Category Archives: urban

Baltimore hasn’t been ‘neglected.’ It has been misgoverned into the ground.

Rich Lowry writes in Politico

Obama doesn’t have the slightest idea how to fix Baltimore. While parts of his diagnosis are sound — communities like West Baltimore obviously lack for fathers and business investment — his solutions fall back on liberal bromides going back 50 years.

Obama said, cuttingly, that this Congress won’t approve “massive investments in urban communities.” Dating back to the Kerner Commission in the aftermath of the riots of the 1960s, the left’s go-to solution to urban problems has been more social programs. Since then, we’ve gotten more social programs — and just as many urban problems.

Exhibit A is Baltimore itself. The city hasn’t been “neglected.” It has been misgoverned into the ground. It is a Great Society city that bought into the big-government vision of the 1960s more than most, and the bitter fruit has been corruption, violence and despair.

All you need to know about the confused ineffectuality of the city’s leadership was evident in the purposefully inadequate initial response to the mayhem, apparently on the theory that a little rioting is OK.

And why not? The left has a soft spot for rioters. As soon as the windows start breaking, it rolls outs its intellectually rancid excuse-making for the destruction of property.

As police cars burned and businesses were ransacked, progressives declared nonviolence “a ruse” (Ta-Nehisi Coates); hailed looting as “a legitimate political strategy” (Salon); and called the senseless rampage part of a series of, sententiously all-caps, “UPRISINGS” (Marc Lamont Hill).

The lesson is that when the revolution comes, you best not own or operate a small business, or especially a CVS (drugstores, apparently, are notorious enemies of the people)

So what is the solution according to Lowry

We don’t know all the facts surrounding Freddie Gray’s tragic, and highly suspicious, death. But as a general matter, it is easy to believe that the Baltimore police are corrupt, dysfunctional and unaccountable — because most of the Baltimore government is that way. Mayors and police commissioners get convicted of crimes.

This is a failure exclusively of Democrats, unless the root causes of Baltimore’s troubles are to be traced to its last Republican mayor, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, who left office in 1967. And it is an indictment of a failed model of government.

Baltimore is a hostile business environment and high-tax city, with malice aforethought. “Officials raised property taxes 21 times between 1950 and 1985,” Steve Hanke and Stephen Walters of Johns Hopkins University write in The Wall Street Journal, “channeling the proceeds to favored voting blocs and causing many homeowners and entrepreneurs — disproportionately Republicans — to flee. It was brilliant politics, as Democrats now enjoy an eight-to-one voter registration advantage.”

To counterbalance the taxes, they note, developers need to be lured to the city with subsidies, and the developers, in turn, contribute to politicians to stay in their good graces. This makes for fertile ground for the city’s traditional corruption.

Baltimore’s preferred driver of growth has been government. Urban experts Fred Siegel and Van Smith write in City Journal that Baltimore has “emphasized a state-sponsored capitalism that relies almost entirely on federal and state subsidies, rather than market investments.” The model makes for some high-profile development projects, but trickle-down crony capitalism hasn’t worked for everyone else.

For those left behind, Maryland has one of the most generous welfare systems in the country, according to Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute.

Baltimore has been good at sucking up federal and state subsides, and at taxing and at spending. The other functions of government? Not so much.

Mayor Kurt Schmoke, in office for three terms beginning in the late 1980s, was notoriously soft on crime. Siegel and Smith write, “During the nineties, tolerant Baltimore’s crime rate, much of it drug-fueled, rocketed upward (75 percent of the city’s murders were drug-related); tough-on-crime New York’s plummeted.”

Under Mayor Martin O’Malley’s subsequent, more strenuous policing (something he got heckled for in the streets of Baltimore the other day), the crime rate dropped. But it is still a violent city. Murders went up in 2013, and Baltimore had the fifth-highest murder rate among cities with a population of 100,000 or more.

The schools, predictably, are a disaster, run by and for the teachers unions. (If the left’s vigilantes for justice really wanted to strike a blow against The Man, they would have besieged the headquarters of the Baltimore city schools.)

On top of all this, two-thirds of births in the city are out-of-wedlock. Toya Graham is being rightly celebrated for smacking her 16-year-old son and getting him out of the streets during the rioting. You can admire her pluck and still be daunted by the challenges she faces as a single mother of six.

Okay, I can agree that Baltimore his corrupt.  It has a long history of racial and corrupt politics but to stay that these riots are happening because of taxation and a lack of a free market economy is a little much.

At the same time part of me kind of agrees with Lowry.  A more charitable business climate, more entrepreneurship, and more and better jobs would have made a difference but there are other factors at play.  Racism in the workplace that limit many capable black men and women, inferior schools, redlining which limits lending and investment based on neighbourhoods (a racist lending practice that has long devastated black communities), and of course problems in the police force, something that David Simon has written on for years. 

