Friday, February 5, 2016

Reconciling Urbanist Road Maps

Homes a walkable distance from downtown Buffalo
In news that will likely come as a surprise to many, the name of this blog is “Where Do We Go from Here?”  Seriously, it is.  If you’re looking at my home blog site, you’ll see the name at the top of page.  Blue letters on a black background.

Over the years, it seems that many folks have either never noted the name or long forgotten it.

The most recent reminder came during a conversation at a downtown grocery store with a long-time reader and a friend of his to whom he introduced me.  He recommended my blog to his friend and asked me to provide a web address.  When I started with “Where Do We Go from Here?”, he looked at me in puzzlement.  The name was unknown to him.

Nor is he a casual reader.  For about a year, I co-published my posts on an environmental collaboration website developed by him and his wife.  But the name of the blog had never made an impression.

I suppose I could take perverse pride in being among the wrong brand-builders ever.  But, to the extent I think about it at all, I assume that regular readers have become more connected to me than to the title I selected, which doesn’t seem a bad thing.

Because I remain hopeful of finding others to write posts for “Where Do We Go from Here?”, I should probably put more effort into branding the name, but there have always been higher tasks on my priority list.

Regardless, I remain comfortable with the name because it conveys my concern about extricating ourselves from the drivable suburban mess.  Indeed, I also remain committed to my even more forgotten secondary title of “Tomorrow, Next Month, and a Hundred Years from Now” because it highlights that urbanism must progress on multiple fronts, from riding transit tomorrow to voting for urbanist candidates next month to thinking critically about what our communities could look like in 2116.

I mention the mostly-invisible name of my blog because it has a point of intersection with something said by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns during his recent visit to the North Bay.

As reconstructed from my sketchy notes, his comment was “People ask me what city planning we should be doing to address the problems of sprawl.  I tell them that I don’t know what to do.  No civilization has ever gotten into this spot.”

Well, that’s awkward.  Marohn, who has built a nation-wide following of folks who listen eagerly to his thinking on building stronger towns, admits that he lacks a road map.  At the same time, I’ve been busily advising folks thrice-weekly for years on what steps to take.

But when I look deeper, I don’t think that what Marohn and I are saying is that different.

I think Marohn’s message is that neither he nor anyone else can map out every step between where we are now and the complete remediation of the failed drivable suburban experiment.  We’re in an unprecedented situation and anyone who thinks they can present a detailed path to recovery is talking nonsense.

But at the same time, as evidenced by his call for incremental action, he believes that we should start moving, even if we’re working with a close horizon in terms of knowing future steps.

Although I put the emphasis slightly differently, I believe much the same thing.  Although I’m not as fully wedded to incrementalism as Marohn, finding that bigger, more comprehensive steps are sometimes unavoidable, I also believe that we need to start moving, which is the primary message of “Where Do We Go from Here?”

At the same time, I know that we can’t possibly predict where the recovery from drivable suburbia will end up.  Just to pick one example, there are at least six different paths along which autonomous cars might take us, starting with the dichotomy between continued private ownership of car versus shared utility, each of which will have an impact on future land-use configurations.  But I still think there is value is having a best guess about what the future will be, as a rough double-check on the validity of our smaller steps.

Ultimately, I don’t think that what Marohn and I are saying is that much different.  We just choose to focus on different aspects of the challenge before us.  And given the unprecedented nature of the challenge, it’s not surprising that we find alternative words to express the same perspective.

I expect that we’d both admit ignorance to exactly where we’ll end up, but believe absolutely that we need to start moving that direction, as inconsistent as that may sound.

For my next post, I’ll stay with StrongTowns.  In a recent webinar, I submitted an imperfectly worded question to Marohn, with the flaw allowing him to deflect the issue I was trying to raise.  When I next write, I’ll correct my inexact wording and more fully explore the question I was trying to pose.

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

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Watching a Towering Surf of Common Sense Crash Against an Adamantine Cliff of Codes and Regulations

Crossing location
A few days ago, I wrote about an upcoming hearing on a proposed at-grade crossing in Santa Rosa.

The proposed crossing would confirm and reopen an existing pedestrian/bicycle connection between the two halves of Jennings Avenue, passing over railroad tracks that were recently returned to use.  It was a crossing that, although never official, had long served as a route between homes, businesses, and schools on both sides of the track.

During the many years that the tracks were unused, no one had taken notice of the crossing.  But with freight service and now SMART trains returning to the tracks, the crossing had become a concern for the California Public Utility Commission.  After considering options, including the possibility of an $8.2 million separated grade bridge, the City of Santa Rosa applied for approval of an at-grade crossing.

In the earlier post, I advocated for the at-grade crossing.  I also expressed concern that the rule-bound rigidity of the process was so time-consuming that many of the students who could have used the crossing to reach elementary school will have driver’s licenses before a decision is rendered.

I attended the hearing two evening ago.  Nothing in the process caused me to change either earlier assessment.  But I nonetheless came away feeling optimistic about people and about urbanism.

I felt energized because I watched a neighborhood of modest means and little influence rally together in large numbers and with enthusiasm to argue for an amenity that they found essential to the well-being of their lives.  And also because the amenity that the neighborhood wanted was walkable urbanism.  It was a naturally occurring, unselfconscious advocacy for a more walkable urban world.  And that makes me happy.

On my way to the hearing, I stopped by the location of the proposed crossing.  The sun and fence didn’t allow a good photo of the tracks, but the signage was clear enough to give a mirthless chuckle.

