Friday, March 27, 2020

Post #3: Evaluating Transportation Options

In an earlier blog, I referred to our current urban transportation system as dysfunctional, and I stand by that description. Our current system, of course, is largely based on privately owned automobiles and a heavily subsidized network of streets and bridges. To be clear, private cars are terrific at fulfilling certain transportation needs in certain situations. In fact, if you could only pick one transportation option which had to meet all of your transportation needs, most people would choose a private automobile and that choice would be perfectly rational.

The problem is that there is no need to restrict ourselves to only one transportation option, although that is what many of us have chosen to do. In order to make that one tool work, we have made numerous compromises in our daily lives, and governments at all levels have made extraordinary investments and decisions in support of that singular tool. The result is a system that works best for people who are reasonably affluent, but increasingly doesn’t even work that well for them. No matter how nice a car you drive, you still probably spend much more time than you would like stuck in traffic or searching for a parking space.

Up until the past few years, the transportation options that were available were somewhat limited and the collective decision to focus on the automobile may have been the best choice for many communities. Transportation options have blossomed in recent years, however, and even more options are on the way. We need to create an urban environment in which people have a range of transportation options that can respond to the range of transportation needs that each of us face on a regular basis.

If we are going to evaluate various options, it would be helpful to have criteria to base evaluations on. Below are ten criteria that make sense to me, but they are not weighted for importance (although they are clearly not all the same importance) nor are they listed in any particular order. In fact, the appropriate weight for each criteria will change based on the requirements of different types of trips and the varying needs of different people.

Speed. Although pop culture therapists tell us to “enjoy the journey,” most of us don’t care about the journey -- we want to get to the destination as quickly as possible. The sooner I can get to my destination, the better.

Convenience. None of us need more stress in our lives, so we prefer modes of transportation that are relatively easy to use and reasonably reliable. Unfortunately, this criteria can be fairly variable. Modes of travel that are generally hassle-free can occasionally fall apart due to unpredictable problems (e.g. traffic jams, mechanical problems, demand surges, etc.).

Trip Length/Destination Flexibility. Some trips are short and others are long, and for some trips we don’t know the length when we start. There is a value to having the flexibility to change our trip destination and to being able to handle a trip with multiple stops using one transportation mode.

Safety. This is another pretty obvious criteria, but one which we probably don’t give enough thought to in our decision-making process.

Cost. Again, an obvious criteria but one which we often sacrifice for one or more of the other criteria if we have sufficient resources. A complicating factor here is that there are short-term costs (e.g. the cost of gas or the cost of a bus pass) and there are long-term costs (e.g., vehicle depreciation), and there is a human tendency to overweight short-term costs and underweight long-term ones.

Weather Resistance. Those of us who live in the midwest are used to adjusting our lives to adapt to changing weather conditions. Transportation options that work well in all forms of weather are a definite plus.

Environmental Impact. This is one of those criteria that many people, including me, think should be important, but we are likely to sacrifice it for speed and convenience in our daily decision making. So it could be argued that it really isn’t all that important in the end, but a more rational assessment might be that this is another example of people discounting long-term costs. Given two options that are otherwise relatively equal, the more environmentally friendly of the two would probably have an advantage.

Health Impact. This is probably not a criteria that most people associate with their transportation decisions, but different transportation options do have differing impacts on our physical and mental health. Granted, this is probably low on most people’s list of priorities but it might move up as more is learned about the impact of our sedentary lifestyle on our longevity and happiness.

Carrying Capacity. This is an important differentiator when different types of trips are being considered. A commute to work might involve just a briefcase or a lunch sack, but at other times a person might need to transport three kids to a soccer game or pick up four sheets of plywood from the lumber yard.

Fun. This is a highly subjective factor but I don’t think it can be ignored. Some people love to drive their car or ride their bike, and that has an impact on their transportation choices.

