Thursday, December 4, 2008

4. Ways and Means
White Paper continued...

The most frequent response to Wake Up Washtenaw's proposals is, “It’s a great idea but it will never work.” Though true ten years ago, conditions will be right for it to work soon. What’s needed to make it happen?
Providing information and education is the first step. Our problems are not unique to Michigan, and many creative solutions have been proposed and tried in the United States, Europe, and around the world. We need to find solutions that fit us, and use our Michigan creativity to make them better.

Building support among citizens and groups goes hand in hand with providing information. Many groups find these ideas desirable, but without working together progress is unacceptably slow.

Zoning authorities must support this type of land use. Because most zoning ordinances were developed to meet twentieth-century needs, they discourage land use that puts residences close to services and food supply. It has been said that sustainable development is actually illegal in most of the United States. There are well-thought-out models that can be used to update our zoning ordinances, but that can only happen if local zoning authorities are aware that the public needs and supports such changes.

Capital investment is a must for any type of development. Wake Up Washtenaw encourages private, rather than government investment in both sustainability and transit for a number of reasons:

  • Federal funding for transit is hard to get because of competition from other regions;
  • State funding in Michigan is extremely limited because of the economy;
  • Local funding is even more limited than state funding;
  • All government funding comes with “strings” attached, usually resulting in much slower and more costly implementation of plans;
  • Private funding is often more innovative and creative in the way it is applied;
  • Development can be a very profitable type of investment, especially when it is forward-looking and well thought out;
  • Those who make the investments, as well as the citizens, should reap the benefits.

What sources of capital would invest in sustainable, transit-oriented development? Given the financial crisis in which we find ourselves in late 2008, it is unlikely that funding will be available within the next year. That’s not really a problem, because major investment is not needed at the outset; what is needed is education, consensus-building, and zoning modifications. Economies are cyclical, and we can have reasonable confidence that investment will become available when it is appropriate.

There are development companies that specialize in “green” development. We support a model in which more than one developer is involved, because that would spread the financial risk, and because it would prevent any one entity from being able to overrule all others in important decisions.

A key element is engaging one or more transportation provider(s) willing to diversify in a way that increases their profitability (see further discussion below).

Other potential investors include retailers wanting to expand into new, “green” population centers that are attractive to young, talented people; future owners who would like to assure their place in a green home or apartment; investment funds, banks, and venture capitalists.

An important part of the process is to find these sources of capital and show them the opportunity.

The organizational structure of each community could take any of several forms. A company jointly owned by the investors is one possibility; another is a condominium; a consortium or cooperative structure might be an option. Infill developments built along a transit-way consist of individual buildings, which would most likely be built by different organizations, necessitating no overall organization apart from the city or township.

Transit for a greenfield development should be based on rail or other fixed guideway in order to insure adequate return on investment. This is because with fixed guideway systems such as rail, investors can have reasonable confidence that the transportation system will not be moved to another location. Also, such systems provide greater capacity to move large numbers of people, so that existing roadways will not be overwhelmed with traffic from new developments.

In addition to rail, there are a number of possible fixed-guideway systems under development. Rail has a number of advantages, however: the technology is well-proven; there are many available vehicle options; several power sources are available and time-tested; it is known to be one of the most energy-efficient technologies for moving large numbers of people; and systems are in place for using rail to transport heavy freight as well as passengers.

Transit for a brownfield development depends on the footprint of the development. If it is compact, it should be located over or adjacent to rail or other high-efficiency transit. Ideally, such developments can be associated with rail hubs, such as the crossing on North Main Street in Ann Arbor between the Ann Arbor Railway and Norfolk-Southern/Amtrak. For linear developments, frequent bus service is acceptable, though light rail provides a proven boost to land value, and newer forms such as Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) would probably provide a similar boost in value to adjacent properties once deployed and debugged.

Financing transit has become synonymous with government subsidies in the United States and much of the world. However, we do not believe this need be the case here any longer. There are several parts of the world where transit pays for itself. Most notable are two examples: Curitiba, Brazil,  and Japan.

  • In Curitiba the City constructed infrastructure for bus rapid transit (BRT), being in fact the first entity to develop the BRT concept. However, the buses themselves (both rapid and local) are owned and operated profitably by private companies under contract and in partnership with the city, which collects passenger revenue and distributes it to the operators.

  • In Japan there are at least twenty private companies that operate commuter and regional rail systems. In every case, the business model appears to take advantage of synergies between rail service and other corporate investments. For example:
    • Tobu owns a theme park and real estate, served by their railway;

    • Hankyu and Hanshin own department stores which also serve as the main terminals of their rail lines; these are actually across the street from each other in downtown Osaka;
    • Izu owns popular resorts not far south of Tokyo, with frequent access on their railway;
    • Tokyu owns a hotel chain with hotels built over several of their stations or adjacent to them;
    • Keisei owns bus lines that connect with their trains; they also own real estate, tourist attractions, retail stores, and hotels near their train and bus lines. (Keisei’s “SkyLiner” connects Tokyo’s remote Narita airport with the downtown area.)

From these examples, it appears that key to successful operation of private transit is the creative leveraging of other investments. In Curitiba, the investment was made by the city government, making it a “Public-Private Project” (PPP). The Japanese companies have invested their own funds in properties that enhance their rail business, and vice versa.

In the United States, the main synergy is the great increase in property value that accompanies fixed-guideway transit. This has been documented in city after city where rail transit has been installed. Property owners within about a half mile of a rail station reap tremendous gains in the value of their land – gains made possible in most cases by the taxpayers who have financed the transit system. Given that there are tremendous profits to be made from fixed transit systems, it makes sense, especially in the absence of government funding, for those who will profit most from transit to make the biggest initial investment in it.

Underutilized rail corridors are the biggest opportunities for investment, especially those in locations where little-used or abandoned rail lines parallel congested highways. These rights-of-way are extremely valuable resources in an age of diminishing fossil fuels and increasing population. When used most efficiently in commuter service, a single track has the potential of carrying about the same volume as four highway lanes – using far less energy in the process. This makes them ripe for investment, upgrading, and use for commuter or regional rail service. Forward-looking planning authorities will view these lines as potential growth magnets and zone the surrounding areas accordingly.

Careful analysis should be made before converting these rail lines to bike/hike trails. Though good in themselves, trails have much lower potential for curbing sprawl development, saving resources, and lowering carbon emissions. For any entity to re-create a similar right of way through land purchase or other means could be prohibitive. Thus, underutilized rail corridors should be viewed as regional transportation treasures and investment opportunities.

