Infill is great. When done well, it takes existing places and adds density, diversity and vibrancy. And unfortunately, it can also be very difficult to actually do.
In communities in Utah, I’ve seen infill projects run up against opposition due to concerns about added density, the style of new buildings, traffic, and other things. And of course there’s the ever-present, and usually biggest, concern: parking.
Here, for example, is an article on my old neighborhood in Provo, where a proposed apartment development triggered concerns about car storage space. And at this point, I’m sure anyone who actually knows what the word “infill” means is familiar with similar stories. The point: infill is great but obstacles like parking slow things down, cost developers (often small-time locals) money, and generally reduce the amount of infill that actually gets built.
That means we’re not fully capitalizing on the value of the land in our cities.
Ottawa, however, may have a solution. There, the city is trying to solve these problems by creating new rules to deal with parking. Instead of a neighborhood-wide (or, worse, city-wide) zoning ordinance, Ottawa wants would-be infill developers to look at the surrounding properties:
…landowners and architects wanting to build an infill home would first have to look at the 21 lots surrounding the property to be developed and use those observations to create a starting point for what their new home could look like.
Developers will have to look to neighboring homes for things like setbacks, parking, landscaping and other factors as they figure out what they can build.
Most significantly, these new rules also will open up the possibility of some development without parking — a dream come true for many urbanists.
Obviously these new rules could create problems. For starters, they seem like they may actually create as much or more work for developers to go through. I’m also not sure what would happen if someone wanted to build, say, a duplex in a neighborhood of McMansions. If the goal is (to allow possible) densification, basing rules off existing properties may pose challenges.
Still, I like this plan at least in theory because it acknowledges that cities have little micro-hoods with their own character. In the Provo neighborhood I mentioned above, for example, decades of evolution have produced a huge spectrum of dwelling types. If these new Ottawa rules were rolled out there, looking at nearby properties might give small developers the flexibility to add anything from single family homes to small apartment buildings.
In that way, these new rules might effectively be closer to a form-based code than what many cities currently have. The rules also are almost certainly better than crude, place-crushing parking minimums I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Time will tell how well this plan works, but whenever cities try to loosen zoning and reduce parking I get optimistic.
Provo may have killed a major bus rapid transit project recently. The project had been in the works for years but floundered when the city council reject the transit authority’s route selection.
I’d been excited for this project for several reasons. For one, BRT has much lower construction costs — $150 million for an entire county in this case — than analogous light rail so it potentially offers a lot more bang for taxpayers’ dollar. Due to geography, Utah also suffers from crippling air pollution in the winter. And if nothing else, the costs of the BRT were vastly lower than the massive numbers of car subsidies we spend all the time.
Which is why it was frustrating to see BRT defeated. There’s still the possibility that it’ll survive, but that possibility is shrinking.
In any case, while this was going on I read James Bacon’s post on private minibuses, or matatus, in Nairobi, Kenya. Bacon writes that in a city without official transit, “the private sector has arisen to meet the demand for shared ridership services.”
Minibuses known as matatus, which seat between 14 and 24 passengers, run along established routes with their destinations imprinted on the side. Individual buses are readily distinguishable by their paint schemes, often highlighting favorite football teams, hip-hop artists or even President Obama. Competing for business, many are equipped with powerful sound systems and television screens to attract more riders.
These buses — including the associated safety concerns — sound quite similar to what I’ve used in Brazil. There, just as in Kenya, strong demand for public transit has spurred private enterprise.
As I think about these two systems, it’s hard not to see the latter as superior. Aside from actually existing — remember, Provo killed BRT — the private system is cheap and responsive. It also doesn’t take years of planning and NIMBY wrangling to create.
So why don’t we just let the private sector respond to all of our transit needs?
There are a whole bunch of reasons — the need to serve lower income areas irrespective of demand, for example — that I’m not going to get into here because I think the biggest problem is simply that we’ve made it practically difficult to do. At least in my city, we have layer upon layer of regulation on taxis and shuttles that would make it nearly impossible for a widespread private system to emerge organically. Small systems could sprout up, but they could never become sufficiently robust.
Bacon’s post touches on this, pointing out that “domination of U.S. public transit by municipal transit systems and taxicab cartels” prevents competition “by anyone with a better idea.”
