I am not saying that zoning, fire and safety codes, materials and workforce safety regulations would have prevented the West, Texas disaster. And as rigid and inflexible of a tool as zoning can be, it does have the ability to prevent the building of a school, hospital, nursing home and residences so close to the plant as to be obliterated in case of disaster. And these regulations matter. If I compare Texas to my own home state, Illinois, this is what happens:
Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.
One of the key reasons zoning codes are around is to separate incompatible uses. And while I understand the fertilizer factory was originally built outside of town, it was the town that grew all the way up to the gates of the factory. Since zoning is a police power, this is something the municipality of West, Texas might have been able to control. Or, maybe not. Texas is, after all, proud of its anti-regulatory culture and is proud of having the largest city in the country without a formal zoning code.
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I have been an enthusiastic adopter of the term “suburban experiment” after having following the magnificent work that Strong Towns does up in Minnesota. But it came to my attention that I have not fully explained it and applied it here in Chicago. So, I’d like to take a step back. Of course, since I did not invent the term, it’s best to direct you to the primary source. Chuck Marohn’s seminal articles on the suburban experiment note that:
“our post-World War II pattern of development — operates like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.”
Meaning essentially that this form of development cannot fiscally sustain itself over more than one life cycle without more growth to pay off previous liabilities. Essentially, all of the infrastructure that supports the inefficient development pattern that is modern suburbia, the huge investment in roads and utilities to support sparsely dense areas, does not make economic sense after one life cycle.
We’re already seeing this today.
You know we can’t support our towns and cities when roads turn to gravel, when bridges collapse, streetlights get turned off and park districts, schools and municipal budgets are slashed despite ever rising taxes. It means that we’re not allocating our resources efficiently, that maybe the great wealth this country has had has been spent towards a pattern of development that just cannot sustain itself.
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A public service announcement:
I’ve got a guest post up over at my friend Molly’s fantastic site talking about the history of Chicago’s Union Station.
The Great Hall at Chicago Union Station.
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Abandoned Paradise (Photo credit: Seamoor)
Reading this article in the New York Times (and this one) about the lag in wealth building by younger generations compared to their parents has had me reflectively thinking about my own situation. I have two degrees, including a masters. My wife and I even managed to save for a house, which we purchased in 2009 (in hindsight, it appears we bought too early as we’re likely underwater). We also have two kids. Needless to say, our finances are strained. The way things are looking, I’ll pay off all my student loans shortly before I am 60. That would be after both of my daughters complete college, in which case I’ll likely be paying loans off until death. And that’s OK. It’s a decision I made. And yet, I can’t help but feel something is deeply problematic with the financial situation facing much of my generation. The job market sucks, making it difficult to build a life on a foundation of debt. And if you are fortunate to have a job like I am, then perhaps you are faced with stagnate or declining wages over the long term. But costs are going up. Housing, education, health care, transportation and energy costs have all risen dramatically while income has fallen.
I can’t say how this will play out over the long term. But these trends have an effect on the way people live and our cities are evolving to meet the demands that these trends are making. From a planning perspective we are likely to see the following trends continue, for better or worse.
- Decline in the traditional household patterns. Forget the 1950′s married couple with 2.5 kids. That’s been gone for a long time and unlikely to return. My generation is getting married later (if at all) and not having children at nearly the same rate as our parents.
- Continued influx of Generation Y to the cities. This, from an urbanist perspective, is overwhelmingly good. Gen Y doesn’t have the love of cars as previous generations (hell, we can’t afford them) and are looking at cities with new found opportunities. We’re reinvesting in places with existing infrastructure, thus reducing the need for greenfield development. What remains to be seen is whether my generation stays in the cities and that will largely be determined by whether we can make the city livable for all classes of people. Thus, how do we improve municipal finance, urban schools, gentrification/displacement of the poor, and clean up and adaptively reuse brownfield redevelopment.
- Houses as we know them will be radically different. Gone are the days of large scale cookie-cutter subdivisions as the predominant residential building mode. To meet the needs of Gen Y (and the downsizing baby boomers) we’ll need a lot more multi-family and smaller, more efficient homes near transit. I also suspect the cookie-cutter houses that will go up for sale as the boomers downsize will not find enough buyers, as Gen Y is a smaller generation and seems, at this point, wholly uninterested in moving to the suburbs to the extent our parents did.
- Public transit will face an existential crisis but will survive. The current financing model for public transit is outdated and does not reflect the economic or demographic realities of our time. Federal support will decline and transportation will increasingly be solved by local governments. However, the demand by Gen Y and the baby boomers (who will, inevitably, learn to ride transit not by choice, but out of necessity due to aging) for public transit will become overwhelming, in reality and politically. Now, what public transit looks like is another story. I can see room for private operators (e.g. jitneys, taxis, even ferries) as public providers contract services, particularly in outlying areas. I think we’ll see a refocus on urban areas where traditional transit has the greatest chance of success.
