What City Observatory did this week

1. Beto O’Rourke brings a strong inclusive urbanist message to the Presidential contest.  While its been great to see housing affordability and climate change grow in prominence on the national stage, some of what’s been proposed, especially to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has been too much alternative fuels and electric cars, and too little on how we build more sustainable and just communities, where we don’t have to drive so much. Beto O’Rourke has the most provocative and explicitly urbanist take on how America needs to change. His recent remarks connect the need for economic integration, more dense development, and reduced driving.


2. Why smart cities are about more than technology. It’s tempting to think that for every urban problem there’s an easy technological fix: between Elon Musk’s tunnels and the “there’s an app for that” view of civic problem solving, the urban future is too enamored of technology. Part of this hinges on having the wrong mental model of how cities work, thinking of them as machines to be tweaked, rather that complex, ever evolving, human centered system. We’ve been down that road–literally–before, when engineers like Robert Moses, took a careless meat ax approach to urban space, with devastating social, economic and environmental consequences we’re still wrestling with.  While new technology creates opportunities, we need to be keenly aware of the risk of unintended consequences, the biases of big data, and the need to make sure that the rules and prices that shape urban places reflect our broader values, rather than some narrow technological imperative.

Must read

1. Why Houston should scrap efforts to expand its I-45 freeway. Jeff Speck weighs in on the Texas Department of Transportation’s $7 billion (and counting) plan to widen Interstate 45 to as many as 13 lanes through Houston. While its pitched as an “improvement plan,” this is really a classic Bob Moses meat-ax project, which would wipe out 1,200 homes (chiefly occupied by low income people of color) and displace 5,000 people and 300 businesses.  It’s being sold, as so many are, as a solution to congestion, when freeway widening has been proven time and again to induce more traffic and generate even longer commutes–as Houston’s own experience with the 23-lane Katy Freeway amply generates. Some Houstonians are trying to soften some of the sharp edges of the project, to make I-45 “better;” but Speck will have none of it. Compromise now means just more of the same disastrous consequences for people, for cities and for the environment:

. . . Houston’s fatalistic response to its TxDOT incursion has been to just “make I-45 better.” The well-resourced but cautious Make I-45 Better Coalition has proposed a collection of modifications, all good, that unfortunately do not begin to question the underlying folly of fighting congestion, car crashes, and tailpipe emissions by welcoming more driving.

Here’s how to make I-45 better: first, fix the parts that need repair, without making them any wider. At the same time, introduce congestion-based pricing on the entire roadway to maximize its capacity around the clock. Invest the proceeds in transit, biking, walking, and in those poor people who truly have no choice but to keep driving.

2. The Future is not retro.  In the era of “MAGA,” no one can doubt that allusions to recovering the imagined verisimilitude of an earlier era have a strong emotional appeal.  Urbanists have made a good case that it many cases, we’ve simply forgotten (or outlawed) well-established recipes for building successful urban places. But while reminders of how well we did things in the past are helpful for motivating introspection, simply reverting to a status quo ante isn’t where we should be headed. In an essay entitled “The Future is not Retro” Pedestrian Observation’s Alon Levy pointedly challenges the limits of nostalgia as blueprint for building the future. Levy takes aim at some of advocates who disparage high rise urban redevelopment and seem to long for a restoration of small town, midwestern main streets.

As Levy argues, communities of the future will embody many of the critical urbanist principles of the past, but they’ll be different as well:

The theme of the future is that, just as the Industrial Revolution involved urbanization and rural depopulation, urban development patterns this century involve growth in the big metro areas and decline elsewhere and in traditional small towns.  . . . Already, people lead full lives in big global cities like New York and London without any of the trappings of what passed for normality in the middle of the 20th century, like a detached house with a yard and no racial minorities or working-class people within sight. The rest will adapt to this reality, just as early 20th century urbanites adapted to the reality of suburbanization a generation later.

3. The high cost of free roads. In an editorial, Toronto’s Globe and Mail highlights the seductive appeal of apparently “free” roads in otherwise frequently sensible Canada. While several provinces have toyed with asking road users to pay a portion of major new capital projects, like British Columbia’s Port Mann Bridge and the new Champlain Bridge in Montreal, it’s been politically opportunistic to campaign against tolls. In both cases, new provincial governments have taken off the tolls–and shifted the multi-billion dollar cost of the bridges to all of their non-users.  It’s a crazy system, as the Globe and Mail editorial concludes:

Federal, provincial and municipal governments should be liberating taxpayers from billions of dollars in road construction and maintenance costs, and unlocking hundreds of billions of dollars in profitable assets. That would be a boon for both the environment and the fiscal bottom line, and would free up tax dollars for things we really need.

In the news

Writing in the Grand Rapids Business Journal, Lou Glazer cities City Observatory’s commentaries on the positive effects of gentrification for the long-time residents of low income neighborhoods.

StreetsblogUSA cited City Observatory’s critique of the recent Urban Mobility Report in an article “Traffic Study comes under fire for being to pro-car.”