Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Links o' the Day

First, Richard Florida slaps his forehead as the Wall Street Journal & Forbes (Kotkin) confuse population growth in the sun belt over the completely skewed 2000-2010 census w/ actual economic growth.
The south and the west may be winning the demographic race, but America's economic winners are the places that have improved their productivity--something which doesn't turn on the sheer numbers of workers they have on tap, but rather on how skilled and innovative they are.
The infographic that matters:


Yikes. Dallas, Atlanta, Houston growth model not looking so hot now is it? Just wait another 10 or 20 years if those cities don't get their act together.
The economist starts w/ Reihan Salam's take that just maybe had we not invested in Hitler's cool invention of highways, our cities might be a little taller, walkable, and more efficient w/ a much less bloated central government. Salam is a free-market conservative who supports walkable urbanism. The economist waffles:
But the lesson is clear. Highway construction generated some positive effects and some negative effects. We tend to focus on the positive effects and remark on how constrained the economy might have been without a highway boom. But absent a highway boom something would have been built and markets would have optimised to that something. It's not clear that the savings from highways are so substantial that the American economy is clearly better off as a result of the system's construction. Highways obviously had a large effect as an idea, and they made direct contributions to the economy as a construction enterprise, but the net addition to growth through trade is uncertain, and probably much smaller than most people assume.
This entire debate of whether highways were thumbs up or thumbs down misses the entire point. You can't even HAVE the debate without distinguishing inter-city and intra-city freeways. Even Eisenhower knew that, which is why he was disgusted with the highway building run amok when it began tearing up neighborhoods through cities.

To keep it simple, since that is apparently the way the Economist likes its debates (America too), inter-city freeways, those connecting regional economies, i.e. Houston area to Dallas area, were a good positive investment, helping to link the country together. Intra-city freeways were a convenient way to "solve" the problems of the industrial city by plowing them away /thumbs in ears. /palms over eyes. Funny how it only magnified the issues.
That doesn't mean that infrastructure isn't worth building. New infrastructure will quite often yield real cost reductions, and my assessment is that many new projects, particularly those along corridors that are already busy and congested, would probably produce benefits. I suspect that the potential benefits would be clearer if roadways were kept free of congestion via tolls; toll revenues along some well-traveled routes would meet or exceed the cost of construction of new infrastructure capacity.
Do you write just to write?
Streetsblog and the Transport politic say, "woah, wait a minute" to suburban commuter rail enthusiasm. As Jonah Freemark writes:

The results have in general not been impressive. As Jeff Wood catalogued last week on The Overhead Wire, these investments have yielded very limited ridership — especially on a per-mile basis. Nevertheless, cities continue to make plans to focus their spending on them: Kansas City announced in 2009 that it was considering a 150-mile commuter network; late last year, Indianapolis suggested its primary rail investment would be in a commuter line to its northeast suburbs.

Except in the older cities (which have legacy commuter rail systems for the most part), the downtown job base has been falling off as a percentage of the metropolitan area’s total employment for decades. The rise of non-traditional working patterns that rely on Third Places and home offices mean fewer people need to get into central business districts for the same amount of work to be done. In most places, the center city simply isn’t a big enough attraction to require shuttling people to it from distant locales via big, heavy diesel trains running a few times a day. Indeed, in many cities, that work could probably be better done with a few express buses.

What this forgets to understand is that built form takes at least a generation to adapt to its new bones, transportation infrastructure. Urban Design must be always understood in 4-dimensions (5, if you consider my theories of centers of gravity applying to cities AND that in the physical world gravity is the 5th dimension -- which is usually just scientific short-hand). The bet by transit agencies is that the value of the land around the stations will rise and thus densify and help to cover some of their costs/investment while providing new ridership. It remains to be seen whether that will come true.

But, of course providing transit to low density areas doesn't work. That doesn't mean those low density areas don't need it eventually in order to survive in a world that is "place-centric," i.e. generic one-note suburbs need centers of gravity. And two, home prices will likely remain low/affordable in far flung suburbs, but in a world of rising gas prices transportation costs will continue to rise. Wouldn't that suggest that the leaders of those suburbs are right to protect their communities by participating in regional rail projects? Without them, some entire suburbs might completely fade away by 2050.