Thursday, August 31, 2006

More on Dealing with Traffic

A story in this morning's DesNews about increasing congestion and where Utah is at -- we're more congested than we were, we will get a lot more congested in future years (more so than what New York and LA are now). The story cites as one source a study by the Reason Foundation which touts building new highways as a viable way to reduce congestion. The Reason Foundation generally takes what some would call the conservative, hard-line approach to planning-related issues, and this sort of falls in that vein, as most urban planner types are all about transit, walkability, and demand reduction through better land use coordination with transportation.

The study points this out in one section, noting that many metro area long range transportation plans do not even include congestion reduction as one of their primary goals, and in some cases the plans indicate that building new road capacity is the last thing on their priority list.

The Reason study contests the old maxim that "we cannot build our way out of congestion." Often, Reason commentaries are very critical of transit, particularly rail transit, but this study says virtually nothing about it.

In a region growing as rapidly as ours, there is no way we can survive without building new road capacity. The question becomes how much can we afford, and what else should we be doing (like transit).

Again, I go back to my "hero" Anthony Downs, who for a variety of well-thought out reasons, believes that we will always be stuck with congestion from here on out, so just learn to live with it. One thing to consider, according to Downs: congestion is a characteristic of growing and vibrant economies. Places that are stagnating generally don't have this problem, so maybe it's a good sign!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Chink in the Armor?

Interesting little entry on the Utah Taxpayers Association blog, which on the surface seems to me to be an about face on what they normally espouse. The entry is about Stockholm, Sweden charging drivers to drive into downtown during peak times. Now this is a government-imposed solution that costs people more, and thus I say this seems to be the opposite of what a group like the taxpayers association strives for (reducing what government "charges" to provide services).

But there are two reasons I think this is being embraced by the organization. One, it was touted as a "free-market" solution in a Wall Street Journal editorial, which automatically (to some groups and viewpoints) means it is the "right" way to go. The other is that the Taxpayers Association, according to its position on transportation/transit, encourages the implementation of congestion pricing on state highways.

Now the obvious response for me to make to this entry is one which a commentor on the blog entry has already noted, so I'll just quote it here. It says, in part, "For pricing incentives to work, people need an alternative to driving into the city. Obviously, carpooling and working nontraditional schedules could help reduce peak congestion, too. ... Personally, I think we're going to need more transit to make congestion pricing actually produce a decline in traffic. Also, if Utah starts leveling congestion fees, it's going to make your tax and fee burden ranking go even higher. How (do) you react to that?"

Either way, costs go up for commuters. Pick your poison!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Salt Lake's Downtown to Become a Phoenix?

No, not Phoenix, Arizona. The mythical bird phoenix, rising from the ashes!

Quite the insert in today's daily newspapers, titled Downtown on the Rise. It is the latest update on where things are at in the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce's recent initiative on downtown Salt Lake City. You can see the details of all that is in the insert by going to the Downtown Rising website.

A really impressive effort. There is no question in my mind about the need for a viable, vibrant core central city, if for no other reason than to give a metro area a sense of identity and history. The actual function of that core, however, is something that is a little tougher to nail down. Once the primary location for high-end jobs, today's metro downtowns serve a variety of functions. The trick is to keep them from becoming abandonded and run down, as some have been. I don't see that happening in Salt Lake City, but still, it needs to find a solid role.

An interesting contrast in how two downtowns have fared in their transformations are the stories of Worcester, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island, as detailed in a story in the Boston Globe last year. There may be some lessons there for us.

The story notes, for example, that Providence resisted the urban renewal projects of the 60's and 70's, resulting in a better base of stately buildings and historic streetscapes, while Worcester wiped out a section of downtown and replaced it with a concrete monolith of a shopping mall that has now failed and needs to be "renewed" again.

Providence was also more successful in engaging its universities in civic life, which Worcester has failed to do, to the detriment of both.

Lots of interesting parallels for us here in Salt Lake, with some lessons about the roads not taken.

Friday, August 25, 2006

If Mom Says No, Go Ask Dad...

Interesting story in Wednesday's Provo Daily Herald about a brewing dispute between Mapleton and Spanish Fork over the annexation of some 1,000 acres. Seems the owner approached Mapleton to discuss possible development plans, and didn't like the answer -- so, off to the neighboring community to work out a better deal.

The area is apparently in Mapleton's annexation plan, and the two cities have an annually renewable agreement between them to honor each other's annexation plans. But Spanish Forks hints that they may just wait until the first of the year, when the agreement expires, and then consider the annexation.

