Category Archives: Blog

How Self Driving Cars Will Change Our Cities

March 10, 2015

Self-driving cars are getting a lot of publicity–and for good reason.

Some think that driverless cars will completely reshape our cityscapes. With fewer traffic accidents due to human error, autonomous vehicles would change the car repair and insurance industries. Ride-hailing companies like Uber and car-share companies like Zipcar could be transformed. One of the biggest changes, however, will be that cities won’t need nearly as many parking facilities. While there will still be a place for private car ownership, many major cities will end up having surplus parking space that can be turned into parks or even repurposed for new commercial uses.

But no matter how transformative they are, autonomous cars are unlikely to replace mass transit. One big reason is because mass transit is simply more efficient in terms of density. In cities, where space is both limited and expensive, a bus or train that can carry dozens or even hundreds of passengers will always be more efficient in terms of space and cost. And because more and more people are moving to cities, the real innovation that may come out of autonomous vehicle technology might not be the cars, but self-driving buses. After all, the US road system was built for cars, and it works just as well for buses.

Some experts fear that self driving cars will promote sprawl. Long, arduous commutes incentivize living near urban centers, but if commuting by car became much easier, the allure of city life might give way to the appeal of lower costs and bigger homes in suburbs. Many projections estimate that self driving cars could roll out as soon as the early 2020s, and since we’ve seen the effects of sprawl on health and economic mobility, it’s a big concern that planners will need to deal with soon.


Do Buses Have an Image Problem?

March 4, 2015

More often than not, transit agencies in the US will choose to develop rail service where public transit is needed, even though a bus service would be far more affordable while providing a similar level of service. The reason, according to a 2009 Federal Transit Administration report, is that bus service in the United States suffers from an image problem. Riding buses carries a “shame factor” that is not associated with trains. Unfortunately, this negative perception of buses can also extend to bus rapid transit. Successful bus rapid transit lines, with high frequency and dedicated lanes, like Los Angeles’ Orange line, aren’t even seen as buses by many riders–they are described as train-like or even bourgeois.

A poll of 1,370 people in 6 Australian cities shows that a majority of people will rank rail over bus rapid transit, despite being aware of both modes of transit. While this may suggest that people simply prefer rail to buses, a closer analysis shows that the quality of transit service is more important that type of transit. The data from Sydney, which recently improved its bus service, seems to support this, as it ranked buses highest out of all the cities. Other factors that made it more likely for a rider to rate buses positively include having a seat for the entire trip or even just riding the bus recently.

Another problem with buses may also be that transit agencies don’t run enough buses to comfortably satisfy the demand. In New York, the buses are so crowded that if they were to have better marketing, and attract those who currently take cabs, it is highly unlikely that every rider would have access. In this case, it seems that the bus’ negative image is at least in part derived from its inadequate service, and not simply because it needs better marketing.

Regardless, buses deserve a bit more credit in the US. This goes especially for bus rapid transit systems that have level boarding, dedicated lanes, reliable service, and off-board fare payment.


The Problematic Rapid Development of China

February 25, 2015

China has become one of the world’s largest economies in only a couple short decades. While the country’s average growth has slowed–its GDP grew by only 7.4% last year–it has established its place as a global economic superpower and will most likely maintain its ranking with a formidable economy estimated to be at $11.3 trillion in 2015.

However, this rapid growth has not come without its issues. China’s growth may have been rapid, but it has also been immensely sprawled. China became the world’s largest auto market, surpassing the United States’ 17 million car sales with 20 million car sales last year. While the country has taken measures to promote greener, more sustainable development, this auto-centricity has encouraged urban sprawl and devoured agricultural land. The destruction of agricultural land for development has in turn sparked worries over food production in China. With many farms being overtaken by airports and roads, food safety and food security are becoming increasing concerns.

This sprawl has also come with environmental costs. Many Chinese cities have become notorious for their smog levels, a consequence of its rapid urbanization which embraced cars, wide streets, and grandiose buildings. As the country developed, it welcomed foreign models of urban development, not accounting for the environmental effects that such development would have in an industrializing country with over a billion residents.

Not only that, as the country’s wealth has grown, its obesity rates have risen as well. Like other developed areas, China has seen a large influx of processed food and convenience stores. While malnutrition is no longer a big concern in urban China, obesity rates have risen quickly and dramatically. In 2012, an estimated 300 million out of 1.2 billion people were obese, making health care policy a growing priority.

China’s rapid development has been remarkable, but also challenging. It’s an opportunity for creative urban planning solutions and the development of growth policies that are more comprehensive, deliberate, and sustainable.


