Monthly Archives: July 2007

It Was Bound to Happen

Most city residents don’t want density. But they also don’t want urban sprawl. How do we deal with this conundrum? The obvious (but stupid) answer is to put all new residents in a few extremely high-density developments. That solution prevents sprawl without densifying most existing neighborhoods.

So I was not surprised when Jim Karlock pointed out to me that Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams proposed in a speech last week that Portland “should plan to accommodate our share of projected regional growth — Metro anticipates 300,000 more Portlanders by 2035 — within 1/4 mile of all existing and to-be-planned streetcar and lightrail transit stops.” This would, he said, “encourage responsible, transit-supportive development while protecting our existing single-family neighborhoods from undo growth.”

By which, I presume, he means “undue growth.” (I previously mentioned a news report of this speech but had not read the complete text.)

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The Spotted Owl and the Planner

Many people know that the northern spotted owl stopped the cutting of old-growth forests, but few people know why. In the late 1980s, the Fish & Wildlife Service listed the spotted owl as a threatened species because it relies on old-growth forests, which were rapidly being cut, as its habitat. This contributed to a huge decline in timber harvests from federal lands after 1990.

Fish & Wildlife Service photo.

The spotted owl is a predator whose main prey are northern flying squirrels, red-backed voles, and other species that mainly live in old-growth forests. But the spotted owl is not the stop of the food chain: it is preyed upon by the great grey owl, which especially goes after undefended juveniles and eggs. When given the opportunity, the great grey will swoop down on spotted owl nests, knocking the eggs or young out of the nests, and then feeds on them on the forest floor.

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Antiplanner Books #6: The Black Swan

“The Impact of the Highly Improbable” is the subtitle of this strongly antiplanning book by a Lebonese-American investment banker named Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The thesis is that the world is most heavily influenced by large, unpredictable events, so any efforts to plan based on what we know or try to forecast are doomed to failure.

The most salient example offered by Taleb has to do with investing: “In the last fifty years,” he says, “the ten most extreme days in the financial markets represent half the returns.” In other words, half the gains in the Standard & Poors 500 took place in just ten days out of fifty years (roughly 12,000 days of trading). Thus, anyone who says they have a sure-fire method of earning profits through investing (as several Nobel prize winners have claimed) is simply deluding themselves or their clients.

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Obsessed With Regional Centers

I’ve previously noted (twice, it turns out) research showing that 60 to 70 percent of all jobs in modern urban areas are outside of downtown or other “regional and town centers.” Just as planners in the 1950s through the 1980s were obsessed with “saving downtowns” some fifty years after downtowns became obsolete, planners today are obsessed with town centers several decades after they were really relevant.

Portland politician and Metro council president David Bragdon says that planners don’t dare leave the development of such town centers to “laissez-faire unpredictability.” So he supports “public investment” because “planning means nothing without investment.”

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Toronto Transit Going Bust

Toronto’s transit system is facing “financial catastrophe,” and the transit agency has proposed to shut down one of the subway lines and up to 21 bus lines, plus raise fares by 10 to 25 percent. “This is one of the darkest days that we’ve seen,” said the chair of the Toronto Transit Commission.

Dark days for Toronto transit.
Flickr photo by Neuroticjose

Some people accuse Toronto’s mayor “of trying to whip up a public panic” so that the city can get more money from the province. But there are a couple of other issues involved here.

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Why Housing Is Expensive

I previously posted about a growing antiplanning movement in Britain and a conference held on the impact of planning on housing prices. Someone sent me a PowerPoint show (7.2 MB) that was given at the conference that graphically demonstrates the problem with finding a place to build a home in England.

Click the image to see a larger picture.

The show is a bit large but worth the download. It was presented by Kate Moorcock Abley, who is affiliated with Audacity, one of the groups that put on the conference. Audacity’s director, James Heartfield, will be speaking at this November’s American Dream conference in San Jose.

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Just How Bad Is Sprawl?

Back in 2001, National Geographic published an article on urban sprawl. The magazine included a map that purported to show the extent of sprawl in the U.S.

Click on the map to download a printable pdf.

At the time, I described this map as a deceptivegraphc because it greatly exaggerated the extent of urban development. For example, the map showed that one-third of Vermont was apparently covered with sprawl. In fact, U.S.D.A. data indicated that only 3 percent of the state had been developed.

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Why Are Government Files So Large?

Recently I downloaded an environmental report by a city planning agency and was appalled to find that the table of contents alone was 20 megabytes. The entire report totaled 170 megabytes. The city’s web site didn’t even have the decency to warn users how big each file would be.

Anyone who has made PDFs should know that they are quite easy to shrink by reducing the resolution of photos and other graphics. Commercial sites tend to keep files as small as possible or to provide multiple resolutions so that they are accessible to as many potential customers as possible. For example, the trailers pages for web sites advertising most movies offer “small,” “medium,” and “large” formats.

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Scaling Transit, Part 2: Buses to Rail

Yesterday, I described how an effective private transit system could be designed for all but the smallest urban areas by simply scaling up the taxicab association model to buses. Rather than use this model, many of America’s subsidized transit agencies have tried a different sort of scaling upwards: from buses to rail. This has led to numerous planning disasters.

Too many public officials imagine that running a rail transit system is just the same as running a bus system, only with bigger vehicles. Jonathan Richmond’s paper (since expanded to a book), The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles quotes the Los Angeles Times: “One of the arguments made most often for the rail line is that it will be cheaper to operate because a single driver on a train can carry up to five times as many passengers as a bus.”

These are, as they say, famous last words. The reality is that a bus system does not scale up to a train system: they are quite different beasts, and running a train system not only requires a completely different set of skills, it entails a much higher risk — a risk that transit agency officials can ignore because they simply impose it on taxpayers and, in the worst cases, transit riders.

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Scaling Transit, Part 1: Taxis to Buses

People in the transit industry often tell us how fortunate we are that they are spending billions of dollars of our money each year, because otherwise there would be a lot more cars on the road and a lot more congestion. This is simply untrue.

In most cities, most transit riders are transit dependent — for one reason or another, they can’t drive. If government subsidized transit didn’t exist, private operators would take up the slack and serve these people. The fares might be a little higher (though not necessarily), and they might not serve some low-density suburbs (where you see buses that are empty most of the time), but the service would be there. Plus, anyone who was a “choice” rider — that is, they can drive but would prefer not to — could use these services too.

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