In future posts, I plan to use these criteria to do some in-depth evaluations of various transportation and lifestyle options. But for now, I’m going to apply them in a very generalized way to the transportation option that most of us rely upon on a daily basis: the privately owned automobile. This will be a very simplified analysis with very generalized trip assumptions -- an average family in an average midwestern city doing trips with typical household purposes -- and I’m not going to do any type of sophisticated scoring. Instead, I’m simply going to base my evaluation on a four-point scale: very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative, and very negative.

Very Positive. In this category I would put the criteria of Speed, Trip Length/Destination Flexibility, and Weather Resistance. Obviously, there are situations in which the car falls short in each of these three criteria, but generally a privately owned car does better than just about any other mode of transportation and meets the needs of the vast majority of trips for the vast majority of people.

Somewhat Positive. In this category, I would put Convenience, Safety and Carrying Capacity. I suspect many of you would second guess these rankings. A lot of people, for example, would probably say that a car is very convenient and has excellent carrying capacity. I would argue, however, that there are quite a few inconveniences associated with car ownership that we have simply gotten used to (e.g., parking, breakdowns, routine maintenance, etc.) and so we tend to under-weight them. I downgraded carrying capacity because we generally oversupply carrying capacity which is much more inefficient that we typically realize. On the vast majority of our trips, most of the seats are unoccupied and most of the cargo area is empty. Other people might question my decision to put safety in this category given the large number of injuries and deaths caused by cars. My response is that if you control for the number of miles traveled (e.g. vehicle fatalities per million miles traveled), automobile travel has been getting safer over time which makes me conclude that the car has perhaps a worse reputation than it really deserves.

Somewhat Negative. The only criteria I would rate in this category are Health Impact and Fun. There are no positive health benefits to be had from getting behind the wheel and the grind of rush hour traffic is an almost daily source of stress. And my personal opinion is that driving isn’t very fun anymore, although many would disagree with me.

Very Negative. That leaves Cost and Environmental Impact for this last category. Again, some of you might think I’m being overly negative on both counts. Auto exhaust has gotten significantly cleaner over the years but it is still a major source of pollution, and that doesn’t take into consideration the pollution caused by fuel extraction and refining, or by the automobile manufacturing process. The shift to electric vehicles may improve the environmental impact but it won’t go away entirely until power generation stops relying on fossil fuels and the battery manufacturing process becomes more environmentally sustainable. Cost is another factor that we probably underestimate simply because we have gotten used to those costs as being a necessary part of daily life. But the cost of driving a car is substantial, particularly if you include the indirect costs of parking, road construction and repair, time lost in traffic and vehicle depreciation. In future posts I will return to the issue of cost and its impact on our society.

On balance, it is fairly easy to make the argument that car travel has more going for it than against it -- and in a general sense I agree. I’m certainly not planning on giving up my car any time soon. But there is a significant problem: we have extrapolated from “the automobile is a reasonable choice for many types of trips” to “the automobile is the only logical choice for nearly every trip.”

Once we made that leap, we started building cities in a way that enhanced automotive travel at the expense of nearly every other mode of transportation. What once was an enticing option has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t have a car, living in a midwestern city is hard. And if you do have a car, your lifestyle options are defined by that choice regardless of whether you would like options that provide some exercise, or don’t pollute, or don’t cost so much. Want to ride your bike to work? Good luck with that.

This automotive version of the Faustian bargain is particularly hard on people who cannot drive for one of a variety of reasons -- too young, too old, too poor, too disabled or whatever. Midwestern cities largely fail these people because our cities are shaped almost exclusively around automotive travel. What is probably less appreciated is that in some ways our cities are failing all of us. It is time for the transportation pendulum to swing back toward a more balanced range of transportation options. Unfortunately, cities don’t change very quickly and not every neighborhood will want or need every possible option. But it is time for us to insist that at least some part of every city be given the form and infrastructure to reflect and encourage the full range of transportation choice.

Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Post #2: Confusing homogeneity with compatibility

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.

