rely on local transit to live their daily lives.

And there are few if any resources evident to help Petaluma Transit stretch even further.  At one time, it was expected that SMART would help in funding shuttles between train stations and destinations such as places of work and residential districts, but the recession and the resulting reduced SMART-funding sales tax proceeds forced numerous cutbacks, including the length of the system, several stations, and any hope of train-connecting shuttles.

So the a large portion of the burden of delivering people to the Petaluma train stations will fall solely on  the Petaluma Transit, who will try to pull yet another rabbit or two of their hat.  (And perhaps the Transit Committee will again be able to provide a few constructive ideas.)

The Petaluma Transit planning effort is just getting underway, but there is a way that readers can help.  If you live in Petaluma and expect to ride the SMART train, even if only occasionally, you can respond to this poll about the location of your home, how often you expect to ride the train, and how you hope to reach the station.  Your assistance will be appreciated.  This may even be the beginning of a long-running dialogue about how to tackle this puzzle.

Okay, now we can move onward to murals.

I previously wrote about a proposal to paint eight murals along American Alley in downtown Petaluma.  The Petaluma Planning Commission saw the opportunity as I had, approving the murals unanimously after only a short conversation.  The murals were completed over the weekend of November 7 and 8.

I wasn’t able to visit downtown during the mural painting weekend, but recently walked the alley, camera in hand, on a weekday afternoon.

It was an insightful experience.  The murals were much as had been proposed to the City, so it was like seeing old friends to amble down the alley and to come upon each mural looking both familiar and new.  But those who might have expected the murals to transform the alley would have been disappointed.  It was the same old American Alley, still utilitarian and still slightly dirty and smelly, but now with a hint of promise.

As Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns explained in a webinar early this week, the best urbanism is the urbanism that evolves slowly over time, incremental step after incremental step.  Urbanism that is brought to life fully formed will wear thin uniformly and may not adequately induce reinvestment thirty years hence.  But urbanism that is built incrementally and ages on a range of schedules will always be able to justify upkeep and regeneration.

The murals are one of those incremental steps.  They don’t completely change the alley, but they encourage more people to wander down a slightly tawdry alley.  And some of those people will visit the handful of shops along the alley.  And building owners, noting the increasing pedestrian activity, will find nooks and crannies for yet more shops.  If, ten years from now, American Alley is a bustling place, the weekend the murals were painted may be seen as a key step in the history of the alleys.

And, as recently noted by Sarah Goodyear in CityLab, the murals can serve to mark the alley as off-limits to the disreputable handful who would deface it with graffiti.

My favorite mural is the mosaic.  It’s not so much the design as the material choice.  I like adding one more texture to the range of textures already filling the alley, from the rough bricks with aging grout to the worn concrete driving surface to the newer stucco walls.  The mosaic seemed to add a grace note.

I can’t recommend visiting to downtown Petaluma to see the murals.  They’re not that impressive on their own.  But there are enough interesting places to shop and to eat in downtown Petaluma that I can recommend an outing there.  And as a part of your adventure, you really should wander over to American Alley to check out the new artwork.

In my next post, I’ll return to the subject of induced traffic.  I recently came across an article that does a fine job of explaining the concept in layman terms.  And I had a conversation with the staff of the Sonoma County Transportation Agency who gave me a different way to look at the subject.

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Neighbors Can Have Great Ideas, But Shouldn’t Have Too Much Authority

My first land-use hearing speaking role was for a project that was also the largest of my career.  Almost 500 acres, 700 homes, a golf course, and a spectacular setting.   Although I can’t find the post right now, I’ve previously written about the walkable urbanist elements of the project, which were moderately acceptable at conception but leaked away during implementation.

At the hearing, the urbanist elements were still in the plan, but those elements, as laudable as they were, weren’t what captured my attention that evening.  It was the rancor of the neighborhood opposition.

Knowing the high level of interest in the hearing, the city had moved the hearing from the council chambers to the public works building.  Thus, the five-person development team, of which I was the junior member, found ourselves surrounded by two hundred noisy neighbors in an equipment bay that normally housed maintenance vehicles.

Even as the team made their presentation, the leader of the neighbors paced at the back of the room, gesturing with his clipboard like a rabid football coach, outside of sight from the hearing officer conducting the process but audible to many of the neighbors, making derisive comments about each presenter, and trying to build a frenzy.

When that time came for public comment, the outpouring was immediate.  The neighbors had grown accustomed to bike riding through the site to reach the national forest beyond.  The developer had engaged in shady practices elsewhere.  The neighbors enjoyed taking evening nature walks through the site.  The developer wasn’t local.  Despite what the studies showed and without an alternative factual argument, everyone knew the traffic would be horrendous.  The developer regularly broke promises.

