New Urbs

New Urbs Goes to Dallas

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The American Conservative and our modest project here at New Urbs are hitting the road next week, and will be joining the Congress for the New Urbanism in Dallas for its 23rd annual convention of panels, events, and good urbanism appreciation.

I’ll be bringing you coverage and highlights of CNU23 throughout the week (so stay tuned), but for now I’d like to highlight events that The American Conservative itself is very pleased to be holding.

Friday will be official New Urbs day down in Dallas, as we will be hosting a panel from 3:45-5:00 on “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives”:

Community building, placemaking, traditional neighborhood design. Good urbanism should hold a deep appeal across the political spectrum, but too often gets roadblocked by unproductive stereotypes. The American Conservative magazine joins CNU co-founder Andres Duany and Strong Town’s Chuck Marohn in a discussion on how to bridge the urbanism divide and how to engage community-oriented conservatives at the local and national levels.

If you will be attending CNU, please come and join our discussion. TAC national editor Benjamin Schwarz and I will be joined by frequent New Urbs contributor (read his new article from the print magazine here) and StrongTowns president Chuck Marohn, along with one of New Urbanism’s true icons, architect and NU pioneer Andres Duany, for a fast-paced, free-flowing conversation about overcoming the conservatism-good urbanism divide.

Each panelist has a unique background working at the intersection of politics and placemaking, and I, personally, am extremely excited to learn from Andres and Chuck’s wisdom and experiences.

 
After the panel, for any readers in the Dallas area who won’t be attending the Congress (and for those who are!), New Urbs will be hosting an evening reception from 5:00 to 7:00 at D Magazine’s gorgeous downtown offices, overlooking the cityscape from the 21st floor as the sun starts to set.

Amid the Texas BBQ appetizers and beer and wine from Dallas’s own Sonny Bunch’s Smokehouse, Benjamin Schwarz will sit down for a brief conversation with a man who should be very familiar to long-time TAC readers, Wick Allison. In addition to being the chairman of our board now, formerly our president, Allison is the chairman and publisher of D Magazine and a driving force between the Coalition for a New Dallas, a PAC formed to champion the revitalization of Dallas’s downtown neighborhoods and the necessary tear-out of I-395.

Ben will ask Wick about how he has sold Dallas conservatives on Jane Jacobs, and how a former publisher of National Review came to see the essential connections between conservatism and good urbanism.

If you are anywhere near the area, please come out and join us, for the food, drink, and conversation. TAC‘s editorial and leadership team will be out in force, so it’s a great opportunity to get to meet the people behind the scenes of this peculiar project of a magazine. 

And please, please, register at this page to tell us that you are coming, so we will be sure to have enough food and drink for all.

Finally, if you are around CNU, look for Ben Schwarz and I the rest of the week as well (rumor has it that TAC executive editor Maisie Allison may even grace the Congress with her presence on Wednesday); we hope to meet as many people as possible at CNU. My e-mail is jcoppage[at]theamericanconservative.com, feel free to reach out.

I hope to see many New Urbs and TAC readers soon!

Register for the Friday reception here.

Reception2 Invitation

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Why Shared Space Scares

Drachten, Netherlands Fietsberaad
Drachten, Netherlands Fietsberaad

Can shared space work in the United States?

Surely not, was the response of many to my recent article describing the movement seeking to de-engineer and re-design our streets. For some reason this is the objection that immediately emerges everywhere the idea of shared space is raised: the British think ‘that may work for those upstanding Dutch, but not for us,’ Americans think ‘that may work for those nice Brits, but not us.’ Even in-country, you will often hear, ‘that may work in a small town, but not Jersey,’ ‘not Boston,’ ‘not where I’m from, have you seen these crazy people?’

I’m still sufficiently traumatized from my past experiences on Boston’s roads that I’ll bracket Beantown for the time being, but this is a very understandable, even desirable reaction. For shared space, the idea that pedestrians, bikes, cars all have equal claim to the street and should navigate the common space socially rather than hewing to the dictates of century-old traffic engineering, is intentionally scary.

Hans Monderman, the father of the shared space movement, made his name with the 2001 redesign of the Dutch town of Drachten’s town square. A town of 45,000, Monderman saw accidents fall from eight annually to one, yet was pleased to hear “that residents, despite the measurable increase in safety, perceived the place to be more dangerous. This was music to Monderman’s ears. If they had not felt less secure, he said, he ‘would have changed it immediately.’”

The rapidly growing English town of Ashford recently implemented a shared space design, so that “Without street signs, pavements, road markings or traffic lights, Ashford’s Elwick Square is confusing. Pedestrians cross from all angles, and some cars stop at the sides, while others make U-turns even though there is no roundabout.” The Financial Times reported, “In the three years before the scheme opened in November 2008, there were 17 accidents involving injury on this stretch of ring road. Since its creation, there have been just four.”

