Thoughts of a progressive urbanist

The author on a Citibike.

The author enjoying a docked Citibike.

When Citibike debuted in NYC in May of this year I happened to be visiting while on tour with a choir I sing in. As a pro-bicycle, three-year car-free San Franciscan I was giddy about the Citibike launch, I even posed for a photo on one out of sheer exuberance on the day before they were made available.

The Citibike launch is now history and the prediction of the streets of NYC running with the blood of neophyte bikers turned out to be overblown but one impression from that weekend has stayed with me: two of my friends there, both life-long New Yorkers, one progressive, one conservative, agreed: they hated Citibike.

The conservative friend parroted the Murdoch papers’ complaints: it will be a bloodbath, old ladies will be knocked over willy-nilly, cyclists are lawless, non-taxpaying “hipsters” and clueless liberals heedless to the safety of themselves and others. The progressive friend, equally scornful, rattled off the progressive objections; Citibank is the Great Satan; why are we plastering our city with ads to these robber barons? Why is this program confined to wealthy white neighborhoods?

These positions illustrate the extreme political poles of the urbanism debate Jason Henderson so brilliantly frames in his great book, Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco. The middle position or “third way “ not depicted in my representation of the Citibike debate is the neo-liberal position (pro-Citibike), with which I think most self-described urbanists would identify. David Edmondson [ed. - founder of this blog] is an example.

It’s doubtful conservatives in the US can be won over to some of the core tenants of urbanism. Automobility is a defining characteristic of American conservatism. Fears of Agenda 21 and “one world government,” hostility towards the nanny state, and climate change skepticism make urbanism anathema to even mainstream conservatives.

Progressives however, can and should be persuaded to support urbanism’s goals. While progressives and urbanists often clash, recently and most visibly in the Bay Area over the question of gentrification (the Google Bus phenomenon) and labor issues (the BART strike), I believe these two groups have much more in common than they have in conflict.

Progressives and urbanists are united over the urgency of climate change and environmental degradation. In general, progressives and urbanists can agree on the need for revitalized cities as a solution, but they often part company with how to get there.

Neo-liberal urbanists offer market solutions to these problems, and view “livability” as an urban quality best viewed as a commodity. Progressives stress state solutions and social justice as integral to the project of urbanism.

Many progressives perceive “livability” as synonymous with gentrification. These progressives see parklets, bike lanes, bike share and events like Sunday Streets in San Francisco as part of an insidious march towards a city of privilege, for the rich only. I have even encountered progressives who defend access to cheap parking and automobility for the poor and working classes as a social justice issue.

My experience with these issues comes from my perspective as a resident of San Francisco. As a progressive sympathetic to urbanist goals, my desire is to appeal to both sides in this debate and harness the energy of both groups to drive a move towards dense, low-carbon, livable cities. If I could talk to both sides in this debate in this moment I would say this:

To urbanists

Stop focusing your support on high-end development and be more sensitive to the problems caused by gentrification. Gentrification reduces economic and class diversity and decreases a city’s cultural capital by displacing the creative class that makes the city attractive to begin with.

As well, it displaces the poor and working class folks who are the perfect constituency for public transit. These people end up moving to the outer urban core and contribute to increased automobility as a result. Likewise, high-income folks are generally wedded to automobility, their injection into the urban fabric in parking intensive developments increases automobility in the city.

The optics of luxury developments, like San Francisco’s 8 Washington, further drive a wedge between progressives and urbanists.

Urbanists are part of a professional class (architects, planners) who are by their nature and training data-driven thinkers. This fact blinds urbanists to the importance and validity of emotional responses to the use of urban space. Nothing could be more emotional in some ways than an individual’s identification with the place they live.

Urbanists should be wary of their own predilection to dismiss and belittle emotional reactions to development and gentrification particularly when they enter the political realm (as through Proposition B, which would approve 8 Washington) to further their goals.

To progressives

Livability is not gentrification, and anti-growth is not anti-gentrification.

Improvements to livability in the public space benefit all classes. Stop singling out parklets and bike lanes as evil, and learn to support increased density near transit. Dense development will increase housing stock and drive down displacement, reducing dependence on automobility among the poor and working class by providing a more robust (and yes, partially higher-end) constituency for public transit.

Acknowledge that dense development is inevitable, and that some of it will be luxury. As Edmondson has written before, luxury developments can and do take pressure off the housing market by shifting demand from existing “low-end” housing stock, thereby easing the market and slowing displacement.

Opposition to automobility should be a progressive social justice issue. The primacy of cars in the city places undue strain on poor and working class folks. It clogs our streets and slows public transit. A bifurcated, inequitable system, where the poor depend on transit slowed and made unreliable by the rich driving around them, is the result. The costs of car ownership – insurance, maintenance, and parking fines – are all borne disproportionately by working folks. Freeing them from automobility will engender increased social mobility.

Poor and working class neighborhoods near freeways and high-traffic city streets disproportionately suffer the worst health effects of automobility’s pollution. High rates of cancer and respiratory problems are the result. Globally, the effects of climate change brought about largely by car- and carbon-intensive cities will hit the world’s poor hardest.

Mostly, let’s all break free of the zero-sum tenor of internet discourse. Stop yelling past one another and listen. If we agree to do that, progressives and urbanists working together can achieve the common goal of sustainable cities. The time to make history is now. Let’s be the change we want to see.

Cross-posted with Vibrant Bay Area.

A measure of Marin’s development politics: Development

One Bay Area, the organization behind Plan Bay Area, surveyed the region’s opinions on the built environment. What kinds of transportation investments do we want? What kinds of cities do we want to live in? What would get you to take transit or ride a bike more? Though the survey has problems, it gives us the most comprehensive look at the Bay Area’s support for urbanism.

