Tag Archives: infrastructure

Oh, Sh**: Excretion, the forgotten public services issue?

This weekend, a friend in Pontiac posted to his blog,

While I was getting ready for work this morning, our trusty dog Gus started barking furiously during his morning yard exercises. I took that as a sign that someone was passing by on foot, followed his sounds to the west side of the house and peeked out of the bedroom window.

Lo and behold, there was a gentleman defecating on a tree in the city lot next to our house…

I contacted the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department and put in a complaint, but the scatological scofflaw had already departed on foot by the time they drove through the Union Court area between Union and Mechanic Streets.

It was the second time in the past week this particular issue had crossed my radar.  A subscriber to the (wonderful) Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition Google Group shared a thought-provoking post:

I suspect, that in most of the world’s “walkable cities” you’ll find public toilets at the ready and the way-finding in place to leave little confusion of where they are located…

Here in the U.S… the norm is avoidance of the topic.
We apparently prefer to subsidize the storage of people’s automobiles (MW) over providing for bodily requirements that impact everyone’s ability to be a
fully functioning human.

Here in Ann Arbor you often read of locals’ impassioned lobbying for more “green space” and parkland downtown.  I can’t recall a single instance of any of these well-intentioned citizens suggesting the city invest in what strikes me as a far more urgent investment, a few simple pay toilets.

Details of implementation are crucial, of course.  Recall the scandal a little over a year ago over the horrendous conditions in the bathrooms of the otherwise lovely new Rosa Parks Transit Center in Detroit (a classic example of “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”).   Meanwhile, the unbelievably patient staff at the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown branch struggle on a daily basis with downtown’s ample homeless population, which likes to use the library’s bathrooms to wash up and launder their clothes.

In the event that City Council or the DDA decided to extend the right to void with dignity to pedestrians, the Atlantic Cities suggests emulating Portland and its eponymous loo, which “includes a variety of bells and whistles meant to keep in check the most degenerate of bathroom users”:

• No running water inside: “Some people, if they’re homeless, use a sink to wash their laundry,” says (city staffer Anna) DiBenedetto. So there’s no sink, just a spigot on the outside that pours cold water.
• No mirror: People tend to smash mirrors…
• Bars at the top and bottom of the structure... Cops can peep in near the ground to make sure there’s no more than one set of feet inside. The openings also help sound flow freely, letting pedestrians hear the grunts and splashes of the person inside and the person inside hear the footsteps and conversation of pedestrians…
• A graffiti-proof coating…
• Walls and doors made from heavy-gauge stainless steel: “It’s built with the idea that somebody could take a bat to it,” DiBenedetto says. “And if they did damage it, we could replace that part.”…

These PSYOP-worthy features are outlined in U.S. Patent No. D622,408 S, which Leonard received in the summer of 2010. The toilet has the dubious honor of being the city of Portland’s first patent.

I personally don’t think see anything dubious about the honor.

I’ll also note that there’s no reason the Portland Loo or similar such investment need necessarily be undertaken by the local government or DDA.  Could it perhaps prove a lucrative undertaking for a private sector actor, whether an entrepreneur or an established company?

Why Michigan’s roads suck

According to a Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll last week, 58% of Michiganders would rather continue whining about their roads than fixing them.  I don’t find this terribly surprising.

It is conventional wisdom in Michigan that the condition of our roads is among the country’s worst.   I’ve read a number of different theories for why this may be.  One is that we have unusually high weight limits for trucks.  Another is the freeze-thaw cycle that results from our harsh winters.  Another is American road construction standards, which generate cheaper bills but demand more frequent repairs.  Presumably each of these factors contributes to our bumpy rides, to some extent.

What I almost never hear cited as a factor is how incredibly overbuilt Michigan is.  (Credit due to Urbanophile, who has written at length about this phenomenon elsewhere in the country, and Charles Marohn, whose theory of the “growth Ponzi scheme” I’ve praised.)  And by Michigan I primarily mean metro Detroit,  with Genesee and Saginaw counties also shouldering significant amounts of blame.  Is it any coincidence that these areas also have some of the most segregated populations, auto-centric layouts, depressed home values, and dysfunctional inner cities in the entire country? The Detroit, Flint and Saginaw metropolitan areas are the poster children for autocentric sprawl, and have reaped their just desserts for it. Among the consequences of the sprawl is that, of course, we can’t afford to pay to maintain the countless miles of asphalt laid to service it.  And MDOT, unbelievably, responds to this situation by proposing expansion projects like adding lanes to I-94 in the city of Detroit.  You can’t blame respondents to the Free Press poll for thinking that the last thing we need to do is throw more money at the imbeciles running our state’s transportation policy.

