Shorts: Austin + Madison, McLean, the South

1. No, it’s not another post about trendy baby names of the Aughts… Bike Snob NYC visits two cities that have also recently hosted the Congress for the New Urbanism, and once again I feel validated:


If you enjoy shirtless motorcycling, being drunk in revealing clothing, or just plain shouting “Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo!” like a Fred who’s just hit 46mph, then Austin is your kind of town. If, on the other hand, you prefer more refined pleasures such as quiet cocktails, polite conversation, and maintaining your dignity, you might be more at home elsewhere.


As it turns out, Madison is more than just “bike friendly,” and it’s actually so affectionate towards cyclists that it sometimes gropes you in a way that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable… I daresay that Minneapolis and Madison may be even more rideable than “The Artisanal ‘P’.” In particular, riding in Madison was like riding a cotton candy bicycle while being tickled with buttercups…

2. Speaking of fabled places, I would never have guessed that this line by Bobbi Bowman would have been filed from the Beltway’s Republican redoubt:

That battle was basically a clash of visions of downtown McLean. The vision of JBG and its partner, a townhouse developer, was townhouses, a garage on Elm Street with the first floor of restaurants and retail space, a tot lot, and improved storm-water management. The Planning Committee, McLean’s citizen-planners, envisioned apartments, higher density and no garage. [emphasis mine]

3. One of the strange-at-first-glance statistics in a recent Pew report on intermarriage is that the South, which led the opposition to mixed marriages, has a higher incidence of intermarriage than the Midwest or Northeast, although lower than the West. That ranking appears to be an artifact of two factors:
– exposure appears to lower rates of out-marriage in the Midwest; more homogenous states just don’t give their residents much opportunity to out-marry
– Florida and Texas are part of the Census Bureau’s definition of the South, and both share with the West a Hispanic heritage — which, by long-standing Census definition, is already a mix.

The basin isn’t always so placid

Blossomania! Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

Sure, living by the water has its highlights — like being able to walk out your front door to views like these — but I can’t help but worry about the impact of sea level rise on my neighborhood. Luckily, I suppose, I live a few meters above sea level; Washington’s park-lined waterfront allows a substantial buffer against the encroaching high tides.

The EPA’s Rising Sea site offers state-by-state reports on adaptation plans for sea level rise. For the District, the reports indicate that there is a high likelihood of further shore protection for already armored shorelines, like the ones nearest me. A hybrid approach may be taken for currently natural shorelines, like those along the Anacostia River.

Ultimately, the answer may be akin to the tidal gates that have kept the Tidal Basin relatively clean for over a century: a tidal barrier akin to the Thames Barrier, the IHNC under construction outside New Orleans, or one contemplated for New York Harbor. I found a 1963 Army Corps publication on hurricane preparedness (pp. 16-17 of this PDF) that modeled the 15-foot storm surge protection that could be afforded by a mechanical tidal barrier. Their proposed location for the barrier was between Marshall Hall, Maryland and Mason Neck, Virginia. Incidentally, the Marshall and Washington families used to run a little ferry across the river there — but protecting the city named after Mr. Washington might ultimately trump his lifelong dream of improving the Potomac’s navigability.

[2017 update: a Bisnow article mentions proposals for storm surge barriers in Boston, Houston, and New York harbors.]

quick quotes

“The federal budget for nonsecurity discretionary outlays — categories like highways and rail, education, job training, research and development, the judiciary, NASA, environmental protection, energy, the I.R.S. and more — was cut from more than 5 percent of gross domestic product at the end of the 1970s to around half of that today. With the budget caps enacted in the August agreement, domestic discretionary spending would decline to less than 2 percent of G.D.P. by the end of the decade, according to the White House. Government would die by fiscal asphyxiation.” — Jeffrey Sachs

“For a BJ’s customer, you may think that is absolutely ridiculous. We never expected people to use mass transit to shop at a wholesale club.” — Patrick Smith, VP real estate of BJ’s Wholesale Club. [Not actually that unusual; Vancouver has a Costco with direct access to Skytrain.]

“It used to be that Republicans understood that transportation investment was necessary to spur economic growth and create jobs. Now, I guess they think if we give the rich enough tax breaks they will get off the golf course, get in a bulldozer, and start building roads.” — Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Banking subcommittee with jurisdiction over public transportation

“Sometime during the past ten years or so food preparation officially surpassed filmmaking as the loftiest form of creative expression for the liberal arts demographic.  Furthermore, it’s essential that this food be prepared and served from some sort of vehicle (preferably a truck or a bicycle) instead of from an actual restaurant.  Part of the reason for this is of course that it’s cheaper that way, but it’s also because gentrification moves so quickly now that you need to be able to descend upon a new neighborhood within hours of reading a Tweet about it so you can provide all those young “pioneers” with the food products to which their refined palates have grown accustomed.   In any case, I have no doubt that if Darren Aronofsky were getting started today he’d never have made the movie “Pi;” instead, he’d be selling actual pies from a bakfiets.” — BSNYC weighing in on food trucks

A while ago, there was a pile-up on a Japanese highway of incredibly expensive sports cars. In the world’s second-largest car-making nation, this was a response typical of the social disapproval such showy vehicles receive: “It was a gathering of narcissists” — Mitsuyoshi Isejima of the Yamaguchi prefecture expressway traffic unit told Bloomberg.