Changing the Dialogue Around Biking

February 19, 2015

Bike culture has seen a huge resurgence in the US over the last decade, and this has led to a growth in bike infrastructure as well as increasing concern surrounding bike safety. Bike safety has become a growing issue not only in discussions amongst bike advocates, but also in all levels of urban policy. Last week, Senator Carol Liu proposed a mandatory bike helmet law for the state of California. Liu has been a long-time supporter of active transportation, and feels that this law would promote safer biking.

However, no mandatory legislation can increase bike safety as much as promoting a bike culture that is informed, aware, and cautious. A new book, titled The Urban Cycling Survival Guide, gives a rundown on how to navigate urban streets on a bike, as well as how to bike defensively. A bike advocacy group in Seattle found that merely changing the language with which we speak about biking has a huge effect on its public perception and makes it much easier to promote bike culture. By using phrases that are people-centric, such as “people on bikes” rather than “cyclists,” bike advocates were able to rebrand the bike argument into one that is centered around safety and personal responsibility.

Of course, some areas of the US are more bike-friendly than others. Recently, San Luis Obispo established a powerful bike funding policy that will allot 20% of transportation spending from the general fund to biking. This is an extraordinary amount of bike funding for an American city, and the figure is derived from the city’s larger transportation goals to increase biking and walking levels. San Francisco, which is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the US, will be completing 3 blocks of protected bike lanes and pedestrian upgrades this coming April, albeit after numerous delays. These are encouraging signs which bode well for bike safety in the US, and a sure sign of progress for bike culture overall.


Regulating the Sharing Economy

February 16, 2015

Services like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb have revolutionized private taxis and temporary housing rentals. At the same time, these large-scale sharing economy services are in their infancy, and legislators often disagree about whether or not to regulate them, and if they do, how to regulate them.

Many cities, like New York, are concerned about the effects that Airbnb may have on affordable housing, while others have been far more accepting. Following the footsteps of San Francisco, London recently announced that they will be legalizing Airbnb, which is prohibited under the current legislation. The new legislation will allow homeowners to rent out their properties for up to 3 months of the year. While some support the move, stating that the current legislation is outdated and inconsistently reinforced, others fear that legalizing Airbnb will disrupt neighborhoods and reduce the amount of long-term housing for locals, therefore driving up the cost of rent.

Services like Uber are also troubling to local governments, because they operate outside the scope of traditionally established laws for private taxis. As a result, they’ve forced traditional taxis to reform their operations and improve the quality of their service. However, because they aren’t governed by traditional taxi laws, there are concerns over whether or not their insurance is adequate and if their drivers have been vetted enough. Not only that, there are currently no laws requiring Uber to provide services to people with disabilities, or to people who don’t have Internet access or credit cards.

Despite all the headaches that these sharing economy services give to legislators, one thing is certain: they are innovative and challenge the status quo. It’ll be interesting to see how cities will regulate these services, but hopefully they’ll able to do it in a way that won’t stifle innovation.


How Technology Transforms Planning

February 11, 2015

Tech is transforming everything, and urban planning hasn’t been overlooked.

Uber recently offered to share its private trip data starting with the city of Boston, and this, as well as other private data, has some big implications for traffic planning. Private car data can be lifted from phones, taxis, sensors, and cameras. It can elucidate real-time traffic patterns and has the potential to help planners drastically improve street networks and remedy traffic congestion. It does have some downsides however with the data coming from certain demographics and geography limitations.

Tech has also introduced some really useful tools that have the potential to make planning far more efficient, simple, and transparent. Transitmix was created as a fantasy bus route tool, where users could create bus routes, see their costs, plan their stops, and even overlay Census data such as income. It soon became apparent that a tool like this could be invaluable to professionals–it’s almost difficult to imagine that transit planners went so long without a specialized tool to quickly map out transit possibilities.

Social media opens up a channel of communication between transit agencies and their constituencies. In December, New Jersey Transit decided to take a much more proactive stance to their Facebook and Twitter pages, and it’s allowed them gauge rider opinions as well as provide updates to users. Social media is also being used as a means of promoting California’s extensive but struggling state park system. A new app, called CaliParks, pulls images from Instagram and Flickr to allow users to get a dynamic and appealing view of over 12,000 green spaces in California.

Technology has proved to be a disruptive force in planning, and many of the innovations it brings forth forces us to upgrade some of our archaic and inefficient practices, as well as rethink some of the incorrect perceptions we based our planning decisions on.


The Only Thing That Will Fix a Housing Shortage Is More Housing

February 10, 2015

A shortage of affordable housing has been a huge problem for urban areas, and a recent pair of charts from Trulia’s chief economist really highlights a big issue with housing development in the US. For the past few years, housing development has grown the most in suburbs and less in urban areas, but the price of housing in urban areas is rising the fastest. Basically, the housing supply in urban areas is not growing quickly enough to meet demand.

