Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Shape of Things to Come- An Update

In 1936 Things to Come, a film adaptation written by H.G. Wells based on his book, The Shape of Things to Come, foretold of apocalyptic wars followed by the thuggish rule of a warlord (played by Ralph Richardson) put in power by an angry, fearful mob. This warlord would ultimately be overthrown by a technocratic movement, known in the film as Wings Over the World, that had banded together in a remote location in anticipation of the apocalypse. These technocrats, who prized intellectual achievement and peace, would go on to usher in a golden age, though not without further uprisings by angry mobs.

As is often the case, H.G. Wells is eerily prescient, at least in regards to the early-21st century United States. But instead of raging wars, the devastating effects of accelerating climate change are coupling with the decline of low-skill, US manufacturing to bring an apocalypse down upon rural America. The desperate residents of this bleak landscape have reacted by electing a President who, like the aforementioned warlord, panders to the mob using racially-charged rhetoric coupled with empty economic promises.

An example of these empty promises came shortly after his election, but before his inauguration. Donald Trump boasted he had saved hundreds of jobs in largely-rural Indiana by persuading Carrier Corporation to refrain from moving to Mexico. However, Carrier still planned to move more jobs to Mexico than it was keeping in the US. That’s in spite of a large subsidy by the state of Indiana, home of Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, to stay. 

A lack of manufacturing employment means rural populations must rely on agriculture. But agriculture is vulnerable to climate change. Temperatures are now rising in the Midwest, a region known for agriculture and a large rural population.  According to the US Global Change Research Program, greater heat in southern areas of the Midwest will decrease summer precipitation by an average of about 8% in 2041-2062 versus 1979-2000. 

That lack of precipitation impacts crop yields. According to Wolfram Schlenker of Columbia University and Michael J. Roberts of North Carolina State University, “…area-weighted average yields are predicted to decrease by 30 – 46% before the end of the century under the slowest warming scenario and decrease by 63– 82% under the most rapid warming scenario…” 

While rural communities dependent on agriculture face an economic threat, those dependent on tourism face a potentially existential threat as vegetation dries out due to extreme drought. Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a vacation retreat nestled in a valley at the northern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was surrounded by lush forests fed by a plethora of streams and rivers. That was until it burned.

In late 2016, a devastating and extremely unprecedented drought converted the lush forests into a vast source of fuel for a fire that swept from the center of the park into Gatlinburg. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed with the death toll rising into the double-digits. The local economy, which depended on tourism, was shattered. But this was only one fire in a broad outbreak that spanned six states. Climate change experts anticipate more such fires, as extreme drought in the interior of the US due to global warming is as likely as a widely-anticipated rise in sea level

History shows how Americans will react to such hardship: by embarking on a mass migration such as that last seen in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The Dust Bowl was a semi-arid region in the central US that included parts or the entirety of Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and other states. During periods of heavy rain, the region could seem deceptively friendly to aggressive agricultural exploitation. But when the rains failed, that exploitation resulted in a rapid loss of topsoil to high winds, making it virtually impossible to farm. In the 1930s, the rainfall failure led to a mass exodus from the Midwest to California. These climatic/economic refugees were often derisively known as Okies, famously depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath

A repeat of this migration is now underway, as census data shows that eight out of ten US counties that are losing population are rural. An early indicator of a region’s duress is where the children end up. If there’s prosperity, they might remain in familiar environs. But in rural America, young people are fleeing for the cities in search of employment. As economic conditions back home collapse due to population decline, their extended families may join them, as has happened in other countries. Economic weakness and sheer numbers will obligate them to seek the cheapest housing available. That will be in the suburbs of major cities.

In December of 2016 the Wall Street Journal reported that suburban population growth outperformed that of central cities. In the fifty largest US metro regions, the suburbs accounted for 91% of the population growth over the past 15 years. According to the Urban Land Institute (ULI), many households cite lower housing costs as a key reason for moving to the suburbs. Demand in the suburbs therefore isn’t a function of desirability, but of necessity. 

Who are these economic and climatic refugees? According to US Census figures, the rapidly-emptying rural America from which this migration originates is nearly 78% white.  Thus it is one of history’s great ironies that after the race-based rancor towards Latin American migrants during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, a mostly white, mid-21st century refugee migration has begun. 

Troublingly, many of these new migrants are very capable of fomenting serious political instability. According to Gallup polling, rural Americans are twice as likely to possess firearms as those living in cities.  Most of these gun owners are white men who are buying guns at a higher rate than at any point in the past quarter-century: over 500,000 per year. Alarmingly, in 2010 this rate was still as low as 70,000 per year, meaning most of the surge came in the last decade.

Economic duress often leads to civil violence. Runaway inflation and unemployment was a cause of the Yugoslav Civil War of the 1990s. Germany’s slide into extreme militarism and fascist rule was exacerbated by the Great Depression of the 1930s. A mass of armed refugees clustering at the edges of major US cities is not a recipe for peace and tranquility. One need only look at the banlieue of Paris or the favelas of  Rio de Janiero to see the shape of things to come. 