The FT also interviewed “Rebecca Skinner, a cleaner who crosses the road every day,” who said, “‘It looks nice, but I don’t feel safe at all. What makes drivers stop is making eye contact, but they might not be looking at you.’”

Ms. Skinner’s reaction is what every Monderman acolyte dreams of hearing. Under the influence of Prof. John Adams of University College, London, shared space designers recognize the influence of a “risk compensation effect,” whereby the comfort provided by a network of signs and lights relaxes the natural alertness one would carry into an environment shared with 2,000 pound steel machines. The discomfort induced by the alien shared space environment helps keep a pedestrian’s head on a swivel, and encourages active negotiation of the space, with eye contact and hand waving.

Now a few scattered projects are bringing shared space back to American shores. Chicago is implementing a near-shared space design on a four-block stretch in Uptown, with no sidewalks, stoplights, or crosswalks, and minimal signage, and FastCoExist notes that “shared streets exist in Seattle, Washington and Buffalo, New York.” It quotes Seattle Parks and Rec project manager Patrick Donoue as declaring, “Naysayers said, ‘People are going to get hit’ … Well, it just hasn’t happened.” Bombastic British car presenter Jeremy Clarkson declared about the Ashford scheme before it was built, “Someone is going to die, you idiots.”

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, Hans Monderman’s shared space heir, told me in an interview that he sees shared spaces working across the world, extending to Latin America, because the principles involved deal in human nature, not the particular hospitality customs of a few bike-happy Euro cultures. Such a claim can be overstated, but it is important to recognize that “shared spaces” were not a branded innovation but the almost unanimous state of the street across the world until the engineering interventions that accompanied the ascendancy of the car.

If we have been sharing spaces from the beginning of organized human settlements, then we may very well find latent hard-wiring ready to ease our transition in ways deeper and more complex than a traffic engineer could imagine. As Prof. John Adams says, “Road safety is not rocket science—it is much more complicated!”

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


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New Article on Shared Space & American Streets

From the newest print edition of the magazine, my look at the history of American street engineering, and why Hans Monderman’s shared space movement is a reform that conservatives should be able to embrace.

The removal of signs, signals, and markings from a street inverts the logic that has governed our roadways for almost as long as automobiles have been mass produced, as doing so moves decision-making from the engineer who designs the street back to the people who use it. The absence of speed-limit signs means a driver must read his environment and modulate his speed appropriately. The absence of stop signs and stoplights means neither driver nor pedestrian is told when to go or when to stop; each must instead make those decisions spontaneously in response to conditions on and around the road.

With auto industry support, modernist planners’ fantastical ideas for remaking the American city were suddenly given the financial muscle to become possible and even mandatory. Highways would be brought into the heart of the city, people would be cordoned from the streets, and everything would be separated into its own gleaming sphere. Cronyist central planning bent well-meaning engineers to its ambitions and shut out ordinary citizens.

When European countries began encountering significant traffic congestion five to 10 years after the United States, they sent their own engineers to learn from the Americans and implemented similar standards, including the now ubiquitous traffic light and stop sign. “By 1938,” Norton relates, “the sociologist Louis Wirth could name ‘the clock and the traffic signal’ as the two symbols ‘of the basis of our social order in the urban world.’”

This stands in stark contrast to the standardization of roads according to the rules of conventional traffic engineering. When a road is totally divorced from its context, when an identical stretch of asphalt runs through a hundred towns across the country, “when you removed all the things that made people know where they were, what they were a part of, and when you changed it into a uniform world … then you have to explain things,” Monderman argued. A clutter of signs and directional arrows is an attempt at technocratic compensation for the destruction of place.

Read the full article here: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/put-a-stop-to-stoplights/

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When Fascists Tried to Remake Ethiopia

Picture of Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirt youth in 1935 in Rome.
Picture of Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirt youth in 1935 in Rome.

When Mussolini’s army invaded and ultimately occupied Ethiopia, the Italian fascists did more than expand Italy’s African empire; in their eyes, they obtained an opportunity to build a capital from scratch.

As Rixt Woudstra details at Failed Architecture,

The idea of Ethiopia as a tabula rasa—a blank slate—was omnipresent in the writings of architects and urban planners occupied with the designs of the colonial capital between 1936 and 1939, who considered the country devoid of any structures of architectural significance. Contrary to the fascination of Libyan whitewashed courtyard house – their simplicity, colours and volumes perfectly in tune with modern taste – the round houses of the Ethiopians were regarded by Italian architects as irrational and unhygienic.

