Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Repositioning cities (at least on the coasts) for greater political prominence, and a city-first agenda

In view of the last week's Presidential election results, it's fair to say that the election was about metropolitan areas ( "The Urban Electorate: Why Republicans Can't Concede the City Vote," The Atlantic) vs. "Red America" ("GOP's Red America forced to rethink what it knows about the country," Post).  To me that's not surprising because for thousands of years it has been cities that have pushed forward societal modernization. 

There are a number of good articles in the Los Angeles Times as well, because the Republicans were routed in California, and the question of can the party rebuild its relevance there in turn relevant to the general question.  ("GOP might never again hold power in California, " "Advice to California's GOP: Leave — or better yet, change" and "Reality crashes the Republican Party")

I went to college in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which in the 1970s and 1980s had a successful third party, the Human Rights Party, which grew out of anti-war and civil rights movements centered around the campus of the University of Michigan, so I have some experience with successful third parties in a city setting.  Technically, DC has a third party, originally the Statehood Party, which in the last 10 years merged with the Green Party, but since 1999 they have not had representation on the City Council.

Apparently, in most Canadian cities, elected officials at the local level aren't affiliated with provincial/national political parties.  But at least two Canadian cities, Vancouver (Coalition of Progressive Electors, Vision Vancouver)  and Montreal (e.g. Projet Montreal), have local parties with well defined pro-city agendas.

(I have to say the way that the three parties linked to in the previous paragraph define and communicate a local agenda is far beyond how it works in the average American City.  Even most mayoral campaigns aren't as well defined.  This is true for the London (UK) Green Party as well.)

And years ago I put forward the idea of running a presidential candidate on an urban agenda, because at the time (the "Bush" years from 2001 to 2008), cities were pretty much bypassed by federal policies that were pretty much focused elsewhere, although this was tempered by the fact that for many of those years, the House of Representatives had been under control of the Democratic Party.

Given the Canadian examples of Vancouver and Montreal and perhaps even Mexico City ("Landslide Mayoral Win Reflects Capital City's Novel Path" from the Wall Street Journal), I wonder if it is time if not for a third party progressive movement at the center city-metropolitan scale, at least there ought to be a place for a more progressive political vision there?

(Although this could be problematic since at the national level, parties are key, and so on the regional level, would cities with strong independent party representation be disconnected from state and national politics.)

The Toronto Star has an article, "Why Toronto businesses are moving downtown," about how corporations are abandoning cheaper suburban office spaces for higher priced digs in the center city (we are seeing this in Chicago and Detroit too), because of the agglomeration benefits--they can attract better employees who prefer the urban environment and don't want to commute.

Note that this was discussed in the recent entry on Arlingon County's Wilson Boulveard as a kind of linear urban research park ("The state of Arlington County Virginia's commercial real estate market: 2012 and the future").  They realized that the economic "savings" on rent come at a great cost.  (DC proper doesn't benefit from this trend quite as much for a variety of reasons, but things are changing some.)  Also see "Do Millennials Want to Call Your City ‘Home’?" from Governing Magazine.

From the Toronto Star article "Coke leaving Mad Men-era building to head downtown":

The headquarters relocation is part of what the company calls its “Live Positively” emphasis, a response to the stated desire of employees to walk, bicycle or take public transportation to work. The new digs, a three-storey addition to the Toronto Sun building on King St. E., will provide bike racks and showering facilities, as well as other amenities.

“As great as this community is, it is more limited in terms of access to the subway and the GO train,” says human resources vice-president Tova White.

David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington has an op-ed in yesterday's Post, "Getting our leaders on board with a variety of transit options," about increasing transit as an element of expanding choice.

Frankly, it's not a thesis that interests me very much.  The point I make is that people can make bad choices just as easily, if not more easily, than good ones.  So really it's a matter of "designing in" better choices and creating a system a la Thaler and Sunstein's book Nudge, so that people are making better choices more routinely through what they call "choice architecture," or designing systems that make it easier for people to make better choices. 

-- Nudges blog

(It's about systems design, process redesign, e.g., "All the talk of e-government, digital government, and open source government is really about employing the design method.")

In a related vein, writers in the Guardian over the years puts it far better than I, discussing what they call "market democracy" as a "tyranny of choice," although they are discussing competition for the provision of local government services.  From "The tyranny of choice: will more options lead to better council services?":

Over the last 30 years we have, slowly but certainly, become cowed by the tyranny of choice, despite little reflection on what this trend means to citizens and consumers. Governments of various political stripes – Conservative, Labour and now the coalition – have promoted "choice" across the public services, shifting the balance of citizens' rights and altering the processes of governance and accountability.

Gradually, representative democracy as the mechanism for ensuring public service accountability has been replaced by market democracy, or participants championing heroic citizen-consumers. The result has been the construction of a series of quasi-markets with a mixed economy of public, private and third sector competing for resources.

Similarly, I have argued for years that the issue isn't trying to appeal to people not interested in living in cities (about 40% of the US population, based on research by Christopher Leinberger as outlined in The Option of Urbanism) or transit, but to focus on strengthening those characteristics that are attractive to people who want to live in cities (30% of the population) or who are willing to live either in cities or the suburbs (30% of the population).  Of course, at the same time cities need to focus on maintaining their attractiveness to that percentage of the population that is equally interested in city or suburban living.

Frankly, improving bus rapid transit in the suburbs ("Montgomery County considers giving more of the road to buses" from the Post) is of minimal interest to me from the standpoint of improving the center city.  Like the clamoring for the Downtown Relief Line in Toronto ("It’s time Toronto gave condo dwellers a little respect" from the Star), we need to be focusing on improving the city, transit expansion, continued improvements in the functioning of city government and urban schools (charter schools clearly aren't the answer, see "DC charter board releases school ratings" from the Post), the continued addition of population in order to add vitality to neighborhoods, local retail, schools, civic life, and yes, the municipal revenue stream.

