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Moving Cars vs. Investing in Places — The Struggle for American Cities

milwaukee_I94

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants to jam an even bigger version of I-94 through the Story Hill neighborhood in Milwaukee.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker and Mayor Tom Barrett are brawling in the press over a proposed highway project — a fight that exemplifies the enormous rift in America about what transportation policy should accomplish.

Walker still thinks about transportation projects the same way the interstate planners of the 1950s thought about them. In his view, the economy depends on moving cars and trucks.

So naturally, Walker insists on plowing a $1.2 billion expansion of Interstate 94 through Milwaukee. Among the options on the table is a proposal to double-deck a portion of the highway through a densely populated neighborhood. According to Walker and the state DOT, spending a ton of money to stack highway lanes on top of highway lanes is a practical solution to aid the economy in this barely growing metro area.

“I think the last thing you want to do is have employers look to go bypass the city of Milwaukee when they’re talking about jobs and commerce here,” Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “So you’ve got to make sure there’s a good transportation system.”

One person who disagrees vehemently is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. In this case, Barrett represents a very different school of thought about transportation and planning — he thinks investing in places, not traffic movement, will make his city better off.

Barrett told the Journal Sentinel that he’s “mystified” by Walker’s refusal to pull the double-decker option off the table. He said he would do everything in his power to stop the additional highway deck, which would have a “negative impact on property values and disrupt the lives” of residents of the Story Hill neighborhood.

Admittedly, there’s more going on here than contentious views about transportation. Walker and Barrett are political rivals who’ve faced off twice for the governor’s chair. But in many ways they embody the broader debate about American transportation policy — the tug of war between the Eisenhower-era mentality of moving traffic at all costs, and the seemingly ascendant notion that public wellbeing depends on transportation decisions that make places healthy and economically strong.

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Will This Be the Decade of Big City Growth?

William H. Frey is an internationally regarded demographer and senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. This article was originally posted by the Brookings Institution.

Figure 1: Large City Growth*

For the first third of this decade, big city population growth continues to outpace the rates of 2000 through 2010 while suburban growth continues to lag behind, according to new data released by the Census Bureau. It raises the question: Is this city growth revival here to stay? Or, is it a lingering symptom of the recession, mortgage meltdown and the plight of still-stuck-in-place young adults? The new statistics, which update city populations through July 2013, give some credence to both theories.

On the positive side for urban boosters, the numbers show that many cities have gained more people in the three-plus years since the 2010 Census than they gained for the entire previous decade. This includes three of the five largest cities, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago (which lost population in the previous decade). Among the 25 largest cities, nine are already ahead of their previous decade’s gains, including Dallas, Denver, Memphis, San Francisco, San Jose and Washington, D.C. (See table)

Still another positive indicator for big cities is their growth rates. For each of the last three years, cities with populations exceeding 250,000 grew at rates exceeding 1 percent — far higher than their average annual rate of 0.49 percent over the 2000-2010 decade (Figure 1). Among the fastest growing, with rates exceeding 2 percent, are Seattle, Austin, Charlotte, Denver, and Washington D.C., each with new knowledge-based economies and high-amenity downtowns.

Yet, despite the overall gains, growth rates slowed in the most recent year for 45 of the 77 cities over 250,000 in population, but for the most part, the growth rate declines were less than 0.5 percent

In the city-versus-suburb realm, the new numbers once again affirm a reversal that counters decades of suburban-dominated regional growth among metro areas with more than 1 million people. Now, for three years running, primary cities are growing faster than their suburbs (See Figure 2).

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Sprawl Madness Redux: Driving 17 Miles to Go 500 Feet in Phoenix

sprawl_madness

These two houses in Phoenix are 500 feet or 17 miles apart depending on your mode of transportation. Image: Google Maps

Last year, Angie posted an unfortunate map of two houses in Orlando that share a backyard but are seven miles apart if you take the disconnected local street system. That’s quite a distance to ask your neighbor for a cup of sugar.