Last time, we looked at Marin’s support for regionalism. (There was a lively discussion on this post’s Patch incarnation.) Though there was was strong support for the underlying assumptions around Plan Bay Area, Marinites were far more divided on these issues than any other county in the region. A large minority was strongly negative about any regional planning. Today, we examine Marin’s perspectives on the specific policies that shape Plan Bay Area. As a reminder to readers critical of Plan Bay Area, this will not address the underlying policy successes or failures of Plan Bay Area, only the opinions of its assumptions and how local and regional plans match those opinions.

Survey responses

The survey asked people three questions about development policy. The first was about funding priorities, and it began, “Next I will read you a number of items that may be considered as part of this Bay Area plan. For each, please tell me whether whether funding should be a high priority or not a priority. Use a 5-point scale where 5 means ‘High Priority’ and 1 means ‘Not a priority.’”

After a number of questions about transportation, the survey asked about the policy, “Provide financial incentives to cities to build more multi-unit housing near public transit.”

The next questions were about support for policies, and they began, “Next I will read you a list of specific strategies being considered to reduce driving and greenhouse gases. Indicate whether you would support or oppose each using the same 5-point scale.”

The two policies were, “Build more housing near public transit designed for residents who want to drive less,” and, “Limit urban sprawl by requiring most additional housing and commercial buildings be built within current city or town limits.”

On all three Marinites answered more negatively than the region as a whole, and neither opponents nor proponents make up a majority of opinion on any of the questions.

The first asks a question nearly mimics the rhetoric of development skeptics, and so is probably the best measure of their influence in the county. In response to the question of whether the region should provide subsidies to cities to build more multi-unit housing near transit, Marinites were deeply divided. Though 39.9 percent were in favor, fully 30.8 percent were opposed, with 28.9 percent in the middle. This is the most opposition to the program in the region, which was otherwise 51.2 percent in favor and 20.9 percent opposed. The standard deviation, a measure of disagreement, was 9 percent higher than the rest of the region, too.

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Notice that, though Marin’s support is fairly close to that of Solano, and its opposition is close to that of Contra Costa, our opposition is much stronger than anywhere else in the region. Contra Costa, the most similar county to Marin, has softer opposition and more support overall. Napa, another similar county, has a much more robust middle than Marin, with less strong opinions on either side.

On the second question, Marin again bucks the region, though not nearly as much. On the question of whether you support building more housing near transit for those who want to drive less, Marinites were 59.7 percent supportive and 20 percent opposed, versus 65.4 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively, for the rest of the region. We also had nearly twice as many people answer that they were strongly opposed than moderately opposed: 9.5 percent versus 5.3 percent.

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Again note the strongly negative opposition in Marin, a full 4.4 points higher than Napa, which also has marginally more support than Marin.

On the final policy question, whether development should be limited to only areas within existing city limits, Marin again answers more negatively than the region as a whole, though here it has company. A strong minority, 31.2 percent, opposes this policy, the most in the region. Joining it are Contra Costa (29.7 percent) and Santa Clara (28.2 percent). This question also trigged a very strong negative response, with 18.7 percent reporting that they are strongly opposed. Intriguingly, Marin’s support lines up with the rest of the region exactly: 41.6 percent of the region and the county support this policy.

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Marin’s opposition here, while higher and deeper than the rest of the region, is not as glaringly different, though the question makes it difficult to know what people think they are opposing or supporting.

I did not expect this last result. Marin’s urban growth boundaries are a cherished part of our civic lore, as the continuing success of Rebels with a Cause shows. Indeed, this is so unlikely I suspect the problem lies with the question.

“Limit urban sprawl” may have been interpreted as razing the suburbs, a fear I’ve heard in community meetings and read in online comments. The question also talks about additional housing and commercial buildings, which suggests new growth. The strong negative reaction may have been more against any new housing and commercial buildings, not just those outside of existing municipal boundaries. In any case, there is too much wiggle room in how one could understand the question to glean much useful information from it.

These responses reflect Marinites’ opinions about what makes a good home and a good town. A plurality thinks high-density transit-oriented development would ruin our town character (41.7 percent vs. 36.9 percent). A similar plurality would not move to a more densely-populated area to live near amenities (42.3 percent vs. 38.8 percent). On these questions, Marin is more strongly negative than any other county in the region.

How does our planning stack up?

Keep in mind that, although each of the policies addressed in the above questions has stronger opposition than anywhere else, they each have plurality or majority support. Even subsidized housing, which has the weakest support, has a 9 point advantage over the opposition. Where opponents find strongest ground is in home preferences. A plurality believes high-density development would ruin town character, and a plurality wouldn’t trade higher densities for more amenities. Combine the two measures (give people choice to drive less but don’t increase density) and you get a no-change, slow-growth status quo, which is what planners have largely given Marin in the past few decades.

Plan Bay Area, which encourages localities to focus growth by pledging to focus planning and transit funding, does not fit this status quo. While most of Marin got by on its RHNA mandates by pledging to zone for housing growth, very little of it was actually built in part because of a lack of investment from host cities. Focusing investment could mean real changes.

This is best seen in the eastern half of the Civic Center Station Area Plan. Planners and proponents wanted to focus growth into an area that would, they hope, give people a choice to use the car less. But, for some residents, four- and five-story buildings where now there are parking lots means living in a higher-density area at least some are trying to avoid.