So the number one priority in the city, from an "economic development" standpoint, ought to be the improvement of the transit system in the city, because it enables growth through efficient and optimal mobility, without necessarily contributing to traffic congestion, by enabling density.

So a DC transit improvement agenda ought not to be focused on "expanding choice," but making the city better through transit expansion and improvement, by:

1.  Enabling and enacting a transit withholding tax ("Commuter/mobility tax discussion for DC," "A payroll tax to fund transit")

2.  Committing to and building the separated blue line ("Silver Line Metro expansion a classic example of the need to have true regional transportation planning")

3.  Improving intra-city bus service by repositioning the service ("Making bus service sexy and more equitable")

4.  Including the creation of a priority busway network in the core of the city ("Bus transit prioritization and creating a downtown transitway network")

5.  And then streetcars*.  Streetcars are an improvement but maybe improving the bus network first with double deck buses will have a greater economic and social impact at definitely much much much less cost.  And improving bus service as outlined in point #3 is something that the transit authority and local transportation agency is capable of, whereas they don't seem capable of successfully launching streetcar service, at least so far, as the city is 10+ years in on streetcar planning.

* I am now arguing that streetcars are a distraction in terms of driving focus away from what really matters, not unlike how the charter school movement's greatest success is the dimunition and dissipation of community, social and organizational capital by creating a "Great Leap Forward" type initiative that mostly creates anarchy and chaos, not improvement.

Projet Montreal

Project/Main Elements
- A sustainable urban plan
- A Sustainable, economic prosperity
- An exemplary cultural scene
- A renewed democracy

- Renew Montreal democracy
- Live better in Montreal
- Montreal, a hub for sustainable transportation
- Montreal, a healthy, green city
- Secure economic prosperity for Montreal
- Montreal, cultural ambassador for America
- A responsible government and quality services

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At 8:13 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Response to the streetcars in Virginia post on GGW?

RE: Streetcars. Yes, excellent analogy. In terms of buses, as I've said before, when you run buses to poor areas poor people take them. When you run them to the white middle class areas, white middle class people take them! amazing!

That being said, DC itself does not have the capacity or resources to do the blue line itself; it will need a federal partner at a minimum to pay for it. Virginia, after all, a much larger entitity, can't even find a way to pay for part of the Silver Line.

The problem I have with the streetcar is linking it to development. For instance, if you do a blue line under M st -- which is basically the proposal -- you're not going to see much increase in density. Unless you go to an Ygelisan-Asimovian fantasy of a DC with skyscrapers.

At 3:38 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I haven't looked at GGW today yet.

2. The blue line isn't just about adding density, although it would enable it significantly in the part of the city east of 4th St. NW and especially east of 15th St. NE , it is also about dealing with reaching capacity on the subway lines and adding capacity and redundancy for "security" as well as to maintain the viability of Downtown DC and the adjacent CBDs as a central place to do exchange in the region.

3. For probably 1/2 of the proposed streetcar lines, there isn't a lot of build out capability, although there is some, but marginal (but still important). And for 1/2 there is a lot. I hate to admit I have't read the buildout analysis yet...

4. The real benefit is the improvement of service. Now you say that people in higher income areas will ride buses if they don't have other choices. You might be right. I didn't use to think so. I still have many reservations. It's hard to separate out transit willingness from choosing not to ride, e.g., I've ridden buses in other cities, where I find it to be mostly used by the poor (e.g., Balt., Louisville, Cleveland). It seems as if SEPTA service in higher income areas can be used by higher income people, at least college students, but I think the ridership demographics still skew heaviliy poor, with of course, higher income riders on various forms of rail.

It would be interesting to do a study of the streetcar lines in Philly/Media.

5. In Seattle, I was shocked to read how low the ridership is of the streetcar there (2700 daily riders). I think the use of the streetcar in Portland is comparable to high use buslines in DC (about 15000 daily riders).

Those cases, the streetcar serves areas of large development opportunity, kind of the equivalent of Potomac Yard.

6. I still think streetcars could trigger a lot of use by current non transit users. We'll see. (I'll still ride a bike vs. streetcar as it is faster.)

At 8:19 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Spending $2-$10 billion to improve services, maintain the CBD, and build out parts of NE are all worth goals. Ones I am sure Virginia and Maryland do not share. We have the Silver Line model where the juridisction pays the money and WMATA runs it later.

(Arlington needs to make noise about the BL b/c you can see real estate value not moving as a result of frustration about Orange Crush)

In terms of buses and white people, look at Circulator, 38B, 3Y. People will take the bus when it is efficient.

In DC, the "anacostia discount" and buses passes make it much easier for poor people to use the bus cheaper than metro, which is distorting.* Take Circulator -- I see plenty of people on it taking it to union station along K rather than the subway -- although at 6 PM the subway is a far better transit solutionn.

* Just as the federal discount really messes up with rail ridership here.

At 10:54 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

somewhat related.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

last thing first. hyper rich vote Republican... Greenwich shouldn't be a shock. Did you see the map in Sunday's Post? E.g., Potomac in MoCo voted Republican...

wrt the sep. BL, actually ArCo kept it in their transpo plan and have kept the love for it. DC just doesn't get it.

I wrote a blog entry in 2006 I think that lamented how the Silver Line could have been used to also push the sep. BL within DC--call it the Silver Line--and that jurisdictions shouldn't be allowed to plan expansions without taking into account and paying towards capacity improvement initiatives in the core, where expansion can have deleterious impacts, along with good ones.

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