Fortunately, this has been realized in our area. The State of Michigan purchased the northern portion of the Ann Arbor Railway (the “Annie,” north of the Huron River bridge) when the Annie filed for sale or abandonment in 1986. More recently, Federated Financial has leased rights to operate the line, with the stated intention of eventually restoring passenger service. In 2006, a group from Washtenaw and Livingston County proposed to use the southern portion of the line to alleviate congestion on parallel US 23. The plan has received the necessary approvals, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority has agreed to take charge of the operation, with service possibly beginning in early 2010. Meanwhile, many millions of dollars (estimates vary up to 32.4 million) will be necessary to upgrade the line to passenger service levels. Though the funds required are considerably less than what would be needed to expand the capacity of US 23, Michigan’s economy makes even that investment difficult. Federated Financial has understandably not been willing to invest the necessary capital to upgrade the line without some way of getting a return on its investment. That is why it is necessary to work out a way for the transportation providers to reap the benefits of their investment by sharing in the community growth their services make possible.


So far (late 2008) plans are all very general. In the engineering, architectural, or business sense, there are actually no “plans” as yet: simply a vision and this “white paper”.

The first requirement is to update our local zoning codes, particularly in the townships of Washtenaw County. The mid-twentieth-century model on which most are based does not lend itself to sustainable development. We suggest basing revised codes on the SmartCode model.

Next, it is essential to craft possible financial structures that allow all investors – developers, retailers, transportation providers, and residents – to benefit from their investment and from the communities they foster, without any one entity or group gaining undue advantage over the others.

For each greenfield community, an engineering plan needs to be created detailing “life-support” systems for the community: food production, waste handling, energy generation, transportation.

The urban design for each community needs to be worked out, preferably using the “charette” approach, where urban planners and students are given the opportunity to submit competing designs. Likewise, the architectural style can be the subject of design competitions. In this way, the most creative minds are encouraged contribute to all aspects of the community.


SmartCode Version 9.0 (n.d.) Andrés Duany, Sandy Sorlien, and William Wright. The Town Paper Publisher.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

White Paper continued...

3. Goals

What do we want a sustainable community to be like?
We are not advocating a bare-bones, spartan existence. The type of community we envision would be relaxing and welcoming, at the same time offering vibrant life-style options. This is both possible and sustainable when communities are built to conserve energy from the ground up – for example conforming to the highest LEEDS standards. Such communities can generate most or all of their own energy by utilizing the sun, the wind, water, geothermal and biological sources, and even its own waste products – depending, of course, on the availability of resources where the community is located.

The layout and the buildings themselves would be designed for esthetically pleasing effect, including green space both within and around built-up areas; space for sports, recreation, wildlife, and just old-fashioned relaxation.

One major vulnerability of our current food supply is our dependence on food grown thousands of miles away and transported to us using fossil fuels. Sustainable communities can break this dependence by planning to include space for growing food locally. The obvious foods to grow are vegetables that are both nourishing and well-suited to our Michigan climate. Innovative building designs also make it possible to grow more exotic foods not suited to our harsh winters indoors, while at the same time improving indoor air quality. A further option for communities with sufficient land would be a dairy herd, producing not only milk and dairy products, but also converting grass into fertilizer for vegetable gardens and methane for power and heat generation.

Transportation options are key to sustainable community growth. It is not our intention to discourage automobile ownership. Rather, we encourage a variety of transportation modes, and community designs that make automobile ownership optional rather than necessary. Too many citizens of Michigan can’t get where they need to be because they can’t drive: on account of age, health, disability, or economic issues. We believe basic shopping, schools, entertainment, and worship should be within easy, safe walking distance. Some places of employment should also be within walking distance, and others should be accessible by frequent, reasonably-priced public transportation.

What type of housing would people live in? We believe a mix of housing types is important for the success of a community. In order to be sustainable, a community must welcome multiple income levels. Rentals, condominiums, and traditional home ownership are all options. The most efficient and sustainable way of housing people is in mid-rise apartment buildings, but townhouses, tiny houses, and single-family homes are all viable in a sustainable community.

Greenfield vs. Brownfield

Planners debate whether it is best to encourage “greenfield” or “brownfield/greyfield” development. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks.

Brownfield (“ an area previously used as an industrial site”) and greyfield (“an area previously used primarily as a parking lot”) are often collectively known as infill development. Infill saves our open spaces, makes use of infrastructure already in place, and is often closer to shops, employment, services, and urban attractions.

Greenfield (“an area that consists of open or wooded land or farmland that has not been previously developed”) has more access to space for self-sustaining communities, and is more available in Washtenaw, Livingston and Monroe Counties. In any case, greenfield development is the primary type of development taking place now, and Wake Up Washtenaw’s goals is to encourage such development to be done responsibly and make a positive impact.

What might a sustainable greenfield community look like?

It would be built around a transportation center, which would include retail stores and community services. Immediately surrounding this center, there would be a mixed-use area consisting of retail space, offices, and apartments. The greater part of the community would live in these apartments. Single-family homes, including townhouses, tiny houses, and suburban-style houses in a variety of sizes and price-ranges, would surround the mixed-use area.

A critical feature of a sustainable greenfield community would be its “eco-ring,” surrounding the entire community. The concept of an eco-ring is based in the need of a self-sustaining community to be in contact with surrounding nature. It would consist of:

  • vegetable gardens, and possibly a dairy and poultry farm;
  • waste treatment and energy generation: wind, solar, bio, etc.;
  • playgrounds, sports fields and natural habitat;
  • school and special purpose buildings.

All residences would be in 5-10 minutes’ theoretical walking distance of both the central core and the eco-ring. A modest amount of parking would be provided underground and off-street, to minimize damage of parking lots to the environment and to the pleasant, walkable character of the community. Although privately owned vehicles are not discouraged, sustainable development consciously subordinates their needs to those of pedestrians and the natural environment.

What about a sustainable infill development?

Wake Up Washtenaw strongly encourages sustainable, transit-oriented infill. However, the potential for breakthrough advances in sustainability is greater in greenfield development. Brownfield development lends itself more to incremental improvements in energy efficiency and transit service. It is also more dependent on the location and configuration of available land, and less likely to be self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs.

If in a compact location, infill could include 8-12 story buildings with solar and wind energy generation capability. Such buildings would be ideal at transportation centers or junctions.

Another infill pattern is found along corridors with poorly maintained semi-industrial buildings, parking lots, and unoccupied lots. For sustainability, such linear infills need frequent transit service, preferably light rail or rapid bus. Buildings along the street can be 2-5 stories with commercial space at ground level and residences above, while residences within 1-2 blocks of the street with transit service can be built compactly – that is, with small setbacks and little or no open space between buildings.


SmartCode Version 9.0. (n.d.) Andrés Duany, Sandy Sorlien, and William Wright. The Town Paper Publisher. P. SC47.
SmartCode Version 9.0, p. SC50
SmartCode Version 9.0, p. SC49

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How to Run a Railroad

I've been riding the rails in Japan for three weeks now. Tomorrow I head back to the US, so it's time to put a few thoughts together.

In well over 8,000 miles and 150 trains, none have been late leaving the station, and only one has been late arriving - it was a shocking four minutes late, apparently due to congestion. This has involved all six of the privatized JR (Japan Rail) group companies, plus four of the many smaller railways. Maybe I'll be able to work out the percentage of reliability when I've cataloged details of the entire journey.