In the spirit of problem-solving, here’s my proposal to help solve two problems at once:  our threadbare roads and our decimated industrial inner cities.   Restrict all state dollars allocated toward road construction and maintenance to the oldest paved segments.  Earmark the majority of road dollars toward the core streets that serviced central cities and inner suburbs before, say, World War II, giving an edge to fiscally struggling older communities across the state like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ypsilanti, Pontiac, and Saginaw, as well as dense and walkable older communities like Plymouth, Rochester or Brighton.

This will never happen, of course, because Michiganders continue to overwhelmingly choose exurban isolation over city life, and dependency on car travel to the exclusion of any other form of transit.  They will continue to do so, even as the roads they travel disintegrate to rubble and eventually, one by one, revert to gravel.  They will continue to lament the potholes and the flat tires because they’d rather complain than pay a nickel more in gas taxes.   Their leaders will continue to subsidize greenfield development over infill, convinced that for their particular community at least the bill will never come due.

It’s the Michigan way.

PS 2-8-12:  I also want to make it clear that I think the proposal, introduced by State Sen. Howard Walker, to scrap the state’s gas tax in favor of paying for roads with a sales tax increase is insane.  The gas tax should be increased, not scrapped, and we should not be shifting the burden of paying for roads from heavy users (people who drive a lot) to light users (people who bike, walk, carpool or ride the bus).   This bill idea deserves to die.

Cycling as activism

I started biking home from work last fall, & this spring I started making it a round trip.  It’s about 3.7 miles each way, & a year ago, the thought of making that trip twice each day would have been overwhelming to me.

Now I can’t imagine living any other way.  It’s possibly the best decision I’ve made all year, and one of the most significant & rewarding lifestyle changes I’ve made in several.  It’s been key to helping me control my waistline and finally start to lose weight, not to mention build stronger legs.  It’s made it easier and safer for me to make it home after a beer or two (not advocating drunk cycling, of course!).  And it’s helped me become a safer and more conscientious cyclist.  I’ve even decided to try biking into the winter months this year, purchasing a cycling cap at REI to wear under my helmet when it gets cold for that very purpose.

In light of the many benefits that biking has bestowed upon me, I want to give a shout out to a few organizations and colleagues:

  • Tour de Troit, which my man* & I are riding in for the second year in a row this coming Saturday.  It’s one of an ever-increasing number of organized rides taking place in Detroit.  My first time around last year, it was the longest ride I’d undertaken to that point and it helped show me I could not only ride that far, but enjoy it too.   In every neighborhood we passed through, the residents universally gave us an enthusiastic welcome.  It’s a great way to see the city, including parts many of us would probably never explore on our own, and I can’t wait to do it again.
  • The Washtenaw Bicycling & Walking Coalition, which has an active listserv I recently subscribed to.   It’s filled with insightful commentary and plenty of debate.
  • The Streetsblog Network, which serves as a clearinghouse for the interests of pedestrians, cyclists and anybody else who values safe streets and alternatives to motor vehicle transport.  Streetsblog tirelessly publicizes these issues on the national level and by helping to alert and engage readers in advocacy, most recently when Senator Coburn briefly (and, in part thanks to Streetsblog, unsuccessfully) held the federal transportation funding extension hostage solely for the purpose of stripping funds for bike and pedestrian safety projects.
  • Local blog M-Bike.org, which does a great job of publicizing and promoting rides in southeast Michigan.  It also offers diligent political advocacy similar to Streetsblog’s but focused on the state and local level.
  • And, last but not least, this blog’s dear colleagues at Damn Arbor, who introduced me to the novel genre of bike porn.  (Speaking of which, I can attest that there is nothing that drives pageviews through the roof more than casually including the word “porn” on your blog from time to time.  This was by far my most-visited post until my Richard Florida piece.)
There are plenty of people who hate cyclists and resent our presence on the roads.  I’m impressed by how effectively we are mobilizing and educating ourselves & others in response.  It’s one of the few bright spots of popular activism in today’s USA and has truly transformative potential for public health, transit, our economy, and the environment.  I encourage all able-bodied readers who aren’t already biking to take the plunge and start incorporating it into your daily routine, whether it be to work, to school, or for errands, and everybody else to check out the blogs and groups I’ve mentioned above.   I suspect that, like me, you’ll be glad you did.

*I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge my boyfriend, who first suggested we get bikes and register for Tour de Troit.  Without his encouragement all those months ago, I wouldn’t be writing this post.

“The Growth Ponzi Scheme”

More and more, I think sprawl is THE underlying problem in American cities, and addressing it as THE solution.  It’s not the only problem, nor are solutions that address it a silver bullet to all the other challenges facing cities.  But to me, it is more central to solving more urban problems than any other single issue.

Unfortunately, it’s an issue that most Americans don’t grasp very well, if they even think about it at all.  There’s a lot of educating, a lot of helping people connect the dots, to be done.  So I was excited when I came across (H/T Charlotte blogger Mary Newsom*) an organization called Strong Towns, and an excellent series called “The Growth Ponzi Scheme.”

