Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Getting Around in Suburbia

Two stories from this week's Crain's Chicago Business offer insight into the problems of mobility in suburbia. The first story documents the "targeting" of Hispanics by suburban taxi cab firms. Seeing a market opening amongst the nearly 1 million Latinos living in Chicago's suburbs, it seems that bad public transportation, language barriers, the inability of many recent immigrants to get drivers licenses and insurance, the significant costs of owning and maintaining a vehicle, and the need to travel disparate miles to reach shopping, work, and home are creating an emergent class of Latino private transport entrepreneurs.

Spanish-speaking riders may feel more comfortable catching rides with cabbies with whom they can effectively communicate--fending off the feeling that they may be getting swindled. Like many new immigrant sub-markets, there is a relatively small number of cab owners who, according to the article:
all know each other and have established informal territories that avoid direct competition.
While I can appreciate the filling of a market demand by these new cab companies which are basically micro-enterprises that have low profit margins, this highlights the real tragedy of transportation policy in the U.S. This system flourishes through the exploitation of economically marginal populations who have no other choice than to pay the high price of taxis to get around. A sound transportation policy that takes into account the need for multiple forms of mobility in the suburban setting helps not only the economically marginalized, but everyone since the barrier to access is so low. Currently, public policies overwhelmingly subsidize a privatized form of mobility that has a significant barrier for entry. This seems rather unjust.

To recognize the absurdity of this situation, we now turn to the second article in this week's Crains. Titled, "Mall-to-Mall Trolley Service," it takes us to the Chicago suburban hell of Schaumburg--an infamous "Edge City" similar to those profiled by Joel Garreau in his oft-cited book.

Schaumburg is the home to the mega-Woodfield Mall, an Ikea, a Costco, and other retail establishments typical of the sprawl environment. Of course, these monstrosities were designed almost exclusively for automobile traffic--minimal sidewalks, no street life, oceans of parking lots, etc... With the continuing expansion of commercial development, the planners found that [gasp!] people were driving from one big-box shopping establishment to another--all of which are in relative proximity to one another, but impossible to reach as a pedestrian. The arterial roads have been suffering congestion, making it difficult for shoppers to reach the big boxes.

The solution? "Trolleys"! Now, we're not talking real trolleys here, but rather the absurdist saccharine dress-up game to make a bus not look like a bus. Richard Bascomb, Schaumburg's transportation planner explains the logic of the trolley this way:
"We view the trolleys as a convenience to customers, a fun way to get them from one shopping destination to another," Mr. Bascomb says. "We also see them as a way to get people out of their cars and off the roads."

Well, I guess the Schaumburg shoppers don't see the same opportunity for "fun" or "convenience" that Bascomb intends--as the article indicates, last year's annual ridership was at an anemic 78,000 passengers. To keep this in perspective, this commercial district attracts 100,000 cars PER DAY.

A look at the system map shows why the trolley is an utter failure:

To get from Ikea to the "Streets of Woodfield" would take you a half hour given all of the stops the "trolley" makes--and the traffic. But, hey, it's fun!

Perhaps Schaumburg should nix the trolley project and hire the good folks at Taxi Azteca to shuttle people around? After that, they can then begin to get serious about dealing with the suburban transportation crisis by exploring actual, equitable remedies as opposed to funneling public funds down an ineffective simulacrum.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Obesity and Urban Design

The fact that there is a link between the built environment and health is old news. That fact should not impair us from mentioning this article appearing in the Boulder Daily Camera discussing current attempts throughout the US at making suburban areas more conducive to walking, biking, and other types of "active living."

While retrofitting suburbia to be more human-centric may be challenging, the more that linkages like this are made the more likely an urban "consciousness" will be regenerated--which is essential to making US urban development more sensible.

Suburban sprawling development is so inane on many levels--health, economics, social connectedness--and the urban alternatives so appealing, I would posit that a talented politician could fuse a mighty appealing vision for American life. Perhaps a Marshall Plan for saving our suburbs could be an attractive mantra?

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Limiting Big Box Retail in Arizona

We are coming up upon the local election season in many areas of the United States. Many municipalities are using these opportunities to present growth management referenda for consideration by local electorates.

One interesting campaign to watch is being waged in Flagstaff, Arizona. Flagstaff is the gateway to the Grand Canyon and--while relatively small in population (appx 55,000)--is the major urban center of northern Arizona.