This problem has been illustrated perfectly in San Francisco. The city’s population has grown rapidly, but the growth in its housing stock has lagged behind. Since 2010, the population of San Francisco has increased by 45,000 people, but the housing stock has only increased by 7,500 units. With that kind of population growth and the relatively meager amount of housing development, it’s really no surprise that housing prices in the city have skyrocketed.

A similar phenomenon is happening in San Diego, which was recently named America’s least affordable city by Realtor.com. San Diego is slated to have 590,000 more people by 2050, and the only way to accommodate all these new residents is to increase the city’s density and develop more housing.

Developing more housing is what Austin did in response to its growing population, and it’s had some promising results so far. Though the cost of housing in Austin rose for the past several years, the addition of 10,000 new units to the area last year seems to have somewhat stabilized rents. The occupancy rate in the Austin area dropped by 4% down to 94% last year, the lowest it has been since 2012. While we have to see how the housing stock will hold up over the years, it’s no question that some cities, like San Francisco, would probably benefit from an increase in housing development.


The Many Reasons for the Decline In Car Culture

February 5, 2015

Car culture seems to be declining worldwide, and urbanization and technology may play a big part in that. Millennials are more willing to live in cities and stay there rather than move to suburbs, unlike the previous generation. This means that they’re less likely to own cars and more likely to take public transit, walk, or use private taxis like Uber. Not only that, social media allows people to stay in touch without ever leaving their home, and e-commerce makes it possible for people to purchase things online, decreasing the overall number of trips that people need to make. The number of cars per driver in the US has fallen from 1.2 in 2007 to 1.15 this year.

This trend is global. For instance, in London, cycling levels have risen rapidly over the last couple years, to the point where cycling now makes up one-sixth of all traffic in central London. This is a record-breaking level of cycling in the city, and part of it is due to the increased availability of bike share docks and bicycles. In San Francisco, the majority of trips are made without private cars, and it’s been that way for several years. In addition, the prevalence of shared-use structures like pedestrian and bike bridges has grown all over, and we’re only going to see an increase in infrastructure dedicated to car-free transit in the coming years.

Another major reason for the decline in car culture is that automobiles are simply not sustainable. Global leaders, such as Al Gore and former Mexican president Felipe Calderon, have proposed a radical idea: why don’t we spend the $90 Trillion that will be invested in infrastructure over the next 15 years toward developing cities that aren’t car-centric?

Some will argue we’ll never get there, but the times, they are changing.

Right now is a crucial time in shaping the future of urban transportation. 75% of the infrastructure that will exist in 2050 hasn’t been built yet, so the decisions that we make about the direction of our cities’ transportation systems over the next few years will be critical.  Let’s not take them for granted


The Role of Mayors In Transportation Planning

February 2, 2015
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Last week, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the “Mayors Challenge for Safer People and Safer Streets.” Foxx, who was the mayor of Charlotte from 2009 to 2013, urges mayors to make pedestrian and bike safety a priority for the next year. While road deaths in other categories have dropped over the last few years, the rate of biking and pedestrian deaths in the US has trended upwards since 2009.

A big part of pedestrian and bike safety is street design, and a major part of the Mayors Challenge is committing to take a Complete Streets approach to making transportation decisions. The Mayors Challenge isn’t a funding solution, but it is an opportunity for mayors to take on the challenge of assessing the current state of their street design guidelines and actively pursue the best practices to transform their transportation networks

A study of over 70 US mayors finds that regardless of city size, mayors often had the same priorities: growing their cities while managing transportation and operations within their limited budget constraints. The three most common policy priorities cited by US mayors for the next year are eco­nomic development, quality of life and infrastruc­ture.

However, mayors can’t transform their cities completely on their own. The mayors of San Francisco and Seattle, in particular, have come out and said that they do need the help of the federal government on transportation issues, particularly infrastructure. As American cities continue to grow, a national urban agenda and support from the federal government is necessary to ensure that our cities succeed.

But it looks like we’ll need the mayors of our cities to get it started.


How Should The Government Fix Affordable Housing?

January 28, 2015

Many American cities are experiencing a shortage of affordable housing. It’s a big problem that needs to be addressed, but there’s little consensus about how to address it. Add to that the NIMBY attitude that many people seem to hold toward affordable housing projects, and we’re looking at a problem that is both complex and politically charged.

Housing costs in San Francisco have skyrocketed in the past few years and it doesn’t look like they’ll stop increasing any time soon. One of the reasons for the price increase is because discretionary permitting prevents the housing supply from increasing rapidly as the population grows. Some such as the blog Market Urbanism believe that reforming regulations so that development is less restricted would go a long way in addressing the issue. On top of that, creating a land tax would encourage denser development, and funding housing vouchers with that tax money would ensure that the amount of funding increases when housing demand goes up and drives up the cost of land.