Modernist architecture’s obsession with rationality and supreme planning looked askance at a city even as relatively new as Addis Ababa for not proceeding out of the geometries and ideals en vogue in Europe. Within months of the Ethiopian capital’s conquest, no less an architect than Le Corbusier, one of the icons and pioneers of modernism, composed a sketch to accompany a letter he sent to Mussolini instructing “how a city for the modern times is born,” and offering his services as a midwife.

Woudstra writes,

Le Corbusier’s sketch shows Addis Ababa literally as a tabula rasa: the rigorously superimposed plan cleared the land of all signs of humanity and centuries of urban culture. In his letter, Le Corbusier described his drawing perfectly by writing that he was attracted by ‘…models so severe, that one might think the colony was a space without time, and therefore, without history, and without any particular geographical meaning.’ Further in his letter he added: ‘…the city is direct dominion; the city becomes the city of government, in which the Palace of the Governor must stand overall…’

Not for nothing, as Matthew Robare recently noted here, did Theodore Dalrymple compare Le Corbusier to Pol Pot, saying “he wanted to start from Year Zero: Before me, nothing; After me, everything.” Le Corbusier had found himself frustrated by the long-standing architectural patterns of Europe, whose age and complexity resisted his cutting pen. As Woudstra notes, the Addis Ababa proposal was completely in line with Corbusier’s ideal city, theorized independently of tradition or conditions. Corbusier’s plan for Paris, for example, razed the city of its low complexities in order to produce this:

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

As Robare explained the other week, these grand rational plannings have not died with their blackshirted allies. China’s construction of cities out of whole cloth may sometimes be painted with green sustainability, but they neither have the human appeal nor the natural sustainability of an incrementally grown, walkable city.

Addis Ababa was spared a Corbusier-inspired revamp by a combination of bureaucratic foot-dragging and rapid British troop movements that eventually freed the capital from fascist control. The grand colonialism would proceed apace, however, back in the very Western countries that had previously so frustrated Corbusier and his followers.

After World War II, both the United States and Britain turned over much of their own cities to the hands of experts and engineers who, channeling the Corbusierian vision, would level working-class neighborhoods in order to build large, modern towers in the name of urban renewal. The social devastation that process wreaked upon the already economically disadvantaged is explored in painstaking detail in TAC National Editor Benjamin Schwarz’s cover story in our latest issue. The organic neighborhoods, slums though they often were, were dynamic social environments. The tower blocks atomized and individualized the families and communities they replaced.

The ugly philosophies of central planning and Corbusierian modernism have not been defeated, but as Justin Shubow explained at Forbes, the architectural profession it has been fueling is now nearly exhausted. When an architect’s response to a Katrina rebuilding contract is to assemble experiments with artistically “damaged” roofs, one would hope that the absurdity of the architectural profession has brought it close to the bursting point.

Unlike Addis Ababa, however, we will not have British tanks to save us from Corbusier. We will have to demand buildings at a human scale, and refuse to let the professional guilds defend 50 years of failure.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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China Greenwashes Le Corbusier

Tianjin Eco-city
Tianjin Eco-city

Around a wastewater reservoir on the outskirts of China’s fourth largest city, Tianjin, tower blocks built to one of the most stringent green building codes in the world rise in “eco-cells” bound by broad roads while, in strips of green space around the Yincheng Reservoir, wind farms have been planted.

This is Tianjin Eco-city, a joint venture of China and Singapore, and designed to be “A thriving city which socially harmonious, environmentally-friendly and resource efficient—a model of sustainable development.” According to MIT Technology Review, $6.5 billion has been invested by the two governments as of 2012.

Unfortunately, as both a city and as a model of sustainable development, Tianjin Eco-city has all the hallmarks of failure. One doesn’t even need to read the articles about how difficult it’s been to convince people to move there, or the inconveniences they face when they do, to see why. A glance through the image gallery reveals everything: grandiose buildings on huge setbacks, wide roads clearly designed for speed, green space—not parks—forming buffers on sidewalks and highway medians and all overseen by the aforementioned apartment towers.

It’s Le Corbusier with solar panels. That sort of city, built from scratch and at such a scale to crush the human life out of a city, designed around the car at highway speeds and the misguided belief that mere open space (inevitably converted into parking sooner or later) was better than any place could be, comprises the heart of decades of urban failure in the West. It was the guiding ideology behind the planning of the infamous “projects”—St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green and the depressing march of cheerless gray building after cheerless gray building through the Bronx—and the basic design’s hostility to human life is one of the reasons they’re remembered for poverty, drugs, violence and social collapse and not the visionary and progressive examples of architecture, housing policy and urban planning they were hailed as.