The blasted landscape envisioned by H. G. Wells hasn’t manifested itself yet, but avoiding that future is looking more difficult. There is no Wings Over the World to save the American people from themselves. Technocrats and intellectuals are frowned upon by a celebrity and athlete-obsessed culture. As Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting observed in The New York Times, “in the United States, there is a strong strain of anti-intellectualism that undervalues intellectual culture and overvalues athletics.” 

That anti-intellectual bias is already showing up in the rising wage inequality between those with and without advanced degrees. According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, demand for those with advanced degrees exceeds the supply. That drives up their salaries. Those without such degrees must compete for an ever-dwindling number of jobs. In effect, anti-intellectualism is making the poor more numerous, more vulnerable to economic and climatic change.

Only if this basic anti-intellectual cultural flaw is undone will there be any hope of finding a way to avoid catastrophe and restart American progress. H. G. Wells’ dialogue sums up the choice:
 “All the universe or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Does It Matter Who Pays For Sidewalks Or Is Walk Score Useless?

Some advocates for pedestrian access claim that the source of funding for sidewalks strongly affects a city’s walkability. Groups such as Atlanta’s PEDS argue that if cities fully fund sidewalk construction without any cost placed on adjacent property owners, walkability will be higher.

Measuring walkability is fraught with controversy. Walk Score is a popular tool that measures how pedestrian-friendly a city and its neighborhoods are. However, it is dependent on the proximity of residences to businesses. Their focus appears to be that it is more important to have somewhere to walk to than to have a clear path to get there. Such an assumption is a great way to start a bar fight among urbanists.

Let’s compare how the walk score for a few select cities varies under the following two circumstances: 

1.      1. The city spreads the cost of building sidewalks among all taxpayers, as with streets and highways via taxation.

2.      2. The city puts the onus of paying for sidewalk construction on the adjacent property owners.

The possible walk score range is 0-100. Higher scores reflect better walkability using this metric. Note that I am focusing on city policies for new construction to fill in sidewalk gaps.

Georgetown, a section of Washington, DC, features a dense grid, small blocks, and extensive sidewalks.
Washington, DC, updated its sidewalk installation policy in 2015 to ensure that gaps in sidewalk coverage were filled even when no new construction projects, such as road improvements or development projects, were planned. New sidewalk construction in gaps is prioritized as follows:
1.       School areas
2.       Routes that provide access to parks and recreational facilities
3.       Transit stops
4.       Locations where the absence of a sidewalk creates substantial pedestrian safety risks
5.       Roadway segments for which residents have petitioned to have sidewalks
The process is primarily staff-driven until the last criterion. It requires property owner input, but not their contribution of funds. Washington’s walk score is an impressive 77.

Fairfax City, VA, a city in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., reserves the authority in its Residential New Concrete Sidewalk Policy to build new sidewalks via its tax-funded Capital Improvement Program. Neither payment nor permission from adjacent homeowners is required, though notice to them and nearby civic associations is. The city has a lackluster walk score of  52

Sure, Fairfax City will pay for sidewalks, but is this highway-choked sprawl really walkable?
Los Angeles, CA is often thought of as the stereotypical, car-centric American city, yet its walk score of 66 indicates that perception may no longer be accurate. Thanks to the settlement of a lawsuit over the city’s failure to make miles of broken and missing sidewalks comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, L.A.  must commit $1.3 billion to pedestrian projects over the next few decades. That enormous commitment led the city to embrace a “fix-and-release” policy for sidewalks. 

Under this scheme, L.A. will pay to build new sidewalks, as well as reconstruct damaged ones, next to commercial, industrial and residential properties. It will then offer a limited warranty period that guarantees only one repair in the future. The duration of the warranty is twenty years for sidewalks next to residences and five years for those next to commercial properties. 

Nobody walks in LA, especially if they close off the entire street.
On the day the plan passed, L.A. Councilman Paul Krekorian claimed, “This fear that seems to be out there that suddenly people are going to have a burden dumped upon them – that just isn’t the case.” But, that’s exactly what will happen once the warranty’s clock runs out. For those of limited financial means, fixing a city sidewalk could be a heavy burden. 

Atlanta, GA mirrors Los Angeles by shunting the cost of sidewalks squarely on the shoulders of adjacent property owners, though without L.A.’s limited warranty. Sidewalk gaps in Atlanta are common and building new sidewalks can be costly, thanks to Atlanta’s use of hexagonal blocks instead of poured concrete. Atlanta’s walk score is a poor 48

Few would argue that Atlanta is a pedestrian-friendly city today, but that may be about to change thanks to T-SPLOST.
In response to this poor environment for walking, the city leadership backed a referendum on a special local option sales tax for transportation, commonly known as T-SPLOST.  Now that it has passed, $300 million in revenue will be generated over a five year period. Sidewalk projects will receive over $69 million of that amount.