Detour sign
The City, responding to the closure by the PUC, suggested a walk-around of 0.6 miles and 15 to 20 minutes to replace the crossing, a length of walk that usually deters walking.  And that’s without noting that a segment of the recommended walk would be along a five-lane arterial without a sidewalk, for which the walking route is a narrow sliver of bare dirt behind a curb and perched above a steep slope declining to a creekbed.

Give a moment to ponder that.  The PUC is suggesting that students on their way to elementary school walk on a two-foot dirt path between quickly moving cars and sometimes quickly moving water.  And they make that suggestion for the sake of public safety.

It was with that absurdity still vibrating in my head that I arrived at the hearing.

The evening opened with the City summarizing the steps to date, the different alternatives that were considered, the environmental process that was followed, and the application to the Public Utility Commission for the at-grade crossing.  The location of the elementary school west of the tracks and the growing number of elementary school students living east of the tracks were also noted.  It was an unexciting, but factual and necessary, summary.

An engineer for the Safety and Enforcement Division of the PUC then made what was the most unhelpful presentation of the evening.  He noted that the PUC policy is to reduce the number of at-grade crossings, that many more deaths occur at at-grade crossings than at separated grade crossings, and that the City should have pursued the $8.2 million separated grade crossing when the funds might have been available.

It was a presentation which left a wealth of unanswered questions.  Would people actually use the separated grade crossing or would they revert to cars?  Would students cut the fences and continue crossing at grade, without the safety measures?  How would the City justify plopping an $8.2 million dollar concrete structure into the middle of a residential neighborhood, a physical juxtaposition that would much like plopping a tyrannosaurus rex into a petting zoo?  Were the fatality totals adjusted for the deaths that were ruled suicides?

It was a perfect example of a solution that looked at the problem through a pinhole rather in its entirety, which is the antithesis of good urbanism.  Luckily, the neighborhood effectively destroyed most of his arguments as the evening continued.

Acknowledgement: Due to my poor stenography skills, the following “quotes” are imprecise.  I’ve assuredly missed words and probably even combined the sentiments of multiple speakers.  But, regardless of attribution, all of the points below were made during the public comments, which began with City representatives and elected officials, and then continued with neighborhood residents.

“The crossing, although never approved, has been in use since the late 19th century, predating cars.  And not one single fatality has been experienced in that century plus.”

“Speaking as a wheelchair user, I could never climb the separated grade crossing and would be isolated unless an at-grade crossing is provided.”

“As a parent, I’d never let my child use the separated grade crossing because they couldn’t see around the corners and wouldn’t know what dangers might be waiting for them.”

“If we want to reduce greenhouse gases, we must provide useful walkable solutions.”

“As a researcher on the issues of a post-carbon world, we need to encourage pedestrians by providing facilities that meet their needs.”

“I’m now 46 years old, but remember being a student at this school and crossing the tracks with friends on a Saturday afternoon to see movies.”

“Listening to the speakers this evening, we’re hearing common sense swamping rules.”

“If we wish to encourage seniors to give up driving when they’re no longer safe behind the wheel, we must provide walkable alternatives.”

“The at-grade crossing has been in multiple City of Santa Rosa plans, from the General Plan down, for many years.”

“The concern with the railroad tracks is 32 trains per day.  But nearby Dutton Avenue, which students also cross while walking to school, has 32 cars every 110 seconds during morning peak.  And the cars will be traveling faster than the trains.  Are we even asking the right question?”

While none of the speakers may have been overly eloquent, the overall voice of the neighborhood was highly eloquent.

The remaining question is whether that eloquent voice will be heard.  After the now completed hearing, which was targeted toward collecting public comments, a more rigorous evidentiary hearing, complete with testimony and cross-examination, will be held in San Francisco in mid-April.  PUC staff will then draft an order for consideration by the full Commission during the summer.  Overall it seems a welter of decision-making in which the desires of the neighborhood might be lost.

Having little prior experience with the PUC process, I don’t know what to expect as a final result, but hope that a neighborhood arguing with a unified voice for an urbanist solution won’t be lost to a blind reliance on rules that shouldn’t apply to a changing world.

I’ll keep you advised.

I recently glanced at my notes from the recent StrongTowns/Urban3 visit to the North Bay.  I spotted a quote from Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns that I’d written down, but somehow still not really heard.  Coming across it again, it spoke to me in a whole new way, with deep implications about urbanism.  I’ll ruminate in my next post.

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

Monday, February 1, 2016

Supporting SMART by Attacking the Last Mile with Buses

Petaluma Transit bus in downtown Petaluma
In a few days, I’ll help introduce some clever and insightful ideas of others, proving one more time that it’s better to be associated with clever people than to be clever oneself.

My opportunity to bask in the reflected glow of others will come when I chair a meeting of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  At the meeting, the staff of Petaluma Transit will introduce ideas for adjusting bus routes.  The proposed realignments have the goal of better positioning Petaluma to embrace SMART, the upcoming regional commuter train.

(For those not in the North Bay, SMART stands for Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit.  The SMART train, which is scheduled to begin revenue service later this year, will initially run from San Rafael in the heart of Marin County to Santa Rosa in the heart of Sonoma County, with stops at cities in between.  Further extensions and more stations are being planned.)

Conducting the Transit Committee meeting will be my latest step in nearly four decades of awareness of a crucial transit challenge.

After those four decades, I don’t remember if it was by luck or design, but I often had convenient, walkable connections to transit during my commuting days.

I can cite two noteworthy examples.  I owned a home from which I had a half-mile walk along an asphalt shoulder to a BART station, with a two-block walk to my downtown San Francisco office after the ride.  I quickly fell in love with the commuting routine and often didn’t touch my car between weekends.

From there, I moved to a home from which I had a quarter-mile walk along a tree-lined path to a King County Metro bus stop, with a one-block walk to my downtown Seattle office after the ride.  For my first several months in that house, I didn’t own a car.