My focus for this post is, How do they do it? Here are my observations:
  • Investment in infrastructure: Compared to many other countries, Japan spends little for its military. Instead, its citizen's tax money goes to education and infrastructure. It's not just their famous Shinkansen "bullet trains" that get the investment. All four main islands are connected by a long bridge or tunnels. Mountains (said to cover four fifths of Japan) are drilled full of innumerable tunnels, and valley are spanned by trestles. Few mountain lines have track speeds less than about 40 MPH, and many are higher. Roads are kept in very good repair, and there are expressways (with high tolls) in most parts of the country; more are being built.
  • Meticulous maintenance: right of way is well groomed and ballasted, using mainly concrete ties. Surprising to American railroaders is the use of jointed rail almost everywhere except on Shinkansen lines (though to give me the lie, I happen to be riding over a rare stretch of non-Shinkansen welded rail in Hokkaido as I write this). Older rolling stock is lovingly cared for and works reliably. Squads of cleaning staff descend on every train when it reaches its destination.
  • Precision operation: every task on the railroad has a ritual. Watching conductors, station masters, engineers, and even train attendants, is like watching a combination ballet and military drill. All personnel are in uniform, from the station-master, with his flag and red-banded cap, to the track workers in their regulation coveralls and hard hats. Every train attendant bows to the passengers when entering or leaving a coach. Engineers, except on the ever-popular steam excursion engines, always wear white gloves. Every signal is acknowledged with hand gestures and a verbal response. Every time-point is met by a white-gloved finger pointing to the engineer's railroad-issue pocket watch, the time column and then the location on the train order. Every engineer, whether on a large, fast train or a small, slow one, has his train orders in a special, illuminated holder mounted just to the right of the forward window. If all this sounds a bit "over the top", consider the spectacular results.
  • Safety first, last, and always: Every vehicular grade crossing is protected by crossing gates. That even includes farm tracks and many foot paths, on main and branch lines. (Shinkansens are entirely grade-separated.) The gates close off the intersection completely - no "snaking" through a closed crossing. As a result, whistles and horns are seldom heard, which is good since there are so many trains. Hard hats and safety glasses are always worn by maintenance workers, and those who work in dark places wear vests with strings of flashing red lights like those we use to decorate for the holidays. All trains have Automatic Train Stop. When approaching a red signal, a loud bell trills briefly in the cab, followed by a continuous tick-tock like a turn-signal on steroids. This gives the engineer time to stop gently; no doubt emergency brakes would be applied if the train passed the signal, though I never saw that happen. Even track workers (in Hakodate, at least) have a drill for crossing yard tracks: stop, look and point right, look and point left, and if the track is clear in both directions, point forward before crossing the track.
  • Spectacular scheduling and dispatching: When trains meet on single-track lines, it is almost always at a station, where the line splits briefly into two; trains from opposing directions arrive within a minute of each other. (I observed one exception, when two rail-busses met in a small mountain village. The southbound rail bus had a 25-minute wait, which was part of the schedule.) On Shinkansen lines, which are all double-track and very heavily scheduled, faster trains flash past slower ones while the latter are stopped at stations, where the way widens to four (or more) tracks. Seldom did I observe a slower train stopping for more than four minutes, and that was usually to allow two faster trains to breeze past.
  • Continuous R&D: Not only is JR Research testing a maglev train, but less spectacular every-day trains are being developed. The busy Chuo line in Tokyo, which runs trains every two minutes, uses a high-tech computerized control console for the engineer (who still uses the hand-gestures!). Several types of electric and diesel tilt trains have been developed to cut down schedules in less densely populated areas. Hybrid diesel rail cars are being tested on a mountain route in Nagano Prefecture. And the Shinkansen routes are being extended north into Hokkaido (I can see the construction work under way as I write this) and south into Kyushu.

OK, so those are some details of how they do it. Underlying the details are culture and attitude. Japanese culture, as you probably know, is based on strict hierarchy and following the rules. To illustrate this: an elderly acquaintance told me about a friend of his who was a naval officer during World War Two. After Japan's surrender, he was assigned to command a Japanese cruiser for a few months until it was decommission. The full Japanese crew of about two hundred remained on board, but he was the only American. He never had a moment's trouble from the crew, who obeyed his orders with alacrity. The Emperor had commanded all Japanese to cease their resistance and obey the Americans, so that's what they did.

I suppose there is a certain amount of security for individuals within such a system. You know exactly where you stand, and you need only think about your own small part of the team's task. It's certainly not the spirit that made America great, but it certainly works very well for Japanese railways.

The attitude is not what you might expect. Every railway staff member seems to take great pride. I'm not sure exactly what aspect they take pride in. It's more than their immaculate uniforms, of course. Is it their mastery of their part in the railway ballet? Is it their enviable performance and safety record? Is it their smoothly-running equipment, whether new or old? Is it because of their place in the race for higher-speed rail? (They're not in first place at the moment - France is - but they're definitely "in the running"!) Even the ubiquitous train attendants (all of whom are young women) seem to smile with genuine good-will. I never saw any hang-dog looks or repressed surliness, in spite of the fact that they work long and hard. They set a standard which would be difficult for American flight attendants to equal. I'm too young ;-) to know how they'd compare with the Zephyrettes.

So, what can we conclude? First, if we wanted to run precision railways in the US, it would have to be done differently. American railway personnel would never bow when entering a passenger coach, nor do I think they should! But would we be ahead to require some of the "ballet": the gestures, the verbal acknowledgements? Or can we rely on automatic equipment to prevent disasters? I doubt that we could rely on anything but attitude to keep the trains running so precisely. I wish our dispatchers and schedulers would take a course or two from JR.
Or how about this: Invite one of the JR or private Japanese railways to invest in US railways, and have a hand in determining how they are run. (I'd much rather see that, than have US railways taken over by hedge funds and investment bankers.) More on that later...

By the way - I forgot to mention one other thing. Japanese railways make a profit, and have not raised their fares for at least twenty years. How's that for running a railroad?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Deep Japan

I'm writing this while rolling under the Tsugaru channel on Japan Railway Hokkaido's Super Hakucho ('Super Swan'), en route to Hakodate. We're in the Seikan Tunnel, 53.85 km (33.46 miles) long, 240 m (787 ft) below mean sea level, hence my title, "Deep Japan".

There are several reasons why I've come to Japan. The largest concentration of humanity in the world is the Tokyo-Kawasaki-Yokohama conurbation. The total land area is about the size of California, but only one fifth of the land is flat enough to farm - the rest is mountainous. The countryside is really beautiful, deeply revered, and lovingly cared for. It's the second largest economy in the world, and the standard of living compares well with that of other indistrialized nations. These folks must know something about sustainability.