When your city is the only game in town, it's easy to set annexation goals and policies and stick to them, but when "competing" cities are viable alternatives, it can lend itself to the kind of thing that is happening in Utah County. And whether the development is in your city or not, the impact on the character of the area will be there regardless. So should you annex to control, refuse to annex until you get an agreement with the landowners as to what should be developed, and what are relationships like between the competing cities?

All questions that I may have to address when I present a session at the upcoming Utah League of Cities and Towns conference on whether to annex or not to annex. Can't say that I know the answers to those questions...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Oh, Give Me A Home Where I Never Need Roam...

One of the many interesting things that I picked up during my "sabbatical" was a story in the Seattle Times about the difficulty in getting people to live close to work, or trying to plan things that way.

For some time I have listened to planners talk about the "jobs-housing balance," that if we can just get houses to be built near work centers (or vice-versa), then the need for commuting would be dramatically reduced. While at a certain level this almost seems intuitive, the more I observed, the more I came to realize that this just wouldn't work at all.

For one thing, people change jobs pretty frequently in the U.S., but they don't seem to change where they live quite so much, particularly if they just change jobs in the same general metro area. So while someone may buy a house near their job at one point in time, often within a few years they have changed jobs and they don't live so close to work anymore. By then, they've gotten to like the neighborhood, made friends in the area, the kids like the school, and they don't want to move -- so, the drive to work just gets longer. I have a couple of families in my own neighborhood in Kaysville where the primary wage earners drive to Draper and even to Orem each day! I have asked them, why don't you move to avoid the drive, and they say, "It's not so bad, and we really like the neighborhood and don't want to move!"

Also, many households these days are comprised to two primary wage earners, and rarely are both workers employed in the same place. So the solution is, live near work for one and let the other drive, or compromise and live somewhere near the middle between the two and require both to drive moderate distances.

Now I can anticipate what many of you will say -- the rising cost of gasoline is going to change all that. Well, maybe, to some extent over the long term. But I don't think we're there yet. One of my good friends who is a planner and believes in this concept, just took a new job that is considerably further away from where he had been working. Is he planning to move? I don't think so -- he's just getting to the point where his kids are moving through high school, and I don't think they want to leave. Reality!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

It's About Schools This Year

Well, by popular demand (or else driven by my idiotic propensity to get myself in trouble), I'm back in the blogosphere! It's been a nice vacation, but it's hard to stay silent as so many juicy issues (soccer stadium, downtown Salt Lake, charter schools, etc.) go rolling by.

Actually, here's what happened. My wife, daughter and I took off on July 5 for a wonderful 2-week vacation to Scotland and Ireland (more interesting observations on what those cities and urban environments are like maybe in a future blog entry). When we returned, any of you who have gone on an extended vacation know what it's like to return to your desk and see all the piled-up work that awaits! Then, a few days later, we were off again to my wife's family reunion in Idaho, which she was in charge of -- which meant I spent lots of time helping her get ready and organized for that one.

By then, I had not blogged for nearly a month. Now for those of you who haven't tried this, to keep up a blog is a fairly intense exercise -- looking for interesting stuff to blog about, getting the time to write, etc. I began to think it had been rather nice not having to try to keep up a near-daily effort, and thought, well, nobody will notice much anyway so let's just let it go.

Well, I have heard from so many people asking me what happened to my blog, why I wasn't blogging anymore, how they enjoyed reading it (though very few comment!). Nearly every day, I ran into people asking me about it, including many I had never met before or didn't know. I started to think that maybe I should get things going again, I guess people do read and find it interesting, if not useful.

I saw many topics float by that gave me that urge again to comment, but I kept delaying. Finally, today, the DesNews lead editorial gave me the final push to get me back online, so here I am.

The editorial follows a story earlier in the week where the West Jordan city council discussed and adopted a resolution urging the state legislature to change state law to allow impact fees to be charged for new school construction. The editorial correctly points out the prohibition enacted a few years ago in response to a school impact fee arrangement implemented by Park City. The charge against such fees was led by Sen. Al Mansell, the long-time lead warrior against impact fees, likely for the reasons pointed out in the editorial.

As the opinion piece points out, if fees are allowed for water and sewer systems and parks and so on, why shouldn't they also be allowed for new school construction? No question, there needs to be the recognition of what extensive impact fee totals can do to the price of housing, but the impact of rising taxes (primarily property taxes) and the resistance to them must also be considered.

Given the recent furor over charter schools, it looks like one of the big issues in the upcoming legislative session will be growth and schools. What could be more emotional to our citizens than land use and education? Combining the two together should make for an interesting session!