Our cities will experience a bit of a renaissance as people move back in. On the other hand, the suburban experiment is likely due for hardship. While appealing to some, I can’t see how it sustains itself in its enormity from a market standpoint and fiscal reality. There frankly isn’t a market for the sheer number of single family homes in cul-de-sacs out there. And governments cannot afford the replacement costs of the second generation of infrastructure that many of these suburbs will be requiring over the next 20 or so years. This may lead to a situation similar to many European cities (e.g. Paris) where the center city is luxurious and the suburbs surrounding it are falling apart.
If this is truly our future, I pray that I have made the prudent lifestyle decisions to support my family. We’ll see.
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There is nothing wrong with friendly competition. I laughed when I saw this image and read this article on Streetsblog.
But the truth of the matter is that this makes a lot of sense. I’m talking about transportation investment in cities. It’s been clear for some time now that the suburban experiment is coming to an end, that we need to reinvest in our cities. Now, I am a Chicagoan and I’m not necessarily a big fan of Rahm (who eliminated the planning department at City Hall!). But, he has done some very innovative, urban friendly things that are paying off. There is a reason that downtown Chicago has attracted corporate investment the past couple of years. One example of smart transportation investments, alluded to here in the Streetsblog article, is the Dearborn protected lanes.
I’m not sure whether we’re better off in the long run stealing jobs from other cities. But, then again, I’m not sure I’d categorize it as stealing. When you build infrastructure in the right way, the economic rewards will come.
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Phoenix. The Valley of the Sun. Soon to be home to my sister and her girlfriend. They’re moving at the end of the month to start the next phase of their lives together. I am sad, of course, and yet happy for them on this exciting adventure. I am no expert in Phoenix, having only visited the city once, but as an urban planner, I am adept at researching city data. So, here I present some interesting facts and observations about Phoenix from a planning perspective.
Phoenix’s population is 1.469 million people. The city alone accounts for 22% of the State of Arizona’s population, making it the primate city in the state. It’s the 6th most populous city, behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia. It’s metropolitan area is home to two-thirds of all Arizonans. It’s footprint is gigantic as well. Lying in the Salt River Valley of the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix spreads out over 516 miles, more than twice the land area of Chicago. And for all that land, it’s not particularly dense, with only 2,800 people per square mile, or about a quarter of Chicago’s population per square mile. This kind of density is hard to support transit, but you might be surprised that one of the newest and most successful light rail lines was built in the city recently (more on that below).
Given the size of the urban area and the character of its urbanism (suburbanism), a car is essential for reasonable travel. Unfortunately, your visitors will be arriving via plane, as the last passenger rail service was suspended in 1996. Phoenix is the largest city without intercity passenger train service. However, visitors landing at Sky Harbor International Airport have the option of taking the train. The Metro light rail system, a 20 mile single line system serving 28 stations, opened in 2008. The line serves central Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa. Back to being big – Mesa, at almost 440,000 people, is the second largest suburb in the U.S., ranking above many major cities like Miami, Atlanta, and St. Louis.
Sky Harbor is the main Phoenix airport and has a Southwest hub, very important for travel back to Chicago. It’s the 10th busiest in terms of passenger traffic.
Roads are plentiful. The main interstates are 10 and 17. I-17 will take you to Sedona in 2 hours, Flagstaff in 2 and a half. I-10 will take you to L.A. in 7 hours or so. As a Chicagoan, I was struck by the size of the arterial roads in the Phoenix area. Six lanes with a double left turn lane are common. It’s no wonder everyone drives.
Similarities to Chicago
Not many as you might expect. But the obvious ones are sports related. The Chicago Cubs have the spring training home in Mesa, attracting a lot of Chicagoans to visit and retire. Also, not to be forgotten, is the fact that the Arizona Cardinals used to be the Chicago Cardinals until 1960. I also think Phoenix’s dominance as Arizona’s primate city and capital is somewhat similar to Chicago. And the prevalance of the cardinal direction street grid is familiar to Chicagoans.
Like all cities, Phoenix is fascinating and has an interesting story. From my perspective as an urban planner, particularly in the transportation realm, I am fascinated by the urban form of the region, how transportation or natural (or political) boundaries enforce the geography of a place. Phoenix has more stories to tell.
Cross posted at Ryan J. Richter.