The Japanese also have remarkable rail service, and I'm convinced this is a big part of their secret. This Seikan tunnel is only one of many remarkable feats. We all know the Japanese had the first truly high-speed rail service, the Shinkansen "bullet trains" that entered service between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964. The train I'm on now is not a Shinkansen, just a "limited express" running between two provincial cities. It's still fast, and incredibly quiet.
I've been in Japan now for two full days and have ridden on several electric multiple-unit trains, two Shinkansens, a diesel multiple-unit train, and a steam-hauled excursion train. Every one of these has been on time, to the minute. Every one has been clean and staffed by friendly, courteous, helpful people.

Japan also has at least twenty private passenger railways. All suburbs of major cities are served by railways, and all the major cities have more than one railway company serving them. Thousands of tiny towns are served by passenger rail.
All cities and towns have bus service. Many medium-size cities still have streetcars running, though unlike Europe these mainly run "antique" streetcars. Although there are lots of automobiles, they are not necessary, since public transportation, walking, and bicycling are available and fostered everywhere.

I spent last night and this morning in the city of Sendai, which is two hours north of Tokyo by shinkansen, and about the size of Detroit (1,028,214 in 2005). The downtown area is centered around the railway station, which has Shinkansen service, several local rail lines, a city subway line, and many bus lines. Our hotel and several large stores are connected with the station complex by an elegant elevated walkway. There is a shopping arcade that totals six blocks in length. The buildings are densely clustered throughout the city and high rise buildings are common, but there are several large parks (including a ruined castle). It's a city I'd enjoy living in.

OK. This blog entry is long enough. More about Japan later.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Wake Up Washtenaw White Paper: 2. Background

Our White Paper series continues with the second section:

2. Background

Climate change. High cost of energy. Growing congestion. Michigan's plummeting economy.

How can we solve all these problems?

The answer lies in taking world-class methods and applying them with American ingenuity and know-how. The place to start? Right here in Washtenaw County.
There are many groups working on these problems: climate, energy, congestion, the economy. What we need is to get all these groups working together.

The key to all these problems is to build sustainable, transit-oriented communities. Sustainability requires minimum dependence on outside resources, including food, energy, and waste management. We have the technology to build sustainable communities; what we have lacked is the collective will to do it. We are now coming to realize the need for sustainability, and with that realization comes a growing will act. There is a realization that we have become dependent on food grown thousands of miles from us, and low-cost transportation can no longer be expected. We all know that heating and cooling costs are spiraling out of control, and we need to find alternatives to fossil fuels if we want to continue to live comfortably.

Why transit-oriented? Because transportation is the largest single factor determining how populations settle and build communities. Civilization as we know it depends on being able to move people and goods around.

The latter half of the twentieth century in the United States based almost all its transportation and settlement patterns on highways. Individuals gained freedom of movement by owning personal automobiles, and distributers of goods gained flexibility by using large trucks.

This was successful and liberating as long as (1) fuel was inexpensive, (2) the number of vehicles did not exceed the capacity of the highway system, and (3) a significant proportion of the population was able to afford private vehicles. But each of these three conditions is now seriously challenged. About 30% of energy expended in the United States is used to move people and goods around. Privately owned vehicles (POVs) now demand an increasing share of personal and community resources.

Though effective at providing flexible transportation, POVs are not efficient for moving large numbers of people. We need communities built for convenient walking and accessible to efficient transportation, in order to free us from dependence on fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and turn around the economy.


They say it can't be done: "Michigan's history and spirit is too deeply rooted in the private automobile." "We can never expect Michiganders to embrace any solution that isn't based on cars."

They say it can't be done: "Michigan's politicians and developers are too happy making money from the status quo." "They'll never be proactive enough to invest in new solutions."

We say, it must be done. Future generations of Michigan residents will trapped in poverty and unsustainable communities if we don't act now.
One extremely valuable and insightful guide is Michigan Future's Progress Report:

To us the clear message from the data we have just reviewed is the key to economic growth is talent. Quite simply, in a flattening world, economic development priority one is to prepare, retain and attract talent.

There are no quick fixes, the Michigan economy is going to continue to lag the nation for the foreseeable future. But there is a path back to high prosperity. As is laid out in our New Agenda report, we believe the framework for action is:
  • Building a culture aligned with (rather than resisting) the realities of a flattening world. We need to far more highly value learning, an entrepreneurial spirit and being welcoming to all.
  • Creating places where talent - particularly mobile young talent - wants to live. This means expanded public investments in quality of place with an emphasis on vibrant central city neighborhoods.
  • Ensuring the long-term success of a vibrant and agile higher education system. This means increasing public investments in higher education. Our higher education institutions - particularly the major research institutions - are the most important assets we have to develop the concentration of talent needed in a knowledge-based economy.
  • Transforming teaching and learning so that it is aligned with the realities of a flattening world. All of education needs reinvention. Most important is to substantially increase the proportion of students who leave high school academically ready for higher education.
  • Developing new public and, most importantly, private sector leadership that has moved beyond both a desire to recreate the old economy as well as the old fights. A leadership that is clearly focused, at both the state and regional level, on preparing, retaining and attracting talent so that we can prosper in the global economy.

What does talent have to do with sustainable development? In a word, everything. Talented young people are very aware of the crisis looming over our world's climate and our American way of life. They are attracted to innovative solutions to these problems, and eager to lend a hand to make them work. Communities that are built to address these problems are vitally interesting to them; on the other hand, regions that lag behind and cling to old, unsustainable models repel talented young people.

Our American values have long said that responsibility for improving our children's education lies primarily in the public sector. At the same time, American values have put community development in the private sector, though with oversight from the public. While the public sector focuses on retaining and improving Michigan's educational advantages, the private sector should be empowered and encouraged to develop communities that attract talented, mobile young people.

Wake Up Washtenaw sees its role as (1) empowering responsible development through community action to revise our zoning codes, and (2) inviting and encouraging responsible developers and Michigan citizens to invest in sustainable development.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Wake Up Washtenaw “White Paper”: Overview

This is the first in a series of posts airing the first draft of Wake Up Washtenaw's "What Paper". It's out here for your comments and suggestions, so have at it!


Wake Up Washtenaw is a non-profit citizens' organization encouraging sustainable, transit-oriented development by private groups in Washtenaw County.
  • We encourage sustainable development that is carbon-neutral, and when possible, is able to provide basic food needs and take care of its own waste stream.
  • We encourage walkable, transit-oriented development that enables residents to get to their jobs, shopping, recreation and worship without the need for privately owned vehicles.
  • We encourage development by a consortium or similar group of private businesses and residents, rather than depending on public funding.
  • Now is the time to begin: a low point in the economic cycle is a good time for planning new projects and investing in the necessary resources. In addition, the certainty of climate change and the limits of fossil fuels have brought public awareness to an all-time high.
It's not enough for citizens to wait for "them" to do something about our changing needs. It is necessary for all of us to work together to make sustainable living possible - and profitable.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Detroit's Regional Transit Plan

Yesterday (September 24) consultants for the Detroit Regional Transit Coordinating Council held their fall open house, to let the public in on their plans. There was a series of poster boards, with 4-5 staff members to give guided tours (thanks, Lynn!). The Detroit News had a survey on line: 72.86% in favor of the plan, after I voted for it (72.85% in favor before I voted). The comments area had 16 posts with a surprising number of intelligent, positive comments. Of course, all the predictable nay-sayers were there too, including the "Michigan=cars" folks, the "not with my tax dollars" folks, and those who said Detroit should be made accountable for the tax revenue it has before going out to ask for anything more. (The last is certainly true, but I fear such a requirement would doom the city to permanent stagnation.) What follows is my comment on the forum.