Here on the south side

Three shorts from the wrong side of the “city of magnificent intentions”:

1. Richard Layman correctly calls a proposed National Harbor casino an “enclave development,” but perhaps that’s the point.

Singapore recently legalized casino gambling, in a bid to keep business travelers amused — and so sought to minimize its impact on local residents by placing the casinos only within integrated resorts, far from local transit, and even requiring a passport check at the casino door (locals can enter for a $75 fee). That way, the city gets the tax revenue without having to deal with the external costs of residents’ gambling addictions.

The closest analogue to that situation in this area, or indeed in most any American city, would be… National Harbor. (The Maryland-waters casino boat at the pier in Chesapeake Beach, Virginia was a similarly inspired way of internalizing the benefits and externalizing the costs, but I doubt Virginia would be quite so happy with it.) I also don’t think that gambling will be all that sustainable a revenue stream, but I’d be hard pressed to find a more appropriately hidden-in-plain-sight site.

2. None other than Leon Krier, the eminence grise of classicism, weighed in on my (extended) neighborhood thusly [in Metropolis, curiously]:

“The post-war redevelopment of the Southwest D.C. neighborhood, beyond the human tragedy of wholesale clearing an entire urban community, replaced L’Enfant’s urban armature and network of streets and squares with a soulless nowhere. The gruesome operation was a crucible for imposing on Washington, D.C. the modernist vision so detested by Eisenhower, abhorred by the users and occasional visitors and avoided and ignored by those who have no obligatory business there… In my opinion [Gehry’s] expressionist design formulae would yet effect a welcome respite from the debilitating boredom of the area.”

He fondly mentions Francisco Ruiz’s counter-proposal, whose best feature by far is a statue astride the Maryland Avenue axis, entitled “The Republic Exhorts the Congress to Conscience.” I’ve thought about doing the same myself some days, but what’s the best costume?

3. I actually sorta relate to Mittens’ recent befuddling utterance that “trees are the right height” in Michigan. I grew up amidst trees, albeit too often trees marked for destruction, and after too many years at the edge of the prairie began to miss to trees. That’s one big reason why I moved back east.

On debt

I have little more to contribute to the discourse over the debt-ceiling debacle — part of the never-ending 2011 budget cutting season (partly a result of this Congress’ record low productivity and thus inability to pass even the most routine of budgetary measures) — so here’s a few quotes I’ve relished from this most recent debate between prudence and insanity:

Perhaps best of all, David Brooks:

If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars of revenue increases… This, as I say, is the mother of all no-brainers.

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.

The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.

The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.

The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name. Economists have identified many factors that contribute to economic growth, ranging from the productivity of the work force to the share of private savings that is available for private investment. Tax levels matter, but they are far from the only or even the most important factor.

But to members of this movement, tax levels are everything. Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures…

Dana Milbank, WaPo:

But while Reagan nostalgia endures, a number of Republicans have begun to admit the obvious: The Gipper would no longer be welcome on the GOP team. Most recently, Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. (Calif.) called Reagan a “moderate former liberal . . . who would never be elected today in my opinion.” This spring, Mike Huckabee judged that “Ronald Reagan would have a very difficult, if not impossible time being nominated in this atmosphere,” pointing out that Reagan “raises taxes as governor, he made deals with Democrats, he compromised on things in order to move the ball down the field.”

The Economist‘s editorial:

Now, however, the Republicans are pushing things too far… The sticking-point is not on the spending side. It is because the vast majority of Republicans, driven on by the wilder-eyed members of their party and the cacophony of conservative media, are clinging to the position that not a single cent of deficit reduction must come from a higher tax take. This is economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical…

America’s tax take is at its lowest level for decades: even Ronald Reagan raised taxes when he needed to do so. And the closer you look, the more unprincipled the Republicans look…

Adam Levitin, a bankruptcy attorney in California, foresees a disaster in the newly rewritten Balanced Budget Amendment (and correctly wonders just how enforceable the amendment could be):

Here’s the true lunacy of the bill, it would require a 2/3s majority (by rollcall vote) in both houses for any bill to increase revenue. Let me repeat that again: any tax increase would have to be approved by a 2/3 majority in both houses. That’s a federal version of Proposition 13, the state Constitutional amendment that destroyed California by requiring supermajorities for tax increases. It effectively gives a selfish minority the ability to stymie actions that benefit the whole.

Robert Bixby, executive director of the original deficit hawks at the Concord Coalition, echoes the sentiment:

The whole point of a balanced budget amendment is to ensure that future generations are free to make their own fiscal decisions. It is inconsistent with that freedom to forever mandate a particular level of spending or to permanently favor spending cuts over revenue increases as the manner of managing these decisions.

GOP turns its back on its past and future

The other day, I mentioned the Republican Party’s role in pioneering huge federal subsidies for national infrastructure investments, spurring centuries of enduring economic growth — and how it’s turned its back on that heritage, now attacking the mere notion of federal investment as “socialistic.”

Take a moment to closely consider the Pacific Railway Act ad the contrast to today’s small-bore politics gets even sharper. 1862’s Republican-dominated Congress wasn’t just preoccupied with a handful of terrorists on the other side of the world; it faced an enemy that had just stolen half the country and was just a few months into battling (and, at that point, winning!) an unfathomably costly and bloody war. That Congress allocated precious federal resources to literally lay the groundwork for a greater future for America — even at a time when it was unclear whether America even had a future.