One of the disadvantages of a long career in city planning is that I have started to realize all the stupid things I did when I was first starting out. For example, I used to firmly believe in the wisdom of zoning large chunks of land to a single zoning district that allowed a very limited range of uses. At the same time, I would warn against the dire consequences that would come from allowing “spot zoning” to ruin an otherwise pristine development. What better way to make sure that all development within a particular area was compatible than to insist that it all be essentially homogeneous.

The predictable results were large single family subdivisions where simply buying a jug of milk required a 10-minute drive. Or large office parks that were virtually deserted from 6 PM to 7 AM the next morning. Or large industrial parks that never fully developed because there simply wasn’t enough demand for the limited range of allowable uses.

Yes, I and my planning brethren minimized many land use conflicts. But in turn, we helped create a boring and dysfunctional urban form. In seeking the ultimate level of compatibility between properties, we failed to see the downside of homogeneity. There is a reason why nature rarely produces an area populated by a single type of plant or animal -- it doesn’t work well and it doesn’t last long. Ecologists and horticulturalists will tell you that even something as cherished as our front lawn (a homogeneous mono-culture of a single type of plant) is probably a bad idea. (Our Lawns Are Killing Us. It’s Time to Kick the Habit.) In land use terms, we have created an urban form that is not very resilient to economic or social change.

I agree that minimizing land use conflicts is a noble and worthwhile goal. I wouldn’t want my home to be next to the proverbial smoke-belching factory or even a fast food restaurant with a drive-thru lane. But preventing that problem does not require that everything be the same. There are numerous land use combinations that, while different, are compatible in terms of intensity and operational characteristics. There is nothing wrong (and several things that are “right”) with mixing offices and certain types of retail development or multi-family development. Historically, many communities allowed different residential formats to be mixed together into a single neighborhood and increasingly cities are re-introducing that idea into their zoning regulations (e.g. the City of Minneapolis). In fact, I grew up in a single family home that was across the street from two stately, 6-unit apartment buildings and around the corner from a mom-and-pop grocery store -- it seemed perfectly normal at the time.

To be slightly more precise, minimizing land use conflicts is really about reducing or eliminating what economists refer to as a negative externality. In case you have forgotten, a negative externality is a cost incurred by a third party who did not choose to incur that cost and has no control (or limited control) over that cost. Furthermore, the creator of the cost does not incur the cost and so considers it to be “external” to the optimization of their economic returns. Sorry -- I know that probably doesn't make much sense to most people. So let's turn it into an example: if I own a house and a fast food restaurant is built next door, the noise, lights and exhaust fumes from the restaurant and drive-thru lane interrupt my sleep, lessen the enjoyment of my property, and reduce the value of my property when I am ready to sell -- all very real costs. The restaurant owner, on the other hand, has no economic incentive to minimize noise, lights or fumes -- those issues are not problematic for his restaurant and thus are external to his decision-making process. In fact, the restaurant owner would love to increase the number of drive-thru customers which would make all of my problems worse.

In response to the negative externalities created by incompatible land uses, cities created zoning regulations. Properties were zoned to a particular district designation and only land uses that were deemed compatible with one another were permitted in that district. Over time, zoning regulations become more and more fine grained and each district more and more limited in the range of permitted uses so that cities could exercise tighter and tighter control over possible conflicts. Generally speaking, this strategy was successful in minimizing what many people in my generation viewed as the land use chaos of central cities. Baby boomers abandoned the central city en masse for the structured orderliness of suburban zoning. Now, many in the millennial and gen-Z generations view the result as boring and socially stifling, and are choosing to live in the older parts of town because they like the energy and liveliness that come from land use diversity.

Furthermore, many of those homogeneous developments are now showing signs of economic distress because as they have aged and deteriorated, the same zoning regulations that protected them in the past now serve as obstacles to their revitalization. How many cities have a dead mall or half empty power center because the world of retailing has shifted and no one wants to occupy that type of space? How many older residential areas are slowly sliding into blight because there is very little economic incentive for owners to reinvest in their property since their options for reinvestment are so limited? Simply put, homogeneity is the enemy of economic resilience.