Those were good years.  But those situations are not typical.  Because our cities have been allowed to sprawl in all directions under the drivable suburban paradigm, many folks don’t have convenient access to the transit facilities by which they might otherwise conduct their daily lives.

Transit managers call this challenge the “last mile problem”.  Commuters might be willing to ride SMART from San Rafael to Santa Rosa, finding appeal in the possibility of answering emails or reading the morning paper during their commute rather than watching the brake lights of the car in front.  But if they live or work at an inconvenient distance from the SMART stations, the appeal can quickly wane.

There are many ways to tackle the last mile.  Walking, bicycling, driving and parking, and private car drop-offs are all solutions that can have applicability.  But each also has negatives, from walks of lengths beyond the comfort level of many, to the fear of bicycling on crowded streets, to the desire of communities to have highly productive land uses near transit stations, to the congestion caused by drop-offs.

Feeder buses and shuttles can also be used to address the last mile problem, but have their own downsides.  Riding a bus to a train station is a “multi-modal commute”.  It has been historically difficult to secure ridership for multi-modal commutes.  In a world in which transit is competing with private cars, a walk to a bus stop followed by a wait for the bus followed by another wait at the train station can soon seem unattractive compared to hoping into a car and driving directly to a destination.

Thus, if feeder buses are to provide a useful function, they must collect riders near where they live or work, must run frequently enough and on a sufficiently stable schedule that riders feel confident in the bus arrivals, and be sufficiently coordinated with the train operation such that the riders have only a short walk to a platform at which a train will soon arrive.

In looking at how to make Petaluma Transit meet these goals, the staff tapped a number of resources from reviewing ridership data collected by recently implemented Automatic Vehicle Location software to polling the community about where SMART riders would originate to looking at projected land-use patterns.

Proposed realignment of Route 5
After mixing and matching the data, the transit staff proposed a new bus stop near the SMART station along with modifications to current Routes 1, 5, and 24.  (As an aside to my Twitter followers, you may remember a recent Sunday morning when I was forced to defend the honor of Petaluma Transit against barbs from around the country directed at the drunken sailor path of Route 24.  My primary response was that the route was a temporary response to a land-use action that had ignored transit.  Sure enough, Route 24 would be tidied up under the current proposals.)

The modified routes would serve a number of anticipated SMART riders, from numerous westside residents who have told Petaluma Transit about their plans to ride SMART to St. Vincent High School students who live in Marin County and plan to ride SMART to Petaluma.

Of course, the modifications also have negatives, from tapping reserves to reducing service to a major shopping center.  Particularly painful to transit staff is ending convenient service to residents of a senior living community who have only recently become enthusiastic transit riders.  But within the limited funding typically available to transit agencies, hard choices must always be made.

The current proposals may not be the realigned routes that are eventually adopted.  Everyone involved remains open to further ideas.  But the current proposals are a powerful step toward making SMART successful.  Credit is due to the Petaluma Transit staff who are bringing them forward.

All are welcome to attend the meeting of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, whether to learn more about the route modifications or to become part of the process.  The meeting will be held on Thursday, February 4, convening at 4:00pm.  The committee meets in the Council Chambers at Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street.  I hope to see many familiar and new faces.

In my last post, I wrote about the upcoming hearing of the California Public Utility Commission on the proposed Jennings Avenue pedestrian crossing over the SMART tracks.  In my next post, I’ll provide a post-hearing update.

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

Friday, January 29, 2016

Making Good Urbanist Decisions with Less Kerfuffle

Typical pedestrian rail crossing
Coming up in days is a public hearing in Santa Rosa on a proposed Jennings Avenue pedestrian crossing of the railroad tracks.  The hearing is worth the attention of those who support walkable urbanism.  But urbanists should also be concerned about the extended process that led to the hearing, a process conducted under rules that result in tortuous advances and a too frequent reliance on the automobile as the default solution.

I’ll write first about the automobile dependence.

Among the many problems that the drivable suburban paradigm has bestowed upon us, such as climate change and municipal financial dysfunction, is a decision-making process in which proposed solutions are too often reliant on the automobile.

Concerned about the noise of a manufacturing plant interfering with the quiet of residential neighborhoods?  Put the industrial zoning at the urban fringe, buffered from homes, with the unavoidable result that employees will all drive there.

Unsure about making repairs to aging and overcrowded schools?  Combine several schools into a new supersized campus at the outskirts of town, with provision for the drop-off for the children who now must be delivered by car.

Unhappy with the occasional traffic jam in the downtown core?  Add traffic lanes even if the additional pavement saps the pedestrian vitality of the district.

Three perceived problems.  Three heavy-handed automobile-oriented solutions, none of which are urbanist and all of which promulgate the drivable suburban paradigm.

Even worse, these solutions, as ill-conceived as they are, are usually the result of an increasingly burdensome and lengthy process that is designed to spit out the least objectionable answer rather than the best solution.  I usually point to CEQA as the prime villain in the process, but the state and local approval processes that run parallel to the CEQA process are scarcely better.

To be clear, I don’t object to the increased environmental and public participation elements of the CEQA and parallel processes.  But I’m deeply concerned with the time they require and the often unsatisfactory and auto-oriented results.

Today’s case in point, that illustrates both the automobile reliance and the slow process, is the proposed Jennings Avenue pedestrian crossing in Santa Rosa, near the coming Guerneville Road SMART station.  The crossing is currently enmeshed in the CEQA and approval processes.