Baltimore is not a partisan problem.  It is much more complicated than that and if anyone from the right or left who says otherwise is wrong.

End of the car age: how cities are outgrowing the automobile

Cities around the world are coming to the same conclusion: they’d be better off with far fewer cars. So what’s behind this seismic shift in our urban lifestyles? Stephen Moss goes on an epic (car-free) journey to find out

Vesco, the politician responsible for sustainable transport in Lyon, played a leading role in introducing the city’s Vélo’v bike-sharing scheme a decade ago. It has since been replicated in cities all over the world. Now, though, he is convinced that digital technology has changed the rules of the game, and will make possible the move away from cars that was unimaginable when Vélo’v launched in May 2005. “Digital information is the fuel of mobility,” he says. “Some transport sociologists say that information about mobility is 50% of mobility. The car will become an accessory to the smartphone.”

Vesco is nothing if not an evangelist. “Sharing is the new paradigm of urban mobility. Tomorrow, you will judge a city according to what it is adding to sharing. The more that we have people sharing transportation modes, public space, information and new services, the more attractive the city will be.”

The Vélo’v scheme is being extended, car clubs that use electric vehicles are being encouraged, and what Vesco calls a “collaborative platform” has been built to encourage ride-sharing by matching drivers with people seeking lifts. There is, he says, no longer any need for residents of Lyon to own a car. And he practises what he preaches – he doesn’t own one himself.

The number of cars entering the city has fallen by 20% over the past decade, without even a congestion-charging scheme (Vesco says it would impose a disproportionate burden on the less well-off, who tend to drive higher-polluting vehicles). And even though Lyon’s population is expected to rise by more than 10% over the next decade, he is targeting a further 20% drop in car use. The car parks that used to run alongside the banks of Lyon’s two rivers have already been removed, and human parks opened in their place. Vesco says someone returning to Lyon for the first time in a decade would barely recognise the city.

Birmingham, which vies with Manchester for the title of England’s second city, has been following the experience of Lyon and other European cities closely, and is now embarking on its own 20-year plan called Birmingham Connected, to reduce dependence on cars. For a city so associated in the public mind with car manufacturing, this is quite a step. The initiative is being driven by the veteran leader of Birmingham city council, Sir Albert Bore, who talks airily about imposing a three-dimensional transport plan on the two-dimensional geography of the city: “French and German cities all have an infrastructure which has a far better understanding of how you need to map the city with layers of travel.”

“Multi-modal” and “interconnectivity” are now the words on every urban planner’s lips. In Munich, says Bore, planners told him that the city dwellers of the future would no longer need cars. Bikes and more efficient public transport would be the norm; for occasional trips out of the city, they could hire a car or join a car club that facilitated inter-city travel. The statistic everyone trots out is that your car sits outside, idle and depreciating, for 96% of its life. There has to be a more efficient way to provide for the average of seven hours a week when you want it.

In London, England only 15% of people commute using a car.  There are different ways to build a city than the way Saskatoon is doing it.  The rest of the world is going one way and we are headed the other way.

A “high end” option for Saskatoon Transit

I read this today.

There’s a new private service in San Francisco offering luxury bus rides to downtown from a few select neighborhoods. For $6 each way, Leap buses have free wifi, usb ports, and sell coffee and fresh juice on board during commutes. Leap is just one of a slew of new startups that are providing luxury or private transit services in the context of San Francisco’s often overcrowded and less than stellar public transit.

Muni has been struggling to keep up with its ridership for awhile, and recently announced a plan to improve its service. Under the plan, Muni’s service hours will increase by 2.5%. The bus shelters will receive slight improvements, like better maps, solar-powered lights that will glow even when it’s foggy, and bike racks. Muni will also try to meet service standards with more regularity. These upgrades are much needed and long awaited, but whether or not they will result in meaningful improvement to Muni has yet to be seen.

In the meantime, services like Leap are trying to corner a sector of the market that public transit just isn’t satisfying. Although Leap may reek of elitism, it is also shaking up transit industry and may drive the public sector to improve. Companies like Leap are much more flexible and experimental than public transit, and as a result, are the ones driving innovation in transit. One great feature of Leap, for instance, is that riders can pay using their smartphones or even check in via bluetooth so that they don’t even have to touch their phones. Riders can also check their phones to know how far away the bus is and how many seats are left.

I have wondered why STC hasn’t had a high end passenger service to Regina for years.  You know, wifi, usb and power ports, good coffee and drinks onboard between here and the Queen City and charge premium for it.  Similar to what Red Arrow does in Alberta between Calgary and Edmonton.

I also wonder if something like this would as an enhanced BRT service in Saskatoon.  A high end option for those that do want to pay more.  More spacious seating, a cup of fine coffee, wifi for the trip from Lawson Heights, Confed Mall or The Centre.  More realistically from a regional mandate that took commuters from Martinsville or Warman and back.