Alexandria, VA, has a sidewalk policy that spreads the cost of sidewalks among all taxpayers, while effectively allowing adjacent property owners to veto a new sidewalk. Applications to the Residential Sidewalk Program require the signatures of five residents within that project area in support of the sidewalk. Those commuting through the area to reach a transit hub like King Street Metro station won’t be counted. Additionally, Alexandria “requires the identification of a project champion, who will be the main point of contact for the City.” That champion must then: 

…notify each household in project area with flyer distribution and provide signatures noting support for or against the project from 80% of addresses in project area. Property owners directly adjacent to proposed sidewalk MUST sign the petition and note if they support or do not support the project.
There is no exception if an adjacent property owner refuses to sign and indicate support of opposition. Conceivably, that conveys a veto power to those who don’t cooperate with the process.

This is close to a schoolbus stop and along a busy pedestrian route to a Metrorail/Commuter rail/Bus transit hub. Pedestrians are forced into the street because the city gives homeowners a veto on sidewalks.
Alexandria maintains Silver level status as a Walk Friendly Community, a designation made by a coalition that includes the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, the League of American Bicyclists, and multiple federal agencies. However, that status appears to derive from a combination of staffing and a city Complete Streets policy, rather than sidewalk conditions. The city’s overall walk score is a mediocre 61

New York City, NY, puts all responsibility for construction of missing sidewalks onto adjacent property owners. That includes both installation and subsequent maintenance. If a property owner refuses to comply, the city will do the work, send them an invoice, and place a lien on the property, if necessary.  As with Los Angeles, this approach could be a burden on property owners in low-income areas.

Is a city walkable if the sidewalks are so crowded that pedestrians walk in the street? That's happening in NYC, but Walk Score rates them highly.
New York faces a serious pedestrian congestion issue in the city. Sidewalks in extreme high-density areas such as Manhattan simply aren’t wide enough to handle the traffic. The New York Times refers to this situation as “Sidewalk Gridlock.” However, despite this apparent infrastructural shortcoming, the city still has a high walk score of 89.

The funding source of new sidewalk construction does not appear to track with walkability as measured by Walk Score. That would indicate that either Walk Score’s methodology is utterly useless or that the importance of sidewalk conditions is overrated. Until a metric is developed that directly accounts for sidewalk conditions across multiple jurisdictions, this is a debate that will be impossible to settle, as measurement of walkability will remain largely subjective.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

New Article on Streetsblog: The Mythology of HOT Lanes

From Governor McAuliffe to the US Federal Highway Administration, High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes are not lacking for champions. Unfortunately, I found that the assumptions underlying such advocacy are wrong.
You can read more in my article at Streetsblog.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Essay on Drive-to Urbanism at Strong Towns

I have an essay up at Strong Towns on Drive-to Urbanism. Check it out and post comments there or on Twitter (tag me so I can see them).

Friday, July 8, 2016

An Open Letter to People Who Bike & Walk in DC Regarding the Atlantic Gateway Project

To those who walk and bike in Washington, DC: 

I attended a press conference today in which Virginia's Governor, Terry McAuliffe, promised to end congestion (his words) by widening I-95 near Fredericksburg and inside the Beltway with HOT lanes. From the amount of time he spent on this aspect, this was clearly the primary component of the Atlantic Gateway project. You might not immediately realize the implications of that statement. 
Virginia Governor McAuliffe addresses a small crowd in Alexandria, vows road widenings will "end congestion."

Most of you reading this are already one up on the governor's staff, as you are familiar with induced demand: more road capacity yields more traffic, which yields more congestion. As Houston's Katy Freeway shows, more HOT lane mileage will also yield more car traffic. Those additional cars have a destination: DC's streets. More drivers, many of them distracted, mean more risk to people who walk and bike in DC.

The only way to protect DC's livability from the traffic induced by the Atlantic Gateway project is to embark on an emergency program of road diet implementation throughout the downtown area. If you take away capacity at the destination, you will mitigate the threat posed by Virginia's attempt to shove more cars your way.

Any street with more than one car lane in a particular direction is a candidate. So, for a two-way street, look at those with four lanes cars are allowed to use and reduce them to two. For one-way streets, look at those with two lanes and reduce them to one. Substitute whatever works best in that area: bus lanes, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, or loading zones. Just reduce the throughput for cars.

You will also need to eliminate as much of your public parking as possible. If suburban Virginia commuters cannot park in DC, there's no point in hopping in a longer HOT lane. They simply will have nowhere to go.

As someone who lives in Virginia, I apologize for the shortsightedness of our politicians and planners. I hope the DC political and planning establishment will act quickly, preferably before this new tsunami of traffic breaks upon DC's streets.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Be sure to check out my latest article, Making a Street Safe for All, at the Virginia Bicycle Federation:

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Road Diet for the George Washington Memorial Parkway

My latest post is available via the Virginia Bicycling Federation. If you have ever biked on the Mount Vernon Trail, you will want to consider this idea. Link: