Monthly Archives: February 2008

Built Environment and Walking

Contrary to the claims of many New Urbanists, the “built environment” — such things as density and street connectivity — has almost no effect on the amount of walking people do. At least, that is the finding of a new study by planners and epidemiologists from the University of Minnesota, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The study scrutinized the behavior of 716 adults in 36 neighborhoods with varying densities and connectivities in the Twin Cities. “neither density nor street connectivity are meaningfully related to overall mean miles walked per day or increased total physical activity.” The paper concludes “that the effects of density and block size on total walking and physical activity are modest to non-existent, if not contrapositive.”

The paper notes that “Selection bias and other issues related to socioeconomic status have clouded research” in this area. In other words, papers that claim to have found that density influences walking have failed to adjust for income, education, and/or the preferences of the people in the neighborhoods being studied. This finding confirms that of an Atlanta study mentioned in a previous Antiplanner post.

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Rail Transit: Pay Now, Pay Later

Denver’s 119-mile FasTracks rail transit project, approved by voters in 2004, will cost at least $1.4 billion more than voters were told, according to the project’s 2007 annual report. Moreover, a revenue shortfall means that Denver’s Regional Transit District’s (RTD) ability to sell bonds to pay for construction will fall $400 million short of expectations.

Although RTD blames rising steel prices for the overrun, in fact a large share of the additional cost is due to RTD’s own inane decisions. The original plan called for running Diesel-powered trains from downtown to the airport, but RTD decided to spend another $400 million electrifying the route. RTD also changed routes on the North Metro line, adding at least $100 million to its costs.

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The Ship Is Sinking, So Stay the Course

In his 1989 book, The New Realities, Peter Drucker wrote,

Above all, any government activity almost at once becomes “moral.” No longer is it viewed as “economic,” as one alternative use of scarce resources of people and money. It becomes an “absolute.” It is in the nature of government activities that they come to be seen as symbols and sacred rather than as utilities and means to an end. The absence of results does not raise the question, Shouldn’t we rather do something different? Instead, it leads to a doubling of effort; it only indicates how strong the forces of evil are.

“Despite a focus on luring drivers out of their autos,” Sacramento transit mainly carries people who “do not have access to an auto.”
Flickr photo by paulkimo9.

I thought of this quote when reading Sacramento’s 2006 Metropolitan Transportation Plan. In a remarkably candid review of the region’s previous transportation plans, this document states:

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Urban Planning and Liberal Fascism

Are American urban planners fascists? Conservative writer Jonah Goldberg probably thinks so. In his new book, Liberal Fascism, Goldberg argues that Italian fascists were not right-wing conservatives, but left wingers looking for a semi-socialist alternative to communism. Fascism was based on based on a combination of private means of production with government control over what was produced.

From this view, a lot of what American planning advocates say sounds fascist. In New Geographics of the American West, University of Colorado geographer William Travis expresses a desire for a “strong national role in everything from urban design and architecture to countryside protection.” He believes federal or at least state control of land use is needed in order to impose “discipline” on local development.

Travis also says that “We need to build a roster of standing land use watchdog groups” like 1000 Friends of Oregon. Brownshirts, anyone?

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Craziness in Dubai

Someone sent me an email last week about “craziness,” that is, rapid growth and development, in Dubai, a city (and emerite, or what we would call a state) in the United Arab Emerites. Dubai has been doubling in population every decade and construction in the city has been phenomenal.

The Burj Dubai, soon to be the world’s tallest building.
Flickr photo by Pete the Painter.

Dubai features some of the world’s tallest buildings, dozens of artificial islands, the world’s largest artificial port, an indoor ski resort, and the world’s most luxurious hotel. Developments planned or under construction include the world’s largest amusement park, the world’s first undersea hotel, and a building that is expected to be 40 percent taller than what is now the world’s tallest skyscraper. Its airport, which currently moves as many people as the one in the Twin Cities and as much cargo as Chicago O’Hare, is expected to eventually be the biggest in the world.

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Fresh Air from the Puget Sound

A Seattle blogger has a skeptical view of the notion that Seattle, or any city, should try to become denser the way Vancouver and Portland have done. Knute Berger, aka Mossback, argues that Seattle’s density “policies are making the city more unaffordable. They are helping to drive the poor out of town. They are displacing long-standing communities. They are changing the scale of a once-egalitarian city that featured few poor people, few rich people, and a lot of folks in between. This old middle class Seattle is now seen as unsophisticated, not worthy of protection, backward even.”

Mossback points to another blog that celebrates the fact that Seattle is now the only city in the Northwest that has more multi-family housing than single family. Whoopee! We’ve made housing so expensive that we’ve reduced the quality of life for a majority of our people.

The Antiplanner makes no secret of the fact that he thinks the density mania is even more insane than the rail transit mania. I am glad that another blog, Crosscut.com, has people who feel the same way. And Mossback is not the only one.

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More Phony Plaudits for Portland

The Antiplanner is obviously not doing his job or Popular Science magazine would not have named Portland the nation’s “greenest city.” As befitting the “science” in its name, the magazine arrived at this conclusion quantitatively. But as befitting the “popular” in its name, it seems to have skewed the data to arrive at a predetermined outcome.

PopSci, which once featured fantastic visions of the future promising, among other things, propellor-driven automobiles, propellor-driven trains, and propellor-driven snowmobiles, now takes a grim view of the future that demands we all “green up” by reducing our mobility and energy consumption. The magazine relied on four criteria for its rankings: the percentage of electricity that comes from renewable resources, the percentage of workers who don’t drive, the number of buildings certified as “green,” and how comprehensive the city’s recycling program is. The first two were given twice the weight of the second two.

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Raleigh Rail Rises from the Dead

Two years ago, the idea of building a $1 billion rail system in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area died when the FTA said not enough people would ride it to justify federal funding. But now, a new proposal has been made to build a similar rail system, only this one would cost twice as much money for twice as many miles of rail.

Because, as everyone knows, if building 28 miles of rail line is a waste of money, then building 56 miles makes perfect sense.

Proponents are counting on getting a quarter of the money from Washington and a quarter from the state of North Carolina. Of course, at a mere $35 million a mile, $2 billion won’t be enough to build the proposed 56 miles of light rail, not when most light-rail lines are coming in at $50 million a mile. But they’ll worry about that later.

Who are the “experts” who came up with this plan? To give you a hint, the chair of the citizens advisory committee is a pathologist at Duke University. That certainly makes one eligible to be an amateur transit expert qualified to spend $2 billion of someone else’s money.

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Urban Planning “Saves” Another Neighborhood

At one time, Argay Terrace was a boring suburban neighborhood, housing middle-class families whose lives were so dull they didn’t even know they were missing the excitement of lively streets. Now, thanks to Portland’s urban planners, Argay has become a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood that offers retail and service business so residents don’t have to drive to get everything they need.

“When I was in school,” says a local resident, “we used to call Argay Terrace ‘snob hill’ because that’s where all the rich kids lived.”
Photo by ORTEM.

Unfortunately, the retail and service businesses are drugs and prostitution, which have grown by almost 300 percent in the last four years alone. The streets today are so vibrant that longtime residents are afraid to walk around at night without a concealed weapon, and many strangely prefer a little less vibration and have moved out.

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