Los Angeles is suffering from a lack of affordable housing as well, and some feel that the local government should be doing far more to address the issue. Some suggested solutions to LA’s affordable housing issue include overhauling the zoning code so that it’s easier to develop, offering incentives to developers for building affordable housing, and preserving the current stock of affordable housing.

All of these proposed solutions include some form of government intervention. However, we have seen that some government responses, like rent control and subsidized housing, have not exactly solved the affordable housing problem in the past. If that’s the case, how should the government intervene in affordable housing issues? Whichever way we choose to address the problem, it’ll be important to understand the housing market, as well as acknowledge the shortcomings of our previous solutions.


The Debate Over Whether Gentrification Exists

January 26, 2015

Gentrification is most commonly debated about in the sense that people disagree on how to counter its negative effects. However, there are also some who debate whether gentrification is actually harmful at all. Some people think it’s is one of the biggest urban issues in the developed world, some acknowledge that it’s not good but feel that there are bigger problems to worry about, and others deny that the negative effects of gentrification are nearly as abundant as the media make them out to be.

A recent Slate article argues that for the most part, the negative effects of gentrification are hugely exaggerated, to the point where gentrification is more of a myth than an established urban phenomenon. After all, gentrification in which a previously poor neighborhood becomes overtaken by upper and middle class residents is extremely rare, and the article argues there is little proof that displacement happens in gentrifying neighborhoods any more than it happens in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. Socioeconomic status of most neighborhoods is quite stable over time, and neighborhoods that have had rises in average income actually reap some benefits from it.

Others vehemently disagree. Looking at New York, which is one of the most illustrative cases of gentrification, we can see a definite and dramatic change in racial and income demographics over the last couple decades. The black population in many neighborhoods decreased while the white population increased, along with an increase in income. Subsidized affordable rentals are far more likely to convert to market rate in gentrified neighborhoods, driving out lower income residents who will no longer be able to afford the cost of housing.

This City Limits survey shows that while some people think that gentrification is a good thing, the majority of readers feel that gentrification is problematic, though they vastly disagree about how to counter it or whether it can even be remedied. If there’s one thing the debate over gentrification shows, it’s that the issue is complex and nuanced, and that no easy answers will be appearing anytime soon.


The Benefits of Shared Mobility

January 22, 2015

It’s pretty widely acknowledged that America’s driving boom is over. The average VMT per person in the US has remained stagnant or declined since 2004, and even the Federal Highway Administration’s most recent projections predict future driving levels to remain fairly even. However, the US decline in driving may have begun far earlier than we think. For many states, like Washington, their peak driving levels may have occurred as early as the 1990s. Only a couple outlier states have had their driving levels increase in recent years. This information challenges earlier notions that declines in driving may have been caused by the poor economy, and further cements the possibility that our peak driving levels are permanent.

As more of the world population moves into cities, where car ownership and driving are less practical than public transit, options for shared mobility are becoming increasingly popular. The car share service Car2Go is subscribed to by almost 10% of Seattle’s population and  has resulted in over 2,000 Seattle residents giving up their cars. Google continues to improve its self-driving car, and recently has been in talks with Ford, Toyota, and Volkswagon to try to bring the cars to the market as early as 2020.

Some think that driverless cars will have trouble becoming widely adopted because most people have a passion for driving. Cars, in addition to being a convenient means of transportation, are also objects that reflect our personal taste and identity. While that may be true, driving can actually cause quite a bit of stress and commutes can lower happiness levels. Driving seems to be correlated to higher blood pressure and anxiety levels, as well as a decrease in overall job and life satisfaction. In fact, not having to commute may be the happiness equivalent of as much as a $40,000 raise.

Knowing that, promoting shared mobility seems like a no-brainer. Creating our car-centric cities has failed to create lasting economic growth. This is our opportunity to create smarter mobility for more sustainable, inclusive cities as well as improve overall quality of life.


The Good and Bad of Uber

January 20, 2015

2014 was a rough year for Uber in terms of public relations. Its Senior VP Emil Michael was caught making questionable comments about digging up dirt on journalists, the company was accused of making subprime loans to drivers, and one of its drivers assaulted a rider with a hammer. Add to that the growing media outrage over its surge pricing, the increasing questions about liability in light of the death of a six-year-old child in San Francisco, and its ongoing legislation battles, Uber has not been looking too good to the public.

Companies like Uber and Lyft are often coined as “ride-share” companies, but the Associated Press has recently corrected the term to “ride-hailing service” to more accurately portray the service that Uber provides. Unlike car-share companies where users actually share their cars, Uber users don’t share a ride–it’s more like a taxi service.