The automobile connectivity of Jennings has long been severed by the railroad tracks.  But for many years the opportunity to clamber over the tracks and to save a detour of more than a half-mile was irresistible for pedestrians and bicyclists heading to the nearby junior college, elementary school, or regional mall.  Daily counts of more than a hundred crossings were noted.

As long as the tracks were unused, the casual trespassing wasn’t an issue.  But with freight use of the tracks now reestablished and with SMART revenue service beginning later this year, the Jennings Avenue crossing moved into the spotlight, with one of the first steps being fences that blocked the access and forced many to rely on cars for trips that had previously been completed on foot.

Walkable urbanists responded to the closure and quickly noted the need for a pedestrian crossing, designed like the one shown in the photo.  But the rules of the California Public Utility Commission weren’t ready to accommodate that solution.

The CPUC interpreted their precedent as a no net gain standard, requiring closure of another approved crossing before allowing an approved crossing at Jennings.  When the crossing to be closed was identified in another neighborhood, the residents and business owners in that neighborhood quickly objected, some even retaining attorneys to argue their side.

A pedestrian overcrossing at Jennings was suggested as a workaround.  But the estimated cost was $8.2 million, with the likelihood that the city would lack the funds for maintenance  and the probability that many pedestrians and bicyclists would object to the long climb and descent, instead cutting the fence and continuing to cross the tracks at grade.  Perhaps luckily, the construction funds never became available.

Eventually, a CEQA EIR was initiated, with its hundreds of pages of project descriptions, comments, and responses, adults arguing as children continued to be blocked by fences denying them the freedom of crossing the tracks and expanding their world.

Both within the EIR process and outside of it, the neighbors voiced comments in support of the pedestrian crossing.

“My friend and I live on opposite sides of the tracks, and we like to visit each other’s homes often.  We are climbing over the fence because we don’t want to walk a half-mile to see one another.”

“The new fence requires cyclists from west Jennings to ride on Dutton, which is a very busy street, to reach Coddingtown; the bike/pedestrian pathway along the SMART Tracks no longer works for them.”

“For years we have walked across the tracks to get from our home to the Coddingtown shops.  It’s safer to cross the tracks at Jennings than walking along Dutton to Guerneville Rd.  The sidewalks along Dutton expose us to a lot of turning traffic, and drivers seem unaware of pedestrians.”

Despite the strong neighborhood support for the crossing, the process still moved forward at a stultifying pace.  But a milestone has been reached.  After years of preamble, the CPUC will hold a public hearing on Monday, February 1 at the Helen Lehman School, 1700 Jennings Avenue, Santa Rosa.  The hearing will begin at 7:00pm.

I intend to be there.  Whether or not I speak, I’ll be there in support of the pedestrian crossing.  But my bigger issue will continue to be the time it took us to get this far.  And the extent to which car travel became the default solution during the process.

It’s often said of the criminal justice system that “Justice delayed is justice denied.”  And it’s true.  Someone who lives under a cloud of pending prosecution for three years before being exonerated has still lost three years during which the full vitality of life has been denied.

The same can be said of land-use actions.  A good solution three years hence is worth less than a good solution today.  Imagine a sixth-grader, beginning to spread her wings and to experience the world beyond parental oversight.  Perhaps the wing-spreading includes walking to school by herself, including a careful crossing of the railroad tracks.

Now imagine that the crossing is denied to her for several years as adult battle under their arcane rules, during which time her parents continue to give her rides to school.  By the time the issue is decided, she has lost that first breath of walkable independence and instead remained car-dependent.  Personal growth has been lost and may never be reclaimed.  A potential urbanist has been stunted.

If the Jennings Avenue crossing matters to you, please attend on Monday.  But even more importantly, if you’re troubled by the process to which this matter has been subjected, continue to work toward changing the rules to allow more expedient solutions and to default less often to the automobile as a band aid.

In my next post, I’ll write about the “last mile” problem, the Achilles heel of transit systems.  People may have an interest in using transit for daily activities, but can be deterred if there is a difficult final link between the transit stop and their destination.  There are many solutions to the last mile problem, from transit-oriented development to improved walkability to allowing bikes on transit.  The staff at Petaluma Transit has been working to address the problem with well-targeted bus routing.  Their ideas will soon be rolled out for public comment.  I’ll give details when I next write.

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

You Can’t Have Any More Toys Until You Take Care of the Ones You Already Own

Alignment of proposed Rainier Connector
Consistent with their goal of promoting stronger, more financially resilient communities, StrongTowns has launched an initiative targeted toward transportation planning.   It’s a topic with which I have long familiarity.

A decade or more ago, my since-departed father noted to me that, for the first time in the better part of a century since highways and freeways were first conceived, Caltrans had no new freeway routes on their drawing boards.  There were improvements to existing routes in design, but any new routes remained in advance planning, years from design and construction, if they ever progressed that far.

Although he’d spent his career in freeway bridge design and construction, I don’t think my father was unhappy with the new status, but he was perplexed by it.  As a post-war hire at Caltrans, he’d been inculcated in the vision that there would always be new freeways to build, making Californian lives ever more convenient and freedom-filled.

His belief in that vision had perhaps begun to weaken, but it was still a change in perspective to realize that no new California freeways would likely open during the remaining years of his life.

I can appreciate his disorientation.  This past summer, I chatted with a high school classmate about our shared hometown, a car-oriented suburb of Sacramento.  We shared recollections of extensive freeway projects that were planned to slice and dice our community during our school years, although none of the projects ever came into being.  For those who aren’t of a certain age, and my high school days were 45 years ago, it’s hard to grasp the certainty we once had that freeway expansion was inevitable and would continue forever.