The flip side is also true. While Marinites favor giving people a choice to live car-free or car-lite lifestyles, there is little support in city or county plans. In downtown San Rafael, Marin’s urban core, new developments are subject to parking minimums, tight density limits, and inconsistent floor-area ratios. These restrictions discourage developers from creating apartments designed for those who choose to live car-free or car-lite. For example, a proposal for for-profit apartments by Monahan at 2nd & B streets was 10-20 units smaller than it could have been without those restrictions.

The Downtown SMART Station Area Plan gets closer to lifting these restrictions by eliminating density limits in favor of a hard height limit, but planners left parking minimums in place. Renters, whether car-free or not, will need to pay for a space in their building. Developers will need to dedicate floor space to parking instead of rent-paying uses, like apartments or retail.

The debate itself

They survey also begins to shine some light on the structure of Marin’s development debate.

Rhetorically, opponents’ language (“high-density San Francisco-style stack-and-pack housing”) is ideally suited to play on Marinites’ general distaste for density. As well, the policy environment, with its focus on RHNA mandates and affordable housing, keeps the conversation on a policy with a meager base. Opponents will win as long as they can tie a development policy to RHNA, affordable housing, Plan Bay Area, and the like, forcing proponents to scramble to the defense of relatively unpopular policies.

Yet the broad popularity of subsidized housing and higher densities in the region at large means opponents have an uphill battle if they want to move beyond the development politics that has dogged Marin for the past three years.

I suspect that one reason for deepening divide in this policy area in Marin is that it is just incessant. Just as we start wrapping up one RHNA cycle, Plan Bay Area begins. Just as that is settling down next year, the next RHNA cycle will come about. Marin’s development skeptics rightly feel under siege, as every victory is fleeting.

Proponents, meanwhile, are destined to continue to lose as long as the conversation is about affordable housing and housing units per acre. Unfortunately for them, they’ll get no favors from the regional housing process, which will keep shifting the conversation back to opponents’ favored ground. Instead, proponents need to talk about choice and character. Urbanist lawmakers need to say, “We need to give choices to our young people. We need to give people the option to drive less.”

The right policy package could also cut the legs out from opponents’ ground. A for-profit-friendly zoning code, sold as bringing choice, town character, and less driving could get some easier play in town meetings. If passed, it would bake into the zoning code the growth RHNA asks for, rendering future development debates much less contentious.

The takeaway

If there is a theme to this data, it is that Marin is deeply divided on issues of development. Though, again, there are no areas where Marinites are more against than in favor of a policy, those on the negative end of the spectrum are rather more strongly negative, with more 1s than 2s, than those on the positive side are positive, with more 4s than 5s.

It doesn’t hurt that in the Bay Area as a whole, likely voters are more strongly negative on these issues than unlikely voters. While we don’t have data on Marin’s likely voters, the region’s broader trend seems to reflect what we see in the county: civically engaged and organized opponents against much less visible and seemingly rudderless proponents.

Overall, Marin has played to stereotype so far, at least to some degree. Its residents have strong views on development policy that are both more negative and more divided than those in the rest of the region. Intriguingly, this includes the rest of the North Bay: both Sonoma and Napa are more positive than Marin on development policy.

Of course, land use policy is only one side of the planning coin. Transportation policy is intimately linked with development policy, and will be discussed next time.

Loving the city we can’t stand

Sometimes, I wonder at my fellow urbanists, especially those who can live wherever they like. They have chosen, for whatever reason, to live in certain places and write sometimes deeply critical things about those places. It seems incongruous. Why would someone choose to live somewhere frustrating? Why live under bad leaders with bad judgment? Or, to paraphrase something often heard from an opponent, if we dislike our home so much, why don’t we leave it?

Anthony Cardenas, who was arrested for painting a crosswalk in Vallejo last Thursday, reminded me that often it’s not a rational decision but a fundamentally, gloriously irrational decision. He and urbanists in other deeply dysfunctional cities love their places. And when you love a place, just as when you love a person, there’s nothing you won’t do to fight for their well-being.

G. K. Chesterton, a wonderful British author from the turn of the 20th Century, believed this love was vital to the health of a city. In Heretics, a collection of essays skewering the thinkers and authors of his day, Chesterton devotes a chapter to Rudyard Kipling. Kipling’s practical, rational love of England, he writes, is no love at all. It is appreciation. Kipling flirts with England, just as he flirts with China and Venice, but he has never married her.

In Orthodoxy, the follow-up to Heretics, Chesterton expands the value of loving a place and a city to which you belong.

My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimism and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing—say Pimlico. [In Chesterton's day, the London neighborhood of Pimlico had fallen far from the glory of its construction and was in a state much like many of America's urban cores.] If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

The activist in the place where they are constantly stymied, where the newspaper is nothing but bad news for their cause, remains because of love. The activist works and cries and paints crosswalks because she love her place. We’d all move to London or Rome if we just wanted a more comfortable place to live. Even I, in Washington, cannot help but love that marvelous county. Marin is in my bones, as much a part of me as my family. How could I not write?

Chesterton goes on to write about the nature of conflict over a place. There are the jingoists, who say everything’s fine in order to save their city’s honor; there are the pessimists, who love to criticize because they get a thrill out of it; and there are the rational optimists, who love a place for a specific reason, never letting go of that reason despite all facts.

And there are those opponents of ours who are no less irrationally in love with the place. We should not fight with any less conviction, but we should give respect. We are lovers of the same place; there ought to be a kinship that colors our fights.

Anthony Cardenas, I’m sure, is disheartened and angry at Vallejo and Caltrans for how he’s been treated. But he will probably stay because he loves his neighborhood and city. Perhaps, one day, West Vallejo will rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles because of people like him. Maybe, too, will Cleveland, and Detroit, and Stockton, and Fresno, and…

 

Silvestri ignores the implications of his own data

Recently, Bob Silvestri, a proponent of auto-oriented, low-density development, argued that auto-orientation is more energy efficient than person-orientation and, therefore, superior.