And taxi services are the ones who have been most affected by the success of Uber. Traditional taxi services monopolized the realm of for-hire transportation for decades. Without competition, their equipment became outdated and their service subpar. The appearance of companies like Uber and Lyft has forced traditional taxis to improve their operations in order to reduce wait times and make it easier to hail cabs and pay for rides. In addition, Uber has had a definite effect on American cities by providing affordable, reliable transportation. It reduces the need for car ownership and makes accessible parts of cities that were once more difficult to get to.

Last week, Uber announced its intent to share their trip data with local governments, starting with Boston. Cities are eager to have this data. Uber is able to collect information on locations, travel time, and time of day for rides: information that can be used to understand travel patterns and improve transit in cities. With all of its legislative and PR troubles, this move could help Uber and other ride hailing companies argue the benefits they have for cities.


Has Homeownership Really Worked For the US?

Homeownership has been widely seen as a vehicle for Americans to build wealth since the mid-1900s. Because of that, the US government has devoted many of its policy measures to making it easier for everyone to have access to homeownership. But now, with skyrocketing rents and increased costs of living which have markedly outpaced income growth, it’s becoming harder and harder for Millennials to buy homes.

Recent policy measures related to homeownership have centered on increasing access to mortgages so that people with low income can still buy homes. Credit availability is a vital part of purchasing homes, so access to credit is a crucial topic in housing finance policy. Policymakers want to increase access to credit, but not put the economy at excessive risk.

Last week, the White House announced plans to reduce mortgage insurance premiums to make it easier for low income buyers to afford homes. The lower fees are estimated to save new FHA borrowers an average of  $900 each year and are expected to encourage 250,000 first-time buyers to enter the market. Whether or not it will actually result in an increase of home purchases will have to be seen.

However, has homeownership really panned out for us? Other Western countries without pro-ownership policies seem to have similar rates of homeownership, and the biggest impact of all of our housing subsidies and tax breaks is that people buy bigger, more expensive homes, not more homes. Investing the majority of our income in housing pays off when the economy is doing well, but is disastrous if the economy tanks, as we learned in 2008. Perhaps we should direct some of that attention to other urban issues, like displacement or developing mixed income neighborhoods. Germany, which has a fairly low homeownership rate, has let property rights take a backseat by prohibiting luxury upgrades to ensure that low income renters aren’t displaced. Something like that is unlikely to happen in the US, but it’s interesting to see how lower ownership rates can change how the government responds to urban issues.


How Did the US Become Suburban In the First Place?

January 14, 2015

The feds have finally–albeit quietly–admitted that America’s driving boom is over. The Federal Highway Administration’s most recent forecast of Vehicle Miles Travelled predicts that growth in driving per capita will be much flatter in the future. This a far more accurate prediction than their past claims that driving rates will once again grow rapidly in the US, since VMT has hardly increased over the last decade. 

It’s a huge sign that the era of cars is coming to an end. But how did we get here in the first place? In reality, automobiles in the 1920s struggled to gain popularity because of traffic and fatalities. One of the reasons for their eventual success was because of interference from special interests. The car industry and road builders lobbied the government to build roads that were more suitable for cars, and urged them to create a gas tax to fund highways. It resulted in decades of suburban growth, but at what cost? After generations of rapid suburbanization, we can no longer afford to maintain our streets and sidewalks, and our economic resilience and financial productivity are dismal.

 We’ve invested so much in urban highways, only to find out that they might actually destroy wealth rather than help build it. While conventional planning saw infrastructure investment as a way to stimulate the American economy, it turns out that building highways has turned out to be more expensive than investing in public transit and failed to create long lasting economic growth. In fact, older cities adjacent to highways might be worse off economically as a result of the traffic and pollution produced by them.

Dense, walkable urbanism is the new ideal in urban planning, and it’ll be exciting to see the wide-scale changes that’ll take place over the next few decades.


The Long Road To CA High Speed Rail

January 12, 2015

The California High Speed Rail’s groundbreaking ceremony took place last Tuesday, two years after it was originally scheduled to begin construction. It’s been a long and contentious journey to get this point, and the groundbreaking marks a huge step forward for the project.

Critics of the project argue that the high speed rail is a waste of time and money. The idea of high speed rail in California was first brought up in the 1970s and sporadically implemented for the next few decades, but it wasn’t until 2008, when voters approved the High Speed Rail Act, that the project caught real momentum. At the rate it’s progressing, the earliest it will be completed is 2028, and it’s much more likely to be behind schedule than on time. Add to that the fact that most of its funding has yet to be figured out, the numerous lawsuits it’s up against, and the uncertainty of its actual route, we’re looking at a very precarious situation, and it’s no wonder that some are vehemently opposed to it.

