Strengthening our region’s response to climate change

My latest at streets.mn is a review of how the draft version of Thrive MSP 2040, the new regional plan for the Twin Cities, addresses climate change.

Our region certainly can’t address this issue alone, but we have a responsibility to do our part.  The science also says we can’t wait another ten years to start addressing the problem.  However, as this plan is currently written, the specifics on climate response are too ambiguous, and risk being watered down during implementation.The regional plan is one of the state’s most significant pieces of land use and transportation policy. By fully embracing state goals and calling for strong response, this could be a document that makes Minnesota a national leader in climate change response.

Read the rest.

Infographics

A reader shares this infographic from carinsurance.org, which decries “America’s crumbling infrastructure“.

Ryan O’Connor shares this infographic from Strong Towns on the challenges facing Memphis (and the potential solutions).  This may be one of the more straightforward explanations of Strong Towns solutions I’ve seen to date.

Incidentally, the very first comment on the carinsurance.org infographic is from Chuck Marohn, Strong Towns founder.

The lack of context in this bit of propaganda is disappointing. It is formatted to insinuate that there is this huge problem with maintenance (there is) and that the problem is not enough money (it isn’t). If you start to break out these numbers you see that every American family of four has the responsibility to pay to maintain 176 feet of pipe ($26,400), 5 feet of highway ($5,700), 0.6% of a bridge ($20,000). $2.2 trillion is $29,000 for a family of four OVER THE NEXT FIVE YEARS. Maybe….just maybe….we’re not making very productive use out of everything that has been built up to this point and, if so, maybe….just maybe….a more viable economic solution would be to start. Come on CarInsurance.org – you can do much better than simply repeating ASCE’s worn out propaganda.

Updating peak travel

Chart - MN VMT 2011

Chuck Marohn has a new post at streets.mn lamenting the long-term inaccuracy of modeling and projections – in this case, traffic projections.  Without commenting on his critique (ok, maybe a little: I think projections can be useful in many circumstances, especially when paired with scenarios), I wanted to update my old peak travel post from 2011.

The peak of auto travel in Minnesota is still 2006, with per capita travel peaking one year later.  For 2011 total auto travel continues to decline, although the decline is slowing (-0.15% versus -0.37% for 2009 to 2010).  2011 population estimates for Minnesota aren’t out yet, but I imagine the flatline trend is the same for per capita miles.  I’m told the Metropolitan Council (and MnDOT?) project growth in VMT in the 7-county metro to increase 1.5% annually through 2020.

Have we reached peak travel?  I’m not sure, but it sure is interesting to think about the reversal of an assumption (ever-growing auto travel) that’s been held for a generation or more.

Thrive MSP 2040 is live

The Metropolitan Council has officially kicked off their public engagement campaign for the 2040 regional plan – called Thrive MSP 2040.  I know you don’t like the name, but pay attention because this plan will eventually shape all the regional policy plans (growth, transportation, housing, natural resources) and set the requirements for individual community comprehensive plans.

No modern planning process is complete without some an interactive “ideas” website, and Met Council has theirs. I submitted some ideas, which I think you should vote for.

A challenge to the market-oriented urbanists

Arlington_Aerial

Josh Barro, over at City Journal, makes some good points about the real contribution of subsidies to the auto/transit war.  However, I’m disappointed that this is yet another example of “market-oriented urbanists” (MOUs) admiring the problem without proposing a solution.  Barro, like others before, posits that local political decisions about planning and zoning laws are standing in the way of market operations which would achieve beneficial results for us all.  If only we would just change the dang zoning, dense housing would rise, rents would fall and transit would become a more attractive travel mode (in this world there are few, if any, externalities of dense development, a position we’ll take as given for the rest of this post).

Understanding the impacts of restrictive zoning on rents is important. But every time I read one of these change-the-zoning posts, I can’t help feeling that I’m watching the discovery of a concept (densifying urban areas) that smart growth advocates and planning students have known and been advocating for a very long time.  Clarence Perry dreamed up the “Neighborhood Unit” in 1929 in an attempt to address the nation’s rising automobility and associated externalities (the Neighborhood Unit called for at least ten units per acre). There may be more market demand now for dense, transit- (or stuff)-oriented development, but the issues are the same.

More calls for density based on market forces, fine.  But what almost every single one of these articles seems to lack is any robust exploration of how zoning rules are adopted, enforced, and changed and what exactly the author proposes as an alternative.  Barro, after spending eight paragraphs detailing auto vs. transit subsidies, says “Cities should allow dense development…but locals tend to oppose greater housing density.”  Solution? None given.  Barro states, “A much smarter approach…allow looser urban zoning”.  Got your fairy wand ready for waving?  Me neither.  I haven’t yet read Matt Yglesias’s “The Rent is Too Damn High”, probably the pinnacle of pundit-driven, change-the-zoning rallying cries, but every reference to it I read talks about “regulatory framework” not public process or neighborhood preferences.  Do away with parking minimums, unrestrict maximum heights, reduce setbacks.  All fine. What’s the roadmap? How will Yglesias, Barro or Lee move these changes through the court of local landowner public opinion?  The public process piece is mostly overlooked.

Zoning laws are made by men and women and enforced by same, often times by existing landowners who are risk- and change-averse.  How often has this scene played out across America: 1) Developer buys property 2) Developer decides that in order to make profit, he/she must build something that is larger than zoning allows 3) He/she goes to neighborhood board/zoning board to ask for rezoning or variance 4) Neighbors howl that the building is too tall/will generate too much traffic 5) Zoning board caves or developer backs out 6) Project doesn’t get built or is downsized.  The other process to change local zoning happens like this: 1) City decides to update their comprehensive plan (and zoning to implement) 2) A public process occurs and 3) density is usually restricted in some or many places to less than the market might bear (especially in existing single-family neighborhoods). This is how zoning law gets made in America.  There is no single authority, no dusty bureaucrat simply refusing to pull the magic zoning lever that will unleash the benevolent market forces.  Its individual homeowners and developers showing up at public meetings, testifying, and sitting on advisory boards.  Its elected city councils voting based on the feelings of their (loudest) constituents.  Future residents don’t typically have much of a voice.  This is local democracy in action.