Moreover, those first Republicans chose to create a giant federal entitlement scheme for snooty higher education — the Morril Land Grant Act — at a time when few Americans could possibly have comprehended widespread college enrollment. That investment, reinforced over the years by state appropriations, now spins off almost incalculable economic gains for the nation. They financed all this federal largesse with, naturally, new income taxes on the rich.

Later, in the Reconstruction years, the transcontinental railroad was lauded for creating publicly funded, make-work jobs for veterans — a noble cause which today’s Republicans denigrate as “buying jobs with borrowed money.” Yet that was never the point of the railroad: those employed veterans were building useful, lasting infrastructure, not ditches. Today, that same infrastructure continues to spin off billions of dollars in value, and continues to create private-sector jobs in ways that its builders could not have foreseen: the fiber-optic backbone paralleling the tracks makes possible companies like Amazon and Qwest, its sheer intermodal shipping capacity underlies UPS’s world-renowned logistics, the diesel-engine business was the basis for GE’s leading position in gas-fired electric turbines. Infrastructure investments don’t pay off next week, and they might not even pay off next year, but they ideally leave lasting benefits for the next generation. However, today’s GOP has made it clear that their vision for government is one that pays off their base now, while damning future generations (of taxpayers, of Medicare beneficiaries) to a nasty, brutish, and short life.

The affluent society starving investment

As the Economist points out this week, capital spending on transportation & water infrastructure in the USA has declined by two-thirds since its Kennedy (and Pat Brown) era heyday. As that era crested, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote “The Affluent Society,” a vision of an America characterized by private affluence amidst public poverty. That vision has come to pass: the World Economic Forum ranks 23rd for overall infrastructure quality, between Spain and Chile. At a metropolitan level, I would hazard that Spanish and Chilean metropolitan commuters appear to enjoy more extensive and efficient mass transit and toll highways than their American counterparts.

As if this precipitous decline in investment just were not enough, Jonathan Cohn points out that the Ryan/House GOP budget would reduce federal spending on infrastructure by roughly half.* That the Republicans are leading this charge would surely disappoint that party’s founding fathers, who (as highlighted at “Established the Transcontinental Railroad” with lavish sums of federal “funny money” (land grants).

The GOP is broadly fighting a war against the future — attacking any investment in the future, choosing instead to distribute those false savings as tax cuts to foster present-day private consumption. The Ryan budget also cuts federal investment in human infrastructure — education — by over half. At the state level in North Carolina, N&O political columnist Rob Christensen frames the “two competing narratives” of low taxes and private consumption today vs. broader public gains tomorrow within the context of Richard Burr, a Republican of the old (pre-paleo-nihilist), truly pro-business variety:

[Gov. Perdue and the Democrats] have argued that North Carolina has been a leader in the South for the past several generations precisely because it has invested more than its sister states in creating a nationally respected university system, a noted community college system, and has historically been a leader in roads and the arts. That North Carolina — unlike other parts of the South — has not engaged in a race to have the lowest taxes in the South, the Democrats argue, has allowed the state to develop a more sophisticated industrial policy that has resulted in such success stories as the Research Triangle Park…

[Republican U.S. Senator Richard Burr:] “We are the highest-tax state in the Southeast. And we still win. We win more than our neighboring states.” The main reason, Burr said, is because of North Carolina’s education system, particularly its university and community college system. “When an employer looks at an investment in North Carolina, they are not looking at the return next year,” Burr said. “They are looking at the return 30 years from now. They need a future workforce that has the skills and knowledge.”

* Note differing metrics (% of GDP spent by all levels of government vs. just federal spending per capita). I’d estimate the Ryan trendline on that graph slightly downward, based on stable or declining state/local spending, which seems likely given budget pressures, and GDP growth modestly outpacing population growth.

Speaking of smoothly functioning societies, Fukuyama confirms Kierkegaard’s theory that history ends in modern Copenhagen. We’re all “getting to Denmark,” it would seem.


1. No, we cyclists don’t approve of how stupid riding, either:

The above video adheres to the bicycle messenger video style manual, which mandates that any video must include messengers talking about how dangerous their job is while simultaneously including footage of them doing their job in the most idiotically dangerous way possible…. I’d like to see a video from the IBEW in which electricians talk about how dangerous their job is, intercut with footage of them randomly stabbing at wall outlets with forks. – BSNYC

2. On the eve of the government shutdown:

Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) drew cheers by saying, “If liberals in the Senate would rather play political games and shut down the government instead of making a small down payment on fiscal discipline and reform, I say, ‘Shut it down.’” – reported by John Avlon, Daily Beast

I’d like to see these Ayn Rand-worshipping teabagger extremists survive a true government shutdown. End Social Security and Medicare payments, garrison the forts, abandon the airports and ports and border crossings, freeze defense contractors’ payments, stand down the poultry inspectors, turn off MedLine, rope off the Interstates. See how your constituents feel after a few days of living in the Stone Age. Those taxes we pay are (h/t Oliver Wendell Holmes) the price of civilization, and without them we’ll descend into anarchy — which ain’t pretty.