Yet his data, while implying that New York City or Paris are terrible polluters, does not support his thesis that Marin is the pinnacle of environmental quality. That’s not to say his data doesn’t have problems (it does), but let’s take the assumption that he’s measuring the right things and that the studies he cites are unimpeachable.

Houses, density, and greenhouse gases

Per-capita greenhouse gas emissions by development type. Image from Demographia.

Per-capita greenhouse gas emissions by development type. Image from Demographia.

Silvestri cites a (rather flawed) study (PDF) of greenhouse gas emissions per unit for a number of housing types, from high-rises to detached homes. Single-family detached homes were scored second best for all emissions in the Australian suburbs studied, with only town houses scoring better.

Simultaneously, Silvestri makes the quite important point that open space is a carbon sink. It’s undeniable that the more open space we preserve as a region, the better off we’ll be from a sequestration standpoint. The EPA says open space takes in 2.5 metric tonnes of CO2 per acre per year (MTCO2/year), agricultural or recreational land takes in 1.5 MTCO2/year, suburban land takes in 1 MTCO2/year, and urbanized land takes in 0.2 MTCO2/year. Town homes, which lie somewhere between urbanized and suburban land, still leave plenty of open space in the back yard (often 50 percent). We need to estimate, but let’s put that as 0.7 MTCO2/year. I will assume these numbers take into account commercial development patterns as well.

Silvestri measures San Francisco’s net emissions against Marin’s net emissions, but that’s not the way to evaluate optimal conditions. It unfairly punishes San Francisco for having small political boundaries and rewards Marin for having expansive boundaries. Rather, we need to establish a baseline of nature and determine how different methods of development will change the carbon status of the same land area.

Two towns

So, we have 640 acres (1 square mile) of virginal open space producing a net negative 1,600 MTCO2/year. We’ll people that with 100 households in a traditional suburban setting of about 4 homes per acre, which again will include commercial development. Using the average household size in the US, that means 259 people on 25 acres.

According Silvestri’s Australian data for per-unit emissions, people living in suburban areas emit about 2.5 MTCO2/year apiece. With 259 people, our little town emits 647.5 MTCO2/year. Subtracting our sequester, which is now 615 acres of virgin land and 25 units of suburban, our square mile goes from a net negative 1,600 MTCO2/year to a net negative 915 MTCO2/year. Not too shabby.

Next door, another 100 families has set up shop on another square mile of land, but, inspired by Europe, these guys want a village of town houses at a relatively loose 25 units per acre. Rather than 259 people on 25 acres, this village will only use up 4. Since town home denizens pollute less than suburbanites, they’re only emitting 518 MTCO2/year. Since they’re living on less than a sixth the land area, there’s more virgin open space to absorb their footprint. All told, the village goes to a net negative 1,075 MTCO2/year.

This other village, of course, will reap the other benefits of compact development. They will need to maintain fewer fire stations, fewer roads, fewer pipes, etc. Changes to travel patterns will mean less driving over the baseline and more walking, bicycling, and more transit users. That means they won’t have to maintain large parking lots or such wide streets (which means more environmentally friendly stormwater management), and the citizens won’t need to go to the gym to stay healthy.

As a bonus, with the money saved (and it would be substantial), they could electrify the whole transit system, rendering moot Silvestri’s argument that transit as too carbon-intensive. Then again, a townhome-style city is ideal for cycling and walking, so there wouldn’t be as pressing a need for transit anyway.

Far from supporting single-family housing, Silvestri should be supporting the kind of densities town homes provide, which can go as high as 60 units per acre. They are far more financially and space-efficient and less carbon-intensive than single-family homes. That’s in his data, clear as the day.

I don’t know why Silvestri would try to twist the data into saying something it doesn’t, but the study itself does the same thing. The author, Wendell Cox, has done some good research on cities but has come to some odd conclusions: that suburbia as we know it is the result of free-market choices (it isn’t, and is instead the result of $450 billion in annual federal subsidies) and that Seattle’s suburbs are growing much faster than the city proper (they’re not). I’ve found it’s best to approach anything associated with Cox or his firm, Demographia, with a healthy dose of skepticism.

I hope Silvestri will join me and other urbanists in support of the kind of infill development that he has championed in the past. It offers a much better path to lower greenhouse gases than the Santa Clara-style sprawl his ideas advocate in the farmland and open spaces of Napa, Solano, and Sonoma.

Urbanism isn’t Pruitt-Igoe

from Wikimedia by USGS

Pruitt-Igoe: a 50-unit per acre scar. From Wikimedia by USGS

It’s likely that Pruitt-Igoe, the public housing project in St. Louis, is the most famous and maligned image in architectural history. Its slab-like blocks rose from a scar in the urban fabric, the Corbusian ideal and an American dystopia. Yet at only 50 housing units per acre, this towering symbol of all things bad in urban design wasn’t all that dense. If we want to talk about density, we need to set Pruitt Igoe aside.

I mention Pruitt-Igoe because the image has emerged in Marin’s affordable housing debate. Bob Silvestri recently used it as an example of what he says the state and regional governments will force the Bay Area to build in a recent forum on affordable housing. Density mandates for 30 housing units per acre, he argued, would lead us to the worst kind of affordable housing and away from best practices.

Though there are plenty of reasons to oppose the regional housing needs assessment (RHNA) process, density and the specter of Pruitt-Igoe-like towers from Napa to San Jose is not one of them.