Do the MOUs suggest making land use authority more regional and less local as Yglesias hints at in his NYT interview?  They will encounter some strong resistance from some other “libertarians”.  Do they suggest some changes to the local public process used to adopt/change zoning rules?  If so, I haven’t read any detailed proposals yet.  Andres Duany, famous architect and urban planner (and not someone I would classify as a MOU), has proposed citizen juries, but I’m not aware of many other proposals.  Do they propose abolishing some or all local land use authority and process?  They will likely meet strong resistance from all sides, conservative and liberal alike.

So my challenge to the MOUs is this: stop writing about rent-spiraling zoning.  We get it, in some places developers can’t build as tall as they want/rents are too high.  This is the easy part.  Start writing about public process.  What changes do you propose to local government decision-making processes that would speed development and/or make the costs and benefits of planning and zoning decisions (especially the long-term ones) more plain?  This is the hard part.  Public sector planners have been working on it for quite some time, and haven’t really come up with a great solution yet.  We could use your help.

Update: Josh Barro has in fact proposed some solutions, to which he pointed me.  I don’t find any of these particularly realistic, except perhaps moving towards more rental (which is still a long shot).  None of these are process solutions either, more like total structural shifts.  He actually mentions abolishing local land use authority which I mention above, but ultimately talks himself out of it.

Central Corridor HIA shows risks, opportunities

Policy Link, Take Action MN and Isaiah have released a health impact assessment for the coming Central Corridor light rail line.  In my opinion, this seems more like an economic impact assessment, but the argument can be made that economics drives health.

My summary of the findings:

  • Jobs in the corridor will increase, particularly retail and office.
  • Population and housing will increase.
  • Jobs with skills matching those of current residents will be low-paying.  Higher wage jobs will increase too, but won’t be available to many current residents.
  • Low-skill, higher paying jobs (in manufacturing, for example) will be forced out.
  • Commercial rents may rise, forcing out small/independently-owned businesses.
  • Additional density could be in the form of housing affordable to current residents, but not without careful planning.
  • More people walking and biking is good, but existing pedestrian conditions are “hazardous”.  The city (St Paul) has some plans to address this.

I question comments like this: “The reduction in allowable densities east of Lexington Parkway along University Avenue, however, will help to reduce the pressure on existing small and minority-owned businesses in the east submarket.”  I understand the issue of redevelopment pushing out existing businesses (they might not be able to afford rent in new mixed-use buildings), but isn’t density good for any business (save auto dealers)?

The report also has five policy recommendations for creating a healthier environment moving forward.  Here’s my (very abbreviated) summary:

  • A modified inclusionary zoning ordinance.
  • Codify affordable housing goals in the Traditional Neighborhood zoning category.
  • Give a density/height bonus or reduced parking requirements to developments with affordable housing component.
  • Allow temporary parking lots on vacant lots during construction.  In theory, this would help businesses during LRT construction.
  • A local hiring action program giving preference for construction jobs.

What this seems to leave out is any recommendation on how to incorporate small businesses into new development.  Is it impossible/very difficult to program space in new mixed use developments for small/independent businesses?  Do developers only want chains?  Are rents simply too high?  Has any city every adopted an affordable commercial space policy to set aside a certain portion of commercial space for smaller businesses?  Smarter folks than I surely must have thought about this.

Imagining a city without its public transportation

The Atlantic Cities reviews the work of WMATA (DC’s transit agency) on the business case for transit.  They turned off public transportation in the regional transportation model.

“It was literally just imagining Washington, and all of a sudden, you wake up tomorrow, and the transit system isn’t there, Antos says. “What would you do?”

People, it turns out, do something very interesting. They stop making long car trips because the traffic is so bad. In one hypothetical scenario, Antos took away the transit but kept the rest of the area’s road infrastructure the same. People were allowed to change their trip patterns – to chose different jobs or shopping centers – and most of them stopped crossing the region to get to those things.

“The congestion was forcing people to regress into a more local economy,” Antos says. “We looked at that and realized we were watching the economy splinter. All of a sudden, we weren’t watching a regional economy function where workers could find jobs in the whole region.”

People weren’t crossing county lines – or even rivers – to get anywhere.

Taking local action

Minneapolis Skyline

Over at Grist, David Roberts lays down the brutal logic of climate change:

With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2 degrees C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever — we will have no chance.

And what’s so special about 2 degrees C?  Well, that may be something like a point of no return.

The thing is, if 2 degrees C is extremely dangerous, 4 degrees C is absolutely catastrophic. In fact, according to the latest science, says Anderson, “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.”

Roberts is citing the work of Kevin Anderson, former head of the UK’s leading climate research institution.  Other scientists are making similar predictions.  James Hanson, director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says, ”The target of 2C… is a prescription for long-term disaster“.  Increasingly, you don’t have to look far to find words like “apocalyptic” being used to describe the path we’re on.

So we need to reverse course on emissions by 2015, and in dramatic fashion.  But the latest round of international talks seem to be on shaky ground.  All US climate bills have so far failed.  So what’s a local planner or public official to do?  Decry the problem as global in scope and thus unsolvable? Shrug shoulders and pour a stiff drink?  While I have a healthy amount of skepticism about the ability of one jurisdiction or even one state to have a measurable impact on the global trendline, I think we absolutely must be making our best efforts now, for a number of reasons:

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