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I came across this instructional video on the same day that I saw that the River Point development off of Canal St. and Lake St. in Chicago has broken ground. This project is being constructed above the Metra tracks leading into Union Station (H/T Atlantic Cities).
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My next map project. Via Transit Maps. This map, called a time-scale map, shows the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) commuter rail network in Boston. This graphically simple map shows distance according to time and the lines are weighted according to frequency. A fare table is provided in the legend, thus the map answers some of the most common transit questions: How long is the journey? How much does it cost? How frequent is the service. Brilliant.
One of the aspects of the real gig that I enjoy most is having the responsibility of maintaining the agency’s geographic information system (GIS) data. I also am responsible for many of the map products produced. I’m always looking for a better way to display data and this is great. I hope to make something like this soon.
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2nd Ave. BRT Source: NYC Department of Transportation
Via Kevin O’Neil, who asks the question of what makes an ideal bus rapid transit (BRT) station? As you may guess, I have some opinions. But first, some background.
Bus rapid transit, known as BRT in the biz, is a term that applies to buses that have similar operational characteristics to rail systems. The goal of BRT is to achieve the operating characteristics of rail transit at the cost savings from bus transit. BRT can imitate rail transit service by scheduling frequencies, separate right-of-ways, off-vehicle ticketing and level boarding platforms at “stations.” More detail about BRT can be found here.
In response to the Active Transportation Alliance survey that Kevin linked to, here are my answers in greater detail:
Q2: How similar should transit stations across the city be? Should amenities and design of the stations be more uniform at every stop or should a station be more unique to the neighborhood it is in? How would you balance design uniformity with reflecting neighborhood character?
I believe that transit stations should have similar design features with local variations. That is, similar design features to project the brand of the transit system or line but with local variances for public art, for example. But I weigh heavily towards design uniformity in which economies of scale can be taken advantage of.
Q3: Should transit station design emphasize providing free-flowing foot traffic for pedestrians and riders by minimizing structures in and around the station (which could reduce shelter from the elements), or should it emphasize providing maximum shelter from wind, rain and cold with more enclosed structures (which could impede foot traffic)?
This is Chicago. When riding transit you’re exposed to the elements. Stations should be designed to protect customers from the weather, particularly the rain, cold and wind. Enclosed structures should be built, whatever the cost.
Q4: Which of these transit station amenities are most important to you? Consider that due to the space and electricity available at some station locations, it may not be possible to have all of them. If you had to choose, which are your TOP 5 station amenities?
My top five amenities are in order 1: protection from wind, 2: heat lamps, 3: pre-paid boarding, 4: real-time arrival screens, and 5: neighborhood maps.
The reasoning for this order is that, as a transit rider, I value protection from the elements. Waiting for the bus or train is part of being a rider. Making that experience as comfortable as possible is essential customer service. Pre-paid boarding, in all honesty, should be tied with #1. A true BRT can only have pre-paid boarding, otherwise it’s essentially an express bus. Real-time arrival screens are nice. I’ve got a smart phone that has real-time arrivals too. Why do I rate this amenity so high? Because I think it’s a form of advertising, particularly if headways are high, say every 5 minutes. Good BRT marketing will result in a uniform branding on the rolling stock and stations. But when people see that the buses come over couple of minutes, it makes it easier to entice new riders. Last, but not least, is neighborhood maps. They are also essential to the identity of the neighborhood and, done right, can give the neighborhood a sense of place.
5. What are your biggest concerns with transit (bus and train) stops as they are now? Please tell us your TOP 2.
My biggest concern with transit isn’t on the survey’s list. It’s that far too many transit stations are not in a state of good repair. A distant #2 is lack of weather protection. I’m starting to wonder whether I’m beating the drum of weather protection because it’s January.
6. Dream big! What’s your big idea for the best transit station ever? Tell us one thing you wish every train station had!
Besides being in a state of good repair? I actually really like platform edge doors (PED). I’ve seen them in action on the London Underground Jubilee Line. I think the safety benefits are tremendous in terms of keeping people away from the tracks and I think it makes the station environment a bit more relaxed. Just imagine how peaceful the CTA Irving Park Blue Line station would be if it had PEDs.
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My apologies for those of you looking to check out my site after the nice mention from Streetsblog on Twitter. I’ve been running the site for not quite a year on the WordPress platform and was looking for a new Twitter widget to post my latest tweets on the website. Last night I uploaded the Twitter Feeder widget and then my site took a dump some time this afternoon. Deleting the widget from my cPanel seems to bring me back from the white screen of death. At first I thought it had something to do with my recent migration of Transport Nexus’ domain registration from WordPress.com to Bluehost, which hosts this site and my other site ryanjrichter.com. This turns out not to be the case.
Amateur hour here, I know. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.
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