Rowhouses, when built right, come in around 50 units per acre, with older neighborhoods going a bit higher. Boston’s North End is over 50 units per acre. Washington, DC’s fabled Georgetown comes in at over 50 units per acre. In San Francisco, Russian Hill has 50, North Beach has 90, and the area west of Union Square goes as high as 536 units per acre. If density were the downfall of Pruitt Igoe, you’d think Union Square would be the center of a particularly wretched hive of humanity, not a trendy shopping district.

Urbanism means more places like this. Image from Google Maps

Urbanism means more places like this. Image from Google Maps

The causes of Pruitt-Igoe’s monumental failure could (and has) filled reports and books, but the failure can be boiled down to a deliberate denial of urban form. Stacking 50 units per acre atop one another while leaving empty grassy space around each tower for generic community gathering is a discredited idea that should have never earned such credence in the first place.

But to use this particular packaging of this particular density as an argument against density itself is disingenuous. It ignores common sense and the facts at hand. Good urban form can be low density and it can be high density, just as poor urban form can be either one.

And good urban form is based on the needs of the human as a creature. We walk, so a good city tries to maximize the pleasure of that activity. We are social, so a good city tries to maximize the incidence of casual socializing. That requires a certain level of compactness of buildings so that we can walk to the store and we can walk to the neighbor’s home, but that look like Midtown Manhattan and it can look like downtown Mill Valley.

Let’s have a debate about height and character that is really about how to build new development than enhances character, how to grow in that uniquely Marin way and make our county better. Let’s leave behind the straw men and phantoms.

Microblogging, expanded

gum wall

by 1yen, on Flickr

Yesterday, I realized I have more ideas for blog posts than I have time to do them. I’m in the middle of a series of posts on Larkspur Landing – I have two more to go – and the issue of affordable housing has reared its ugly and nonsensical head once again in Marin. I’ve also started blogging about the broader region at our sister site, Vibrant Bay Area. Unless one of you wants to pay me, you’re probably not going to get as much analysis as you or I would like to see.

Thankfully, I’m on a microblogging site you may have heard of called Twitter, so I condensed them down into a series of hypotheses. Though I’m confident there is enough data to back up these statements, I haven’t investigated them to confirm that my hunches are correct.

Pardon the swear here. Bicycling, if it’s going to take off in the US, needs to be more than some paint on the side of the road. Known in California as the Class II bike lane, the bike lane is far better than nothing but far worse than ideal. To me, if you’re uncomfortable riding a cargo bike on it, or if you wouldn’t send your 8-year-old to school on it, then it’s not good enough to put cars and bikes at parity.

Cities are not isolated pockets around subway stations. They are integrated fabrics. San Francisco is walkable even far from BART stations, when the only transit is a bus. Since most of the Bay Area is designed around retail strips like El Camino Real, upzoning plans need to take that into consideration. Bubbles of walkability, like Santana Row in San Jose or the BART transit villages, don’t encourage people to live car-free lifestyles, only a car-free commute. By connecting high-density rail-oriented areas with moderate density bus-oriented areas, the Bay Area could improve its mode share mix immensely.

The term “hipster” has become so over-used it’s lost what little meaning it once had. Hipsters are supposed to save the city (a simplification of Richard Florida’s theory of the creative class) and destroy the city (a simplification of Joel Kotkin’s opposite theory). They’re poor and unproductive one moment, rich and entitled the next. The latest in this devolving debate has Richard Florida positing that a lot of creative class types in a single city lowers income inequality. Joel Kotkin responded with a glorified, Told you so, which led to a Florida response of, No, idiot.

Through it all, I just wish people would leave the poor/rich/entitled/gentrifying/unproductive saviors of our society alone. Income inequality is more complicated than theories of cities, and no single class of people is the salvation or damnation of our society.

And stop calling them hipsters.

Actually, it probably won’t. In occurred to me that urbanism was the pursuit of maximum efficiency of access within the constraints of the age. In our age, those constraints are principally about preservation of land, character, history, and preexisting residential neighborhoods. In other ages these were sunlight and fresh air; defensibility; or access to water.

I define access as the number of destinations within a given travel time by a given mode, and I define efficiency as minimizing negative externalities and maximizing positive externalities in the course of one’s daily routine. That’s too technical. In other words, how much does our urban design pollute? How much does it make us healthier or sicker? How much land does it use up? How much does it cost? And so on.

My definition could be rephrased. Urbanism is the pursuit of the most access at the least cost to ourselves and to our environment within a community’s chosen or necessary constraints. Decisions from transportation to zoning hang from this.

The East Bay has a wealth of rail infrastructure. It has two parallel passenger rail lines running from Richmond to Fremont and branches going in all directions, while the Peninsula has only one rail line going north-south. The Peninsula’s rail capacity will be constrained by the blended Caltrain-High Speed Rail plan, while the East Bay’s capacity will not be.

Rather than pursue BART expansions and inefficient ferry service to San Francisco, it should bolster its Amtrak and ACE service to be true rapid transit in parallel to BART and Caltrain. It should restructure its zoning to encourage new neighborhoods to develop for San Franciscans fleeing ludicrous rents. And it should invite tech companies to build new neighborhoods around their train stations instead of new office parks in the middle of nowhere.

Each of these ideas should be pursued, but I fear I must decline the call. That shouldn’t stop you from heeding the call, of course. If you agree, or even if you disagree, pitch me a story on one of these themes. I might end up running it.