Proposition 100 would uphold a decision by the City Council to place limits on "big box retail" in the city. Among its provisions:
- Limit new retail development buildings to 125,000 square feet
- Require any proposal that exceeds 75,000 square feet to have a comprehensive impact study commissioned by an independent consultant chosen by the City but paid for by the developer
- Cap the amount of floor space dedicated to non-taxable grocery items at 8%

This proposal is quite reasonable. It will not impede consumer choice or businesses from operating there--Flagstaff currently has a Wal Mart that is 115,000 square feet and a Target that is 96,000 square feet. But it will restrict "super-center" monstrosities that decrease neighboring property values, require significant public infrastructure, and adversely affect local businesses.

Every eligible registered voter in Flagstaff will be receiving ballots in the mail beginning mid-April with all ballots being tabulated by 17 May.

There appears to be a strong base of support for the referendum. But according to recent news reports, the opposition appears to be gearing up for a fight. We will be monitoring the campaign and continue to post updates.

In the interim, for people interested in the issues of big box retail, I highly recommend reading the folks over at theboxtank.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Highway Sues Mall

The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority is suing Chicago Premium Outlets in suburban Kane County. At issue is the level of traffic generated by the mall and an agreement between the developer--Simon Property Group [one of the largest shopping mall developers in the country]--and the Tollway that Simon pay for improvements to facilitate traffic. The Tollway is seeing traffic back up on the off-ramp, generating safety and congestion issues. According to the article they are suing for reimbursement for $5 million that they have spent to improve access to the mall.

On the one hand, one wonders why local planners in Kane County and the Tollway Authority couldn't anticipate these problems since they were pretty much guaranteed by the plan: when you situate a large regional mall next to a restricted access highway, in a low density area, with no alternative forms of transportation, traffic levels are going to increase. Of course, the agreement on which they are suing was supposed to require that Simon pay for the improvements.

Aside from the fact that land use patterns in this typical suburban setting made this type of conflict pretty much inevitable, one must also look at the role of large publicly-traded real estate developers in promoting a sprawling development that depends on massive public subsidies.

Simon seems to demand public money for many of its suburban ventures. In 1999 they received $42 million from Orange County, California for the re-development of Mission Viejo Mall. Currently, they are demanding that the City of Fort Worth, Texas finance road improvements for a planned mall in the northern Alliance area.

Simon's expectations of public subsidies extends into its plans for constructing its corporate headquarters in downtown Indianapolis in the Capitol Commons Plaza. Space in the high-demand and prestigious plaza--which contains the Indiana State Capitol--was actually given to the well-connected firm.

One can recognize the challenge that many municipalities and government agencies may have when dealing with large developers like Simon who routinely wait for litigation before complying with various laws. For the developer, legal challenges are assumed as part of their costs of doing business. Unfortunately, people who live in affected communities have to live with the consequences of companies' exploitation of poor planning.

In Kane County, residents are taking action to preserve their community with a referendum to increase the amount of protected open space in the county. This protection won't solve all of the county's problems, but it certainly represents a new questioning of 50 years of dominant methods of development.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Laurent, SD: New Urbanism & American Sign Language

A story in yesterday's New York Times discussed the planning process for a proposed new town to be located about 35 miles west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The new town--named, "Laurent" after the nineteenth century French educator, Laurent Clerc--is intended to be built as a place that takes into account the needs of users of American Sign Language.

Interestingly, the developers of Laurent are squarely situated within the theory and concepts of New Urbanism and Traditional Neighborhood Design. Looking to Andres Duany and Jane Jacobs as inspiration, they invoke a rather utopian notion of "community" and a hefty dose of nostalgia [a look at the developer's concept paper reveals that nineteenth century Martha's Vineyard is a model].

Of course, the appeal to New Urbanist dictates is understandable as the sensibility of walkable, visually appealing environments can accommodate people with diverse capabilities and interests. Like most New Urbanist developments, however, Laurent will most likely be an unwitting contributor to sprawl as the town site is situated right off of Interstate 90 and regional economic realities make it likely that Laurent's residents will have to travel to Sioux Falls and elsewhere for employment.

Also, with it's specific marketing to users of American Sign Language, the town is likely to come under fire from activists who see it as contributing to a further "ghettoization" of people with disabilities.