For Le Corbusier and his followers, the goal was not to work within a living tradition or build upon what had come before, but to completely obliterate the past. In a city or neighborhood he designed, there would be nothing left to remind anyone of what had gone before. The street itself would be abolished and everyone would live and work in gigantic, identical, concrete towers. It’s unclear if there was room in his utopia for churches or even farms and factories.

Not for nothing has Theodore Dalrymple compared Le Corbusier to Pol Pot, “he wanted to start from Year Zero: Before me, nothing; After me, everything.”

Being built around a polluted reservoir, Tianjin Eco-city is less disruptive than American projects that “renewed” whole neighborhoods at a time. Nevertheless, in being built from scratch it will suffer from many similar problems. It’s unclear how many people have moved in yet. While planned for 350,000 residents, MIT Technology Review reports a population of 20,000; The Guardian reports 6,000 and the BBC 12,000. Renting in new construction is more expensive than existing and while the government has been offering subsidized rent and kindergarten, apartments are still empty. For those who have moved in, the eco-city lacks both conveniences and amenities, so residents must drive to work, shop or do anything else.

The master-plan talks about promoting walking, cycling and public transit, but there does not appear to be a transit connection to central Tianjin, about 20 miles away. The references to driving alternatives in the Master Plan all talk about trips within the city. In any event, the wide, multi-lane roads and lack of anywhere within the eco-city to walk to will just encourage driving.

There are other things about the design that sound good but appear to be little more than an old Corbusier plan greenwashed for this century. While the eco-city may have a green building code, that doesn’t account for much. Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council has written several times about the ways planners focus on LEED certification over things like walkability. This even affects the Environmental Protection Agency, as when they moved a regional headquarters from a fairly transit- and walking friendly part of downtown Kansas City, KS to a car-dependent, sprawling suburb.

According to the Environmental Building News, “…for an average office building in the United States, calculations … show that commuting by office workers accounts for 30 percent more energy than the building itself uses.”

As Jeff Speck put it in Walkable City, “all these gadgets cumulatively contribute only a fraction of what we save by living in a walkable neighborhood.” Moreover, a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation found that “building reuse almost always has fewer environmental impacts than new construction,” according to Time.

All these findings are consistent with the features of a traditional city, built over time, as opposed to Le Corbusier’s Year Zero.

China certainly needs sustainable cities. Even apart from the impacts on climate change—and China is the source of one-third of greenhouse gas emissions—the air and water pollution are already at levels usually deemed unsafe by Western governments. In the north, the average life expectancy has declined by 5.5 years, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Environmental damage has cost the People’s Republic about 3.5 percent of the GDP, according to Bloomberg, which has averaged 10 percent a year for a decade. Green issues may also affect the country’s stability: there were 50,000 protests on environmental issues in 2012, according to Grist.

Tianjin’s environment would be better served by the insertion of the eco-city’s technologies and techniques into the existing urban fabric, combined with the renovation of existing buildings. The Chinese have at least 4,000 years of urban history to draw on, as well as very good regional examples, such as Tokyo and Hong Kong.

China can do better. It must do better.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston and also writes about urbanism and history.

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Bike Highways Aren’t Any Better for City Streets

Original proposal for Blackfriars junction
Original proposal for Blackfriars junction

It is perhaps the most iconic moment in urbanism: Robert Moses, the greatest power broker and central planner the American city had ever seen, squaring off against Jane Jacobs, the champion of the city’s community and author of the greatest book on urbanism ever written, over whether Jacobs’s beloved neighborhood of Greenwich Village would have one of Moses’s favored highways carved through it.

Jacobs eventually prevailed, protecting her community and signaling a shift against the city central planners who had dug up or flattened large swaths of American cities in the name of progress, urban renewal, and the automobile age. Jacobs’s victory against the urban highway is still spoken of in almost reverential tones by many committed to healthy cities and strong communities.

Until, that is, they were offered a highway for bikes.

The notion of a bicycle-only superhighway has been revived in places like Copenhagen and the Netherlands in recent years, but Mayor Boris Johnson has just announced plans to build bring a record-breaking bike highway right through central London. Johnson has proposed nearly 20 miles of segregated bike lanes that, instead of being guarded by loosely spaced networks of thin plastic poles, would have their own dedicated curbs.

Bicyclists are generally strongly in favor of dedicated lanes, with the more protection the better, as they the ones who fare by far the worst in collisions with cars. However, the effusive praise heaped on these cycle superhighways is strangely reminiscent of the rhetoric of 50 years ago used to coax cities into building the original highways urbanists so lament today.