3. David Roberts says of a nifty LLNL flowchart of America’s energy consumption: “Holy sh*t we waste a lot of energy! Well over half of the raw energy that enters our economy goes to waste.” Less than 1/3 of the fuel going into electric plants actually ends up as used energy; generator losses and line loss accounts for much of the rest. (Smart grids and better transmission lines should go a ways to solving that.) Yet the huge waste is in transportation: just as much energy is wasted in transportation as is provided by coal. Only 1/4 of the energy going into the transportation sector actually gets used. Increasing fuel economy will surely help matters a great deal, but surely a great deal of that inefficiency stems from America’s overreliance on the 20%-efficiency internal combustion engine for almost all of its transportation needs.

4. DCentric’s Elahe Izadi reveals how (in DC as in Chicago, although less dramatically since gentrification led to net gains in DC vs. net losses in Chicago) suburbanization rather than gentrification actually explains much of the decline in both cities’ Black populations.

Yesterday we spoke with demographer Roderick J. Harrison, a senior fellow at the Joint Center and a Howard University associate professor, to get a better understanding of the city’s shifting demographics. He framed D.C.’s loss of 39,000 black residents in this light: gentrification wasn’t the major driving force in Wards 7 and 8, where population losses were the greatest. Rather, it was by-and-large classic suburbanization in which people left the city’s poorest wards “that are often considered the worst neighborhoods,” Harrison said.

“The force behind it probably is seen as a positive force. These are people who are some way or another, they are upwardly mobile, they are improving their housing and neighborhood conditions, they are making personal decisions that they see, on the whole, as an improvement,” he said.

5. I’ve previously despaired over whether Continental Airlines’ marketing strategy might win out over United Airlines’ — and yes, it seems that CO’s Kaplan Thaler is behind the new company’s branding. As Lewis Lazare wrote in the Sun-Times:

A golden age in the annals of airline advertising officially ended Tuesday when the merged United Airlines unveiled its first ad campaign from Kaplan Thaler/New York ad agency… does away with the elegant, illustration-centric print ads and television commercials that for the past four years were a hallmark of the United advertising created by the Minneapolis boutique shop Barrie, D’Rozario Murphy. Those print ads and story-driven commercials were always smart and sophisticated — the finest examples of airline advertising since the landmark ‘World’s Favorite Airline’ campaigns for British Airways from Saatchi & Saatchi/London in the late 1980’s… United’s ads from BDM helped elevate the carrier’s image even as the airline was struggling to right itself after a difficult bankruptcy filing… The new United advertising just now breaking incorporates much of the imagery associated with previous Continental campaigns, which have been handled for many years by Kaplan Thaler. It is certainly a functional campaign, if not hugely creative.

However, what worked for Continental might not work for the new United: the two competed in very different market spaces. Continental faced very little competition for its “hub captive” travelers, and has been able to profit immensely from that. That’s highlighted in Nate Silver’s recent analysis of airports with “unfair fares.” Legacy Continental’s hubs are #1, #2, and #6 on his list of most overpriced large airports, with megahubs IAH and EWR taking the top slots. Of United’s hubs, IAD and ORD are #7 and #8, but United’s other three hubs are apparently at least fairly priced — and United has at times been #2 to American at ORD.


1. Commenter Future Bus Riders Union Member over at Human Transit points out that the recent installation of a cyclist Green Wave on Valencia St — San Francisco’s Hipster Highway — doesn’t just save cyclists energy, but it also reduces potential conflicts with buses:

“I suspect this is probably the best way to reduce the problem of bikes and buses continually overtaking each other. While bikes and buses often travel at roughly the same average speed, they don’t have the same acceleration profile. When you set traffic lights at the same speed you tend to ameliorate the jockeying for position problem.”

Speaking of green waves, something I hadn’t really noticed until last week: Chicago, probably due to its Midwestern scale and density, sometimes doesn’t have that many stop lights. I rode 3 miles down side streets from Ukrainian Village to Logan Square and encountered only one red light. As much as I like 11th St NW to take me downtown from Columbia Heights, the lights are always against me — and they’re every two blocks, well outside downtown. (Particularly frustrating is the light at Florida, at the base of the 100′ ridge; I very rarely have managed to not have that turn red as I’m going downhill.)

2. Blair Kamin writes about how public space and virtual space have reinforced one another in the Mideastern revolutions — and, ironically, that the incident that started it all involved an internet cafe, that rare space which stands at the border of both:

“There was a time when some viewed the Internet and social media as the enemies of public space. These critics had nightmarish visions of a world where people lived in lonely isolation, lured away from the public square by the seduction of Internet chatrooms. The picture was of people sitting in the dark, in the basement, staring at the computer screen, always by themselves.

“But if Friday’s resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak proves nothing else, it is that social media and public space can be complementary, rather than in conflict. The social bonds built in the virtual world can spill over into the physical world–and with such seismic force that they can topple an autocrat.

“The revolt is Egypt is said to have begun with the killing of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old Egyptian businessman who was hauled out of an Internet cafe by plainclothes policemen last June and beaten to death. As the New York Times reported last week, a graphic Facebook page tribute to Said provided an outlet for people’s rage.”

3. One possible bright side to Chicago’s steep population decline: people largely seem to have moved away from several hypersegregated neighborhoods, from gentrifying neighborhoods, and from the formerly racially homogenous Bungalow Belt. (See this tract-level map, from the Tribune.) The net result is that segregation on the south & southwest sides may have declined from its former levels.