Still, there’s one thing for certain–this is a big deal. California high speed rail has faced budget problems, Republican opposition, and disputes over land, but it’s still moving forward. It hasn’t come out unscathed–the GOP has tried to impose funding blocks every step of the way, and frequent delays arose–but construction will finally begin. Taking on high speed rail was an ambitious task, and a huge show of the visionary politics that have been lacking in US government lately. There are still plenty of obstacles to overcome, but this is a big first step, as well as one that stirs the public’s interest and enthusiasm.


How Likely Is A Federal Gas Tax Increase?

January 9, 2015

Gas prices have dropped rapidly in the past several months as the price of crude oil went down by 40%. For the first time since 2009, gas prices are below $2 in some areas, and prices around the country have plummeted overall. Consumers have been rejoicing over the cheaper gas, but what other effects will these low prices have?

Considering how cheap gas has gotten, and the country’s critical need for transportation funding, the idea of increasing federal gas taxes has been tossed around with a bit more intent lately. Federal gas taxes have not been raised since the early 90s, and any initiative to raise them have been a complete bust in Congress. GOP Senator Jim Thune isn’t ruling it out for this year as a means for funding the Highway Trust Fund when it runs out and Rep Nancy Pelosi is calling for it since gas prices are low. At the same time, a federal gas tax increase hasn’t happened for over a decade, and would be somewhat surprising.

The price of gas in the US was low relative to the rest of the world even before the price decrease, and one of the reasons is because Americans aren’t paying the full costs of driving. Current gas taxes don’t even cover the cost of maintaining the roads and bridges people drive on. Not only that, driving comes with many negative externalities, such as health risks, traffic congestion, and injuries/death due to accidents. Accounting for these, the current cost of driving is nowhere near its true cost.

Some, including Professor David Levinson argue that we don’t need to increase the gas tax to pay for infrastructure as we don’t use the money we have very wisely.

While an increase in gas taxes seems unlikely, it’s nice to consider the hoped for effects it would have–decreased congestion, fewer traffic fatalities, and maybe a small reprieve to the disaster that is federal transportation funding.  We aren’t holding our breath.


A Long-Term Solution to Transportation Funding?

Federal transportation funding has been a dominant topic in transportation policy, and with the dramatic near-bankruptcy of the Highway Trust Fund last year, many are looking at Congress to come up with a long-term transportation funding solution soon. President Obama is hopeful that a bipartisan agreement can be reached in the next year, after 6 years in office, and reiterates his belief that better infrastructure is crucial to America’s competitiveness.

At the same time, its impossible to ignore the very long to-do list that transportation legislators have for 2015. With the problems of funding and partisan disagreement, it’s questionable whether or not the next year will be as productive as we hope. Funding remains the biggest issue to tackle–the Highway Trust Fund extension will run out in May, and Congress will have to deal with finding money for it again very soon.

Aging infrastructure is an urgent problem, especially in states like Minnesota. Many of its roads are far past their life expectancy, and a third of its bridges are structurally deficient. The state is considering gas and transit taxes to help fund its roads and highways. However, another issue with Minnesota’s transportation budget is that they spend far more money on new construction than they do on maintenance, which they direly need. Considering the fact that some of their old infrastructure is much more heavily used than their new infrastructure is projected to be, it seems unreasonable to continue funneling so much money for new projects while older infrastructure is falling apart.

Despite the uncertainty of transportation funding’s future, investment in transit continues to grow. There are dozens of new projects scheduled to begin next year, and municipalities are becoming increasingly adept at generating funds for transit projects by themselves.


Streetcars are in the News and Questioned

January 6, 2015

Transit funding is one of the most widely debated topics in urban politics today, especially across party lines. While liberals tend to espouse public transit and its many economic and social benefits, conservatives often question the viability of having the federal government fund mass transit.

The Obama administration has spent half a billion dollars trying to revive the American streetcar, but the results have been mixed.  Some projects, like Arlington County’s streetcar, were cancelled after years of planning. Not only that, some ardent transit supporters even question whether streetcars without dedicated lanes are any better than buses.

For cities that are revitalizing, upgrading and extending their streetcars is a major consideration. HART has done a preliminary study on extending Tampa’s Streetcar, which may cost up to $60 Million, but the source of the funding has yet to be determined. While Tampa’s downtown revitalization has mostly been privately funded after a heavy investment in Channelside, infrastructure projects such as its streetcar would require even more taxpayer money.