Given what we now know about the difficulties of funding the long-term maintenance of freeways, it’s a good that that the freeway romance cooled when it did.  But, like many ill-fated romances, it went on too long and left behind too many hard-to-break habits.

For one, even if we’re no longer envisioning four controlled-access lanes from Santa Rosa to Sonoma or from Novato to West Marin, we still spend too many of our transportation dollars on freeway widening and interchange projects, adding to the maintenance burden for the future by providing new improvements to be maintained and by not directing the now available dollars to current maintenance needs.

The problem is we justify these improvements based on the new traffic that was induced by the initial freeway construction and will soon find the new capacity similarly consumed by induced traffic, leaving us no better off.

As an example, I recently wrote of nearly $200 million in freeway improvements currently underway near Petaluma, even as the transportation system within the town continues to unravel.

As another ill-advised habit, even when we don’t look to freeways for urban and suburban traffic solutions, we still build wide arterials expecting them to solve traffic problems, only to again be stymied by induced traffic while digging deeper maintenance holes.

Recognizing the fatal popularity of ever more and ever wider roads, and concerned about the ever deepening maintenance burden being created, StrongTowns is kicking off a NoNewRoads program, highlighting the need to develop reasonable and fundable plans to maintain the roads we already have before adding more roads, lanes, or interchanges.

It won’t be an easy battle to win, as exemplified by a local chapter of the American Planning Association, folks who really should know better, giving an urban design award to a freeway interchange which isn’t urban and doesn’t make much accommodation for either pedestrians or bicyclists.  A list from Eric Jaffe from CityLab of the twelve worst freeway projects now under consideration across the country further emphasizes the extent to which we’re enamored with freeways.

As if on cue, Governor Jerry Brown, in his State of California message, noted the need for extensive freeway maintenance work.  His staff estimated that there is $77 billion of work to be done in his state alone.  (For those reaching for calculators, that would be about $2,000 for every one of the 38.8 million Californians, or about $5,000 for an average household.  It’s not an impossible burden, but still a significant chunk and doesn’t include other infrastructure elements such as water, sewer, and storm drainage.)

Consistent with his laudable goal to build a rainy day fund to tide California through the next economic challenge, Brown refused to make any of the current budget surplus available to tackle the deferred maintenance, instead calling for new fees.  (As someone who came of age during Brown’s first two terms as California Governor, with the signature of the man then known as Governor Moonbeam on both of my university diplomas, it’s odd to see Brown as the most mature adult in the room.)

At the other end of the spectrum, a Petaluma Councilmember wrote an editorial in the local paper (link not yet available) exulting that the funds had been assembled to proceed with the construction of the Rainier Connector, an arterial project that will someday be a logical connection within the city’s transportation system, especially given its proximity to the Petaluma Transit bus yard, but seems woefully premature given the state of the city’s streets.

Celebrating funding for the Rainier Connector is akin to bragging about bringing home a new car to a frontyard filled with aging cars disabled for the lack of new tires and fuel water pumps.

I applaud StrongTowns for their NoNewRoads efforts and will support them with enthusiasm.  But I’ll also note that success, at least in the near term, seems unlikely.  Perhaps we’re no longer looking at building new freeways through every city and town, but the remnants of that attitude are still deeply entrenched.

Next time, I’ll switch to pedestrian advocacy, writing about an upcoming hearing in Santa Rosa that casts a light on how we view alternative pedestrian risks and how we should facilitate more pedestrian activity.

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

Monday, January 25, 2016

StrongTowns Has Gone Home: On-Going Thoughts

View from plaza in downtown Healdsburg
After a productive series of North Bay meetings, the principals from StrongTowns and Urban3 have gone home, but not before seeding the North Bay with ideas about further steps toward an urbanist, financially sustainable, climate change moderating future.

Below, I offer a few thoughts about what happened and what can happen next.

Thought #1 – Who Was Missing from the Room: About 18 months ago, I attended a meeting of the Petaluma City Council.  My reason for attending that particular night was the discussion about an upcoming ballot measure for an infrastructure-funding sales tax bump.

Of course, that wasn’t the only agenda item of the evening.  To begin the meeting were several proclamations, including one for a youth sports team.

So I found myself in the Council Chambers before the meeting began, a few seats away from a group of parents eager for their children to be honored by the Mayor and Council.  One father seemed particularly energized by the recognition to be given to his child and her teammates.

One of the other parents asked the father if he intended to stay for the remainder of the meeting.  He asked what was on the agenda.  The sales tax discussion was noted.  He huffed, “I don’t need to listen to that crap.  We all know that the City has plenty of money to fix the streets and doesn’t do it only because the corrupt Council has their hands in the till.”

True to his words, he proudly took pictures of his child and teammates with the Mayor and Council and then departed.

Even after setting aside the mental aberration of finding pleasure in your child being honored by the Mayor while also considering a Mayor a crook, this was clearly a voter who needed to listen to the StrongTowns/Urban3 material with an open mind.

I know that if every North Bay voter who has described their city council as corrupt would have come to the Bike Monkey in Santa Rosa last week, the capacity of the building would have been burst many times over.  But I’m still frustrated that there are citizens who vote from positions of ignorance and yet would have never considered attending last week.

I’m not setting up myself as a paragon of education and enlightenment.  But I’ll acknowledge the gaps in my knowledge and work toward filling those, whether by meeting attendance, reading, or inquiry, before voting or participating in the public arena.  I wish others would strive for the same standard.

(For those few readers who might have wandered into this post through a side door, I should explain that StrongTowns and Urban3 argue that a major source of municipal budget distress is the result of how we’ve financed growth starting after World War II.  One may quibble with some of the details of their thinking, but what they offer is a lot more believable than the alternative proposition that the council in every city experiencing financial distress, which is the great majority, is dishonest.)