End-Week Links: Hills

Sunset on a Masterpiece, by C. M. Keiner, on flickr

Sunset on a Masterpiece, by C. M. Keiner, on flickr

Marin Lesser and Greater

  • Peter robbed; Paul under investigation: Sonoma granted SMART $6.6 million of $9 million in bike/ped funding. The funds, from a federal congestion mitigation grant, will be used to purchase an additional train for the extended IOS. Sonoma bike activists are angry, to say the least unhappy, understanding, and moving forward. (Systemic Failure, SCBC)
  • Tilting at windmills: Wind turbines could be allowed in West Marin under the latest revisions to the Local Coastal Plan. Environmentalists oppose the measure, saying it would industrialize the rural region. (Pt. Reyes Light)
  • Tackling homelessness in San Rafael: Through mental health services and jobs, San Rafael is doing more to fight homelessness than just crack down on nuisance behavior. Here’s hoping it does good. (IJ)
  • Another study coming down the track: Transit feasibility in the Fairfax-San Rafael corridor is on its way yet again. TAM and MTC will examine whether BRT, rapid bus, or a full-fledged streetcar line would be best to serve the 5-mile strip. (Pacific Sun)
  • RHNA is almost as fickle as thought: Despite 43 years of affordable housing mandates, California remains woefully short on affordable housing. ABAG has tried to adjust to the demands of cities, but such a scattershot approach doesn’t make up for the state process’s shortcomings. (Bohemian via Scott Alonso)
  • Get your son on a bike: Research from the UK shows that it’s far safer for young men to ride a bike than to drive. Given that driving is the number one cause of death among teenagers, perhaps those Every 11 Minutes campaigns could be supplemented by some good old-fashioned bike lessons. (Red Orbit, CDC)
  • Hybrids really aren’t so green: Hybrids, at least if you look at their entire life-cycle, really aren’t as green as their reputation. The batteries are difficult to dispose of; the mileage really isn’t so great; and their battery will only last about 80,000 miles, meaning one will need to buy a new vehicle far sooner than otherwise. Perhaps Marin needs a new family car, like a bike. (Streetsblog)
  • Do the council shuffle: San Anselmo picks Kay Coleman for mayor. (Patch) … There’s still time to apply for San Rafael City Council. (IJ)
  • And…: Despite the threat of financial receivership, Detroit’s downtown is positively booming. (NY Times) … Local transit has published their holiday schedule. (GGT) … San Rafael Airport developer compares their sports complex project to Grady Ranch. (IJ) … The libertarian take on land use planning. (United Liberty)

The Toll

At least five people, and possibly a sixth, were injured this week.

  • Yes, a hit and run is indeed a felony: Jared Whisman-Pryor, who prosecutors say hit and seriously injured bicyclist William Schilling, has turned himself in to Rohnert Park Police. As it turns out, he will be charged for felony hit-and-run. (PD)
  • Obituary for mother killed last week: Barbara Rothwell accidentally killed herself in a car crash last week near Bolinas. The Point Reyes Light paints a portrait of her life cut short. She was 48.
  • Marin Injuries: A driver hit a woman while she was crossing the street in Novato, sending her to the hospital. (IJ) … A driver seriously injured himself by crashing into a power pole in Terra Linda. (Patch)
  • Sonoma Injuries: Ben Rhoades seriously injured himself and another driver by driving under the influence and colliding head-on with the other driver near Cotati. (Patch) … A driver rolled their minivan in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, though whether they injured themselves wasn’t immediately reported. (PD) … An 87-year-old driver seriously injured Wilfred Lewis, who was crossing the street in Santa Rosa. The driver said he never saw Lewis. (PD)

Got a tip? Want to write an article? Email us at theGreaterMarin [at] gmail.com or send a tweet to @theGreaterMarin.

How to Make Safe Novato Streets

If last month’s tragedy taught Novato anything, it’s that residents need to take road safety as seriously as they do housing elements. Lives, not just town character or property values, can hang on things we hardly ever think about. Where should the first stop sign be when we enter Novato? What about this road makes the speed limit seem so low? There are easy ways to reform Novato’s streets to be safer for drivers, bikers, and pedestrians, but they only take us so far. Going further would require Novato to rethink the fundamental purpose of its roads. But let’s start easy.

The Gateways

The points of greatest danger are the approaches into the city, where people transition from highway to city driving. In these areas, speeds officially fall from 45+ miles per hour down to 25 or 35, though roadway design and culture tack on another 5-10 miles per hour.

To bring people from highway mode and into city mode, Novato has employed stop signs and stop lights, but these are insufficient. Coverage of the Ratliff crash included quotes from people grousing about high vehicle speeds where she was killed, yet the only indication of a falling speed limit was the speed limit sign. Everything else about the road screamed at the driver, “It’s safe to drive fast here.”

European cities use a combination of special road paint, stop signs, and roundabouts to calm traffic and get drivers into urban driving mode. Roundabouts would be a bit much for a conservative city like Novato, but paint and stop signs certainly aren’t.

This design slowed cars by 5-10 miles per hour. Image from University of Naples.

Different shoulder paint tells drivers that a change is coming, while a stop sign would clearly delineate where the change actually is. The key is to get drivers out of what is essentially an automatic driving mode and into a more attentive mode. On a rural road or Highway 101, one never expects things to jump out in front of the car. The road, through paint and a stop sign, will alert drivers to this change, making them more attentive to the increased complexity of city driving.

The Arterials

Novato’s streets are themselves unsafe. At a typical driving speed of 40 miles per hour, pedestrians hit have a very low chance of survival. At the same time, the streets can have lanes as wide as those on a freeway (about 12 feet), putting drivers back into a highway mode. These arterial roads should be redesigned for safety. Above all, that means narrowing lanes to 10 feet in a process called a lane diet.