Well, reader Sean Horan just sent this mind-blowing sequel: two houses in Phoenix, Arizona — yes, inside the city limits — that are about 500 feet apart as the crow flies but an amazing 17 miles apart if you drive on streets.

The street network also allows you to take this amazing route, which is half a mile shorter, Google Maps helpfully tells me:

The shortest distance between two points is not this. Image: Google Maps

The shortest distance between two points is not this. Image: Google Maps

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Book Excerpt: “Dead End,” a Look at Sprawl and the Rebirth of Urbanism

Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism” is a new book by Ben Ross, longtime president of Maryland’s Action Committee for Transit and a frequent contributor to Greater Greater Washington. This excerpt is preceded by a section describing the post-war expansion into the suburbs and the surrender of public space to automobile traffic. Highways proliferated, congestion worsened, children’s play was prohibited in the street and often in the sidewalk, and pedestrians were engineered out of the roadway. 

There was a subtle but profound alteration in the way street corners are built. Curbs no longer meet at right angles; they swing around in broad curves. It became standard even in cities for the curb to start bending back 25 feet from the cross street. On busy suburban roads, the bend begins even farther from the corner. Those on foot must choose between dangerous crossings of broad asphalt expanses and annoying zigzags to where the road narrows. Cars round the turn at highway speed. The simple act of walking down the street is so perilous that pedestrians are sometimes warned to wear reflective clothing, as if they were in the woods during hunting season.

As cars and highways proliferated far outside the city limits,  the roads became increasingly hostile to pedestrians -- especially children playing. Photo: ##http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2009/Aug/27/after-long-span-footbridge/##U-T San Diego##

As cars and highways proliferated far outside the city limits, the roads became increasingly hostile to pedestrians — especially children playing. Photo: U-T San Diego

These changes were no mere whim of car-loving traffic engineers. Behind them stood the lobbying might of the trucking industry.

The truckers had fought for decades to put bigger vehicles on the roads, but they were long stymied by the railroads. A major battleground was Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania Railroad held sway over the legislature and limits on trucks were especially strict. A few weeks before the 1950 election, the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association divided $76,000 between the chairpersons of the state Democratic and Republican parties. It was, the association’s treasurer later conceded under oath, like betting on both teams at a baseball game, but he countered that “nothing was hidden, it was all out in the open.”

The truckers gained ground in the 1970s as their old antagonists weakened. But they still faced strenuous opposition from local governments and the American Automobile Association. Even highway engineers objected; they worried that bridges weren’t built to carry the weight of big trucks. Just before the 1974 election, the Truck Operators Nonpartisan Committee made last-minute campaign contributions to 117 congressional candidates from both parties. Six weeks later, the House of Representatives reversed an earlier vote, and weight limits were raised on interstate highways.

In December 1982, the truckers won full victory. The Reagan administration agreed to their demands in exchange for the industry’s acceptance of a tax increase that hit trucks harder than autos. Weight limits were raised again, and state limits on the length and width of trucks were overruled. Tractor-trailers could have trailers up to 48 feet long; soon the limit in most places was 53 feet.

A key provision, not fully understood by critics when the law was rushed through a lame-duck Congress, legalized the big trucks on many local roads as well as on the interstates. Road-builders had a new justification for designs that encourage cars to speed; pedestrians, ignored when the issue was under debate, were the victims. Lanes grew wider; curbs were pushed back at intersections so that extra-long vehicles could make the turn. And, because it was written into the statute, the neighbors had no way to object.

*****

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How Hartford’s Bet on Cars Set the Stage for Population Loss and Segregation

Since the 1960s, most of the Hartford region's population growth has been in formerly rural towns beyond the inner-ring suburbs. Image: ##http://metrohartfordprogresspoints.org/##Metro Hartford Progress Points##

Since the 1960s, most of the Hartford region’s population growth has been in formerly rural towns beyond the inner-ring suburbs. Image: Metro Hartford Progress Points

Hartford, Connecticut, has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. The urban renaissance that has visited so many cities hasn’t arrived there. Housing is still cheaper in the city than in the suburbs, and although suburban poverty is growing alarmingly fast, it’s nowhere near the levels seen in the city.