The hearing officer listened politely, nodded occasionally, and, when he issued his decision a few weeks later, rejected virtually every argument made by the neighbors.

Frequently overwrought and unsubstantiated neighborhood reactions are an element of the land-use process that that concerns me for at least three reasons.  They seem to be gaining a stronger foothold in the land-use process to the detriment of our communities.  They can have unfortunate overtones of unsocial perspectives.  And they can result in reasonable and mutually-beneficial project adjustments being lost.  I’ll dig deeper into each.

Neighborhood objections are gaining a greater role in the land-use process.  CEQA, with its relatively low threshold for recourse to the court system, gives neighbors a potentially strong voice, if sometimes an undereducated role, in the process.  And developers, for whom time is literally money and wary of the CEQA-power potentially wielded by neighbors, will trim projects to avoid the CEQA recourse.  A frequent victim of the trimming is the lower-end residential units that would have reduced the displacement that can result from gentrification.

In addition to the CEQA concerns, there are more rumblings of giving veto power to neighbors for some types of land-use actions, enhancing the power of neighbors to halt projects despite a sometimes credible greater good.

On the social implications of neighborhood concerns, I’ll look back to the story of Yonkers, New York as recounted in the book and HBO show “Show Me a Hero”.  Under the Yonkers approach to land-use decisions, deference was given to the city councilmember in whose district a project would be located.  As most voters were opposed to public housing in their neighborhoods and most councilmembers were interested in reelection, all public housing was eventually located in the quadrant of the town that already had public housing and therefore wasn’t averse to more public housing.

It was a pattern that a federal court system eventually determined to be systemically racist, with the court forcing the city to take remedial action and leading to the story told in “Show Me a Hero”.  I understand that many neighbors who would look with a jaundiced eye at the idea of public housing in their neighborhoods aren’t covert racists, but if the result is a land-use pattern judged to be systemically racist, it’s a distinction without a difference.

On the last point, a frequent frustration during my career was having neighbors, in the heat of public testimony, offer ideas that truly would have benefited both the developer and the neighbors, but were quickly buried in a flood of opprobrium.

It was always fun to chat over beers with a developer after a long public meeting, reminding him of the speaker who impugned his character and his business practices and then to suggest that the speaker’s idea about realigning the road could benefit both the project and the neighborhood.

I was successful with a fair number of those conversations, but it was unfortunate that I had to first overcome the negative impression left by the speaker.

Looking at the biggest possible picture, I often think of a land-use decision as balancing the needs of three public constituencies, the neighborhood which will have to deal with the traffic, parking, visual, and noise impacts from the project, the community which has an interest in creating a more resilient and sustainable community, in minimizing infrastructure maintenance, and in having employees living as close to employment, schools, and shopping as possible, and the broader public which has a concern that resources, particularly those with climate change implications, are used efficiently.

Balancing those three constituencies isn’t easy or trivial.  Given the same set of facts, ten fair-minded individuals would likely come to ten different reasonable conclusions.

But balancing them is essential.  And when we give any of the parties unreasonable control, either through CEQA authority or through veto powers in zoning codes, we undermine that balance.

Do I have solutions to propose?  Not really.  I can’t think of any way to change the land-use process to remove the bumps I describe above.  But I can implore governing bodies to not give too much authority to neighbors, neighbors to be aware of the bigger picture, and applicants to look past the sometimes inflammatory rhetoric for the good ideas that may be tucked behind.  Building better communities requires us to work together.

Next time, I’ll follow up on the new murals in Petaluma’s American Alley.  The murals were completed last weekend to good reports.  I’ll wander down the alley with camera in hand and give my report.

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

Monday, November 9, 2015

People in Glass Houses Shouldn’t Complain about Public Pensions

In recent years, it seems that every ballot measure to bump municipal taxes in the North Bay has elicited comments like “I’m willing to pay more for better city services, but will vote against this tax increase for fear that my money will instead be spent on pensions.”

I understand the sentiment, but it misses the point.  Pension funding is already a legal commitment on California cities, a burgeoning financial obligation that hangs like a sword over the desk of every city manager and financial officer in the Golden State.  Whether or not a tax measure passes will have no impact on the financial hole already dug.  The only question is whether we choose to backfill some of the funds that were sucked toward pension funding by the recession.

Regular readers will likely recall my take on the recent history of municipal finance, including pensions.   I argue that the costs of suburbia were becoming an uncomfortable burden as early as the 1970s.  But rather than looking to the root causes, rabble-rousers such as Howard Jarvis grabbed the public spotlight by claiming that government inefficiency was the real problem and that taxes could be trimmed without harm.  The result was Proposition 13.

By the 1990s, the financial crunch had continued to worsen and, in the absence of enough folks pointing a finger at the flawed land-use model, local governments were becoming increasingly clever in looking for ways to offload near-term financial obligations.

Although somewhat later than the 1990s, a good example is former Governor Schwarzenegger constructing a deal to sell state office buildings for cash, with extended leases then signed for continued state use.  The arrangement would have effectively converted current assets into cash to pay current bills and debts to be paid by later Californians.   Upon entering office, Governor Brown promptly and justifiably quashed the plan.

But that quashing was the exception as various other schemes to push costs onto future generations moved ahead.  Among those were deferred maintenance, letting future folks pay the maintenance bills incurred by current use,  allowing new development to secure the impact fees without considering the long-term financial sustainability, and bonding for short-term needs.

To be clear, if the life of the improvement is the same as the life of the bonds, bonding is a fine approach for ensuring that the people who benefit from an improvement are the same as those who pay for it, e.g., 30-year bonds to pay for a water treatment plant with a design life of 30 years.  But issuing long-term bonds to pay for improvements that will provide all of their benefits in the early years is a scam played by the present on the future.

Another mechanism to give the benefits to the present while offloading costs to the future was pensions.  Faced with a lack of funds to give pay raises, and threatened with labor stoppages as a result, city governments in the 1990s gave expanded pension benefits in place of salary bumps.  It’s not that employees were eager for larger pensions.  It’s likely that most would have preferred bigger paychecks.  But pension benefits were offered instead and the employees were convinced to settle for those.

Of course, the pension payments made by cities were actuarially computed to fund the future pension benefits.  But those computations were subject to being upset by economic turmoil or longer lifespans, both of which have come to pass.  Thus, our cities now find themselves strapped into paying the benefits for municipal employee hours that were worked in 1990s.

I know that this explanation is somewhat ingenuous.  Not all of the municipal malaise that led to the pension debacle can be laid at feet of our land-use pattern.  Other factors such as the growing income divide, which leaves the many residents strapped for income and eager to believe arguments that allow them to keep their tax bills manageable, were also involved.

But the land-use pattern played a role.  Compared to other countries, the U.S. has an unusually large infrastructure value per capita combined with lower tax rates, so a cash crunch over infrastructure maintenance was predictable, as were creative and sometime dubious ways to manage that burden.

I know some who argue that we shouldn’t honor the pension obligation.  But there are two big arguments against that path.  The first is that the pension obligations are legal.  Perhaps we were swindled by our forebears, but they dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s.  Even more importantly, these are our friends and neighbors whom some suggest we shortchange on their retirement.  I find that suggestion unacceptable.

While the imposition of pension costs on us was legal, the morality was more dubious, but there’s not much we can do about it.  As many of those responsible for the deed have now left the stage, our only options for expressing our disappointment are to visit the cemetery to spit on gravestones or to stop by a senior living center to snatch away walkers, neither of which seems suitable.

So, even as we struggle to pay the bills left to us by others, at least we enjoy the dubious pleasure of knowing we occupy the moral high ground, right?

Well, maybe not.  After all, is our generation doing much to address the land-use model that is the cause of much of our financial distress?  Not really.

It’s true that urbanism is gaining ground, with walkable communities and transit-oriented development a growing element of the land plans of many communities.  But much of that change is the result of market demand or directives from higher levels of government.  Except for a few lonely voices, there are few calls in city halls to change the land use model that has led us to our current state.

So, even as we decry the debts left to us by the past, we’re busy leaving debts to the future.  We’re continuing to build infrastructure for which the incremental tax revenues are insufficient to maintain.  We’re doing little to retrofit past land uses to make them more financially sustainable.  And on a national level, there are many who follow policies that would widen the income gap.

About the only change we’ve made is giving reduced pensions to new public employees, which may be justifiable, but is attacking the wrong end of the problem.

We’ve done nothing to justify acting morally offended.

Ironic, isn’t it?

P.S. In case any are wondering about my credentials to argue these points, or whether I’m a late convert to the cause who was a long-time part of the problem, my history is moderately good.

Even as a brand new homeowner in 1978, still trying to figure out how to cover the bills, I argued strenuously against Proposition 13.  I didn’t have the grasp of the facts that I do now, but something about the facile arguments of Howard Jarvis struck me as false.  I was sure that city halls weren’t perfect, but neither did I believe that they were an inept as Jarvis argued.

