Water for our future

Over at streets.mn I have a new post on the importance of water supply planning for the next regional plan.

What does all this have to do with Minnesota?  We have tons of water, right?  Well, on the surface yes, but we’re using our groundwater much faster than it’s being replaced, and that’s a problem.  That was one of the main topics at a Thrive MSP 2040 Roundtable discussion I attended a number of weeks ago, and have been meaning to post about since.  The 7-county region now gets70 percent of our water from groundwater sources, up from 15 percent in the 50′s.  In some places this means we’re reducing groundwater levels by over a foot a year.

Solar access, land use and 30-year planning

Over at streets.mn, I wrote a piece about the mostly unknown requirement that cities in the metro address solar access in their comprehensive plans, and how we could improve to address the purpose of the requirement.

By law, every community in the seven-county metro is supposed to adopt a comprehensive plan that includes “an element for protection and development of access to direct sunlight for solar energy systems”.  This requirement dates back to 1978, when there was anoil crisis and gasoline was $1.30 per gallon (or, close to what it was in 2011inflation-adjusted).  In 1979, Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House.  Reagan took down the solar panels in ’86 and oil got a lot cheaperthrough the late 90′s.

The requirement remains however, even if few communities have ever done anything related to solar after they developed some language for their comprehensive plan.  As we enter this season of plan updates, perhaps it’s time for another look at how solar access, land use, energy and other issues are interrelated, and what are vision is for our energy systems.  Solar power is cheaper than ever, and the message is pretty clear on the need to start decarbonizing our energy system.

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.

Streets.mn

In the near future, a group of smart and attractive Twin Cities bloggers will be launching a new site dedicated to Minnesota land use and transportation commentary and analysis called Streets.mn.  We’re hoping to improve the quality and quantity of discussion around city-building issues.

We’re also hoping to build some economies of scale, tapping many great individual blogs to provide content in one location, providing more consistency in post frequency and hopefully increasing readership and impact.

For now, that URL redirects to tcstreetsforpeople.org, a predecessor to Streets.mn.  Much or all of the content you see on that site will continue with a new design and mission.

Watch for greater fanfare after the start of the new year.  For now, click over to Streets.mn for a flavor and be sure to follow us on Facebook.

Linklist – backlog edition

I don’t frequently do the “link list” post, but blogging has not been at the top of the priority list lately and I didn’t want to deprive all the dear readers of the good stuff I’ve been seeing.   Each deserves longer comment then I’m giving here.

Stillwater Bridge forum on 9/9

The Sensible Bridge Coalition State and Local Policy Program and the Citizens League are sponsoring a forum hosted by Jim Oberstar to discuss the various plans.

The Stillwater Bridge: What are the Issues?

A forum hosted by Jim Oberstar

Friday, September 9
1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Cowles Auditorium
Humphrey Center
301 19th Avenue S.
Minneapolis, MN 55455

For over 20 years, the replacement of the Stillwater Lift Bridge connecting Wisconsin and Minnesota over the St. Croix River has been a contentious issue. Federal, state, and local agencies and policy leaders have weighed in on whether and how the historic lift bridge should be replaced to accommodate current and future traffic demand.

Jim Oberstar, former congressman and chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will host a forum to discuss issues surrounding the proposed Stillwater Bridge crossing the St. Croix River.  A panel of representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, National Park Service, local interests, and environmental perspectives will discuss current plans for replacing the bridge and the public policy and funding issues surrounding these plans. The forum will include a participant discussion led by Oberstar.

There is no cost to attend this event, but online registration is requested. For more information or to register, please visit the event web page.

This event is sponsored by the State and Local Policy Program at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, with the Citizens League.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 6)

The New York Times is highlighting the proposed freeway-style Stillwater bridge in their Room for Debate series.  They are calling it “Bachmann’s Bridge”, even though Senator Al Franken and Governor Dayton both support it.  I suppose since she is now a Republican front-runner she gets the cheers/jeers.

Former Senator Mondale sums things up:

At $700 million, this bridge, the largest and most expensive in Minnesota history, would carry about 18,000 vehicles a day. By comparison, the Interstate-35 bridge in Minneapolis carries more than 10 times the number of vehicles and was a fraction of the cost to build. This bridge would consume nearly all of the available financing in Minnesota to build or repair bridges, leaving almost 1,200 structurally deficient bridges wanting for funds. Both states have endorsed this bridge during Minnesota’s well-publicized state budget shutdown, and without investigating less harmful, less expensive and more sensible alternatives that respect the river, address commuters’ needs, and cost hundreds of millions less to the taxpayer.

Congress should employ its common sense.

I realize my Stillwater bridge series is missing a post on the “Sensible Stillwater Bridge” organization that has started up.  Basically, they are advocating for a lower, slower bridge with three lanes instead of four.  It would supposedly save 60% of the cost of the “boondoggle” bridge.  They don’t have a proper website, but you can see renderings of their proposal on their facebook page.  They also have a twitter account.

I asked the Sensible Bridge Partnership about tolling, and for now, they don’t seem to have an opinion.  I think tolling should be part of any “sensible” plan for a new bridge, and could even be a selling point to skeptical Minnesotans.

Study: city dwellers produce as much CO2 as countryside people do (but urban form still matters)

A new study of two metro areas in Finland proclaims to “illustrate that the influence of urban density on carbon emissions is insignificant”.  This study was published in Environmental Research Letters.  You might remember other studies that seem to indicate the opposite.

The idea that urban form has a significant impact on emissions and therefore should be considered during planning and land use decisions is embraced by many urbanists, environmentalists and scholars.  Others disagree with this position, saying us “sanctimonious urbanites“ may be overplaying our hand.  I don’t think this latest report really does anything to resolve the “GHG blame game” (or, as I prefer to call it, an accurate accounting of externalities).  In fact, if you look at the data, it supports the notion that land use and transportation decisions and patterns have a significant impact on emissions.  While trying to avoid sanctimony, let’s look at the details.

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Mileage fees could strengthen the effect of land use policies on travel

The Mineta Transportation Institute recently released a report with some fascinating findings on how land use patterns and mileage fees are mutually supportive.  The results aren’t terribly surprising when you think about it, but provide some interesting nuance to the transportation-land use interaction.

The report is based on findings from the Oregon’s exploration of mileage fees, called the Oregon Road User Fee Pilot Program.  In this program, participants paid a per-mile fee rather than the state gas tax.  Half of the participants paid a per-mile fee that increased during rush hour in congested areas, while the other half paid a flat amount per mile at all times.

The Oregon program, along with many other recent forays into alternative funding mechanisms for transportation, is a response to the fact that the gas tax is becoming less and less dependable as a funding source for transportation because it hasn’t risen in decades, VMT has peaked and vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient.  Mileage (or user) fees are one way to bring the costs of building and maintaining the system back in line with revenue from actual users.

More on the results below the break.

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