For another example of the lack of public knowledge, check out this article in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat written before the meetings of last week.  The article itself is fine, but the comments will make you weep.

There are no easy answers for raising the level of the public discourse.  But for those who have developed informed opinions on the questions of municipal finance, an essential step is sharing their thinking with friends and neighbors.  And encouraging those friends and neighbors to attend if StrongTowns returns to the North Bay.

Thought #2 – Meeting the Burden of Proof: In casual conversation after the first meeting last week, several folks who were largely new to the StrongTowns thinking expressed to me their general support for the philosophy, but noted that several points in the logic were underdeveloped or glossed over.  I generally agreed with them.  And when I attended sessions later in the week, I grimaced a bit when I noted logical omissions or glosses.  My concerns were first cousins to the quibbles about which I wrote last week.

It’s reasonable to wish for a theory in which one believes to be proved as rigorously as possible.  Nonetheless, I was wrong to be discontent.

For one, it must be remembered that the StrongTowns Curbside Chat, which Chuck Marohn used as his script last week, is presenting a perspective on land use that is at complete variance with the only perspective to which many listeners have ever been exposed.  That’s a significant challenge for a presentation that typically runs only ninety minutes.

To expect every last logical point to be nailed down within the Curbside Chat is parallel to expecting a lecturer to explain the nuances of the theory of relativity in an introduction to physics course.  Leaving a few points underdeveloped is completely understandable.

Even more important is to remember which side of the discussion should be responsible for the burden of proof.  Walkable urbanism has millennia of real world testing that went into its form.  Even if we have looked elsewhere for seventy years, urbanism remains the established paradigm.

Drivable suburbia is an invention based on suppositions about what land-use pattern could best accommodate the car while also being financially sustainable.  They were suppositions, nothing more.  And there has never been any real proof the drivable suburbia would work in the long-term, a point about which I wrote in this post about zealotry.

The burden of proof must therefore be the responsibility of the drivable suburban proponents.  All that StrongTowns and Urban3 should have been required to do was to establish that the suburban paradigm was failing, a proof that is trivial and already evident to all but the most selectively blind observers.

Hoping for the walkable urbanists to meet the highest possible level of proof is an understandable emotion, but if we allow that wish to let the drivable suburbanists duck their responsibility, we’re only hurting ourselves.

Thought #3 – Next Steps:  By coincidence, even as the StrongTowns/Urban3 week was proceeding, I had several conversations that helped identify new paths along which progress can be made on urbanist opportunities in Petaluma.

As a rule, I try to be as transparent as possible in laying out my real world urbanist goals.  But some of the new information presented such startling possibilities about new alliances and possible outcomes that I’m still sorting through the ramifications.

If this sounds interesting to you, if your city of interest is Petaluma, and if you’re not now on the Petaluma Urban Chat mailing list, this is a good time to get on that list.  Send me an email and we’ll get you into the loop.

With my next post, I’ll retain a StrongTowns flavor.  Their current campaign, NoNewRoads, is a call to stop building new roads until we find a way to maintain the roads we already have.  I’ll put a North Bay spin on their crusade.

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

Friday, January 22, 2016

Unwinding by Playing at Art Critic

Water Street
Life has been full over the last few days.  Encouraging folks in the North Bay to attend the recent Urban Community Partnership / StrongTowns / Urban3 meetings in Santa Rosa, participating in the meetings myself, and beginning the foundation for next steps, all while feeling a bit under the weather.

There’s a need to begin talking about those next steps, but not today.

Instead, I’m going to give myself a break by undertaking a job for which my qualifications are remarkably limited.  The job of art critic.

Like a growing number of communities, Petaluma requires many types of development to include public art.  Some developers prefer not to enter the art procurement business, so instead make in lieu payments to the City.  Those funds are to be spent by the Petaluma Public Arts Committee in acquiring and installing public art in the community.

Water Street from Balshaw Bridge
As the result of several developers making in lieu payments in recent years, the funds have grown and the committee has been working toward selecting an art project.

For a location, the committee picked Water Street, along the bank of the Petaluma River a short block from the heart of downtown.  The location is appropriate, with Water Street representing the long history of Petaluma from the days when most commerce was conducted by river, through the time when railroad tracks, still in place, carried freight trains to waterfront warehouses, to the present in which Water Street has been gussied up for public use but still needs more businesses fronting on it and more people walking about.

After winnowing more than a hundred submittals down to progressively more manageable numbers, the committee recently convened to see presentations from the final four artists.

At the urging of a couple of committee members, I sat in the audience for the presentations.  And like any citizen, I soon found myself assessing and weighing the competitors.

The local newspaper, the Argus Courier, provided photos that I’ve copied here.  Here are my thoughts, in the order the presentations were made.

Icarus from the Argus Courier
Icarus: I enjoy whimsy in public art.   Icarus, with the two legs extending upward from the water, fighting to find balance, is easily the most whimsical of the final candidates.  But the choice of fiberglass as a material didn’t impress me and I agreed with the concern of another observer that the legs would become an inviting target for senior class pranks.

However, my biggest concern was the artist’s vision that legs should float up and down with the tide.  I agree with the vision, indeed I’d consider it essential, but with the river becoming nearly a mudflat at low tide, the mechanics of floating the legs becomes problematic.  Even as the artist was speaking, the engineering part of my brain was thinking of solutions involving stilling wells, float switches, and positioning motors.  But the logistical and maintenance issues would be significant.

Whirlibird from the Argus Courier
Those concerns, plus the jurisdictional issues of installing improvements within a public waterway, sank Icarus for me.