A brief, misguided phase in city culture

How New York City is changing from a car driven city to one where the focus is the pedestrian

Walking in New York is one of the great empowering privileges of living here — without money, gear or skill, a New Yorker can still get somewhere, autonomous and unencumbered. But along with that freedom comes inevitable risk. Longo was one of around 12,000 New York City pedestrians who were injured in traffic accidents in 2013, a statistic that has stayed fairly constant over the last five years. In 2014, the first year in which Mayor Bill de Blasio implemented Vision Zero, a plan to reduce pedestrian deaths to zero, 138 pedestrians died in traffic accidents. That was down from a five-­year high of 182 deaths in 2013.

In pursuing Vision Zero, New York is embracing a relatively new approach to cities, one with a focus on walkers over drivers. Most city planners now see the era of the car’s urban supremacy as a brief, misguided phase in city culture. Rather than competing with suburbs, cities are capitalizing on their own traditional strengths, recognizing pedestrians as arguably their most economically invigorating (not to mention energy-efficient) form of traffic. In New York, the city’s Department of Transportation has been re-­examining and redesigning hundreds of intersections like the one where Longo was struck, trying to find the best answers to questions that went unasked for decades: What do pedestrians want? What’s the best way to protect them? And where do they want to go?

For much of the 20th century, when the engineers running urban transit authorities thought about traffic, they thought less about the pedestrian experience and more about saving money, by saving time, by speeding movement, by enabling cars. They analyzed traffic flow, the backup of cars, stoplight times and right- and left-­hand turns, all in an effort to keep vehicles moving freely and quickly through the city. They ran the data through a program that would spit out a rating (A to F) for the “level of service.” An A meant that a street was congestion-free, which gave cars the potential to speed; an F meant that it was too congested to be functional. The grade considered ideal for most streets in New York was a C.

The value of speed, for car commuters, was an easy equation for engineers. “The assumption is that all travel time is a waste of time,” says Zhan Guo, a professor of urban planning and transportation at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. “But that rationale doesn’t apply to pedestrians.” The worth of the pedestrian experience, so pokey, so subjective, was scarcely considered, partly because it was hard to quantify.

What is the perfect size for a city?

Well it’s bigger than Saskatoon is but it really comes down to how effective your regional governance system is.

Municipal fragmentation has been criticised for decades. In Cities Without Suburbs, his influential 1993 book, former Albuquerque mayor David Rusk argued that Rust Belt cities in the US failed to succeed in part because they were unable to expand, and found themselves hemmed in by a jigsaw puzzle of independent suburbs.

But with cities having become central to national governance in the 21st century, institutions like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank are weighing in, too. Both recently sounded the alarm about the risks of urban fragmentation on a global level, for the developed and the developing world.

“Often, administrative boundaries between municipalities are based on centuries-old borders that do not correspond to contemporary patterns of human settlement and economic activity,” the OECD observed in a recent report. The thinktank argued that governance structures failed to reflect modern realities of metropolitan life into account.

Behind the report’s dry prose lies a real problem. Fragmentation affects a whole range of things, including the economy. The OECD estimates that for regions of equal population, doubling the number of governments reduces productivity by 6%. It recommends reducing this effect with a regional coordinating body, which can also reduce sprawl, increase public transport satisfaction (by 14 percentage points, apparently) and improve air quality.

The World Bank, meanwhile, is worried about the way rapid growth in developing cities has created fragmentation there, too. Metropolises often sprawl well beyond government boundaries: Jakarta, for example, has spread into three separate provinces. The World Bank calls fragmentation “a significant challenge in the East Asia region”.

In the end, it’s a complicated question and answer

And as the Toronto example shows, amalgamation – bringing fragmented government regions together – comes with downsides of its own. Of course, you can put people in the same governmental box, but that won’t necessarily create common ground – instead, it can create a zero-sum, winner-takes-all dynamic.

People in living in cities and those in their suburbs often have different values, priorities and even a different culture. They can be, as was famously said of English and French Canada, “two solitudes”. Urbanites who support regional governance frequently assume that means more power, money and resources for the central city. But as Rob Ford so richly illustrated, that’s not always the case.

Among those who stand to lose from regional government are minorities. In Ferguson, black residents were already under-represented in government relative to their population. But as a voting block they would find their strength heavily diluted in a merged government: Ferguson is more than two-thirds African-American, while St Louis County plus the city of St Louis together are about 70% white.

Unsurprisingly, central cities tend to prefer regional revenue-sharing without giving up political control. Detroit, despite serious financial problems, has viciously fought sharing control over city assets, even where they serve a broader region. Detroit’s convention centre is a good example of the tensions that can arise: it took years to agree renovations to the building, as despite arguing the suburbs should help pay for the building they partly enjoy, the city did not want to cede any control over it.