In the series, Strong Towns Executive Director Charles Marohn demonstrates, through a number of  examples, how real estate developers’ upfront contribution toward costs are typically inadequate for long-term maintenance.  A generation later, the taxpayer foots the remainder of the bill.  Marohn concludes: “Our places do not create wealth, they destroy wealth.”

In the next installment of the series, Marohn provides a graph showing “(t)he cumulative cash flow of multiple projects in succession over two life cycles”:

The results are obvious and devastating. When the private-sector investment does not yield enough tax revenue to maintain the underlying public infrastructure, the balance can be made up in the short term with new growth. Over the long run, however, insolvency is unavoidable… First, this is actually a model of a well-run city, one that puts money away for future improvements. I’ve yet to see one that has such fiscal discipline…

Second, this model shows the impact of continuous and steady growth. In reality, that is not the pattern most cities experience. Most cities have a phase of rapid growth followed by stagnation and then decline, as described by Jane Jacobs in The Economy of Cities. Superimpose the financial underpinnings of the American model of development and the results are even more devastating – a flood of liabilities all coming due right at the time that growth is starting to wane.

In the fourth installment, Marohn ties the growth Ponzi scheme in to the debt fueled national economic disaster of the last 40 years:

The critical insight today is to understand how we reacted to the end of the first life cycle of suburban development, when those maintenance costs started to come due and cut into our growth-generated wealth…. (W)e made a choice to double down on the suburban experiment by taking on debt.

We used debt to drive additional growth and sustain the unsustainable development pattern for a while longer… The first generation of suburbia we built on savings and investment, but we built the second — and maintained the first — using debt. Unprecedented levels of debt.

And in the process, we transformed our industrial economy into one based on consumption.

(W)e’ve tethered our national psyche to the suburban ideal we call the “American Dream”, our auto-based, utopia where everyone gets to live a faux version of European aristocracy on their own mini-estate.

His prognosis for the immediate future is pessimistic:

None of our public officials has ever asked the question: Will this public project generate enough tax revenue to sustain its maintenance over multiple life cycles?…

I’m astonished and more than a little depressed at the shallow nature of the public debate we are having over this crisis. Do we cut the budget or spend more? Do we raise taxes or reduce them? Does raising the debt ceiling signal fiscal responsibility or a lack of restraint? Do we build rail lines or highways? How do we restore housing values? How do we lower unemployment?…

Nobody has acknowledged that a) the bubble economies of tech and housing were not financially real, b) we can not “recover” to a condition that was not financially real in the first place, and therefore c) we need to start focusing on a transition to something close to reality, which is a long ways from where we currently are.

There’s a lot more here.  I encourage readers to bookmark the Strong Towns blog in your RSS reader of choice and to read the series in full.  I am not sure how novel Marohn’s thesis is, as he builds upon a number of ideas I’ve encountered in previous literature on sprawl and on the housing bubble.  But it’s a thorough primer, broken up and presented in a way that should be friendly to time-pressed voters, planners, and elected officials.

No silver bullet: Managing expectations for light rail on Woodward

As I’ve acknowledged before, I succumb pretty easily to my own pessimism when it comes to mass transit projects in southeast Michigan.  So I haven’t been hanging my hat on the Woodward Avenue light rail line.

First, there’s the typical delay associated with rail plans in Michigan.  SEMCOG’s Carmine Palumbo blogged back in February,

I am worried that the unrealistic expectations that some heap on transit can have more of a negative than a positive impact. What do I mean? Well for example if groups are spreading the word that construction will begin later this year and the earliest it can begin is mid 2012, then it looks like the project is behind schedule. “Behind schedule” can be code for some to mean more expensive and other unforeseen problems.

Sure enough, the Metro Times reported last month that the opening of the line has been postponed from 2013 to 2015 (as it had “ been determined that the project should be constructed in a single phase instead of the two that had been planned”). 

Furthermore, M1 Rail’s funders, who are footing the bill for the lower segment of the line, are causing trouble with their demand that it run curb-side instead of down the center – an idea that makes no sense, as Yonah Freemark explains in a recent post for the Transport Politic.

And DDOT is causing trouble with their demand that the line loop around to the Rosa Parks Transit Center on Cass. Freemark laments, “The fact that this route would parallel the People Mover almost directly — eliminating its very limited raisons d’être — should be bothersome to anyone who is paying attention.”

Even the financing is a mess.  The Free Press’ Jeff Gerritt spoke to the frustration of rail supporters in a column this week:

Meeting with the Free Press editorial board in mid-April, the mayor told me he needs investors to commit within 30 days. Thirty days have passed and nothing definitive has happened. A spokesperson for the M-1 Rail leadership team declined to comment through an e-mail on Friday, other than to say “they are not comfortable commenting on something the mayor said in a meeting they were not present at.”