Another big regulatory reason we don’t have private minibuses in the U.S. I’ve experienced is density, and the demand density creates. In Provo, where the BRT was supposed to go in, much of the city has developed into single family neighborhoods because it was aggressively zoned to prevent anything else.
That means there simply won’t be enough people to use private transit.
Together, these two types of regulation amount to both explicit and de facto laws against private transit. That would be fine if our public transit was working great, but the length, cost, and ultimate failure of Provo’s BRT emphasizes that the cracks in our system sometimes only get bigger. So, maybe while we get our public transit act together it’d be worth clearing some of the hurdles for people who might be willing to fill those cracks.
In Utah, Mormon missionaries are trained in Provo but fly to their eventual destinations out of Salt Lake City. In the past, that meant a 45 minute ride in a van to the airport.
But ever since Frontrunner commuter rail opened up a year ago it has grown as the LDS Church’s transportation method of choice for departing missionaries. Here are a couple of pictures, snapped by my wife Monday afternoon. These missionaries happen to be on their way to Boise to get passports.
Utah’s inversion is already bad, meaning our air quality is the worst in the U.S. Cities around the state are attempting various strategies to fight this terrible problem, ranging from doing nothing (most cities) to Salt Lake’s fantastic transit program.
But here’s one thing they could all do that would help: cut free parking for government employees.
I was struck by the obviousness of this idea while reading Provo’s temporary solution (as it works on policy changes), from Mayor Curtis’ blog:
• Encourage employees to not drive at lunch, but walk to a near-by restaurant and/or run errands on the way home;
• Try avoid refueling but if you need to do so, adjust your schedule to do it at the end of the day and don’t top off:
• Try to eliminate as many non-essential vehicle trips as possible, bundle inspections and other trips and travel at non-peak times as needed.
These are all good ideas and I bet the good employees of Provo will actually do them. Sometimes. For a while.
Eventually, though, they’re going to have to run an errand or two. Or it’ll just seem too cold outside to walk anywhere. Or the inversion will end for the year and it’ll be back to the same old thing — until next year when the problem comes back as usual.
My point is that without incentives or disincentives, we’re basically just hoping that an insignificantly small number of people will change their behavior out of the goodness of their hearts.
That won’t work. We need economic solutions instead.
Cutting free parking creates those incentives/solutions. It rewards people who choose better behaviors, and charges those who still choose to drive. It’s also more fair to everyone else in the city; we’re all subsidizing government facilities and I don’t know why we’d want to pay for other people’s parking as part of that.
More importantly, cutting free parking would incentivize lifestyle changes, which are the only thing that is really going to make a dent in our pollution. Without free parking, suddenly there’s an economic reason to live within walking distance of work places. You’re still free to live out in the sprawl, but with paid parking, you’re shouldering more of the burden you’re creating. Over time, the elimination of free parking for city employees — just like the elimination of any free parking — should help prompt denser, more efficient and more environmentally friendly neighborhoods.
Of course, I’d be in favor of cutting all free parking, but the great thing about starting with city facilities is that it’s a relatively small group that’s being affected; in other words it’s not going to infuriate all the voters. In fact, in Utah, it should please the often-conservative voters because it would mean less waste and fewer subsidies.
Many city employees in Utah would no doubt hate this plan. But at this point we’re not going to actually make a dent in our air pollution problem without some uncomfortable lifestyle changes. Something like this also would make a tiny dent in the problem, but it’s an important paradigm shift that would snowball as neighborhoods became more walkable.
I also don’t mean to pile on Provo. The city is laudably working on policy changes and the suggestions I quoted above are just a short term idea from an administration that I very much respect. Instead, my point is just that a general strategy that seems common in Utah — asking people nicely not to drive so much — is never going to work. Thankfully Provo, Salt Lake and a few other places seem to get that. Unfortunately, however, most other cities don’t.
In any case, if we want to make a difference we need to reward good behavior and penalize the opposite.
I mostly liked living in Provo, but one thing I always felt less enthusiastic about was election season. Though I enjoy politics generally, elections for Provo city council always seemed to be bruising and brutal. Why did that always happen?
I’m sure there are a lot of contributing factors, but here’s one we might not normally think of: commute times.