What might be worst of all, planners have trained the general public to believe that they must insist on homogeneity to protect their property values and the livability of their neighborhoods. Predictably, this is now being carried to ridiculous extremes where single family homeowners on one-acre lots are adamant that allowing single family homes in an adjacent subdivision to be on half-acre lots will ruin their property values and destroy the tranquility of their neighborhood. Or that allowing a moderate density, elderly housing project 1,000 feet away from their single family neighborhood will end civilization as we know it. Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly, but only slightly.

For many homeowners, their residence is their largest asset and their refuge from the stress of daily life. So it is natural to want to protect that. But by creating zoning districts and zoning patterns that promote homogeneity, we have implied that diversity is bad and the public now uses that as a rationale to resist nearly any type of change.

What is the solution?

Sorry, but I don’t really know how to remedy this situation in the short term. I’m not very good at combating irrational behavior and in many of the NIMBY zoning discussions, I think that is exactly where we are. I suspect that the only real solution will take many years of small, incremental steps. Here are some ideas on how to get started:

The Comprehensive Plan Many people want their city’s comprehensive plan to be a crystal ball that will tell them exactly how each portion of the city will develop in the future. That is an impossible task, of course, but planners give it their best effort and they try to compensate for their inability to predict the future by doing regular updates. I think a better approach would be for the plan to be less specific, focused more on the general character and level of intensity that is desired in a given area and less on the specific land uses that are expected. Whatever categories we use in the plan should encompass a variety of land uses that are consistent with the desired character and intensity but not strictly homogeneous unless it is absolutely necessary. I think it is better for the plan to be somewhat vague about the details so that the real “plan” is a framework for an ongoing community discussion about the future that can embrace unforeseen opportunities and respond to unexpected problems.

Promote the need for reinvestment The built environment lasts a long time -- so long, in fact, that most people view it as static or fixed. The reality is that as soon as a building is built it starts to decay. The built environment -- streets, houses, water lines, commercial buildings, bridges, and on and on -- needs continuous reinvestment or it will fall apart. Initially, that consists primarily of routine maintenance, and most people (and most cities) are pretty good at getting that work done. At some point, however, routine maintenance is not enough to preserve structural integrity (and/or economic utility) and some type of reconstruction or revision is needed. This step is expensive and it may necessitate land use or density changes which is where people tend to freak out. We need to educate the public (and civic leaders) on the dangers of continued decay/under-investment so that they can reasonably evaluate proposals for reinvestment/change.

Start where problems are obvious Change is hard. Convincing the leader of a neighborhood to embrace something other than traditional single family homes or convincing the owner of a shopping center to embrace something other than retail will be difficult. It will probably be easier, however, where there are obvious problems. Although even the leader of a declining neighborhood and the owner of a struggling shopping center will want to believe that some minor repairs and a fresh coat of paint will be sufficient to restore the former glory of their development, you may be able to convince them that there has been a fundamental shift which requires a new development strategy. Falling home values or a shift from owner occupied homes to absentee landlords are often signs that decay is outpacing reinvestment. The underlying cause may be that the demographics of the area have changed significantly or that the regional job market has shifted. Step back from the details of zoning and start talking about the realities of what the community is facing. Then talk about the values the community shares before discussing specific development options. If you find a neighborhood that is open to change, work really hard to make it successful and then use it as a model for change elsewhere.

In conclusion, I am not advocating that all neighborhoods should contain a wide variety of uses or that a declining area should welcome any kind of redevelopment or reinvestment. There are some neighborhoods where a limited range of land uses works well, and there are good forms of reinvestment and bad forms of reinvestment. What I am recommending is that we let the pendulum swing back toward an urban form which allows some areas to be more mixed and that, particularly for areas that are struggling, redevelopment options be considered which include both land use and density changes. We need to be open to building a new future rather than clinging blindly to the past.

Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Post #1: Midwestern Urbanism: What’s the point?