4. Like Donna Dubinsky, writing in the Times recently, I recently had a discouraging experience securing an individual health insurance policy:

“how broken the market for health insurance is, even for those who are healthy and who are willing and able to pay for it… I have no doubt that the system is broken and reform is absolutely essential. If we are not going to have universal coverage but are going to rely on employer plans, then we must offer individuals, self-employed people and small businesses a place to purchase insurance at a reasonable price.”

I’ve always suspected that at least part of the reason why Canadian cities are filled with small businesses while American cities are “food deserts” (besides their superior, investment- and entrepreneur- oriented immigration policies) is because universal health insurance unleashes their entrepreneurial potential; Americans are tied to their big-company jobs by health insurance. If even successful, hundred-millionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneurs find that going it alone proves perplexing, then how can we expect others to navigate the system?

5. Speaking of socialized medicine, socialism sure seems to work in the imperfect market of HIV transmission, where treatment is prevention. Vancouver gets headlines for its supervised injection sites, but the other half of its successful anti-HIV strategy (infections have fallen by over half, yielding incalculable long term cost savings for everyone) is to eliminate free riders through widespread testing and treatment, as Donald McNeil Jr. reports:

By offering clean needles and aggressively testing and treating those who may be infected with H.I.V., Vancouver is offering proof that an idea that was once controversial actually works: Widespread treatment, while expensive, protects not just individuals but the whole community.

6. The myopic cut-spending-at-all-costs agenda being pushed by Congressional Republicans now reminds me of the intergenerational warfare that typifies issues like school funding in Florida or Arizona. There, largely White homeowning seniors systematically veto taxes that would pay for schools educating a largely Latino student population — starving the future to feed the present. Of course, though, this is the natural result of a GOP that’s beholden to old white voters:

It is difficult, for example, to fulfill your promises to balance the budget and reduce the national debt without enacting substantive reforms to Medicare and Social Security, and it’s almost impossible to reform Medicare and Social Security if your most important constituents are the people who benefit the most from those programs. The result is a lot of hypocrisy—like Republicans resisting precisely the kind of Medicare cuts they’ve advocated for decades—and a potential split between spending-obsessed Tea Partiers and the establishment conservatives who know they owe their jobs to seniors.

This hysterical hue and cry of Republican stupidity drowns out any number of more reasonable proposals to reduce the deficit. The GOP is blind to the 800-pound gorillas in the room; they’re slurping up buckets of cash for seniors’ transfer payments and cushy security contracts. Extracting all of their spending cuts from the remainder of the budget is like a lobbyist fat on steakhouse dinner trying to diet by foregoing side salads.

Those transfer payments are so huge that Ezra Klein writes: “the business of the American government is insurance. Literally. If you look at how the federal government spends our money, it’s an insurance conglomerate protected by a large, standing army.” I guess it’s only appropriate that we own AIG, right?

(Seems like that “insurance” line was first used by Peter Fisher.)

One bipartisan panel has already advanced nearly $100 billion in cuts (that somehow magical figure that needs to be gutted out of existing discretionary programs) just to the Department of Defense, with appreciably no impact on Americans’ daily lives or long-term security. Instead, it stops the age-old practice of giving the Pentagon toys that it didn’t want. Obvious to me, but evidently many Americans don’t think that’s a folly.

The “cut & invest,” feed-the-future tone that Obama’s budget puts forth — one similar to what NYT columnists like Tom Friedman have been advocating — certainly sounds more promising to this young voter. It inspired me to try that NYT budget exercise again; my latest plan gets the spending cuts : tax ratio up to 77 : 23 — and still notably including a fully refunded carbon tax. (Or, of course, a fraction of that could be set aside for investment in market-tested decarbonization.)

Regional briefs

1. After having looked at literally thousands of plans for New Urbanist developments around the world, I learned to to groan and roll my eyes whenever one had either (a) a green semicircle or (b) a “promised rail transit line” somewhere on the plan. These were cliches that every plan seemed to have, and those promised transit lines never actually seem to materialize.

Now, here we have a plan that was designed around a “promised rail transit line” — so much so that the retail and high-density residential are at the middle of the neighborhood, much to their detriment, instead of along the arterial at the edge — and now the promised transit is coming so late in the game that it’s facing NIMBYs from within the walkable neighborhood: “Rockville City Council votes to reroute CCT out of King Farm.”

Unlike yesteryear’s streetcar suburbs, we now can’t put the tracks in first. Today’s cost-effectiveness measures rightly demand that transit go where people live today, instead of where they might be living tomorrow.

2. A thought: bikeshare came in quite handy for a short trip out of town — I left via bus, from Chinatown, and returned via trail, into Union Station, and bikeshare is perfect for trips like that (different start and end points, falling outside usual transit operating hours).

While I was in Crystal City a few weeks ago, I noticed that there’s a bikeshare station near the airport access road ramp — which gave me an idea. Since National Airport is right next to the Mount Vernon trail and already has bike racks, couldn’t I use bikeshare to get to a flight out of/into DCA? Many flights — late weeknight or early weekend — fall outside Metro service hours.