My main complaint about the proposed plan is that it's too slow. The completed build-out wouldn't happen until 2035, but by then the number of people who can afford to drive a car will be relatively small.

Sure, we can hope some new technology will come along to make driving cheap again, but if it does, we'll still have the congestion problem. Build more freeway lanes? Sorry - recent history shows that more lanes only lead to more congestion.

There are always people who don't want to pay taxes for which they see no immediate, personal benefit. That's understandable, but not justifiable. Our taxes should pay for investments that will benefit our community as a whole, including city, county, region, state, and nation. And not just for right now: we need to start making investments that will benefit our kids and grandkids.

If Cobo Hall and the zoo are investments that bring culture and profit to Detroit, transit improvements will be even farther-reaching. There are at least 10 US cities that have recently installed light rail transit, and every one of them has experienced increased regional growth, higher real estate values, and more tax revenues. It really isn't a boondoggle, it's an investment, not just for Detroit but for the entire region, not just for the next few years, but for the next few generations.

So let's do it, and let's do it even sooner than the plan calls for.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The city in Mexico

I recently came back from a month teaching in Mexico. Gave me a chance to think about cities and how people organize them. While there's a lot we don't want to emulate about Mexican cities, there's also a lot we can learn from them. I was teaching linguistics in the city of San Luis Potosí this year and in 2007, and I've visited the states of Jalisco (Guadalajara, Chapala, Ajijic, and Mezcala); Oaxaca (Oaxaca city, Mitla, Jalapa de Díaz, and Tuxtepec); Guerrero (Tlapa); and Mexico City itself.

City Growth

Mexico had cities long before we did in the US, so there's a lot about them that's more like the old cities of Europe and Asia. Most of them grew "like Topsy", without any pattern or preplanned design. There appears to be little or no zoning - no effort to channel growth of certain types into desired areas. On the other hand, almost all Mexican cities have a clearly defined center built around a town square, known in Mexico as el zócalo. Around this square one finds the main church, government buildings, and shops. Often there are historic residences of a colonial governor or other high official. The middle of the zócalo usually has a shelter, variously used as a monument, a band shell, and a place for couples to share romantic moments. Most zócalos have trees, benches, statuary, and fountains - originally the main source of the town's drinking water. Weekend evenings often see bands playing, people dancing, and families strolling in the zócalo. (Mexicans tend to be more likely to spend time together as families than we are in the US.) The zócalo of Mexico city is an exception, in that it is entirely paved and has no greenery - it is in front of the Mexican equivalent of the White House, and is used mostly for political rallies, demonstrations, and parking for tour buses. The equivalent gathering places for this city (largest in the Western Hemisphere at 19.2 million in 2005) are the Alameda Central and the Bosque de Chapultepec, reminiscent of New York's Central Park.

From the zócalo most Mexican cities have grown outward organically. Thoroughfares mainly following the natural contours of the land. The smaller streets are defined more by blocks of buildings, rather than blocks being defined by streets. This follows an ancient pattern found, for example, in Roman cities. There, a "block" was called insula, an "island". This insula presents a solid front, right up to the sidewalk. The original purpose was defensive, and that purpose has not changed. There is still, and probably always will be, a need to protect one's goods and family from marauders, whether the are enemy tribes or burglars. Residences and shops are found in all neighborhoods. Above most shops are the residences of the family that owns them. One block may contain several small eateries (taquerías), a couple of auto repair shops, four or five general stores (abarrotes), a laundry, and perhaps some offices. This "mixed use" pattern makes it possible to make most purchases without driving anywhere, or even walking very far.
By comparison, a US neighborhood of approximately the same socioeconomic bracket is more spread out, with wide setbacks from the street and spaces between the houses, most of which are segregated from shops.

Open space

Instead of open space on the street - what we call "setback" in US zoning codes - there are walls right up to the sidewalks. The lawns and gardens are within the walls or behind the houses, perhaps in the form of a courtyard. This too is based on the Roman insula pattern. Gardens in upper-class houses are quite sizable, but the average open space in urban Mexican middle-class housing is much more modest. Lower-class houses have a multi-purpose open space used for cooking, washing, and possibly a vegetable garden, depending on the size and on what the family wants to do with it. The result is much more compact or "dense" housing, but with a greater sense of privacy when in "the family". For a sense of community, the Mexican family typically goes to a park and mingles with other townsfolk in the evenings and weekends. Parks are much more heavily used and more "decorative" than many US parks, in that they have more statuary, fountains, and flower gardens, where a typical US suburban park is mainly grass and trees with some children's play equipment. It is common to see lots of people jogging, walking dogs, bicycling, playing soccer, necking, and just "chilling out" in parks from early morning to late evening.


Private cars are very popular in Mexico, and though SUVs, big pickups, and minivans are much in evidence, the average car is somewhat smaller than in the US. There are several small US models from Ford and GM that aren't available in the US, such as the Chevy C2 Comfort. Traffic is so bad in Mexico City that there is a "rationing" system, prohibiting cars with certain license numbers from entering the city on given days of the week.

Public transportation is frequent and reliable in most of Mexico (I can't speak first-hand about the southernmost parts, Chiapas and the Yucatán region). Mexico City has 12 subway lines, plus Bus Rapid Transit, light rail, and has recently added a commuter rail line. Guadalajara, though a distant second in population, has two subway lines. All other Mexican cities rely exclusively on buses and taxis. In comparison with US buses, Mexican urban buses are simpler and less expensive. They are not air conditioned, all have manual transmission, most are somewhat smaller (25-35 passengers), none are low-floor or "kneeling" buses. All are made in Mexico and probably cost one quarter to one third of what a US transit bus costs. On the other hand, they are very frequent, they run on many different routes, inexpensive (typically about 50 cents US) and the bus drivers will always make change for you (unless you give them a large bill for a small fare). During the day (including weekends) they run frequently enough that you don't have to worry about the schedule. There will be a bus on your route every 5-10 minutes. This is made possible by the compact urban design and relative density of the population. What they lack in elegance, Mexican urban buses make up in good service. (Intercity buses, on the other hand, offer both elegance and good service.)