Nonetheless, enthusiasm for streetcars is not unfounded. Streetcar advocates argue that streetcars can boost urban redevelopment, create livable neighborhoods, and encourage community building. The worth of a streetcar shouldn’t be based purely on its ability to transport commuters, but also on its effects for the community its located in. Atlanta, which opened its new streetcar just last week, has high hopes for the streetcar reshaping the city’s urban image and alleviating traffic congestion.  We shall see what the future holds as more streetcars come online in 2015.


How Does Transport Funding Look In the Cromnibus?

December 18, 2014

On Tuesday, President Obama signed the massive $1.1 Trillion Omnibus Spending Bill that Congress passed last week. This spending bill will fund government agencies through the end of fiscal year 2015. Many of us were concerned about what the Republican Congress would mean for transportation funding, and now we have a more concrete idea of what changes will be taking place.

It turns out that the federal spending bill will, for the most part, keep funding levels steady for important programs, with modest cuts to a few. One of the programs that many people were most concerned about was TIGER, which provides grants for multimodal transportation on a competitive basis. In May, the GOP threatened to cut TIGER by as much $500 Million. Ultimately, the spending bill has cut $100 million from TIGER, leaving $500 million for the next fiscal year. This isn’t ideal, but it could have been far worse. Unfortunately, the cuts did include money that was intended for planning grants.

The spending bill has also raised some questions about funding for the Southwest LRT project. Originally the Met Council was counting on federal funding to pay for half of the $1.65 Billion extension, but a change in the language for the New Starts program could leave them with a $165 Million deficit. This hasn’t been confirmed yet, as the Met Council will be requesting funding in 2016, after the current omnibus spending bill expires. Still, there’s a chance that the current provisions will stay in place for the next spending bill, and it’s definitely something to consider.

Overall, I think that most of us can breathe a sigh of relief. While there are certainly provisions that can be criticized, the government won’t be shutting down, and any major cuts to key spending programs were avoided.


The Growing Prevalence of Bike Culture In the US

December 17, 2014

The prevalence of bike culture has grown tremendously in the past few decades, and many cities are taking initiatives to promote biking. The health consequences of living in places that aren’t walkable or bikeable have long been established, but there are economic incentives for promoting biking as well. For instance, it costs about $500 a year to transport a child to school by bus in sprawled areas–a large sum that could be greatly reduced if children lived in neighborhoods where they could walk or bike. Not only that, building infrastructure like protected bike lanes has also been shown to reduce pedestrian injuries along the streets that they are built on. The reasons for this are varying: bike lanes shorten the distance of crosswalks, clarify right of way conflicts, and create traffic-calming barriers that slow cars down.

To promote biking, municipalities build infrastructure such as protected bike lanes. Some cities, like New York, have also invested in robust bike share programs. Bike share is still very much in its infancy, but a growing number of cities have taken initiatives to fund bike share networks. The process of creating a bike share network, as well as its implications for a city’s economy, have been hashed out by planning professionals and discussed at length.

Regardless of whether or not you believe in bike culture, it’s impossible to deny its place in modern urban discourse. We debate over the suitability of terms like “protected bike lane” and “cycleway.” Even Lego has published a book that includes protected bike lanes. If US cities continue to promote biking, perhaps there will come a day where we’ll have a thriving bike culture like that of many successful European cities.


How Should We Urbanize?

December 16, 2014
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Yesterday we talked about the numerous benefits of developing dense, walkable urbanism. In addition to the walkability of urban design, another topic that is widely debated is the very character of urban design.

Some feel that successful urbanism is actually created with experimentation and adjustment, and that having a single developer designing a neighborhood is “mock urbanism” that is both unattractive and inappropriate. Instead, allowing urban areas to develop organically would result in the rehabilitation and regeneration that is necessary for successful urbanism. Even if a developer attempts to design a space that is pedestrian friendly, it’s not actually possible to do so without allowing a neighborhood to develop organically according to its real-life needs.

Not only do advocates debate about the organic vs. inorganic nature of urban design and which is better, they also debate about whether or not the “cutesification” of urban design is suitable. While “fun” architects like Bjarke Ingels have become widely lauded, it seems like the issue of fun design is actually highly divisive. Some feel that playful and whimsical solutions to urban issues, such as garbage cans with sound effects and dancing traffic lights, fail to address urban problems in a way that is meaningful and effective. Not only that, it infantilizes the people who actually experience the design–it’s residents.

On the other hand, some urbanists actually appreciate cuteness and whimsy in urban design. After all, the cost of painting a crosswalk in a funky color is both cheap and makes walking a far more enjoyable experience. In addition, creating a fun urban experience may encourage tourism that brings in money and stimulates economic growth. And some architects seem to agree–affordable housing design doesn’t have to be drab and practical, it can be exciting and innovative.