One of the original designers of Los Angeles’s traffic and street patterns, Miller McClintock, instructed the public in the 1920s that “The old common law rule that every person,, whether on foot or driving, has equal rights in all parts of the roadway must give way before the requirements of modern transportation.” The traffic engineers who constructed city streets, particularly after the advent of “forgiving highways” thinking in the 1960s, believed firmly in segregating out every mode of travel that they could, protecting pedestrians from cars, and cars from pedestrians. The old, dynamic, civic street that had survived in one form or another in every city in the world from the time of the Sumerians would be largely snuffed out.

Urbanists rightly, and often, decry this auto-centric legacy that yielded the streets to one mode of traffic alone. But many are also fond of their bicycle, and can’t help but be tempted by the idea of cruising along smoothly, with no cars, no pedestrians, no dangers to worry about on their commute. That is exactly what is wrong with putting highways in cities in the first place.

City streets should be in a continual conversation with the buildings surrounding them, with the people flowing in and out. Segregated travel lanes make people feel comfortable by separating them. They make them feel safe. And that can make them especially dangerous. As I wrote a few months back,

For wide, straight roads with large buffers, any visual obstacles swept aside, naturally signal safety and the absence of surprises to a driver. It’s why highways function so well in transporting vehicles large distances at great speed: drivers don’t have to worry about children chasing a ball out from behind a tree, or parked car. They are roads for dumb drivers, which is why roadtrips are particularly well suited to listening to books on tape, or the radio, or just pondering in peace. Dumb roads let us divert our attention productively while almost unconsciously following the cues of the road.

City and suburban streets are so radically different in use and purpose from highways as to deserve their very different names. Children just might run out into the street, because they live around the corner. A shopper just might walk out from behind a parked car, because there’s a storefront by the sidewalk. … To design a peopled street like a dumb road is to tell drivers to speed up and space out.

City streets are not safe, they are dynamic. To design streets that tell their users a different story can lull them into a false, dangerous sense of complacency. Exposure to all the dynamism around them can in fact keep them aware of their surroundings, and keep all the users of a street honest. It is why cars driving down streets with unmarked bike lanes tend to give cyclists a wider berth than those with painted lines.

London already has powerful examples of the power of “shared space” on its busy Kensington High Street, which ripped out many of the protective barriers and warning signs as an aesthetic renovation that was subsequently followed by a drop in accidents. To give bicyclists their own carve-out would be a step backwards in the revitalization of the city, not forwards.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


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Five Ways Uber Changes the City

For all the commentary about Uber’s disruptive effect on the taxi business, it has has other remarkable consequences. It is opening up American cities by solving one of the biggest problems for residents: finding cheap, easy, and reliable transportation in out of the way places. Expensive, rare, and undependable taxis are being supplanted by easy, fast, reliable Uber cars coming into lightly trafficked suburbs and even into high crime ghettos. A caller knows immediately how far away his ride is located. No more calling back to taxi companies asking where the taxi is and when it will finally arrive.

In Washington, D.C., the consequences are tremendous. Already, apartment buildings that used to have waiting lists for parking spaces now have empty spaces. Many downtown buildings in Washington have some 20 percent less income from parking than before Uber and convenient short-term car rentals came about.

The system works with one’s smartphone, showing immediately how far away a car is and how many minutes it will take to arrive. Then one can track the approaching car on an electronic map on the phone’s screen. There is a permanent digital record of which driver is coming and which member has called from what location. Drivers don’t carry any cash and all the cost, tipping is included, is billed to the member’s monthly credit card statement. Driver and passenger calls to find each other are computer scrambled so that neither can later find and call the person involved except through the company. Primarily this protects passengers from any driver later possessing their private telephone numbers. Passengers are asked to rate their driver after each trip, and drivers likewise rate passengers. The process gradually eliminates obnoxious or incompetent drivers and passengers. Uber cars cost some 75 percent as much as taxis and don’t charge for extra passengers.

The negatives with Uber are concerns for safety (see below) and the proper screening of drivers. Most customers use UberX which consists of private car owners. They depend almost entirely on GPS navigation and often don’t know the best city routes. I would question sending young children alone with them. They should really be compared to chauffeurs to whom one must explain the best routes to take. The higher-class Uber Black car has more professional, knowledgeable drivers, but costs nearly twice as much.

The Many Consequences

First of all, the abundance of young millennials and empty nesters moving into the city do not even need to own a car. The savings in parking, insurance, and car payments is hundreds of dollars, say about $700 a month after tax earnings. A detailed study in Los Angeles came up with exact numbers for car ownership compared to Uber. For weekends convenient car rentals are also available by the hour or by the day from companies such as Zipcar and Car2Go. Uber’s main competitor is the much small company, Lyft, which offers similar service.

Secondly and most significantly, whole new areas which were once semi-slums or far away from offices and downtowns have been opened up to “urban homesteaders” and “gentrification.” Uber is accelerating the return of middle classes to city life. Low-cost housing is being gobbled up all over the city in out of the way places which Uber cars are able to service and locate, thanks to their satellite navigation systems.

