Friday, July 18, 2008

Urban News Vol. 25

Another set of national news to look at this Friday. All three stories relate developing trends regarding the behavior of the masses that begins to vindicate the advocates of the dense built environment.

Fuel Prices Force Rethink of U.S. Suburbs
by Helen Chernikoff, Reuters

Article Key Points:
  • Home prices in the suburbs are crashing
  • Apartments in city centers are in demand
  • Homebuilders are attempting to unload land originally intended for new subdivisions
  • Planners are rethinking their strategies for meeting housing demand

These four simplified themes of the article are drawn directly from an introductory paragraph. The specifics refine the differences between the New Urbanist development method (Denver's Stapleton, pictured) and the failing "drive until you qualify" suburb such as Maricopa, AZ. Maricopa's population grew 25 times in the last six years based on the blissful ignorance of the cheap oil fiesta. The plight of the foreclosure scene in the neighborhood stands in stark contrast to those who traded in their zombie commutes for downtown living as seen in the case of McKelveys. (Photo by Flickr User faceless b - CC A 2.0 License)

While almost all of this story feels like common sense, the thing to take out of it for optimists is that a fundamental shift is occuring. It is unfortunate that finance had to be the driving incentive for an innately less selfish lifestyle, but it bodes well for the strength and vibrancy of urban centers in the long term.

All Eyes on Amtrak
by Daniel Stone, Newsweek

Article Key Points:

  • A diesel locomotive at its most efficient can move a ton of weight 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel
  • Over the past two years, Amtrak's ridership has increased almost 17 percent systemwide
  • A funding package for improvements is currently up for debate in Washington
  • Routes connecting Chicago to St. Paul, Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., and San Diego to Los Angeles could replicate the speedy transit of the Northeast Corridor
  • Critics maintain that the company in its current form should not be entrusted with the future of U.S. rail travel, preferring privatization

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I can't say enough about the pleasantness of the actual inter-city train journey, even on a route with clunky equipment like the Empire Corridor. The leg room, reclining, seat-width, noise, and electricity options destroy the airline equivalent. Any trip less than 4 hours in length is also economical from a time and fare standpoint due to the current state of airline security and taxi delays. (Photo by Stephen Rees - CC A-N-NDW 2.0 license)

One of the first things I plan on doing when we sell our condo/townhouse is book a trip to Toronto on the Maple Leaf, something I haven't done since I was 9 years old. Just like the financial incentive driving people to move in the previous article, the American people need to drive discussion and legislation by putting their money where their mouth is and choosing rail over other modes for inter-city travel.

U.S. Cities Scrambling to Meet Rising Mass Transit Demands
By Manav Tanneeru, CNN

Article Key Points:

  • Growth encompasses all modes of travel, according to the American Public Transportation Association
  • Systems in Boston, Charlotte, and Philadelphia have ordered new buses and railcars and increased the frequency of rail service
  • Denver system having budget issues due to increased fuel costs, decreased sales tax revenue
  • Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles from April 2007 through April 2008
  • Consumers are beginning to believe the high prices are a result of structural changes in the global economy, not the result of a single event

Humorously, after reading Kunstler's The City in Mind, Atlanta still seems to not get it. This, of course, is not what's important. What IS important is that 85 million more trips on public transportation were taken in the first three months of this year compared to the same period last year.

Addressing Denver's paradox, they must be mindful of underperforming routes. They currently serve a massive geographic area from Lyons to Franktown roughly 85 miles across. Rochester addressed a budget shortfall greater than $20 million 4 years ago by taking the steps to eliminate weekend service to exurbs as well as daily service to most destinations in bordering counties. This action led to a $19 million budget surplus for the coming fiscal year and a reduction of the regular cash fare from $1.25 to $1.00. Cleveland has promised to take such measures as well to combat the fuel surcharges. I know this sounds anti-humanist, but people should not be rewarded for isolationist living choices that have undermined city fabric for decades. In order to create meaningful infill, the attraction of useful public transit must be in the city's back pocket.

A question I often wonder to myself about involves the taxing of fuel for public transit authorities. If bus systems are paying state and/or federal fuel taxes (and they may not be), this should be ceased at once for the betterment of society. A likewise reduction in electricity costs (as is already done for many corporate customers) for Light Rail systems would also be in order if it is not already.

On Monday I plan on beginning my look at the downtown charrette's focus areas with the Center Core containing Midtown, the Sibley Building, and St. Joseph's Square.

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