I believe that every blog should exist for a reason and have a distinctive focus that relates to that reason. In this first blog posting on the Midwest Urbanism site, I will explain that reason and the focus that future blog postings will follow and provide a general outline of the kinds of topics that you (the reader) can expect to see. I will also give you an overview of my background in case you are wondering why you should take my opinions seriously. Unfortunately, all of this means that this initial blog may be somewhat lengthy and dull -- I promise future posts will be more succinct and (hopefully) more lively.

Why does this blog exist?

It is my contention that cities are under growing pressure to change. Of course, cities are always changing -- demographics are shifting, old structures are deteriorating, and new structures are being built. But for the past 50 or 60 years, cities have been changing in a way that has been remarkably consistent across the country, and to a somewhat lesser extent, around the world. For lack of a better term, I’m going to refer to this current path of city development as “auto focused suburbanization.” And yes, there are some exceptions to this development pattern, but it has been so ubiquitous that many people assume that this pattern is somehow the natural order of things or that it exists because it is the most rational form of development as determined by the free market system that dominates western culture.

Balderdash. Throughout history, cities have always evolved to meet the needs of the society at that time -- economic needs, social needs, environmental needs and technological needs. The problem is that this evolution takes place so slowly that it is virtually invisible to the members of any given generation. It is only visible in hindsight when you examine a long span of history. But at some point, the economic, social, environmental or technological reasons for a particular urban form change, which in turn leads to the development of a new urban form. What I am going to argue is that we are at an inflection point in history. Our current form -- auto focused suburbanization -- is based on the societal needs of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. We have extended it another 40 years, well past its useful life. Times have changed and our cities need to change as well.

This blog exists because I intend to be an advocate for a new urban form. Throughout history, cities have been pushed to change by forces beyond their control and that change has often been traumatic and disruptive. There are always influential citizens who argue against change, often because they have a vested interest in the status quo, but also because change is hard. Eventually the forces of change win out and the urban form adjusts, but the pace of that change and the quality of that adjustment may determine urban “winners” and “losers” for that particular era. In addition, change often happens through a process of trial and error, with the “error” part of that process being particularly painful. As an advocate, I hope to provide support that will smooth the path for change, minimize equity issues, and provide ideas that I hope will reduce the “error” quotient associated with that change.

What I will not advocate for is a blind return to some fondly remembered past urban form. While we certainly can learn from the past, I believe that we need to define a new urban form that is different from anything that existed in the past.

My Focus

There is quite a lot being written about our urban form and the need for change. Much of it is focused on the larger metropolitan areas on the east and west coasts. As you might have guessed from the name, I intend to focus on mid-sized, Midwestern cities. I think that the ideas generated for New York City, Washington D.C., San Francisco or Los Angeles are often not directly applicable to Kansas City, Des Moines or Indianapolis. So I hope to write about ideas that I think are applicable in a Midwestern setting of 500,000 or 2 million, and let others worry about the coastal “mega-cities” of 5 million or 10 million or 20 million.

This focus is driven by the fact that the midwest is what I know and love. I was raised in Lincoln, Nebraska and have lived for the past 40+ years in the Kansas City area. And although I have traveled to cities all across the county, I have never seriously considered moving outside of the midwest.

But it is also driven by the belief that midwestern cities are an undervalued resource in this country. Omaha or Oklahoma City may not have gorgeous weather and scenic beaches of San Diego or the educational resources and high-tech buzz of Boston, but they have more to offer than many people realize and they don’t have many of the problems that threaten to make life in many large cities almost intolerable for all but the very affluent.

The Case for Change

Any advocate for change runs the risk of being written off as a hysterical prophet of doom, wildly exaggerating a few minor trends into apocalyptic forecasts. I am aware of that possibility. But when I look at what is happening across our country and around the world, I think it cannot be characterized as a “minor trend.” In fact, I think there are numerous, interrelated trends all pushing our society -- and the resulting physical form of our cities -- in generally the same direction. It is these trends and the associated impact on our cities that I hope to explore in upcoming posts. Below is a brief synopsis of a few of the primary issues that I think are particularly significant:

Demographic Change For a variety of reasons, household characteristics have changed substantially from 40 or 50 years ago when the suburban boom was at its peak. This is not a short-term trend or a temporary phenomenon, it is real and long-lasting. We are older, we are having fewer children, we are more likely to live alone, and our social relationships have changed. We need to shape our cities with this “new normal” in mind, not some idealized “Leave It To Beaver” family from the past.