The trouble is, all of the stations are on the west side of the CSX/GW Parkway corridor and the trail/airport are on the east, with few ways to cross. The two ways to do this now (until MWAA decides to add a bikeshare station within DCA, perhaps as an employee incentive) appear to be:
– Exit the Mount Vernon trail at the Aviation Circle “cloverleaf” and park the bike near the Crystal City metro. Walk back along the trail and Aviation to the parking lots and the airport.
– Ride around Crystal City, looking for a hotel with an airport shuttle parked out front. Return the bike near the hotel and hop on the shuttle. Tip the driver. (I don’t feel all that guilty about using hotel services since I do frequently stay in hotels, but others might disagree.)

3. Sadly, that brings me to this (during Restaurant Week, no less): “goddammit, DC is the worst food scene ever. anywhere else in the US this is just airport food and airport prices!” — seen on Wonkette

4. It seems that the most popular uses of Capital Bikeshare so far are for entertainment trips, rather than work trips. The densest routes are within the DuPont-Logan-U Street triangle, with intra-Capitol Hill and DuPont-Adams Morgan-Columbia Heights as other important corridors. I’m also surprised at how many trans-Potomac trips it’s getting, given that the pricing structure discourages such long trips.

Also interesting from Arlington’s transportation blog: planners are now soliciting public ideas for how to improve bike routes parallel to Columbia Pike. The Pike itself is undergoing a transformation into a transit boulevard, with wider sidewalks but without bike lanes; perhaps bike boulevards alongside the road (as along Shattuck in Berkeley or Broadway in Vancouver) can help make the corridor work better for all modes.

5. An updated version of a comment defending the notion of a new high-speed rail corridor in the Northeast from uninformed attacks at Megan McArdle’s blog.

1. New Jersey includes a lot of rural areas, like Cape May. The metropolitan counties that line the Northeast Corridor have a population density of 982/sq. mi., and growing (unlike Germany) to a projected 1,248/sq. mi. by 2040. Japan is blanketed by solidly profitable high-speed rail, reaching even its most distant corners, and has a population density of only 870/sq. mi.

2. High-speed rail turns operating profits all over the world, from France and Spain to Taiwan; in fact, even Acela generates an operating profit. Amtrak’s proposal for a new high-speed Northeast Corridor predicts an operating surplus of nearly $1B a year in 2040, and the medium-speed continuation south to Charlotte is similarly expected to turn a net profit.

Acela, in fact, is quite profitable for Amtrak. Preliminary 2010 figures put the operating margin at 29%, or $130.7 million, and revenues grew 16% over the past year. The rest of the Northeast Corridor regional services run at about break-even on this basis. (Amtrak excludes OPEB, capital, and other costs, so these are not readily comparable to airlines’ financial reports, and airlines obviously don’t report profitability on a corridor or route basis.) To put 2010 into perspective, airfares in some northeast city pairs (Boston-Washington, for instance) have been exceptionally low, the NEC was washed out by the Rhode Island floods, and the northeast’s intercity bus market has grown tremendously — and yet Amtrak’s existing and slow services are doing just fine.

3. No, high-speed services will not repay their capital costs. Very few passenger transportation investments do. The first railroad boom in America was underwritten by a giant speculative bubble which cost investors dearly, even after receiving immense federal subsidies in the form of land grants. Similarly, most older rail transit systems in the USA were built by real estate developers, hucksters, or both. Over the course of history, airlines have lost their investors countless billions even though they only pay a fraction of their capital costs — and create significant negative externalities (pollution) while operating with less than amazing reliability.

The subsidies that the public sector extends for infrastructure are repaid to the public in that they enable productivity gains that lead to greater economic growth down the road, so to speak. Which brings us to:

4. A growing population and growing economy (the Northeast’s GRP will double by 2050, assuming no constraints [like traffic] to growth) creates more demand for passenger travel. How do you propose to shoehorn ever greater passenger numbers down I-95 and through JFK? Or do you intend to stop economic growth in the Northeast, and thus for 20% of America’s economy? Isn’t unconstrained economic growth the Republican mantra?

Or, if you do wish to allow the Northeast to continue to grow and therefore assent to spending billions on transportation corridors, why would you not want to spend public funds on the mode which can deliver the most capacity, at the highest speed, with the best safety and reliability record, between the highest-value (highest productivity) center-city locations, at the least cost? Right now, we’re coasting off of infrastructure investments made 50 or 100 years ago (no new Hudson road tunnels have been built in 53 years, and no rail tunnels in the past century) — that’s only possible for so long before new investments need to be made to maintain and upgrade what’s there.

Moving 50 million riders a year, as a new Northeast high-speed rail line could do, would cost vast fortunes to do in cars, buses, or planes. Consider that the DCA-LGA-BOS airline shuttles move just 3 million passengers a year, that their use is eroding, and that the billions being spent on the region’s airports will just maintain today’s unacceptable delays. I-95 is about 450 miles from Boston to Washington. Adding surface-level HOT lanes to improve bus service in Virginia is costing about $136 million per mile; going to a double-deck format could almost double that. Doing this for the entire corridor would easily cost as much as a new railroad — Amtrak puts the cost of an entirely new NEC high-speed line at $70 billion — and at much lower speeds and much less safely.

5. Overspending on rural roads has persisted far out of proportion to need or any sense of equity. The Illinois DOT has long spent 40-45% of its statewide funds within the Chicago metro, even though the metro accounts for about 65% of the population, well over half the cars and fuel tax revenue, and has higher per-mile construction costs (due largely to that heavier traffic). As a result, bike lanes in Chicago carry more people over more potholes than smooth interstate highways downstate.