Whirlibird: With forms based on the wing of a clapper rail and the drift pattern of a maple seed pod, there was much to like about Whirlibird.  But it felt too fine-featured for a setting that was more bustling and robust in its history.  And including gearboxes so pedestrians could slowly rotate the art didn’t help the feeling of prissiness.  Whirlibird might be my favorite piece in a museum, or even in a reduced scale in my parlor, but it didn’t feel right on Water Street.

Sculptural Knot Forms from the Argus Courier
Sculptural Knot Forms: Sculptural Knot Forms was the far extreme from prissiness with a robust depiction of the knots that represent the marine history of the river.  But the work felt too simple, lacking the intrigue of the other contenders.

Vertical River: I quickly fell in love with the plastic chain mail to be used in Vertical River, supposedly developed to meet the costumer designer’s need for “The Lord of the Rings”.  A video of the material in use at a Los Angeles installation closed the deal.

Vertical River from the Argus Courier
And, nearly as quickly, I was unsold.  The proposed installation alignment, offset from the current railing and running over the river, is an improvement over the initial thought of hanging the material below the concrete deck, but still seems too isolated from the pedestrians on Water Street.  It would provide a fine experience to kayakers on the river and walkers on the nearby Balshaw Bridge, but I don’t want public art that plays to only a portion of the target audience.

My Favorite: When I first began thinking back over the four contenders, I expected to pick Whirlibird as my favorite.  But as time passed, my thoughts increasingly turned toward Sculptural Knot Forms.  Although not completely sold on the work, the simplicity eventually spoke to me, telling me that it was consistent with the setting.  This became a time when I chose to trust my slowly mulling subconscious over my first impression.

Other Thoughts: I picked a favorite because it seemed the honorable thing to do.  But I could still dream about the plastic chain mail of Vertical River; perhaps something like rings of chain mail mounted on the perimeters of platforms below the knots, simultaneously evoking the human endeavor of marine commerce and the eternal wind-rippled surface of the river that sustains it.  But it’s beyond my pay scale to suggest artistic collaborations.

The Public Weighs In: A week ago, the Argus Courier asked Petalumans for their thoughts on the four alternatives.  After I finished with my comments above, I checked the results.  More than half of the respondents voted to toss all four and to start anew.  The paper’s editorial concurred.

Given that the committee began with more than a hundred submittals before winnowing the field to the final four, I find it na├»ve to suggest that better alternatives are out there.  I suspect the public vote says more about art needing time to be savored, much as it took me a week to decide that Sculptural Knot Forms was my favorite.

As long as they avoid the problematic Icarus, I’m fine with the committee selecting any of the other three.  Regardless of the choice, the public will likely develop fondness over time.

Next time, I’ll offer my thoughts in the aftermath of the Santa Rosa meetings, both about the meetings themselves and about next steps.  On the latter topic, I suspect the meetings dislodged some boulders from the top of the suburban paradigm slope.  Now, it’s up to us to decide if we wish to stand at the top of slope, watching the boulders bounce toward the valley floor, or to begin prying more boulders loose, in hopes of triggering a paradigm-shifting rockslide.  Not surprisingly, the latter is my preference and I hope others will agree.

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Putting My Money Where My Pen Is

Buffalo, site of 2014 CNU Congress
Local update: The first of three StrongTowns/Urban3 public meetings was held last evening in Santa Rosa.  The room was nearly filled for Chuck Marohn’s current version of the StrongTowns Curbside Chat.  Thanks go to all from the North Bay folks who made the effort to attend, especially those who responded to the urgings of this blog.

Seats are still available for the remaining two meetings, at which Urban3 will elucidate lessons from the Santa Rosa property tax data, followed by StrongTowns and Urban3 jointly talking about next steps.  RSVPs may still be made through the link provided on this page.

After this week this complete, we’ll have the task of putting to use the newly gained knowledge.

Today, I’ll return to a topic that I’d hoped to cover during the final week of 2015, before the upcoming StrongTowns/Urban3 meetings snatched my attention away.

As Chuck Marohn noted last evening, the best thing anyone can do to promote sustainable municipal finances through urbanism is to talk with friends and neighbors.  The second best thing is to participate financially, through memberships or donations, with the organizations doing advocacy.

I believe in doing both, especially when the organizations provide content that I regularly quote in this space.

So on New Year’s Eve, I began new memberships, renewed old memberships, or made donations to the following organizations.

StrongTowns: It would have been awkward to start this list anywhere other than with StrongTowns.  I may not agree with every detail of the StrongTowns philosophy (as noted here), but I’m convinced that they are largely on the right track.  They’re also building a solid community of proponents.  For new converts to urbanism, I’d suggest starting with StrongTowns, while also maintaining the intellectual freedom to differ on occasional points.

Congress for the New Urbanism: It was tough to downgrade the CNU to second spot on this list.  They were the first organization to which I felt an urbanist affinity.  And my travels to the annual CNU Congresses have become a highlight of my urbanist life, a position it will retain for awhile with the 2016 and 2017 destinations of Detroit and Seattle, the first a city that I want to see after the fall and the latter a former home and still favored place.

But StrongTowns provides a more embracing community of followers, which should be an essential element of an urbanist organization.  I enjoy the breadth of folks who attend a CNU Congress, but have more in common with the StrongTowns members.

Those who listened to the end of the Chuck Marohn/James Kunstler podcast I recently linked heard a conversation about CNU.  I think it was Marohn who suggested that CNU is now in the midst of an existential crisis.  Having been founded to put urbanism back in the city planning toolkit, having succeeded at that goal, and now realizing that the next step is making urbanism the dominant paradigm, CNU is facing the question of whether they’re the right organization for this next step.  I hope they survive.  The urbanist world would be less vibrant without CNU.