The Benefits of Dense, Walkable Urbanism

December 15, 2014

Today we’re going to talk about the benefits of walkable urbanism. Dense, walkable urbanism is one of the mantras of modern urban planning, but is there actually evidence that it’s any better than other forms of urbanism? After all, the suburbs that most planners now decry were once considered the pinnacle of American neighborhood development. As it turns out, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that walkable urbanism does come with many perks.

Unlike the traditional car-oriented suburb, new research shows that walkable, mixed use neighborhoods are safer, healthier, and more creative. A number of studies also seem to suggest that housing values in walkable neighborhoods are more resilient during economic crises and homes are far less likely to be foreclosed. Walkability is also linked to lower rates of property crime and violence, possibly because there are often more “eyes on the street”. Another surprising benefit is that walkability seems to promote social interactions which encourage creativity as well as greater civic involvement. Finally, a recent study from the University of Kansas shows that walkability is good not only for physical health, but mental health as well. Residents living in walkable neighborhoods not only tend to have lower BMIs, but also a slower decline in cognitive ability as they age.

With all the benefits that seem to come with walkable urbanism, it’s no wonder that it is often seen as the ideal form for modern urbanism. Another factor pushing us toward walkability is the growing awareness of the environmental costs of car dependency. Air pollution is a major current issue, and many municipalities are trying to reduce emissions by reducing car usage and encouraging walking, biking, and mass transit. Paris’ mayor, for instance, recently outlined a radical plan to drastically reduce air pollution by banning diesel cars, growing their network of bike lanes, and encouraging shared mobility. Municipalities all over the world are taking similar initiatives to reduce auto emissions, and it’s happening none too soon.


Fears of Gentrification Shouldn’t Limit Affordable Housing Development

December 12, 2014

Over the past couple of days we’ve talked a lot about how persistent poverty might be just as big a problem as gentrification. Today I’d like to touch upon the topic of affordable housing, which is one of the biggest concerns that people have when they discuss gentrification.

One of the major issues that people have with gentrification is that the influx of wealthier residents can drive up the cost of living–in particular, the cost of housing. Urban revitalization and population growth often come with the price of higher rents and increased property values. To counteract these effects, cities have employed different strategies, from awarding tax credits to developers who invest in affordable housing, to subsidizing housing for low income families, and rent control. These strategies vary in success. Rent control in Washington D.C., for example, includes exceptions which may benefit existing tenants, but will ultimately result in less affordable housing.

What these strategies like rent control and subsidized housing don’t address is the issue that in many cities, the housing supply just hasn’t grown enough to keep up with the growth in population. Recently, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee launched an affordable housing program with the goal of building 4,000 new units by 2020, half of which will be allotted for poor to upper middle class residents. New York’s Department of City Planning is considering developing several parking lots in the Bronx into high-rises. These new developments would increase the housing stock in their cities, but many oppose the development, citing their fears of gentrification. However, developing over a parking lot or a Burger King won’t nearly displace as many people as it will benefit.

We can fear the changing character of our neighborhoods, and the possibility of gentrification. But we shouldn’t do so at the cost of developing some badly needed housing that will benefit everyone, including the poor.


More On Concentrated Poverty: How To Address It

December 11, 2014

Building on yesterday’s discussion of how persistent poverty may be an even bigger problem than the gentrification that dominates the discourse on modern urban issues, let’s get into the details of why poverty needs to be addressed more while discussing urban issues in the US.

This is not a dispute over whether or not gentrification occurs, or whether gentrification has consequences. Gentrification has definitely happened to cities all over the world. Even more frightening than the idea of cities gentrifying and growing economically, however, is the fact that far more cities have fallen deeper into poverty than cities that have gentrified. Over the last 40 years, only 105 out of 1,100 high-poverty areas have gentrified. During that time, the number of high-poverty tracts from 1970 to 2010 increased from 1,100 to over 3,100. That’s right, the number of high-poverty areas has tripled since the 1970s. Exacerbating the issue is that areas that gentrify often develop alongside areas that fall deeper into poverty, because the low-income housing used to address the problem of displacement is often placed in poorer areas, further concentrating the amount of poverty in those neighborhoods.

How do we begin to address the problem of poverty? First, it’s important to acknowledge that place matters. Neighborhoods have long-term effects on their residents, and inter-generational poverty exists and is in part perpetuated by the relative lack of opportunities for residents of low-income neighborhoods. Strategies tackling the issue of poverty should recognize that for low-income residents to gain opportunities, the limitations of their neighborhoods need to be addressed.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that race plays a large role in perpetuating poverty. While diversity has grown, many areas throughout the US, particularly in the South, continue to be largely black and white in racial composition. Discriminatory practices continue to segregate poor blacks and Latinos far more than poor whites and Asians.  If we start by recognizing these issues, we’re more likely to create more opportunities for more communities to thrive.


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