Crossing the line

Metro briefs for today. (Whew, am I sick of food trucks, although I appreciate Jef Nickerson for saying what’s on my mind: “I’m not saying Food Trucks should be banned, far from it. What I would like to see is, the city thinking about ways to encourage other forms of street food, be they micro-storefronts, push carts, Food Trucks, or something else.”)

1. Chris Leinberger tries to make nice with Joel Kotkin by pointing out that the latter is stuck in the old city vs. suburb dichotomy, hung up on municipal boundaries. This is still necessary that many years after David Rusk‘s “elastic cities” hypothesis? And for a writer based in the southwest, with its highly elastic cities? I’m more inclined to chalk it up to willful ignorance.

(Since I grew up in an “elastic” city with a regional school district, all of which consisted principally of low-density sprawl that overran and embedded a few country towns, I’ve always thought this distinction was a complete canard. Of course “auto-dependent sprawl” and “walkable urbanism” can both exist in either city, suburb, town, or country. Duh.)

2. Delhi is following Singapore and writing traffic tickets based on photo evidence of infractions posted to Facebook. I typically would support measures to improve the ubiquity of traffic law enforcement, particularly as regards public safety, but this raises serious concerns about due process. I wonder how much supporting evidence would be necessary to verify that such photos haven’t been doctored: untampered EXIF data? GPS tracks showing that the car was at that location?

3. “Chicago taxpayers [will] cry” over the $11 billion that the Morgan Stanley joint venture [JV] will make over the term of the parking meter lease, according to Bloomberg’s Darrell Preston. (The JV also admits that the amount it spent on new meters amounts to a mere $40M.) Interesting that the JV is issuing what amounts to parking-meter revenue bonds — except priced as corporate bonds, not as tax-exempt municipal debt. (I’ve been saying all this time that an easier and more cost-effective way to tap into the future revenue stream would be for the city to jack the rates and issue revenue bonds. The primary reason for not doing this is that it would add debt to the city’s books, thereby lowering its credit rating — and that the proceeds from municipal bonds are subject to greater City Council scrutiny under Illinois law than the proceeds from a PPP. Well, the city got a downgrade anyways.)

Meanwhile, of course, San Francisco — which pioneered parking meter revenue bonds back in 1994 — has just launched SFpark, its municipally run advanced market-pricing scheme. The startup costs are underwritten via a loan from the MPO, interestingly, to be paid back with the enhanced revenues. And guess what else? The city still retains the flexibility to do cool things with its public space, like curbside bike parking. Imagine that!

4. An interesting participation exercise from the Next American City, sponsored by IBM’s Smarter Cities ad campaign: The Next American City Challenge on Tumblr.

5. Speaking of Tumblr, TakeMeWithYou is a WPB Make Believe project that used the “community disposable camera” model of storytelling. This was suggested as one idea for our WPB plan outreach process; glad to see that it came up with some fun results.

6. Great article by Fred Mayer on the Twin Cities (and Madison) bike economy, which he estimates at over $300M in revenues annually. One might think that the bike industry should prove to have a particularly lucrative local multiplier effect: it’s relatively light on capital and heavy on labor, and generates positive local externalities — quite unlike driving, which sucks money out of other sectors of the economy and sends almost all of its capital costs out of the local economy.

7. Park51, or the Cordoba Initiative, is obviously a local zoning matter — and as such, national Republicans have zero say. Perhaps that’s why they’re fast falling into line to “stand against the Ground Zero mosque,” since it’s completely painless: it will undoubtedly happen, and they can look like they’re doing something (paying lip service to the insane base) without actually affecting any real change. Yet watching this is frightening: for government to step in and “stop” Park51 wouldn’t just prohibit the free exercise of religion (1st Amendment) but also deprive the rightful landowners their property (5th Amendment). That this self-described “Don’t Tread on Me” crowd can show off that much contempt for personal freedoms just makes it all the more obvious that such “freedoms” only apply to their selfish selves.

8. Tom Philpott over at Grist notes that even most rural farms, much less urban farms, don’t make money. It frustrates me that so many people are so hopelessly naïve about farming’s poor economics: after the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars paving over farmland because it’s uneconomical, suddenly now farming will be profitable enough to underwrite demolition and infrastructure work to undo it all? This goes double for architects who concoct schemes featuring purpose-built “vertical ag” megastructures for agriculture (the very definition of a “factory farm”), or those positing urban farms as the solution for just about everything urban-decline related.

For instance, last year’s Re-Burbia competition finalists included exactly two approaches that comprehensively evolving suburbs through individual initiative. The rest of the schemes were a collection of inflexible (and therefore inherently unsustainable) megastructures (the sort of megalomaniacal thinking that got us into this mess of cloverleafs, malls, and McMansions), one-off tech gizmo wonder panaceas, or land-use transformations that betray a complete misunderstanding of economics (farms and wetlands are great, but they just don’t pay the rent).

As Alex Steffen (via Allison Arieff in Good) points out (and as SF Streetsblog commenters echo), it’s a folly to think that any vacant land (even in stagnant cities) should automatically be best thought of as agriculture, particularly permanently; in many cases, such land could best enhance regional sustainability (and the regional economy) if used to enhance walkability instead with more housing, retail, or workplaces. The difference between zero and ten food miles is nothing like the difference between ten and 2,000. Eliminating the first 99.5% of the food miles is easy and necessary, so let’s not obsess over the last 0.4%.