Here’s an even bigger problem: Detroit’s application for federal assistance must explain how the city will pay to operate light rail. Fares will bring in maybe $3 million a year, but running the system will cost at least $10 million more. Facing a $150-million deficit, the city can’t do it alone. For now, there is no plan for a regional transit tax…

Worst of all, perhaps, is the nagging existential question of whether a huge, expensive investment in rail even makes sense in a Detroit that is slowly returning to nature.   Consider Ed Glaeser, who blasted the project in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal.   Now, I took major issue with Glaeser’s column on a number of counts.  He failed to note the Woodward line has plenty of support from local transit riders who want an alternative to the car; nor that a substantial section of the line is to be funded privately; nor that the line would actually extend up Woodward into the Oakland County suburbs, if it weren’t for the fact that L. Brooks Patterson is allergic to mass transit and that the City of Detroit is still paranoid about having to surrender any of its autonomy.  I’m increasingly disillusioned by Glaeser for this kind of laziness; he seems to have made up his mind a long time ago that because Detroit has lost its manufacturing base, it should no longer exist.  He consequently seems to oppose any investment in the city as a waste of resources.

Freemark addressed the same question Glaeser raised, but in a much more informed and sophisticated fashion:

In a city that lost 240,000 inhabitants between 2000 and 2010, the necessity of this project must be evaluated. The city is overbuilt … What is the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new transit project in a place that has few issues with traffic congestion and where transit ridership has declined from 136,000 daily users in 1996 to 121,000 today…?

Those who doubt the importance of new infrastructure for Detroit have a point — there might be some value in simply redirecting the funds appropriated for the rail line towards poverty alleviation. Yet there is no clear mechanism by which to do that… So transportation improvements like the light rail line act as an indirect approach in an attempt to remediate this city’s ills…(S)everal areas along the Woodward rail line actually gained population between 2000 and 2010.

Regardless of what happens with the project, there are a number of fundamentals that will not change:

For one, Midtown will continue to thrive compared to the rest of the city.

For another, even if it is built, the Woodward line would only serve a tiny fraction of Detroit, let alone the metro region whose sprawl dwarfs it.  Bus service will continue to be the primary mode of transit for the majority of public transportation riders in the region, and the primary means of connecting workers to jobs, services, and shopping in the suburbs. As Gerritt writes:

 (T)he Federal Transit Administration won’t allow Detroit to weaken its already inadequate bus system to build a rail system — nor should it. More than 25% of Detroiters don’t have vehicles. Their needs come first. Besides, a rail line needs decent bus service to feed it.

Fortunately, Transportation Riders United has done an excellent job of continuing to press for bus service (and it paid off last week, when TRU managed to forestall cuts in state funds for public transit).

Detroit will remain a great city to bike in, with its flat geography and its empty streets.

And regardless of what happens to Woodward rail, the other major rail service improvement in the region – Detroit to Ann Arbor – will benefit from the recent influx of federal money for that route.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t think of Woodward rail as some kind of silver bullet.  Nor should we get too discouraged by the myriad roadblocks it faces.  We need to manage our expectations, while still dreaming big.

L. Brooks Patterson and the love of sprawl

Good morning y’all, I have a new post over at TheDetroiter.com that you should check out.  Leave a comment either here or at the Detroiter and let me know if I got it right or if I’m missing something.

Save the brownfield and historic tax credits!

I’ve generally let Gov. Snyder off the hook for his state budget proposal, and I also generally like the idea of wiping out tax credits across the board.  There is a big exception, a proposal that I simply can not, as an urbanist, justify to myself, and that is wiping out Michigan’s brownfield and historic redevelopment tax credits.  Re-development and construction investment in older inner cities will greatly diminish without them.  I can not reconcile that fact with a full across-the-board elimination of tax credits.

The obvious alternative is to create a subsidy or grant program to make redevelopment in older urban more attractive.   With rural and suburban Republicans controlling every branch of state government, however, it’s a political non-starter.

Because development in inner cities is so much less attractive to real estate developers and bankers than greenfield development in the exurbs, we’ll see a lot less infill, preservation and redevelopment in older neighborhoods without them.  If these credits are eliminated, rehab of old masterpieces like the Book-Cadillac in downtown Detroit will become a thing of the past.

If any tax credits make it through this year’s state budget intact, I hope it’s these. This is one of those times when defenders of cities really are forced to explain why they deserve to be saved, and why they will die without policy intervention.

For another high-profile defense of these credits, see this recent Free Press op-ed, as well as the “Let’s Save Michigan” website, the online headquarters of the fight to preserve them.  Most importantly, contact your state legislators (especially if either of them are Republicans) in support of them.