Thirdly, popular inner-city restaurants and bars are now within easy access for suburbanites, which makes for more abundance, variation, and sales tax collection, benefitting full-time residents. Several persons can share a car (without taxi like surcharges) into the city with no worries or costs associated with finding parking spaces. They can then be assured of finding a car late at night to take them home. And they have no worries about one extra drink or fear of police dragnets looking for DUI’s, when a single such arrest can cost thousands of dollars in fines or lawyers or higher insurance rates or even damage their careers for the rest of their lives.

Fourthly, parents can arrange for late-night rides for their teenagers from parties without a fear of their drinking and driving. More parents are using the service to deliver and pick up young children from after-school activities. Likewise, aged parents can be driven to homes and doctors’ appointments. It’s all about low cost, reliability, and tracking the drivers. Parents can even see on their smartphone map screens where the car is located as it drives.

Fifthly, residents of poor sections of town (providing they have a credit card) can call for cars in parts of cities with scarce public transportation or almost non-existent taxi service. Sharing cuts the cost of commutes to work. Drivers need not carry any cash and so are much less subject to being robbed.

Uber drivers use their own cars, which are required to be late models, clean, and with air conditioning running in hot weather. They don’t talk on their phones when carrying passengers. They earn 80 percent of the fares. Drivers I’ve spoken to tell me they earn a hundred dollars and then quit for the day. Drivers can work part- or full-time, day or night as they wish. Rates are adjusted automatically (called surge pricing) when there is heavy demand or bad weather, indeed they can double or triple, but that means that rides are always available at a price. If the member does not want to pay the higher price he or she can simply wait out the situation and then call back. There is no extra charge for additional passengers, so passengers can easily share costs which brings down the price considerably for a group of commuters, for example.

Uber also offers a limousine service called Black Cars, at about double the price. They are larger, more luxurious models, often stocked with the daily newspaper and bottles of water, and usually can take more passengers. Uber must also reduce traffic congestion in big cities as fewer residents must drive around looking for parking spaces or use their cars for short distances.

Safety is the big issue for Uber and its detractors. Search for Uber and crime to find links. The company’s website explains its procedures in recruiting drivers, however its fast growth has raised questions about the security checks. Some cities plan to impose their own requirements, but the suspicion is that they might try to shut down the service instead. There have been many charges and some arrests after complaints. Some of the accusations are true, while others are exaggerated by its enemies or competitors trying to have the service shut down. Municipal background checks on drivers, various tightening up measures, and all sorts of ideas to guarantee safety are being debated and sometimes incorporated into the system. With millions of potential customers there will always be some crime issues. However, the tracking possibilities of modern technology will make crimes harder to commit and easier to trace when they do occur. There does seem sufficient security because more and more parents are using the service to deliver and pick up their children from after-school activities. The company carries liability insurance on all its drivers.

Uber may be just a forerunner of other sharing services that will break the power of big city protected monopolies. Taxis are the most affected, and already the price of taxi medallions in New York City have declined by some 20 percent from their preposterous values of nearly a million dollars each. The cozy collusion of City Hall politicians and taxi owners to maintain scarcity is under attack all over America. Smart phones and Uber-type services are bringing mobility and lower costs to millions of Americans who previously could not find or afford such transportation.

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.

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Amid the Seas of Empty Asphalt, After Christmas

mall schematic

Today is the day after Christmas, the day when families across the country burst out from their households of holiday cheer in order to once again brave the lines and lots of shopping malls, exchanging gifts and chasing year-end deals. It is, in other words, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, a “peak” shopping day for which big box stores are equipped with acres of asphalt.

This peak parking planning might seem a welcome relief to the mom in the minivan circling ever further out in search of a single open spot. But for many, if not most, commercial retail development, that parking will not be used to capacity even at peak.

During the highest peak parking day of this retail year, the dread Black Friday, Chuck Marohn and the Strong Towns crew engaged in a very useful exercise, snapping photos of their local parking lots on the morning of Black Friday in order to gauge just how much peak supply was serving supposed peak demand.

In many cases, the Strong Towns monitors found lots half-empty—or worse. Any failures at peak demand only serve to emphasize how woefully disconnected our zoning and town planning often is from the real demands of good policy, however. For even if every lot were ideally full on peak days, that would leave acres of empty, nearly unusable space for the other 362 (or so) days of the year.