(And really, this has nothing to do with the orchard. Honest: that necessarily has to be open space of some kind.)

9. “[C]limatologists have long theorized that in a warming world, the added heat would cause more record highs and fewer record lows. The statistics suggest that is exactly what is happening. In the United States these days, about two record highs are being set for every record low, telltale evidence that amid all the random variation of weather, the trend is toward a warmer climate.” Justin Gillis [NYT]

Less serious:

10. Oh, how I’ve giggled at the now-repaired-again Milshire Ho sign. (Backup photo.) For the longest time, I just assumed it read “Wilshire.”

11. Oh, and while we’re in Logan Square, my friends’ HGTV makeover aired in June. Check this page for when it’ll re-run.

12. Not metro at all, but a recent party joke was about a theme band called “Ayn Rand Sex Scene.” Given her newfound popularity…

Quick: 31 July

A couple of recent thoughts:

1. “Chicago’s transit system–the country’s second largest with an average 1.8 million riders every weekday–faces some of the nation’s most dire challenges. It has more than $7 billion in unfunded maintenance needs. On parts of the system, for example, trains engineered to speed along at 70 mph now must slow to a 15 mph crawl because the fragile rails can’t handle faster speeds. ‘They’re going at the speed of a horse and buggy because the rails are literally eroding and coming loose from the ties,’ says Ben Forman, research director for MassINC, a nonpartisan, Boston-based public policy think tank. ‘When transit breaks down as it has in Chicago, cities lose a big part of their core.’ ” [Zach Patton in Governing]

2. Dig up the Deep Tunnel? The Philadelphia Water Department, faced with the prospect of an $8 billion bill to deal with combined sewer overflow, has instead presented the EPA with a $1.6 billion green infrastructure plan that seeks to effectively de-pave 1/3 of the city’s impervious surface. Shades of Growing Water here… [h/t Feather O’Connor Houstoun in the same issue of Governing]

3. I’m know it’s so very trendy, but I really don’t understand the fascination with littering Chicago with food trucks. I’ve found them quite annoying in NY and LA:
– they don’t pay rent for the valuable public space they take up
– they unfairly compete with fixed-premise restaurants, particularly since Chicago suffers from many miles of empty storefronts
– they only go to trendy areas which already have lots of shops and foot traffic, thereby merely overcrowding existing transient hotspots and potentially preventing new areas from emerging
– they leave clouds of diesel fumes and noise in their wake, since they run generators even when idling
– they generate mountains of trash in said areas’ already-overflowing trashcans, since there’s no capacity for onboard dishwashing and few sidewalk recycling bins
– they’d be yet more unwieldy vehicles careening through the streets, killing people in crashes.

I certainly don’t dispute the overall goals to have broadly available, inexpensive food and easing the way for entrepreneurs to open foodservice businesses. However, these goals frankly have nothing to do with adding more smelly trucks to already choked streets. Seems like we’d be better off making it easier for people to open small restaurants — perhaps through establishing public markets, or “hawker centres” as Singapore’s government (which counts getting rid of itinerant food vendors as a key public health victory) insists on calling them.

4. A recent conversation turned to imagining the office drama at the planning department in West Hollywood, “America’s First Gay City”: the setting almost seems worthy of a TV series on a gay cable channel. Perhaps a workplace sitcom riffing on “Parks and Rec,” with hilariously micromanaging interior decorators staffing the design review commission, or a drama combining the personal dramatics of [well, just about any gay drama] with a noirish view of (lightly fictionalized) viciously seamy municipal politics. Unlike popularizations of planning like SimCity, this would expose planning not as a bland technocracy, but as a bunch of jealous hacks playing out their inter-personal political dramas across a bigger stage.

Anyhow, the thought reoccured to me upon finding that the vice-chair of WeHo’s transportation commission is perhaps better known as the former author of Boi from Troy, a blog combining Log Cabin Republican political views with a passion for local college football(ers). Actually, I’m pretty sure that WeHo is a pretty well governed place, and its fussy attention is evident in some pretty thoughtful streetscapes — but it’s still funny to imagine.

5. Where in today’s Republican Party are honest-to-god “fiscal conservatives” like Peter Peterson and David Stockman and Bruce Bartlett? What I see on Capitol Hill now is a group of nihilist zombies, holding even the smallest of bills hostage as fiscal death (most notably the recent $34B unemployment extension) while simultaneously seeking to blast a 100X bigger hole in the budget with their sacreder-than-Jeebus tax cuts. These people can’t be serious, and yet they are.

Bartlett: “Republicans have a completely indefensible position on taxes. In their view, deficits cannot arise from tax cuts. No matter how much taxes are cut, no matter how low revenues go as a share of GDP, tax cuts are never a cause of deficits; they result ONLY AND EXCLUSIVELY from spending—and never from spending put in place by Republicans, such as Medicare Part D, TARP, two unfunded wars, bridges to nowhere, etc—but ONLY from Democratic efforts to stimulate growth, help the unemployed, provide health insurance for those without it, etc. The monumental hypocrisy of the Republican Party is something amazing to behold.”