Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Further Thoughts on “Hero”, Lane Widths, and Civic Independence

Some blog posts, including ones I thought were insightful and original, quickly fade in the rearview mirror of time.  Others, often to my surprise, gather speed in the weeks after publication, with new readers, feedback, and information on the topic arriving regularly.

(By reader count, my most popular post ever, by a factor of ten, was a comparison of Savannah and Charleston.  One forum that linked the post even included a discussion about whether I was African-American.  I’m not.  I found it a good post, but not one I would have predicted to have gained legs.)

Four recent posts have shown signs of achieving longevity.  One of those, on parklets, is garnering enough comment to justify its own follow-up post.  I’ll offer updates on the other three below.

“Show Me a Hero”: Although a couple of people disclosed plot points, no one invited me into their home to watch the HBO show “Show Me a Hero”.  That’s okay; I can wait until the DVD is available.  Instead, I acquired the book on which the show was based and finished reading it a few days back.

I found it an oddly paced book, although not the fault of the author.  The true story had its climax in the opening act, after the City Council of Yonkers, New York defies a judicial order to implement a public housing plan that would unwind some of the systemic segregation in the community.  Once the climax is reached, which like most opposition to judicial edicts occurred with more of a whimper than a bang, the remainder of the book is about the mundane details of implementing the housing plan.

It was as if the latter half of the book was an extended epilogue, although the thread of the tragedy referred to by the title, extracted from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”, continued to wend its way through the later chapters.

For readers who want action, they can probably stop reading after the first 150 pages.  But for those who care about the personal stories within a desegregation effort, the latter half may be more meaningful than the retelling of the city council rebellion.  It’s a reminder that desegregation isn’t about moving checkers around on a board; it’s about real lives being disrupted, some for the better and some for the worse.

I expect HBO has added more suspense to the latter elements of the story, which will make for good television.  But I think author Lisa Belkin’s more spare telling of the stories of individual lives will be the version that stays with me.

Racial desegregation won’t be an issue in many, if any, North Bay communities.  But urbanism, especially if inclusionary housing continues to strengthen its foothold, will force economic desegregation.  Hence, the story of Yonkers and a similar if less confrontation story from Cincinnati, where strategic urbanist investments have begun putting a dent into what some have called hypersegregation, could have application to the North Bay.

Travel Lane Widths: In an earlier post, I suggested that reduced lane widths could reduce speeds in a Petaluma neighborhood that was anxious about traffic safety relative to new development.  I’ve since been advised that city staff is taking a hard look at reducing the lane widths as suggested.

Demonstrating the worthiness of the concept, Eric Jaffe, writing in CityLab, summarized recent findings showing that traffic collisions are reduced, both in number and in severity, at the lower traffic speeds that occur as a result of narrower lanes.

Jaffe then continued, also in CityLab, with a story from New Brunswick, New Jersey where a City Council deferred implementation of reduced lane widths in fear of a negative response from drivers.  Instead, when a child was hit by a car, the negative response came from children and their parents demanding the narrower lanes for improved pedestrian safety.  A subsequent analysis found that the lane width change could also be justified economically, with the value of reduced pedestrian injuries outweighing the cost of slightly longer drive times.

But before anyone assumes that reduced lane widths, with the resulting potential for bicycle lanes, are an easy sell, Jaffe had a third story where a disgruntled segment of the population in Coronado, California rallied to oppose bicycle lane striping as “paint pollution”.  My favorite among the dubious arguments against the plan is the woman who argues that painting stripes on her streets is akin to doing full body tattoos on her daughters.  The City Council in the otherwise bike friendly city listened to the objectors and deferred the striping.

Lane width reductions remain a great idea, for the Petaluma neighborhood and elsewhere, but there will be pockets of resistance.

Healdsburg versus Tobacco: I’ll finish with an update on the City of Healdsburg’s effort to increase the minimum age for the purchase of tobacco to 21.  I lauded the action , in part because I believe that 21-year-olds would make better tobacco decisions than 18-year-olds, but mostly I applaud any effort by a city to follow a path independent of the laws coming down from Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, an independence that could be crucial to urbanism.

Unfortunately, the tobacco issue is about to become costly for Healdsburg, with the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, fearing a spread of the higher minimum age to other cities, threatening a lawsuit over the city action.

The costs of a legal defense wouldn’t be coming out of my property taxes, so it probably isn’t fair for me to write this, but I hope that Healdsburg holds to their course, both for the principle of reduced access to tobacco and for the precedent of municipal independence.

I’ll get back to the question of parklets, which may be the most interesting of the follow-ups, in the next week or so.

Many posts ago, I looked at the question of the economic catalyzing potential of sports facilities.  I suspected that the potential was neither huge, as the proponents of public-funded facilities would argue, nor non-existent, as those who oppose all public funds would argue.

A recent trip gave me a chance to look at the economic development potential of a number of minor league ballparks.  I’ll give my thoughts on the variety of settings and results in the next post.

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

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