If the federal government was requiring bureaucratic agencies to build acres of offices that would never or almost never be used, conservatives would rightly point to that policy as being emblematic of out-of-touch government, disconnected from the discipline of the market and the needs of the people. Ted Cruz would quip about it on talk radio, and John Boehner would drone in perfunctory tones about a needless example of government waste. Because this particular government mandate is carried out by private actors acting in compliance with received zoning ordinances, however, conservatives often mistake commercial conformity for a product of free markets. And we have lived under the minimum-parking regime for so many years that we have come to be comfortable with oceans of empty lots as the seemingly natural pattern of retail life.

This comfort comes at a steep cost, however, as asphalt does not pay taxes, does not host events, does not bring communities together, save for the occasional pop-up car wash church fundraiser. Instead of more shops, spaced close enough to walk from one to the other, there are patterns of gradually degrading lines drawn on the pavement. All that empty asphalt can be seen as an imposed desert, whereby the government is intentionally yet needlessly forgoing revenues that will have to be extracted from its citizens by other means.

So as you get out of the house today, should you go shopping, or drive by a big box lot, I would invite you to take a mental note of how many parking spots lie empty. And take another note of how many people, how many enterprises, how many ministries, could be fit into one Wal-Mart’s sea of concrete.


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What Is a Suburb, Anyway?

Walking through Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood one afternoon a few years ago, I remarked to a friend that the streets surely must represent the epitome of good urban design. A neighborhood of mostly two- and three-story handsome brick townhouses, punctuated by the occasional mid-rise apartment building, it was dense enough to support convenient corner stores; my apartment there was a short walk from drugstores, restaurants, supermarkets, parks, and transportation downtown. Yet abundant trees, porches, and room for private gardens cast a sylvan glow over the place, such that despite a degree of density, one never felt trapped in a concrete jungle.

Still my friend wasn’t ready to glorify Capitol Hill in the planning textbooks. “Well, I don’t know, it’s a bit sprawly,” he replied. At first I was taken aback. The compact district was a far cry from any postwar American suburb, places that are the very definition of sprawl. Then I remembered that my friend was visiting from England; compared to the narrow lanes of Old World towns, the 19th-century neighborhood is indeed almost suburban. It is bisected by broad avenues and most lots even have room for small front yards. Though it was created before cars, the extra room has meant that it can accommodate them, albeit at a lower level than the average American suburb, where households often host more vehicles than persons.

I was reminded of this Atlantic cultural gap recently, when The Economist, a mainstay of elite opinion produced in Britain, declared that “The world is becoming ever more suburban, and the better for it.” The 5,000 word essay takes one on a whirlwind tour, providing a few case studies of suburban life across the broader Anglosphere: booming South India, the ever-expanding American Sunbelt, and postindustrial London belt towns. All of these places, the magazine reports, conform to data that shows the preponderance of urban growth taking place outside the old urban cores. But in its sweeping claim of a “great suburbanization,” the report seems to sidestep a central question: What is a suburb, anyway?

First we arrive in the new outskirts of Chennai, where The Economist reports that a new development could stand in as a Bollywood set for Southern California. After all, it is named “Lakewood Enclave,” a glib tribute to the postwar Los Angeles suburb where so many Baby Boomers, including my mother, were raised by their GI Bill parents.

The new Indian Lakewood is also home to a rising middle class, but in physical form would appear to be a much different place. Where the American Lakewood consisted mostly of detached, single-story homes, pictures of the Chennai suburb show homes more densely packed, all with at least a second floor, and far less outdoor space on each lot. Some of the houses abut five-story apartment blocks. While it may not have brownstone elegance and close proximity to downtown, Lakewood Enclave’s footprint seems closer to Capitol Hill than its Southern California ancestor. It may currently lack the scale and infrastructure of a more established community, but its relatively dense layout would seem to allow for at least one characteristic that is a fundamental part of the urban experience: walkability.

So it is somewhat surprising when The Economist puts the sprawl of Phoenix, Arizona, in the same category. Yes, both Lakewoods and the residential quarters of the desert city follow fundamental suburban patterns, excluding any noisy commerce or polluting industry and building in a uniform manner that enables quick, cheap construction. Yet Maryvale, a once prosperous Phoenix neighborhood that the report extols as a place where poorer families can afford to buy homes on relatively large lots, is part of a metro area that consistently ranks among the nation’s least walkable cities. Everyone needs a car, and many spend several hours a day commuting behind the wheel.

Maryvale is also an example of the economic rollercoaster of boom and bust often engendered by such speculative developments. Families seem to abandon them as quickly as they came, finding little to care about once the new suburb loses its original sheen or better prospects appear elsewhere. Perhaps this is simply the American way, or the result of market forces, but the abandoned infrastructure creates drawbacks—consider the waste and environmental disaster created by abandoned cities like Detroit—that planning officials could mitigate.