Unlike a road diet, which removes lanes to provide space for a center turn lane or a median, a lane diet just narrows the existing lanes and gives the excess space over to parking, biking or sidewalks. Novato roads already have center turn lanes, medians, and parking.  It’s hard to imagine using 28 feet (two lanes plus narrowing existing lanes) for anything useful without land accompanying land-use reforms.

But four 10-foot lanes with a center turn lane would do plenty of good for street safety. Lane diets reduce crash rates, sometimes as much as 43%. Vehicle speeds, too, are reduced by road diets and lane diets, meaning those crashes that do occur are less likely to be serious. The fact that street capacity would remain essentially unchanged is an added political bonus. Introducing lane diets to Novato arterials would make them objectively better roads.

The Bike Lanes

A cycletrack in Portland, OR. Image from NACTO.

We still need to deal with 8 feet of extra road width on our dieted streets. Rather than using it on sidewalks, Novato should convert its class II bicycle lanes to class I cycle tracks.

Cycle tracks are fully separated bicycle paths that have buffers or barriers between them and the automobile traffic and are best suited for roads with high traffic volume or high vehicle speeds, i.e., arterial roads.

NACTO’s bicycle lane guide recommends cycle tracks widths of at least five feet with a three foot buffer. If we combine the width removed from our road lane diets with the width of existing class II bike lanes, there is enough space for a cycle track going in either direction. This improvement would increase safety for bicyclists by getting them away from car traffic without banishing them from the street entirely, increase safety for pedestrians by putting space between them and traffic, and increase bicycling by providing infrastructure appropriate to the road.

Costs are relatively minimal, at least compared to what we spend on road infrastructure. Cycle tracks typically range from about $100,000 to $165,000 per mile. For about $3.35 million, Novato could install cycle tracks on every arterial street in the city; it could do every rural arterial for about $970,000 more. Considering that we’re spending 270 times that on highway expansion, it might be worth more attention from TAM and city hall.

Such an expansive investment in bicycling in Novato would be transformative. While transit and walking aren’t terribly efficient modes of transportation through most of Novato, the bicycle is. If the city provided the infrastructure for in-city trips, it would cut down on traffic and improve the health and quality of life any resident that can ride. At least one study found that cycle tracks increase bicycling by 250% and that in turn increases safety for all road users, from driver to pedestrian, by making drivers more aware of vulnerable users and calming traffic.

Last week’s post exhorted Novato to stand and say enough: enough death, enough apathy. Rather than leave it up to the process, Novatans should tell the council to fix gateways roads, shrink lanes, and invest in bicycle infrastructure that fits the needs of the road. It’s not an issue of road capacity, for it would hardly change. It’s an issue of political will on the part of Novato’s councilmembers, city staff, and residents. They have the power to make safe their city’s streets. Or they could call deaths on their streets inevitable and do nothing at all.

Mid-Week Links: Reclamation

Fairfax Festival  MichaelOlsen/ZorkMagazine

People enjoying closed streets at the Fairfax Festival. Photo by MichaelOlsen/ZorkMagazine

Marin County

  • Fairfax is hashing out how to implement Streets for People, its own version of San Francisco’s incredibly successful Sunday Streets program. The town would close Bolinas for part of the day, opening it up to anyone on foot, bike, or other human-powered conveyance. (Patch)
  • New blood on the Ross Valley Sanitary District board promises a management and policy shift. New member Mary Sylla is opposed to new bonds and rate hikes intended to speed the district’s century-long pipe replacement cycle. Marcia Johnson, who lost her re-election bid, was a supporter. (IJ)
  • Tonight, chat with Blithedale Terrace developer Phil Richardson about his proposed 20-unit condo development in lower Mill Valley7pm, The Forest Room of the Mill Valley Community Center. (Patch)
  • A new sidewalk is under construction in Homestead Valley’s Evergreen Avenue under the county’s Safe Routes to School program. People still don’t like the plan, saying it undermines the community’s semi-rural character. There may be an injunction filed to stop the project, which is designed make the route to school safer. (IJ, @mikesonn, Mill Valley Herald)
  • A new Santa Venetia subdivision will not go forward as planned, at least not yet. County Supervisors rejected the 14-unit sprawl project pending a few more months of study. Unfortunately, the area is zoned for 15 units on one-acre plots, so it’s unlikely the project can be stopped entirely. (IJ)
  • Ever wondered how much your town’s Director of Public Works was paid? Bay Area News Group has created a searchable database of all public employee salaries in the Bay Area, so you can know at last. (IJ)
  • Ross faces dramatic cuts now that the town declined to pass the $642,000 public safety tax. Two police officers, a firefighter, and a firefighting apprenticeship program are all on the chopping block. The town will cut other areas to keep the damage minimal. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • The draft Civic Center Station Area Plan has been released to the public and to the Board of Supervisors, who are reviewing the draft now. The plan creates more housing, rezones parts of the auto-oriented neighborhood, and creates a better pedestrian circulation pattern through the area. (Pacific Sun)
  • And…: A yard that has encroached on open space for more than 20 years will finally be returned to San Rafael, though the owners have a history of ignoring officialdom on the subject, so who knows? (IJ) … In a picture of sweetness and light, a Corte Madera father and daughter spent the whole school year biking in tandem to kindergarten. (Twin Cities Times) … Brad Breithaupt goes deeper into the voting numbers from last Tuesday’s election. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • A comprehensive report on San Francisco’s multifaceted and crowded transit system has been released. The 103-year-old report details the pre-Muni world of streetcars and rails in the aftermath of the earthquake and fire. Among the recommendations? Getting rid of horse-drawn cars. (Muni Diaries)
  • Apple will stop using Google Maps on its iPhones, and it won’t include transit directions. You may have to go back to using that 511.org app… (Streetsblog)
  • It turns out Muni has been neglecting maintenance for years as the agency has sacrificed long-term financial stability for short-term savings. Be glad you have GGT managing your fleet, Marin. (SF Weekly)
  • A bill to create a statewide ceiling on parking requirements around transit has shown signs of life in the state Senate. AB 904 would force localities to require no more than one parking space per housing unit, 1,000 square feet of retail, or other measures. (Around the Capitol via @MarketUrbanism and @mottsmith)
  • If you want to encourage transit ridership, the best way is to price driving. While expanding a rail network by 10% nets a 3% gain in ridership, effective car regulations (like congestion pricing) nets a 10-20% increase in ridership and a commensurate decrease in driving. (Atlantic Cities)
  • And…: Santa Rosa mulls electing its councilmembers by district rather than at-large. (Press-Democrat) … The small-government aspects of smart growth appeal to at least some conservatives. (Next American City) … Frank Lloyd Wright hated cities. (Atlantic Cities)