SPUR: SPUR is an urban planning organization with deep roots in San Francisco.  Some of their research has impacted the North Bay, such as their study of transit connectivity, but their focus has remained primarily San Francisco.  However, with studies showing that the financial strength of outlying communities depend on the strength of the cities at their core, supporting SPUR seemed important to a North Bay urbanist.  Also, SPUR recently opening an Oakland office showed that they were moving toward a more regional perspective.

Greenbelt Alliance: When I recently wrote that there are multiple goals that urbanism can pursue, one that didn’t make the top of my list but is nonetheless important is green space preservation.  (And like the other goals of urbanism, it also finds that density is a reasonable path to that goal, with more dense development patterns requiring less encroachment into open space.)

The Greenbelt Alliance is the leading Bay Area voice for green space preservation.  Having also made common cause with the regional director for Greenbelt Alliance on several issues, giving a year-end donation to the Greenbelt Alliance was an obvious step.

Smart Growth America: I’ll conclude with Smart Growth America, which tackles a number of urbanist issues from transportation to downtown revitalization.  I have less personal involvement or commitment with SGA than with the other organizations, but their causes are my causes, so they have my financial support.

I haven’t written this with the goal of encouraging you to follow in my membership and donation footsteps.  But if your heart aligns with mine in favoring urbanism as a route to solve multiple modern-day issues from climate change to municipal finances, perhaps you should identify and support the organizations that best align with your vision.

Next time, I’ll write about riverside public art in Petaluma.

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

Monday, January 18, 2016

Urbanism and Density

Residential units in Napa, near river
With most of my recent posts, I’ve been attempting to convince people to attend upcoming free public meetings, hosted by the Urban Community Partnership, at which StrongTowns and Urban3 will talk about financially sustainable cities.  The meetings will start on Tuesday evening, January 19, in Santa Rosa.  With the meetings nearly upon us, I probably can’t do much more to convince folks to attend. 

But for anyone still on the fence, I’ll note that the meeting details, a link to the RSVP site, and links to most of my posts about StrongTowns can be found here.

However, the expected content of the meetings remains very much in my head.

Today, I’ll write about a topic that may be useful to those attending the meetings, an aspect of urbanism that seems to puzzle many.

About a year ago, I offered the following dual definition for “urbanism”:

(1) The study, promotion, and implementation of development concepts for settings that are significantly denser in residential, working, and commercial opportunities than rural or suburban locations.

(2) The advocacy of concepts for (1) that meet beneficial goals such as improved walkability, reduced energy consumption, stronger social networks, more stable municipal finances, or other identified positive outcomes.

It’s not a perfect definition.  As I look at it today, I see several that I’d still make.  But it’s a reasonable starting point.  And not once does it mention density.  Which may seem puzzling because many people try to equate urbanism and density.

Rarely does a month pass without someone saying to me “I don’t support urbanism because I don’t like density.”

It’s a statement that’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of urbanist reasoning.  It also leaves the speaker in an awkward position.  I’ll deal with the two in order.

Every urbanist probably has their own unique ranking of the beneficial goals that urbanism tries to attain.  For me, there are a big three that fall in the following order.

The first is environmental.  Even more than municipal finances, slowing the progress of climate change seems the defining challenge of our time.  With energy use being the primary cause of climate change and with over half of all energy going toward transportation and buildings, those are two seem the prime targets for conservation, conservation that can be accomplished by more shared walls, smaller homes with the community serving as a shared living room, and more opportunity to live daily on foot or on bicycle, all of which are accomplished by density.

So my first goal of urbanism isn’t density, it’s energy conservation.  But it turns out that density is the best route to that goal.

My next goal is sustainable municipal finance, particularly on the infrastructure maintenance issue.  And the key factor in raising sufficient property tax revenue to maintain infrastructure is the ratio of assessed value to infrastructure.  Put more residents on the same length of street, water main, sewer, and storm drain and that ratio is improved, so density is once again a key factor.

So my second goal of urbanism isn’t density, it’s better municipal finances.  But it turns out again that density is a good route to that goal.

My third goal is social.  I find it satisfying to walk out my front door knowing that groceries are a half block to my right, that the screw needed to repair a broken railing is a block to my left, and that my dentist and accountant can be reached by a bus that stops right in front of me.  I find it a more satisfying to live my days encountering other people by brushing shoulders against them rather than viewing each other through windshields.

But the only way for the businesses to survive in walkable settings is for enough folks to live within walkable range to sustain them.

So my third and final goal of urbanism isn’t density, it’s a social setting that feels right to me.  And it turns out yet again that density is a good route to that goal.

The pattern should be obvious.  Urbanism isn’t density.  Urbanism is other laudable goals and density just happens to be the consistent path to those goals.

Being against urbanism because one doesn’t like density is like being against financial planning because one doesn’t like saving.  Saving is only a path to the real goals of financial planning, such as home purchase, college expenses, and secure retirement.  And density is only a path to the real goals of slowing climate change, improving municipal finances, and making better social settings.

And that gets us to the awkwardness of arguing urbanism using the density argument.  It leaves the speaker in the position of arguing against combating climate change, sustainable municipal finances, and stronger social connections.  Sure, one can argue for mandatory conversion to electrical vehicles, higher property tax rates, and more parks, but those are three tough and probably unwinnable arguments to make.

It’s easier to become an urbanist and to look for ways to make density more palatable.

Next time, I’ll return to a topic I’d hoped to cover before the New Year, a plan that was derailed when the StrongTowns visit claimed my attention.  I’ll write about the urbanist organizations that get my support and might be worthy of yours.

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