The problem with the suburb is not its location outside the urban core or primarily residential character. Instead, a lack of attention to form and aesthetic considerations has resulted in throwaway places that are not adaptable for future generations. In this vein, it is surprising that there is no reference in The Economist’s report to New Urbanism, a movement that in the wake of the failures of postwar Urban Renewal programs, is drawing on traditional forms to create or retrofit existing places that will serve multiple generations, accommodate a diverse swath of income levels, and not require a car for every errand or outing. (This last feature is particularly important for the developed world’s growing elderly population. My 95-year-old grandmother, not content to live among only older people in a retirement home, is now marooned in a California suburb.)

My own current neighborhood fits this definition of a suburb that lacks the negative aspects of postwar sprawl. A 20-minute train ride from the center of Philadelphia, it boasts a retail and small office district within a short walk of most homes. Built before the car displaced the railroad, it now offers multiple modes of transport—including one’s own two feet—and while our family has only one car, there are some residents with children who choose not to have even one. The Economist contends that “as suburbs come to seem more urban, the distinction between central cities and their suburbs is blurring…” But in the case of the prewar suburb, the blurring began long ago.

Lewis McCrary is Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at The Fund for American Studies.


This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Taxi Trouble in Texas

Texas has a well-deserved reputation for being a freedom-loving state. We like our regulations same as we like our steaks: rare.

That, at any rate, is the stereotype, and there is a lot of truth to it. But while the Lone Star state adheres to a hands-off approach to governing in many areas, it ain’t always so.

Consider ridesharing. Using smartphone apps to connect drivers with passengers, companies like Uber and Lyft have grown rapidly over the last few years in many big cities by offering a cheaper, higher quality alternative to traditional taxis. Many drivers work part-time, setting their own hours and making good money doing so.

Yet on Thursday, the San Antonio City Council is set to vote on an ordinance that would impose so many restrictions on ridesharing companies as to effectively ban the practice. Under the new regulations, before Uber or Lyft drivers are allowed to pick up fares, they must submit to a background check, fingerprinting, a driving test, a defensive driving course, a physical exam, an eyesight test, a drug test, written and verbal tests of English proficiency, and random vehicle inspections. Given that the individuals in question already have drivers’ licenses, many of these regulatory hoops are redundant or even pointless.

As if that wasn’t enough, the San Antonio ordinance piles on insurance requirements that far exceed any reasonable justification. Ridesharing drivers are required to have $1 million in comprehensive coverage from the moment they accept a fare. By contrast, a San Antonio taxi need only have the state minimum of $60,000 coverage per incident.

The San Antonio ordinance might not pass. Then again, it might. Last month, a Houston ordinance went into effect requiring a 40-step process for driver registration. Though much less onerous than the proposed San Antonio ordinance, the law was sufficiently burdensome that Lyft announced it was suspending operations in the city. Uber has likewise indicated that it will have to pull out of San Antonio if this ordinance is adopted.

San Antonio, and especially Houston, are relatively conservative for big cities. Republican Greg Abbott won both cities during his recent triumph over Democrat Wendy Davis for governor.

Yet even before these recent ordinances, these cities ranked near the bottom of the class on ridesharing regulation. Last month, the R Street Institute released a scorecard ranking America’s 50 largest cities in terms of how they regulate taxis, limos and other vehicle-for-hire companies. San Antonio received a grade of D- and ranked 47th out of 50, behind every other Texas city. Houston was only slightly better, with a grade of C- and a rank of 40. By contrast, the American city with the most “hands off” approach to ridesharing was Washington, D.C. And Austin, which is known for being the more liberal of Texas’ major cities, also passed a comprehensive ordinance legalizing ridesharing.

Now, Portland, which is as liberal as they come, is currently seeking a court injunction barring Uber from operating in the city. The issue isn’t that liberal cities are better on ridesharing; it’s why the most conservative, free market cities aren’t uniformly good on the issue.

Why are Texas cities lagging when it comes to ridesharing? Demographics and entrenched interests are two important factors.

In denser cities with more reliance on public transport, the benefits that come from ridesharing are all the more vital. Some cities have also been dealing with the issue longer than others, which helps public officials and the public at large gain a better understanding of the value alternative vehicle-for-hire companies can provide.

How a city regulates traditional taxi and limo services is also important. When a city puts caps on its taxi fleet this can create a powerful lobby against more competition, whether from traditional or alternative sources. By contrast, where entry into the taxi market is already relatively easy, there may be less resistance to new transportation models.

Whatever the reason, though, this trend cannot continue. Texas continues to urbanize, and its success depends on being able to continue to attract people to live and work in vibrant communities. Cities like San Antonio can’t afford to be seen as backward when it comes to technology and transportation.

Josiah Neeley is Texas Director for the R Street Institute.

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