There are multiple complex factors that have contributed to Hartford’s woes. But one of them, clearly, is the degree to which the city enabled car-centric infrastructure to proliferate.

As Payton reported last week, Hartford tripled its downtown parking capacity between 1960 and 2000 while squeezing everything else onto 13 percent less land. Avert your eyes if you have a weak stomach:

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Apple Transportation Program Stuck in the Past

Tom Fairchild is the director of Mobility Lab. This article was originally published by METRO Magazine.

Apple

Apple’s new Cupertino HQ will force its thousands of employees into long commutes, many of which will undoubtedly be made by driving alone. Photo: Chris/flickr

As an avid iPhone user, I have bought into the sense that Apple could literally peer into the future and deliver me technology that I never realized I would so desperately need.

For years, Steve Jobs and company seem to have been our reliable guides to a better tomorrow. For new technology, Apple’s vision towards the future seems nearly flawless. But for corporate responsibility? Well, that’s a different story.

Apple’s decision to build a mammoth new headquarters in Cupertino, California — miles from public transportation and adequate housing — amounts to a corporate denunciation of sustainability and a giant corporate shrug to Mother Earth.

Leadership for the tech giant maintains that the new campus will offer “a serene environment reflecting Apple’s values of innovation, ease of use, and beauty.” But the simple fact is that many of Apple’s 13,000 employees will now be commuting to an isolated location 45 miles south of San Francisco.

This reality seems a world apart from Apple’s corporate communications, which state:

Our commute programs reduce traffic, smog, and GHG emissions by providing incentives for biking, using public transportation, and reducing the use of single-occupancy vehicles.

How exactly is this possible when the new headquarters is being built on a location without any existing public-transportation options?

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Smart Growth America: Sprawl Shaves Years Off Your Life

Want to live a long, healthy, prosperous life? Don’t live in sprawlsville.

These cul-de-sacs will kill you! Photo: ##http://indiemusicfilter.com/tag/sprawl-ii##Indie Music Filter##

These cul-de-sacs can kill you! Photo: Indie Music Filter

Atlanta, I’m looking at you. Nashville, you too. Southern California’s Inland Empire: ouch. Meanwhile, break out the bubbly if you live in Atlantic City, Urbana/Champaign, or Santa Cruz — which all rank close to giants like New York and San Francisco as some of the most compact and connected metro areas in the U.S. That compact development brings a bounty of benefits you might not associate with those places.

That’s the lesson from Smart Growth America’s new report, “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” an update of their 2002 report, “Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact.”

A team of researchers gave a development index score to each of 221 metropolitan areas and 994 counties in the United States based on four main factors: residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs, and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network. These are the essential buildings blocks of smart growth.

Based on those factors, the most compact and connected metro areas are:

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

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State DOTs Let Roads Fall Apart While Splurging on Highway Expansion

States spend more than half their money on new construction. Image: Smart Growth America

States spend more than half their road money on adding lanes and new highways. Image: Smart Growth America

Even though 33 percent of its roads are in “poor” condition, West Virginia spends about 73 percent of its road budget building new roads and adding lanes. Mississippi spends 97 percent of its road money on expansion. Texas, 82 percent.

Smart Growth America reports that the 50 states and the District of Columbia, combined, devote 55 percent of their road spending — $20.4 billion a year — to expansions, according to data states provide to the Federal Highway Administration. Between 2009 and 2011, that investment added 8,822 lane miles to the nation’s highway system — meaning that more than half of states’ road dollars were dedicated to less than 1 percent of their roads.

Meanwhile, states spent $16.5 billion annually, or 45 percent of their total road budgets, maintaining and repairing the other 99 percent of the nation’s roads.