Got a tip? Tweet @theGreaterMarin, email thegreatermarin [at] gmail.com, or post something on Facebook.

Mid-Week Links: Halls of Power

Marin County Civic Center

by Amanda Tomlin

Elections

It was a crazy night on Tuesday, if by crazy you mean “everyone stayed home.” Whether or not people had a say, the elections happened anyway and Marin’s incumbents did rather well.

  • Nationally, assemblyman and Woolsey-endorsed successor Jared Huffman ran away with first place in the 2nd District’s first round election. Still undecided is whether the centrist will run against liberal Norm Solomon or conservative Dan Roberts which could decide whether the race is quite difficult or quite easy for the former state assemblyman. (IJ, Press-Democrat)
  • In California, Assemblyman Michael Allen and San Rafael Councilmember Marc Levine beat the rest of the pack to  first and second place in the open primary for the 10th Assembly seat. The Democrat-on-Democrat battle promises to be bruising as both fight over who is more of a Sacramento outsider and genuine local of the North Bay. (Press-Democrat)
  • Marin County Supervisors Katie Rice and Steve Kinsey walked away with clear victories against their opponents, reflecting the prevailing feelings of contentment with the Board, if not the regional agencies it deals with. (IJ)
  • Locally…: Ross rejected the Measure C public safety tax while seeming to settle on three new councilmembers. (IJ) … Belvedere got three new councilmembers and renewed its public safety tax. (IJ) … Voters firmly rejected incumbent Ross Valley Sanitary District board member Marcia Johnson, who supported doubling rates in order for the district to fix its lines faster than once per century. (IJ) … The Ross Valley School District will get its parcel tax hike, which it said it needed to offset state budget cuts. (IJ) … Sausalito will join the Southern Marin Fire Protection District. (Marinscope)

Marin County

  • Hopes are running high that fans of the San Rafael Pacifics will become patrons of downtown businesses given Albert Field’s location only three blocks from Fourth Street. (NBBJ)
  • GGT fares are growing faster than tolls at the Golden Gate Bridge, creating a perverse incentive for people to drive rather than take the bus. Though politically easy, it’s the opposite of what the Bridge District should do. (Streetsblog)
  • Meanwhile, MT is wringing its hands over a 3.6% increase in operating costs, driven mostly by increases in its $16 million contract with GGT to provide local service. They want to renegotiate the contract, but it’s unclear whether GGT will budge. (IJ)
  • San Rafael’s Street Crimes Unit is up for disbandment as the council grapples with ongoing budget deficits. The three-member unit has two retirements this year and the council may not allow the police department to hire replacements. Given the high-profile crime push at the transit center earlier this year, ongoing gang activity in Terra Linda, the Canal, Novato, and the criminal problems downtown, I think this is an instance of eating your seed corn. (Patch)
  • All your transit needs will now be satisfied at the new GGT/MT customer service center at the Bettini Transit Center. GGT will move its customer service center to the center so it can be close to the people who actually use transit. (IJ)
  • Marin’s local agencies and districts should consolidate to avoid duplication of services and save money, according to a Grand Jury report on the subject. The overwhelming approval of fire consolidation in Sausalito this past week is a good start. One former councilmember wants us to go even further. (Patch, Marinscope)
  • A Corte Madera manufacturing company, EO Products, is moving to the Canal after an exhaustive search of the region. The site is near existing transit and within walking distance of much of the immigrant neighborhood. (IJ)
  • A year after Corte Madera Mayor Bob Ravasio and San Rafael Councilmember Damon Connolly got a tour of The Netherlands’ bike infrastructure, sponsored by the Bikes Belong Foundation, there seems to still be some behind-the-scenes movement towards bicycling. (Planetizen, Bikes Belong)
  • And…: The San Rafael Airport sports complex moves on to the council. (IJ) … Mill Valley approved some condos downtown over the objection of Streamkeepers. (IJ) … Who does the North San Rafael Coalition of Residents really represent? (IJ letter)

The Greater Marin

  • At least one West Sonoman wants the county to sell its western half to Marin. At least we maintain our rural roads, he says, while Sonoma is determined to turn its roads into gravel. In light of a massive road repair deficit and deadlock over taxes, though, who could blame them? (Press-Democrat)
  • The East Bay is working to promote transit-oriented living around its BART stations, something long lacking in the sprawl of the East. Not mentioned are updates to Richmond’s General Plan which attempt to make walkable the notoriously unwalkable city. (New Colonist, City of Richmond)
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