Taxis are much more available and inexpensive than in the US. Though rumors of unscrupulous taxi drivers circulate, I have never had a problem with any. Well, hardly any. There was one taxi, a large American car that waited outside the tourist hotel in Mexico City where I stayed a couple of times, that had no meter and charged me the equivalent of $10 USD for less than two miles on a Sunday morning. (But the driver was very friendly and helpful, and it was Sunday.) All the other taxis had meters and charged exactly what was on the meter - no round-about routes, no charge for extra passengers, and no tips expected. Typical in-city fare in San Luis Potosí was $2-3 USD. Oh yes: taxis to and from airports and major bus stations - the "safe" kind that you pay for in advance inside the terminal - are at least twice as expensive. You pay for your "security".

The typical taxi in Mexico these days is the Nissan Tsuru, a model based on the 1991 Sentra and made in Mexico (Aguascalientes), not available in the US. It's a compact 4-door model, said to be quite reliable and economical. The taxi drivers all liked them pretty well. Much safer and more roomy than the previous Mexican taxi favorite, the classic Volkswagen beetle, also made in Mexico and usually with the front passenger seat taken out for ease of access, known affectionately as a Vocho.


The design of Mexican cities is chaotic in many ways. It's easy to get lost in most because of their unplanned street arrangement - the main exception being Puebla, which was designed and laid out with rectangular blocks and straight streets in 1531 by a priest (local legend says by two angels). The dense design makes it difficult to widen transportation corridors. Sometime in the last century, Mexico City planners superimposed a system of axial roads to make cross-town travel simpler and quicker, but it must have been done at the expense of many old buildings that stood in the way. Later, they did the same to add expressways. Other transportation features, such as the intercity bus terminals, have often been added in inconvenient places, far from the center of town, though close enough in that buses have to fight considerable traffic to get in and out of towns.

Still, I like a lot about Mexican cities: the compact design, the convenient shopping, the central zócalo bringing a beautiful human and social focus to the urban center, the omnipresent, convenient public transportation, and the generous, artistic park spaces.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

It can't be done

I've had several people tell me it can't be done. Trying to build sustainable, transit-oriented developments in Washtenaw County won't work.

There are many reasons given for this. Older people - very intelligent, aware, conservative people - are convinced Michiganders are too attached to their cars. That they would be willing to pay an arm, a leg, or both, rather than give up driving everywhere.

Middle-aged people, including a prominent, liberal Ann Arbor environmentalist, are convinced the political leaders and the development companies are too happy making money with sprawl developments. They are perfectly willing to talk the talk, but not walk the walk to sustainability. The county is led by "greenwashers", people who know the advantages of sounding environmentally concerned, but aren't really willing to forego the short-term gains in "business as usual".

So what's a concerned citizen to do? Give up?

Here's my perspective. Right now, my grandson is 3 years old. I know that if I don't work for sustainable development, he will probably leave Michigan and go someplace where people have been willing to invest in future generations. My son has already left - for Seattle. Or my grandson will stay here and live a life of hardship, scraping by in an environment that isn't prepared for gas that tops $20 a gallon.

I've been told I'm wasting my time, beating my head against a brick wall. You can't fight city hall. Well, OK, so this is a "hard-hat zone". That doesn't mean the brick wall should be there, or is going to be there forever. Unless a few people are willing to don hard-hats and start beating against brick walls, our kids and grandkids will be buried under the rubble when the wall crumbles. The wall will fall, because the changes their generation are going to see will be like Katrina and the Szechuan earthquake put together.

So to those who say "It can't be done," I've got to respond, "It must be done". I'm not willing to put my feet up and let my grandkids face problems that I didn't have the guts to face.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."
  • Margaret Mead

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The American Dream

I came across an interesting organization on the Web today: the American Dream Coalition. Linked to their star-spangled, red-and-white striped home page is their latest report: "The Greatest Invention: How Automobiles Made America Great." The report cover features automobiles of the 1940s through 1970s.

What initially drew my attention to their site was their response to Christopher Leinberger's much-quoted article on the "death of the suburbs". Here's their central point:
Death of Suburbs?
Professor Leinberger anticipates a future where “large-lot suburban McMansions fall into disrepair and affluent buyers flock to walkable downtowns.” By 2025, suburbia will become “a residential wasteland.”
Where have we heard this before?
Sorry, Professor, but we will get over the high prices of energy, or we will adapt to them. But suburbs will not die, for this is where middle income families go to pursue the American Dream - a home with a backyard and nearby ball fields, places of worship, and other amenities. There’s less crime in the suburbs, less congestion, less polution, less . . . er, disease. And suburbs are more affordable than central cities. Much more affordable.
I'm not sure where they heard this before, though they seem to be implying a source of information already discredited by their readers. Unfortunately, Leinberger is not totally "anticipating" a residential wasteland. He bases his discussion on extensive observation of home pricing in different types of neighborhoods, on reported vandalism, and on comparative increases in crime in different areas. Apparently, this future is here.

What an interesting statement: "we will get over the high prices of energy, or we will adapt to them". This is very insightful. At least it gives me insight into why there is so much push-back against energy efficient solutions to our situation. But there are two possible reasons for the optimism expressed in that statement:
  1. Trust in the certainty that technology will overcome the eventual depletion of fossil fuels; or
  2. Trust that the high prices of energy will go away, and we can continue as before with no change of lifestyle.
To some extent, I share their hope that technology will overcome our energy crunch - but not their apparent faith in our ability to continue as before. I can't keep the picture of an ostrich from popping into my mind's eye. All the solutions I've heard of so far have started with a reduction in our energy budget, at least to the level of European consumption.

Our friends at the American Dream Coalition continue, "But suburbs will not die, for this is where middle income families go to pursue the American Dream - a home with a backyard..."

I have to admit it, though. Yesterday I was sitting on the deck having lunch, thinking of how I enjoy my back yard: its privacy, its leafy green shade, the squirrels, the birds, the bunnies. It would be hard to give up the traditional suburban back yard.
But at the same time, I think of Little Shop of Horrors, that quintessential high school musical, where the heroine Audrey poignantly expresses, in the song "Somewhere that's Green," her wish to fulfill the American suburban dream. She ends up consumed by the man-eating plant "Audrey II". Is this an allegory? Does it foreshadow how the American Dream has turned into the American Nightmare? Giant, twisting freeways, choking with endless lines, bumper-to-bumper, of "the greatest invention"?

Continuing that thought, our friends write, "a home with a backyard and nearby ball fields, places of worship, and other amenities." The backyard may be nearby, but almost invariably the ball fields, places of worship, and other amenities are not nearby enough to walk. Every place worth going to is only accessible by car.

I have nothing against cars. I don't hate them - one blogger once accused me of hating cars. But I do hate having no realistic choice other than cars. They consume an unreasonable proportion of people's time and money. People who can't afford a car are locked out of the American dream.

