Monday, July 13, 2015

Not Yet a Critical Mass, but Closer

Changes in public perception, and the resulting changes in public policy, usually don’t begin with a mass movement.  Instead, they’re more like rock slides.  The first sign is often only a few rocks breaking loose and clattering noisily to the valley floor, followed by more seemingly random and minor rock falls.   But eventually the main slide breaks loose and the landscape is forever changed.

In the past few days, we’ve witnessed an early rock fall that may be a precursor to an important shift in public policy, a shift that would greatly impact urbanism.

When Petaluma Urban Chat was first getting underway, we gave ourselves the collective reading assignment of the “Curbside Chat” booklet from StrongTowns.  The booklet sets forth the central tenet of StrongTowns, that we often build more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain or are willing to maintain.  (It was during this reading that an Urban Chat member commented about StrongTowns being “the Republican argument for urbanism.”)

As our reading progressed, I wrote several times in this space about “Curbside Chat”.  Through the magic of the internet, the folks at StrongTowns learned of our small North Bay group and reached out to us.  StrongTowns founder Chuck Marohn agreed to talk with us by video, addressing questions that may have arisen during our reading.

The chance to interact with Marohn seemed a great opportunity to jumpstart the local urbanist conversation, so I emailed all the local City Councilmembers and Planning Commissioners, inviting them to join us for the video chat.

Amidst the responses, which were mostly regrets about conflicting commitments, some of which I even believed, was an email from a Councilmember asking for more information on the StrongTowns proposition.  He was someone I thought would be predisposed against the StrongTowns thinking.  However, I also considered him a thoughtful, intelligent man who could be swayed by logical argument.

So I assembled the best case I could, tying together local potholes and other North Bay infrastructure maintenance challenges with the ongoing government fiscal distress of which he was well aware.  Perhaps my response ran a little long, because that’s what I do, but I thought it was cogent and persuasive.  I hit the send button and awaited his response.

I’m still waiting.

He never replied to my email, nor did he attend the video chat.  About the only response I’ve ever noted is that, when we bump into each other at community functions, he gives me sidelong glances as if I’m potentially deranged and sidles away at his earliest convenience.  (To be fair, I’m not the only person he seems to treat in this fashion.)  I usually let him go.  I have no reason to make him more uncomfortable that he already is.

Unfortunately, his response is fairly typical for how public officials respond to the StrongTowns message.   With much of the electorate focused on the continual expansion of infrastructure, elected officials are unwilling to hear a message that we need to rethink our approach to built improvements.  And the public works officials whose jobs are dependent on building more infrastructure are no different.  As 18th century Jewish rabbi Baal Shem Tov, phrased it “Fear builds walls to bar the light."

Thus, it was unexpected when Paul Trombino, the head of the Iowa Department of Transportation, publicly admitted that his state has more highway infrastructure than the public is likely willing to maintain.  He further called for a difficult but necessary conversation about how and where to reduce previously constructed infrastructure.

StrongTowns’ Marohn, who was present for Trombino’s comments, reported them with surprise and gratification.  CityLab, recognizing the importance of the story, picked up on Marohn’s news and repeated the story for their audience, also including evidence of implicit acknowledgements by other Departments of Transportation that driving patterns were changing and that hard infrastructure decisions might be coming.

Does this mean that the battle for a more informed approach to infrastructure has been won?  Hardly.  One need only look at the 101 corridor in the North Bay to see the continuing illogic, with multi-million dollar interchanges nearing completion at both ends of the Petaluma and the continuing drumbeat of demand for a third freeway lane between Novato and Petaluma even as potholes remain unfilled throughout Petaluma and 100-year-old waterlines fail, sending gushers of water down gutters.

But the Trombino acknowledgement of what StrongTowns has been arguing may have been a turning point.  Even as the 2004 decision by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to permit gay marriages in his city is considered a key early step to the now near-universal acceptance of gay marriage, Paul Trombino’s words may one day be considered a key early step toward a more enlightened and cost-effective approach to infrastructure.

And the way to live comfortably with less infrastructure is, of course, urbanism.

Perhaps I should send this story to the local Councilmember.

Next time, I’ll return to the subject of urbanism and senior living, using a recent personal experience to illustrate a point.

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


  1. I take it as a foregone conclusion that the current Petaluma City Council will approve the EIR that our Planning Commission did not approve for the Rainier connector. Do you see this as more unsupportable infrastructure? Or am I too forlorn and it is not foregone?

    1. The more I ponder that question, the more complex it becomes. I've tentatively scheduled a blog post on the question for July 24th. Until then, I'll hold my tongue. (As if I ever do that.)

    2. Barry, because of the the reported City Council schedule, I'll defer the post noted above until July 31.