More recently, I’ve often expressed concern with the fixed pension model.  Watching old-line U.S. industrial powers succumb to pension plans, I worried about the impacts it might have elsewhere.

So my arguments above aren’t the result of a late conversion, but of decades of questioning the conventional wisdom.

Having placed myself securely on my philosophical soapbox, I’ll remain there for my next post.  I’ll opine on the role of neighborhood input into land-use actions.

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

Friday, November 6, 2015

Looking Where StrongTowns Points to Spot a Rara Avis

Those who have spoken with me about municipal government have likely heard one of my favorite sayings, “If your city manager and planning director aren’t at risk of being fired at least once a year, they’re not doing enough to make your city a better place.”

Like most good aphorisms, it contains a grain of truth along with a dose of exaggeration.  Productive city employees shouldn’t be expected to continually skate near the edge of termination.  Not only would excessive changes be disruptive to city halls, but employees, no matter their position, are human beings, with human concerns about supporting spouses with community ties, taking care of children trying to enjoy their high school years, and not risking retirement vesting.

Furthermore, innovation should not be encouraged only at the top, but should spring from everywhere in city halls, with everyone from the city manager to the custodians encouraged to offer ideas to improve city services.

Nonetheless, we need city managers and other folks near the top of municipal organization charts to be particularly alert to new ideas.  Thus, I was intrigued when StrongTowns offered a link to an audio interview with the city manager of a small town in Kansas who had become a devotee of the StrongTown message.

I’ve often written about StrongTowns, a Minnesota non-profit that decries the unsustainable costs of suburban sprawl and advocates for a cautious approach to municipal growth and finance.  In their words, a StrongTown is one that “is obsessive about accounting for its revenues, expenses, assets, and long term liabilities.  Their mission statement concludes with “We’ve run out of money.  It’s now time to start thinking.”

Readers not yet familiar with StrongTowns are encouraged to download their Curbside Chat booklet, which lays out the StrongTowns philosophy in a simple but comprehensive form.

I may not agree with every conclusion reached by the StrongTowns folks, but I heartily support their overall approach to municipal management.  Many of my posts are linked on their website.  And I’ve belonged to StrongTowns long enough that I’m included in their Founders’ Circle

The audio is StrongTowns founder Chuck Marohn interviewing Toby Dougherty, the City Manager of Hay, Kansas.  Hays, a city of 21,000, is described as the largest city in northwest Kansas, which says a lot about northwest Kansas relative to the Bay Area.  (The photo shows the view from the Rooftop Restaurant in Hays and is from the website

The interview runs 52 minutes, so may go beyond the attention span of some readers.  But I’ll share my listening experience in the hope that it gives a flavor.

Not being good at single-tasking, especially if the task is staring into space while listening to an audio interview, I soon found myself engaged in tidying up emails when listening with half attention to Marohn and Dougherty drone on about the Hays as a regional center and home to Fort Hays State University.

And then suddenly I was caught up short.  Dougherty was talking about the need for his town to be financially sustainable and to reject development that wouldn’t generate enough property tax revenue to support its long-term maintenance.  He was talking straight from the StrongTowns playbook.

I knew there were a few StrongTowns believers in city halls.  I’ve met and listened to some at the Congress for the New Urbanism annual meetings.  But those encounters were like looking at birds in captivity.  I was pleased to know that the folks existed, but away from their natural setting the impact was muted.

Listening to a city manager talking the StrongTowns line, perhaps sitting with his feet on his city hall desk in a small Kansas town, was far more real.  It was like stumbling across a ruby-throated warbler singing its song directly to me in the heart of the woods.  Yes, StrongTowns, by interviewing Dougherty, had pointed him out to me, but there was still an electric thrill of discovery.  And it was great.

My favorite moment was when Dougherty talked about how, after long puzzling over contemporary city finances, he came across the Curbside Chat, found the message compelling, and forwarded the link to the City Attorney.  At 1:30am the next morning, the City Attorney emailed back a simple “Duh.”  And just like that there were two StrongTown converts in the Hays City Hall.

As homework, those who aren’t yet familiar with StrongTowns are strongly encouraged to download and to read through the Curbside Chat.  For those with 52 minutes to spare, extra credit is available for those who listen to the Toby Dougherty interview.  But even for those without the 52 minutes, please take my word that there is something thrilling about hearing the StrongTowns message coming from the plains of Kansas.   It gives hope.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the relationship between underfunded pension obligations and urbanism.  I’ve often written that the pension difficulties are a sign of the suburban mistake, but I’ve recently come to a further conclusion about an ethical relationship between pension debt and urbanism.

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