Generational Shifts It is always dangerous to generalize about an entire generation of people -- there is simply too much diversity within a generation to make most statements very useful. But I think there have been shifts in the underlying values and priorities between the Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and now Gen Z that are changing, and will continue to change, our society and ultimately our cities. Our current urban form was largely the product of the Baby Boomer generation but as that generation moves out of positions of power and into retirement, the void is going to be filled by younger people with a different point of view.

Dysfunctional Transportation
The automobile has given us an unprecedented amount of personal freedom and flexibility. The cost, however, has been enormous, although much of that cost is hidden from view. How exactly do you put a price on the 40,000 lives that are lost annually to traffic accidents? Or what psychological price are we paying for a transportation system that is so frustrating that “road rage” has become a normal part of big city life? As useful as the car has been, it is time that we define a new way forward for personal transportation that blends new and old technologies into multiple transportation options rather than a one-solution-fits-all approach.

Personal Economic Stress  We live in a capitalist society where there are economic winners and losers, but one of the strengths of this county has always been the belief that hard work will lead to a better economic position and at least a reasonably comfortable life. Much of our urban growth, in fact, has been fueled by the rising middle class of the post war years and a pretty convincing argument can be made that objectively American households are better off than ever before. When it comes to personal feelings of economic well-being, however, perception is reality, and I believe there is a growing perception that the economic deck is stacked against the middle class. This perception will inevitably have an impact on urban form and on the operational decisions that cities make.

Governmental Economic Stress  I doubt there has ever been a time when city leaders felt they had all the financial resources that they needed, but today’s leaders are facing increasingly difficult choices between growing needs and stagnant or even dwindling resources. As a case in point, few cities maintain their physical infrastructure -- streets, water lines, sewer lines and public buildings -- to the degree that they should. Consequently, those physical assets are literally crumbling under their feet during a time of growing anti-tax sentiment and declining trust in government leadership. In many states, this distrust has led to state laws which restrict the degree to which local governments can raise local property and sales taxes regardless of how clear the need might be. Thus, many cities are being squeezed between rising costs and a very limited ability to raise revenue.

Environmental Concerns Regardless of your personal beliefs on the issue of climate change, I think there is a growing perception (particularly among millennials and Gen Z) that this is a defining issue for the future that will have ripple effects across our society. Again, perception is reality so it isn’t really about assigning blame or quantifying future impacts, cities are going to have to take concrete steps to reduce their collective carbon footprint or face a growing backlash from their citizenry. The challenge, I think, will be to shape the response in a truly meaningful way. The real issue is not about mandating another inch or two of insulation in new buildings or installing more charging stations for electric vehicles, but rather about building an urban form that gives people the ability to make comprehensive changes in their lifestyle without huge sacrifices in personal comfort, safety and convenience.

Again, I will be going into greater detail on all of these topics (and more) in the future.

About Me

I have worked as a professional planner, in both the public and private sectors, for over 40 years and I have been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners for over 35 years. During that time, I have been involved in long-range planning, special projects planning, current planning, code writing, code enforcement, and planning technology (GIS and permitting systems).

For much of my professional career, I was employed by the City of Overland Park, Kansas -- a suburban community of nearly 200,000 people in the Kansas City metro area. My most recent job title was Manager of Strategic Planning; a position which gave me time to do some big-picture thinking and to research the trends which I discussed above. I recently retired, thus giving me the time to write this blog, but I plan to stay active in the planning profession.

I would appreciate feedback from anyone reading my posts. Please leave a comment below or you can reach me at Feel free to agree or disagree with what I write, offer suggestions, ask questions, or suggest places that you think I should visit or topics that I should address.