Nevertheless, the Laurent project is certainly unique and should be seen as a continuation of the long history of American experiments in utopian planning. Marvin Miller, Chief Operating Officer of the town's developer (The Laurent Company), has a blog giving regular updates on the project. If you are interested in participating in the community planning charrette, it will last all week.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Transportation Pork In Focus: Mattoon, Illinois

The federal transportation bill just passed by the US House of Representatives is of immense importance for metropolitan development. Municipalities and states use money earmarked in the bill (once/if it is passed into law) as matching funds for capital improvement and expansion projects.

Unfortunately, the equations for what constitutes an important transportation project are dictated primarily by each individual representative's self-interest in the absence of a cohesive national transportation policy.

Take the case of Mattoon, Illinois--a small town ( 18,291 pop.) with a declining population in the southern part of the state. Mattoon is represented by Republican Tim Johnson--who just happens to hold a seat on the Highways and Transit subcommittee and is trumpeting his ability to "bring home the bacon." The project in Mattoon entails a $1.6 million expenditure to renovate an Amtrak train station that receives serves four trains per day--for now. The irony, of course, is that the Republican administration's budget is calling for a cessation of funding for Amtrak which will essentially bankrupt the railway.

Thus we face the real possibility that the Mattoon station will be renovated and the train will no longer come--unless the state of Illinois increases its own subsidies to Amtrak. How's that for sensible transportation planning?

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Florida Cities Rethink Welfare for Baseball Teams

Stadia projects are often touted by municipalities as engines of economic development. When it comes to major league professional athletics, team owners exploit this sentiment by making demands on municipal governments to build or rehab facilities under the threat of leaving town.

It seems as if some Florida cities are saying "enough" to these demands. The site of Major League Baseball's spring training Grapefruit League, many Florida towns are starting to refuse the demands of teams to rehab aging stadia.

One major reason for this impending refusal is the increasing value of land in suburban or exurban areas in the state where a sprawl-based low-density development will undoubtedly bring in much more consistent revenue than a baseball stadium that is used for one month each year. The town highlighted in the article--Winter Haven--is situated in the fast-growing Interstate 4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa. In this case, the potential for selling the land to developer that will bring, according to Mayor Mike Easterling, "a Cheesecake Factory, a theater, upscale shops of every description," has more allure than subsidizing an underutilized baseball park.

Of course, the stadium approach to urban & suburban development is still strong in many quarters. In the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, the village just approved a feasibility study to develop an indoor multi-use sporting & entertainment facility which will require $50 million in municipal-guaranteed financing. Unlike many cities who are held hostage to sports teams that threaten to leave if not given massive subsidies, Hoffman Estates is looking to use the arena to attract franchises--specifically expansion teams from the National Lacrosse League and the United Hockey League.

Critics have pointed out that the Allstate Arena--located several miles down Interstate 90 from Hoffman Estates--already hosts the type of events proposed for the new arena. One wonders about the sensibility of this type of suburban development. Fifty million dollars in guaranteed financing could be used for much more innovative projects.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Tollway Charging Reduces Use

At the beginning of the year, the State of Illinois tollway authority doubled the price of tolls on state tollways for vehicles not using automated, pre-paid transponders (I-PASS). These tollways are primarily situated on the urban and exurban fringe of Chicago and act as major carriers of suburban traffic.

Today's Chicago Tribune reports that February's tollway truck traffic was down 9.6% from a year earlier and passenger traffic decreased 3.2%.

By raising tolls for people paying by cash, the tollway authority is trying to encourage people to switch to the I-PASS which, they argue, decreases congestion and minimizes the impact on air quality. Vehicles equipped with an I-PASS can pass through the toll plazas without significantly reducing their speed, diminishing long queues.

The decrease in tollway traffic as an indicator of reduced congestion should be looked at skeptically, however. Much of the reduction can be attributed to vehicles using alternative, non-toll routes that simply displace traffic flows.

While the I-PASS program may be increasing revenue for the tollway system, it is doing very little to address regional mobility issues. It is creating congestion problems for cash-strapped municipalities who now have to contend with increased traffic flows and it is rather inequitable for those citizens who need to travel throughout the region but can't afford to loan the tollway authority money--which is essentially what the pre-paid I-PASS program demands from consumers.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Chicago's Mayor Takes on Congestion

Fran Spielman of the Chicago Sun-Times has an interesting article on the plan that Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley unveiled yesterday to reduce congestion in the city.

A combination of bureaucratic shuffling, 2,800 "smart traffic signals" that respond to traffic flows and give buses more time to get through intersections, and more vigilant towing of parking violators made up the highlights of the plan.