"There’s less crime in the suburbs, less congestion, less pollution, less . . . er, disease. And suburbs are more affordable than central cities. Much more affordable." Query: If suburbs are so much more affordable, why are central cities inhabited by the poor people (disease-ridden criminals!)? That sentence in itself is worth a couple of blog entries dealing with the outdated perceptions and the covert racism. Suburbs are only more affordable if you ignore transportation costs. Clearly, whoever wrote that statement doesn't want us to think clearly.

Also, suburbs are afflicted with one of the greatest epidemics of our time: obesity. Obesity is linked with blood pressure problems, heart disease, diabetes, and who knows how many other conditions. It is brought on by unhealthy aspects of the suburban life: over-dependence on cars, riding-mowers, leaf blowers, snow blowers, over-indulgence in fatty foods, beer, and video games.

If we are not to end up consumed by the American dream, we had better start thinking seriously about what this dream means. And no more ostrich thinking, please.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Wake Up, America!

Living in Michigan, we haven't been able to ignore the financial distress caused by lack of financing for government services. This includes education at all levels, law enforcement and safety, road and bridge maintenance, parks. We've been watching our standard of living slowly crumbling, while political "wisdom" degenerates into dog-and-cat fights between opposing parties. I could say a lot about this, but why? It would simply be viewed as another spat in the ongoing scrimmage, and I would be dismissed as either a "cat" or a "dog", depending on dismisser's affiliation.

This state-wide pain is unknown at the federal level. Oh yes, there is something that looks very similar, but is only a shadow of the pain Michigan and similar states are facing. Why?

Because Michigan is constitutionally prohibited from spending more than it takes in. The federal government has no such prohibition. It can spend all the money it likes, regardless of income. And it does. This is called the "national debt". We all know it's there, but we shy away from thinking about it, from discussing it. I know I could look it up in 2 minutes and find out its precise level, but I'm scared to do it. Besides, what I learn in two minutes will be out of date two minutes later as the federal government borrows yet more.

Somehow, we tolerate a national debt far better than a national surplus. I mean, if word were to get out that the government was actually taking in more money than it's spending, what would happen? There would be loud shouts of foul play, and demands that the government instantly give back in tax rebates what it had "robbed" from its hard-working citizens. It would be political suicide for any legislator (whether cat or dog) to propose actually continuing to take in tax money and save it, invest it, build a rainy-day fund, or increase our investment in infrastructure. It's a sure-fire one-way ticket back home to ignominy - or at best, obscurity.

Parenthetically, why doesn't Michigan simply change its constitution and learn to borrow its way back to prosperity? Politically, that would be difficult. Financially it wouldn't work. The great state of Michigan has a credit rating no investor would touch. Might as well ask for spare change at Campus Martius on a cold winter night.

So I'm lamenting the national debt. What else is new?

What's new is a realization of what - or who - is keeping the government of the United States of America running. It's the People's Republic of China.

Yes. Our fair democracy is largely financed by the communist bosses of the People's Republic of China (PRC). According to James Fallows, in a well-researched and documented article in the January-February 2008 issue of Atlantic Monthly, the PRC is pumping about one billion dollars every day into the US economy, largely through purchases of treasury bills.

You see, the state-controlled economy of the PRC is only partially capitalist. The Chinese companies that make our shoes, hats, and electronic gizmos, don't get to keep the dollars they earn. They are required by law to exchange them for Chinese yuan, at a rate dictated by the government - not a free-market rate. By keeping the rate artificially low, the Chinese government effectively taxes all its capitalists at a very, very high rate. China exports roughly 50% more in dollar value than it consumes internally. Much of the difference is due to the low wages that keep its goods artificially cheap on the world market - because of the artificially low value of the Chinese currency, dictated by its government.

So the Communist Party of China, through its instrument, the government of the PRC, gets to decide what to do with this money. Some it invests in improving Chinese infrastructure, but not much compared to what it socks away in savings. Somehow, unlike us, they don't seem to mind having a little rainy-day fund. Of course, they don't have to stand for election. How much is in their little piggy bank? Well, that's considered a state secret. They never announce how much money they actually have in savings. But it's pretty easy to add it all up through financial institutions in the west: it's about 1.4 trillion dollars. It's our national debt. We actually owe more than that, but we owe the rest to the Saudis, the Russians, and other generous benefactors.

And this seems good both to us, and to them. The money the PRC invests in T-bills is quickly spent, much of it on Chinese goods. That wonderful business stimulus package that's being crafted right now in Washington does not rely on our tax money. No, it's being provided mainly by the kind, thoughtful communist leadership of China.

Well, not really kind. But very thoughtful.

Will you indulge me in a moment of reverie? Historical reverie, about China's past. In the early 1800s, when Britain was the undisputed commercial and imperial leader of the globe, China fought - and lost - two wars with England. The wars were about opium. England wanted to be able to export opium from its holdings in south Asia (India and Afghanistan) to China, in exchange for Chinese tea, silk, and other goods. The Chinese government at that time did not believe opium was a good import, so they refused to allow it in. Kind of like our own government's ideas about cocaine. So the British sent in their navy and marines, and forced the Chinese to legalize opium. It happened twice. Kind of like Colombia sending troops to force their cocaine to be legalized in the US. We would resent it a bit, but of course Colombia could never do that to us. The British could do it, and the Chinese did resent it. But they also learned from it. They learned the foreign policy of forcing addiction on another nation.

We are the addicted nation. We are addicted to low taxes. We are on the needle, and the needle that infuses pleasure into our veins is Chinese cash. And Arab cash, and Russian cash, and Japanese cash.

Like many addicts, we deny that we have a problem. "Oh, I can handle that," we say, "in another few years, I'll recover naturally from my need for this substance." Yeah, right.

Wake up, America.

One of these days, the PRC will start to call in its debt. They will foreclose on us. They don't want to now, because it's too profitable for them to sell us their stuff. Same with the oil-rich nations that invest in our economy. But when economic conditions change, they will want their money back. Just like the drug dealers, there will be an end to the free ride. The free ride is to get you hooked, you know. If the US goes cold turkey, it will make Michigan's current economic woes look like a romp in the park.

Wake up, America.

Right now, the US still has the biggest economy in the world. In spite of the attention China gets, we still manufacture about 30% of the world's goods, more than any other country. So we should be able to get ourselves out of this addiction. We should be able to pay off our debts. Not all at once, cold turkey, but in a controlled, responsible way. Economic rehab.

So I think we should have the courage to raise our own taxes, both on the national and the state level. Tax-and-spend doesn't sound so bad when you compare it to the current alternative: borrow from the Chinese, spend anyway, and let our children deal with the Chinese when payback time comes.

Consider that our tax dollars are almost all spent within the United States. Michigan taxes are spent almost entirely within Michigan. Plus, they provide an infrastructure on which businesses can build and rely. They provide an educated, healthy workforce within Michigan. Some in Michigan resent the idea of paying taxes to provide health care for fellow Michigan residents who aren't paying for it. Instead, they want to lower taxes, so people who earn money can spend it the way they like. This is good for business, they say.