In total, 21 percent of America’s roads are in “poor” condition, based on an international index that measures ride quality and surface smoothness. And the condition of the nation’s roads is getting worse. The last time Smart Growth America checked in, in 2008, 41 percent were in “good” condition. By 2011, that figure was down to 37 percent.

“States are adding to a system they are failing to maintain,” said Steve Ellis of the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which co-funded the study, in a webinar hosted by SGA this morning. “Every new lane mile is a lane that will eventually have to be repaired.”

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Two Maps Show How We Designed Walking Out of the Suburbs

Picture 13

Having a finely grained street grid is incredibly important to walkable communities, as the above graphic from the Sightline Institute demonstrates. These side-by-side maps show how windy, disconnected, suburban streets make it difficult-to-impossible to get around on foot.

This is why Happy City author Charles Montgomery noted in Slate that “cul de sacs are bad for your health.” It’s also why advocates for healthy cities were horrified and amused when Cato Institute “scholar” Randall O’Toole recently suggested turning gridded streets in rust belt cities into cul de sacs “so that criminals have fewer escape routes.” Spending lots of money to ruin the street grid is an absolutely terrible idea, especially in cities struggling to provide basic services to their residents.

As Transport Initiatives, a U.K.-based transportation consultancy, points out, the one-mile walk coverage could be extended even more in the first example by adding some diagonal routes, like the street grids in Chicago and Washington, DC.

Hat Tip to Walk Score on the graphic.

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Atlanta’s Snowjam Disaster: How Much Was Sprawl to Blame?

More disturbing reports from Atlanta’s epic frozen traffic jam disaster are coming to light today. It’s hard to believe how quickly the situation got out of hand when the region’s freeways got hit with a few inches of snow.

What's the answer Atlanta's traffic nightmare this week? Image: The Casa Curtis

What can prevent the traffic nightmare that occurred in Atlanta this week from happening again? Image: The Casa Curtis

A woman who was trapped in her car for 12 hours on a freeway trying to pick up her kids from school described it this way to the New York Times: “It was like something you would see if they told you the plague broke out and you had to run for your life.”

Historian and journalist Rebecca Burns wrote in Politico Magazine today, “More than 2,000 school children were separated from their parents, and spent the night in buses, police stations, or classrooms.”

With so many lives endangered, or at least disrupted, people are looking for someone — or something — to blame.

But the problem wasn’t just a matter of insufficient snowplows or poorly timed school dismissals. It lay, in part, with a transportation system overly dependent on highways to connect a sprawling region, where jobs and schools are spread thinly around an enormous area, and most people have no choice but to get in a car if they want to get anywhere.

While some point the finger at Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed for lack of preparedness, Atlanta transit blog MARTA Rocks! says they don’t deserve the blame. After all, Reed and Deal were both major proponents of a transportation ballot issue last summer called T-SPLOST that would have provided the region’s residents with more alternatives to highway travel. Unfortunately, the measure was rejected by 67 percent of the region’s voters in 2012.

MARTA Rocks! writes:

Now we know a rail line to Cumberland [Mall] wouldn’t have been built by yesterday if we passed [T-SPLOST], but we might at least have the reassurance that what happened yesterday may be less and less likely to happen over the years as our transit network and walkability could have expanded.

In her Politico Magazine story, Burns makes the case that a lack of political cohesion and decades of car-based development are at fault. She goes back to the construction of the “Downtown Connector” that now bisects the city, which bulldozed tens of thousands of people out of the heart of Atlanta beginning in the 1950s, “further decreasing the density of the city’s population and triggering more sprawl to the suburbs.”

Burns also laments the failure of the transportation tax measure, saying it illustrates a wider regional problem: the inability to act cooperatively to solve problems. ”This snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in the United States and the bad political decisions that drive it,” she wrote.

T-SPLOST was supported by a majority of people who live inside Atlanta’s city limits. But these folks, Burns points out, make up only about 500,000 residents in a region of 6 million. Political power — and sheer numbers — lies in the suburbs.

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