Relying on Federal matching grants, the plan is likely to cost anywhere between $210 million to $700 million over two decades.

According to Daley's press release, the city looked to cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, and London for ideas regarding improving congestion. Of course, one must wonder why in the world some of the United States' most severely congested cities are serving as models for Chicago! London is an important city for Chicago to study. However, London's most innovative policy development--the congestion charge--apparently wasn't considered by Daley.

Also curiously absent was a discussion of improving the city's rapid transit system, operated by the Chicago Transit Authority. Perhaps the controversy currently underway regarding the CTA's decision to temporarily shut the Brown Line made this issue unappealing for Daley who has remained relatively silent on the issue.

It is quite a shame that rapid transit is not part of this equation to relieve congestion given the fact that Chicago's density and current land use policies could support an integrative strategy without too much fiscal pain.

There is also very innovative thinking going on amongst Chicagoans on ways to improve mobility in the city. One of the more interesting examples is Craig Berman's CTA Map for 2055.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Friday, March 11, 2005

House Transportation Bill Mapped by State


This is a quick and dirty attempt to provide a state-by-state visualization of the value of federal appropriations for earmarked projects from yesterday's US House of Representatives transportation bill.

Interestingly, Alaska--which happens to be the home state of Transportation committee chairman Don Young--is by far the greatest per capita beneficiary under the House bill at $1,151. The second highest per capita is Oregon at $83. Because of the significant outlier status of Alaska it distorts the quintiles a bit on the map.

I hope to do a more detailed analysis of a state or two to look at the urban vs. suburban bias of this bill.

Click on the photo for a larger version (flickr registration may be required). A big thanks is owed to Taxpayers for Common Sense for sharing their dataset.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

US House Passes Transport Bill

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3, The Transportation Legacy Act: A Legacy for Users (TEA-LU) by a vote of 417-9.

As the New York Times reports, when it comes to bringing money home to districts, the partisan rancor that usually divides the House quickly fades. The bill authorizes $284 billion worth of guaranteed spending over six years on highway, transit, and safety projects. Last year's Senate version of the bill authorized $318 billion over the same period, making the prospects for an interesting political showdown between both Republican-controlled chambers and Bush likely.

Whatever happens with the actual funding level, there are certainly going to be important ramifications for urban and suburban development over the next several years once an agreement is hammered through.

I haven't done a thorough analysis of the projects funded by TEA-LU, but as in previous years, transit takes a back seat to highway spending. Given this fact, low-density, sprawling development is getting continued subsidy in this bill.

Interestingly, many of the "transit" projects funded by the bill are intimately tied to automobility--there seems to be a high number of "park and ride" projects as opposed to mass transit expansion and improvements.

Take, for instance, the case of Illinois. Of the $31.9 million authorized for transit projects, more than half ($17 mil.) is going to develop "park and ride" facilities. Of that figure, half is allocated to just TWO parking structures located in the suburban district of House Speaker Dennis Hastert. There is no money earmarked for the expansion of the most used transit system in the state--Chicago's CTA. This comes at a time when the CTA is discussing drastic service cuts.

Of course, the real problem of suburban development lies in land use policy that demands low density and auto-centric mobility. But this bill does little to prod states and locales to change their behavior in this regard. The sum result will likely be continued federal subsidies for sprawling development and increasing fiscal stress on local governments to support this rather inefficient pattern of suburban expansion.

The independent watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, has state-by-state listings of earmarked projects on their website. Here are some examples of local coverage of projects recommended for funding in Boston, Nebraska, San Jose, and Colorado.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

New Sprawl Documentary Airs in Canada

A recent documentary making the festival circuit is being shown tomorrow (Wed., Mar. 9 @ 10:00pm est) on the Canadian network Vision TV. The End of Suburbia is the work of Toronto director, Gregory Greene and explores the tenuous prospects for urban sustainability given the growing concern over impending oil depletion.

I have not seen the film yet, but it promises to be an interesting and provocative analysis of suburban development.

The Toronto Star has a brief review that places the film's analysis squarely within the "peak oil" camp. Simply put, the sprawling nature of North American urban development has been contingent on extremely cheap and ample supplies of oil. These supplies are dramatically dwindling, requiring an urgent need to rethink urban and transportation policy--something that is not being undertaken by most politicians.

Among those interviewed in the film are gadfly James Howard Kunstler and West Coast New Urbanist architect Peter Calthorpe.

Canadian readers: please feel free to post reviews!