Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Washington, DC Bus System--An Example of Transportation Injustice

The Washington Post has an excellent article on the woes of the city's Metrobus system. Unlike the city's subway system which is relatively efficient, clean, and reliable, the bus system is exactly the opposite.

Buses are difficult to run efficiently due to the fact that they generally don't have a dedicated right-of-way, making them susceptible to traffic congestion patterns. They are also usually used by the most economically marginalized people in US urban areas due to the general lack of investment given to public transit.

In DC these structural issues seem to be compounded by poor management and lack of investment in analyzing the system's performance. The article is well worth reading for an example of the deplorable consequences of a system that combines poor administration with minimal resources.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Housing Affordability Plummets in US

The Wall Street Journal Reports today on the latest National Association of Realtors' Affordability Index which indicates that, nationwide, housing affordability is at its lowest level since 1991.

While homeownership is at record levels, the article points out that people are likely spending a higher percentage of their income on housing and living further afield from metropolitan employment and cultural centers.

As evidence of this trend, check out the article in today's New York Times documenting the growing numbers of New Yorkers commuting to the city from Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley.

The editorial cartoon shown above, drawn by Ventura County Star's Steve Greenberg represents accurately how many communities are being squeezed by the rising housing prices to the extent that middle-class professionals cannot live in the towns where they work.

Housing affordability is one of the most pressing domestic policy issues in the US today, but curiously it is also one of the least discussed in the political realm. If the Democrats were smart--wishful thinking, I know--they would develop this as a key wedge issue in next year's midterm elections.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

California's Central Valley Makes Developers Pay for Pollution

An article in today's New York Times discusses the recent decision by Fresno County to require commercial and residential developers to pay fees for air pollution generated by new development.

According to the article, the fees may be minimized through compliance with new regulations that promote design which reduces air pollution.

This is an interesting "indirect" approach at dealing with the Valley's poor air quality and the type of growth that facilitates it. The main sources of air pollution in the Valley are automobile emissions and agricultural production. However, development trends are showing that agriculture in many parts of the Valley is being supplanted by exurban development. By targeting developers, the fees will ideally influence the type of developments they build, encouraging more environmentally-friendly behaviors.

Of course, representatives of the building industry are against the regulations, arguing that they will boost costs. This is perhaps true, however the health affects of poor air quality are immense and the fees are minimal (averaging $780 per home with no mitigation as opposed to $480 with full compliance to the air quality regulations).

This modified market-based approach towards dealing with the pressing issue of air pollution in an indirect fashion is relatively unique to the United States and it is unclear whether it will be effective in reducing air pollution. I am generally skeptical of leaving public health issues up to the market since, in this case, developers can just continue building developments that require pollutive activity and pass the modest price of the fees on to consumers.

Furthermore, individualizing the fees is not a substitute for responsble regional planning. Individual developers may make environmentally-sustainable subdivisions, but people will likely still have to commute long distances to work, shopping, etc... While the fees are going to be utilized for air quality improvement projects, such as public transportation enhancements, it is unclear if these enhancements will be effective without regional plans that concentrate higher-density land development around urban centres.

Interestingly, the New Urbanist-type of developments that would be encouraged under these regulations are already sought after in many markets, making developers more likely to build these types of developments regardless of the savings from lowered pollution fees.

This initiative will certainly merit observation in the long term.

Here is more information on the new regulations from the Fresno Bee. Here are a couple of pro and con editorials also from the Bee. Draft materials relating to the regulations can be found here.

Friday, December 09, 2005

EU Ministerial on Sustainable Communities is Underway

I haven't had a chance to digest all of the information coming out of the European Union's Ministerial Informal Meeting on Sustainable Communities that took place in Bristol this week, but it should be interesting to monitor.

Issues of governance when it comes to developing urban policy are extremely important, but often overlooked. In the case of European cities, bringing an international level of governance into the mix is undoubtedly going to have significant impacts on metropolitan development.

The major keyword underlining much of the discussion is "sustainability." This is a highly contested term. Some have argued that the impossibility of pinning down its meaning makes it less useful for guiding policymaking. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the discussion emerge from various quarters. Here is a copy of EU Commissioner Danuta Hübner's speech to the ministerial. Here you can find a report of British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's pushing for a "European Social Model" of sustainability. Finally, take a look at the Bristol Accord--the document emerging from the meeting to guide future discussions.

I will try and post on the substance of the Bristol Accord in the next week.

Seaside, FL - Weight of Success Proving Heavy

The New York Times has an article on the challenges facing Seaside--the Andres Duany-designed Florida Panhandle resort community that presaged the success of the New Urbanist movement in the United States.

One of the challenges is ecological. Hurricane Dennis subsumed portions of the beach and damaged the dunes separating the housing from the Gulf's waters. As the article rightly asserts, the planning framework employed by developer Robert Davis and Duany--which limited private housing on the oceanfront in favor of a communal beach--proved fortuitous. Since housing doesn't abut the water and natural dune systems were respected, housing took less of a hit than in other parts of the region.

Erosion, however, remains an issue--particularly given recent predictions by climatologists that severe weather will likely continue to pummel the region. What would happen in the event of a Category 5 hitting Seaside is unknown, but it certainly wouldn't be pretty.

The article also discusses the success of Seaside and how prices have increased dramatically and "urban" problems like traffic congestion are festering.

This latter aspect is interesting. The article fails to discuss the regional growth in the Panhandle and the role of state government--and, in particular, Governor Jeb Bush--in setting into motion a series of growth policies that are significantly transforming the area. The issue is particularly complex--as most large scale development issues are; but I would point people interested in learning more about the transformation of the panhandle into what will essentially be one large suburb sprawling to two sources.