Yes, it's good for business - especially business in communist China and oil-rich dictatorships like Venezuela, Sudan, Iran, and Arabia.

Wake up, America.

Let's put our money where it does the most good. Let's fix our own bridges. Let's educate our own children. Let's provide affordable health care for our own citizens. And let's pay off our debt. Kicking the habit isn't easy. But the alternative is worse. Much worse.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bus vs. Rail vs. PRT

It's a shame, but advocates of public transit are divided over modes of transit, and sometimes get into ugly fights about it.

There's not much of a fight between bus and light rail - not that I've seen, anyway. Bus is less expensive, less rigid, and less popular. The user experience on a bus is bumpier and jerkier than on rail. Want to use your laptop? Even when there's space to open it up, the ride is too rough. Riding the Orange Line BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) in North Hollywood CA (October 2007) was just a bit smoother than regular line buses because there were fewer stops and the roadway was relatively new and smooth, but I still wouldn't have wanted to use my laptop. It was far too crowded anyway.

In many areas, bus riding is associated with poverty. That's a shame. Cities like Seattle, where until very recently there was no light rail, have buses filled with strap-hanging entrepreneurs and technocrats. Around here, polite folks don't talk about that association, but it's the elephant in the living room. The stigma can only be overcome by time, I suppose.

Light rail is hands-down more expensive than bus lines. No question. For reasons unfathomable to me, the poverty stigma isn't there. It's a bit smoother if the track is conscientiously maintained, but that's not the main advantage. The big advantage is the value it adds to real estate within a few minutes walk of the stops. Studies have shown that for every dollar invested in rail rapid transit, the local economy recovers between $4 and $8. At TRU (Transit Riders United, Detroit) we like to use the figure $6. Why does rail return that kind of money when buses don't? The common sense answer is simple: the route is going to stay in one place.

In other words, lack of flexibility is its big financial advantage.

But the ugly fighting among the transit brethren is between those espousing light rail and those dreaming of PRT (Personal Rapid Transit). I am not sure why the fight is so ugly, because what I've seen of it descends to ad hominem arguments. "You're just in it for the money!" from the PRT people, while light rail folks answer, "Well, you're an ignorant, starry-eyed dreamer!"

Of course there are the non-transit people who get nasty toward anyone who wants to take money away from highways. One particularly vitriolic YouTube piece blames Minneapolis City Council members who want to investigate PRT, for the collapse of the I-35 bridge in July, 2007. Nicely done piece of nonsense, not worth refuting for the benefit of intelligent people.

PRT vs. light rail is worth thinking about a little more. PRT is a great idea that's under development, but untried. It's been described as a "personal monorail" system, or an "automatic taxi". Instead of vehicles holding 40-80 passengers, each vehicle holds 5-6. Instead of a human driver, it's an automated, grade-separated system. Passengers enter their destination, and the vehicle takes them there. You don't have to share a vehicle with anyone if you don't want to.

The main advantages of PRT are its convenience and its appeal as something new. The main disadvantages are that it has never been put into actual day-to-day use (though there are experimental systems) and that it is not intended to carry large numbers of people. PRT advocates like to say, "You never have to wait for a vehicle." Of course that's true until the system reaches saturation. Without everyday use, there are too many unknowns to predict accurately when the saturation point will be reached. Advocates also say that PRT systems are less expensive to build than light rail. I've never seen any hard facts to justify that claim. I sincerely hope it proves true.

Light rail is very much a known quantity. The technology has been perfected over almost 120 years' time. We know its strengths - and its weaknesses. The costs are fairly predictable. They can move a pretty good number of people - less than heavy rail, of course, but more than bus or what PRT claims I've seen.

I really don't want to throw you the cliché that PRT is "they way of the future". What the heck - I just did anyway. But I'd really like to see PRT tried in the USA. It will probably be tried first in Europe or Korea, and that won't carry much weight with Americans because "We're different from them". So we have to do it ourselves. *Sigh* I suppose it's manifest destiny all over again.

Interested in PRT? Here's a link to my "best of PRT" links:
Wikipedia has a nice article with lots of links, too:

Monday, January 7, 2008

University Hills, U. C. Irvine

A couple of years ago, I was privileged to stay with a family in the
University Hills neighborhood of the University of California at

I was impressed by University Hills for a couple of reasons: first,
because it was the University's creative solution to the high cost of
housing in Orange County; and second, because it was such a pleasant
place to live and walk.

The problem faced by the University was that its budget was too
limited to pay faculty members enough to buy homes in the
neighborhood. The solution was to use University land, owned by the
State of California, to design and build housing for the faculty.
Faculty members purchase their own houses, but the state still owns
the land on which they're built. This results in lower home cost
without a lower standard of living.

The houses are compactly built on small plots of land, but they are
very commodious and pleasant, with enough land for a small garden in
front, and a larger one in back.

Of course, in most parts of California you've got to have a car -
no way to get around that. But the designer(s) of University
Hills made automobiles peripheral to the community. In the first
phase, there was a roughly circular road around the community, with a
number of culs-de-sac penetrating the circle for access to the houses.
As the second phase was built, the first loop road was extended to a
second, making a very rough figure eight, again with finger-roads to
provide access to houses. (The third phase seems to have departed from
this pattern.)

Within each of the circles, there are footpaths, gardens, playgrounds,
and sports fields. Most importantly, it is possible to walk to the
main campus through quiet, pleasant, landscaped gardens, crossing at
most two streets. There is a pedestrian overpass crossing busy
Peltason Drive,
serving classroom and dorm buildings.

Take a moment to look at some photos of the houses and walks of
University Hills:

Friday, January 4, 2008

Cost of Living vs. Standard of Living

Here's a thought: in order for America to succeed in the twenty-first
century, we need to reduce our costs. This is partly because of the
rising cost of energy, partly because of the increasing participation
- and competition - of other nations in the world economy. As we
compete with nations whose cost of living is far lower than ours, we
can't afford to throw money away profligately.

This is one of the great challenges America faces as we enter the
twenty-first century: reducing our cost of living without sacrificing
our standard of living.

What is the answer? Reducing our use of energy is a clear necessity,
but I don't believe there is any one best way to do that. If we
look around the world, we can see many examples of people who enjoy
life, live comfortably, and have plenty of options for education,
entertainment, travel, worship, health care, and recreation, all at
lower costs than ours.

Should we try to copy some other nation's living
style? I don't think so. But we can observe the best practices of many
other nations and synthesize them to create our own patterns, our own
solutions, our own models. We can also look within our own country at
examples of lowered cost of living that doesn't reduce standards of

And we can do more than that. We can invent our own patterns. We can
use our "American ingenuity" to find solutions and create models of our

Let's keep that in mind as we plan for the rest of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, in my next post I'll talk about an example of lowered cost of living that doesn't directly involve reducing energy use...