Earlier this month, Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities reported on research indicating that longer commutes reduce civic participation:
The longer the commute, the less likely people are to participate in politics through behaviors like voting, frequently talking about politics, or giving to political campaigns. And the authors believe this is a causal relationship, not merely a correlation between people who travel long distances to work and those who live in cloistered bedroom communities.
Provo also happens to have below average commute times. So perhaps there is a connection between the tenor of the city’s elections — which is strident but certainly very engaged — and the fact that many in Provo are not driving hours and hours to and from work.
In other words, it stands to reason that with lower commute times there would be more civic engagement in Provo. That comes out in a lot of ways, but hard-fought elections would certainly be one.
That’s in contrast to the L.A. suburb where I grew up; the city was a bedroom community, where many people had long commutes, and as a teenager I didn’t know any adults who were particularly engaged in the local community. I’m sure there were engaged people in that city, but I lived relatively close to the “downtown” and never saw anything like what goes on in Provo.
This may seem reductive, as there are a lot of other things that have happened since I lived in California — a more mature internet, greater political polarization, etc. — but I’m really just trying to suggest that commutes are one factor at play in Utah elections.
So perhaps those grueling Provo elections weren’t such a bad thing after all if they indicate greater civic engagement and greater desire to be involved. In any case, the relationship between elections, commutes, and civic engagement seems to be borne out by this particular case in Utah.
For a while there, it seemed like almost anything was possible in Provo. Now, not so much.
The city that is near and dear to my heart has been getting more and more bicycle friendly in recent years, but has hit a road block: the Provo Bicycle Plan is being held up in a committee. The plan is a document designed to help the city build complete streets and more bicycle-friendly infrastructure. ProvoBuzz reports:
It was anticipated that the plan would be passed by December 2012. Unfortunately, it is now stuck in the recently formed Transportation and Mobility Advisory Committee and bicycle advocates have serious concerns that the integrity of the plan could be compromised before it is approved by the city council.
You can read the entire post for the whole background on who wrote this document and the extensive work that went into drafting it.
It’s ironic that this plan is causing so much controversy; during the recent elections in Provo I saw “road funding” come up repeatedly. Apparently Provo is still mostly concerned with building infrastructure for cars rather than for multiple types of transportation, even though car infrastructure is the most expensive. And even though that’s precisely the opposite of the type of thinking that is happening in the most successful cities. Seriously, just Google it.
Because I no longer live in Provo I was unable to attend the council meeting Tuesday night and as of the time I’m writing this I don’t know what happened. (Daily Herald, where are you?)
But perhaps my position as an outsider gives me a bit more freedom to say what needs to be said: Provo leadership, you are either being cowards or are woefully uninformed about the benefits of bicycling for allowing this process to drag on so long. Or both, which I suspect is the case. Stop politicking and take this (very minimal) risk.
If that isn’t enough, read up on the benefits of bicycle infrastructure. They are immense.
Only a few years ago I had no opinion on this topic. I researched it and quickly discovered that there are many reasons to support cycling. It’s not a difficult decision, but if Provo can’t get its act together it will continue to hamstring itself compared to other, similar cities.
Last week, Provo unveiled a pair of new murals along the fabulous Provo River Trail. The trail — which follows an old rail line from Provo Canyon to Utah Lake — was already one of the best things about the Wasatch Front, but this new art will certainly make it more interesting.
But that’s not all; the murals also are explicitly part of a crime-fighting strategy:
They’re purpose is to keep crime in these two spots to a minimum.
“We had one incident where we were painting, that one of the gals walked through, and she says she never runs through the trail on this particular area, through the tunnel, (because) she didn’t feel safe,” Provo Police Sgt. Mark Crosby said. “But since the mural’s been up, she says she feels safer and she runs through the tunnel all the time.”
Of course, city leaders aren’t naïve. They know a couple of paintings aren’t going to solve crime. But they do think the artwork will help.
This a creative solution that almost certainly costs less over time than permanently stationing police in trouble spots. In Provo, this is a big deal; there have been a number of crimes on the trail, including a rape last year that I wrote about while working at the Daily Herald.
How well this works remains to be seen, and of course it’ll have to be part of a broader strategy. But it does seem to be an interesting experiment in the “broken window theory” of crime-fighting that, successful or not, may offer lessons for other cities.