First, check out June Wiaz and Katherine Ziewitz's book from last year, Green Empire: The St. Joe Company and the Remaking of Florida's Panhandle which looks at the state's largest real estate developer and land owner and their plans for transforming the region. Next, Bill Moyers did a special a couple of years ago exploring the issue of Jeb Bush's ties to St. Joe's. I haven't verified the links, but this blog apparently has clips of the program.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

New Urbanist Land Grab Begins in Mississippi

It seems as if the land grab is in full swing on Mississippi's hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast as the "Mississippi Renewal" project is starting to survey land and implement the plans concocted by a group of New Urbanists last October.

In response to a post I made criticizing the process as being elite-driven and lacking significant public input, John Massengale, an architect and town planner involved in the project, suggested otherwise, indicating that public meetings were undertaken and that they were well-attended.

While Massengale contends that "our first instruction from [Mississippi Governor Haley] Barbour was, 'No one will be told to leave their property,'" now that the New Urbanist brigades have left Mississippi, we are seeing familiar patterns of dispossession ensue. The New York Times reports that many residents in Biloxi's neighborhoods--having returned to the city after months of displacement--are finding that their plans to rebuild their homes and neighborhoods are being resisted by the city and developers.

The New Urbanist vision sees the Gulf Coast "competing with Myrtle Beach," making an extension of tourist amenities inevitable. For residents such as those profiled in the Times piece, that means space for casino expansion and golf course development--not the rebuilding of their lost homes.

I expect that we will hear further stories of longtime resident displacement as the rebuilding effort continues. It still seems clear, however, that plans such as those developed by Barbour's renewal commission were made without significant mechanisms for participation by the everyday people affected by the disaster. This is not meant to discount the New Urbanism. As Massengale points out on his own blog, residents of affected areas see considerable promise in New Urbanist planning frameworks.

I am more concerned with processes of democratic decisionmaking and accountability that should be leveraged as communities deal with the aftermath of the destruction. It is quite easy for private interests with access to huge amounts of resources to influence extensive (and government-subsidized) rebuilding in such a way that lines their own pocketbooks at the expense of the public interest. It would be unfortunate to see the New Urbanism hijacked in such a way.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sprawl Comes to India

If you can handle Amy Waldman's simplistic neo-colonialist characterization of India's "stubborn natives'" irrational rejection of "progress," then her article in today's New York Times on the Golden Quadrilateral Highway, which circumscribes the Indian sub-continent, is worth a read.

Waldman's tone is especially condescending, but her descriptions of the way in which the massive, controlled-access highway project is changing life in India's cities and villages are worth noting. Much like the interstate highway system in the US, the Golden Quadrilateral is bisecting villages, transforming urban and rural economies, and changing mobility patterns in the country.

Noteworthy is how everyday Indians affected by the highway have largely been shut out of the process of planning the road. Also noteworthy is the absence of any discussion about the viability of such investment in highways given the realities of global oil markets. India imports more than 70% of its oil from abroad. In an era of increased demands and decreasing supplies, the energy implications of such investment are significant.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Internet Has Finally Proven Its Worth

A few months ago I posted about Google's Ride Finder which allows users to find real-time information about the location of taxis in selected American cities. Based on the google map interface and using global positioning technology, Ride Finder gives you both location and telephone numbers for cabbies.

Numerous folks have hacked google maps to display other customized geographical information. Today, the weblog Chicagoist reports the introduction of the website, Drinktown. Drinktown uses information from taverns in Chicago and Milwaukee to provide interactive maps showing the location of particular drink specials around each city. Drinktown provides excellent functionality, allowing you to search by zip code, particular night of the week for specials, and the type of drink special (beer, mixed drink, wine, etc...).

This is, by far, the most useful redeployment of google maps that I've seen--let's hope it spreads to other cities!

(Image taken from Chicagoist)

Transportation and Emission Reductions

With the first major post-Kyoto global conference on climate change underway this week in Montreal, there are interesting proposals emerging from various NGOs concerned with the connections between urban form and energy use.

The Victoria Transportation Institute has issued a nice, concise paper (in .pdf format) laying out what it calls "win-win" strategies for utilizing transportation policy reform for reducing emissions. Among the proposals it advocates are charging adequate fees for roads and parking, making transportation funding mode-neutral, and employing land use strategies that allow for higher densities.

Given the fact that transportation is the single largest source of emissions in auto-dependent countries like Canada and the United States, these proposals are especially pressing. The federal level in the US offers little hope for substantive action, of course, due to the corrupt and incompetent nature of the Bush regime. Luckily, the mayors of over 190 US cities have recently signed on the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which indicates their support for reducing emissions in accordance with Kyoto.

This is poor substitute for a binding federal policy, but in the absence of any federal leadership, it is the best that can be expected.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Australian Labor Party Battles Sprawl

A couple of interesting articles from the Queensland Courier-Mail point to proposals to quell sprawl in Australian metro areas. The first discusses a policy paper to be released by the opposition Labor leader Kim Beazley that advocates increasing urban core redevelopment at the expense of the "McMansions" that dot may suburban areas. The policy paper appears to have not yet been posted on the opposition website, making it difficult to assess the proposal.

In Queensland, Labor Primer Peter Beattie is proposing that drivers parking in the Brisbane Central Business District pay a tax that would be reinvested in public transport. Unlike the London congestion charge, this plan would not tax people who drive through the CBD--only those parking.

Efforts to more effectively charge users for the true costs of automobile travel are catching on, especially given the success of London's experiment. I am normally wary of regressive taxation schemes, but when the revenue generated is dedicated to improving mobility technologies that can be used cheaply by the public they are sensible. It is good to see that Beattie's proposal also advocates for bulking up the bicycling infrastructure.