2 Books a Month in 2016

Goal of 2016 – Read two (yes, 2) books a month –

This is modest, but I fell off in 2015. I enjoy reading, and miss it. Here’s what I’ve tackled thus far in 2016 …


  • Socialist Dreams and Beauty Queens – A fun, quick memoir about Jamie Maslin in Venezuela, a country Americans know little of. The author does a good job of describing Western misconceptions about the country and it’s (former) Leader. It’s an eye-opening memoir with ample adventure. (3/5)
  • Lost City of Z – The whole time I read this I was like, “Why isn’t this a movie?” Turns out, they’re making it into one. It’s a historical narrative about the last of a kind (the larger-than-life gentlemen explorer). It’s filled with classic turn-of-the-century British hubris, adventure, and tragedy.  (4/5)
  • City of Lies – A sad narrative about life in Tehran. Both heartwarming and startling; this is a tale of the duality of many Iranians from all sides of the economic and political spectrum.  (5/5)


  • Going Clear – A WTF tale of America’s newest religion (now an HBO documentary). L. Ron Hubbard is a complex guy; a creative genius and a bipolar narcissistic psychopath. The book is pretty good, but gets too caught up in personal narratives of celebrity members. (3/5) *note: started in Jan.
  • Panic: Story of Modern Financial CrisisJust started …

This isn’t an annexation. It’s a bailout.

This story is not unique: a mid-sized Midwestern town is preparing to adopt a 50-year-old neighborhood.

If you read between the lines, news of annexation often times read as case studies against low-density suburban development. This article from Mankato demonstrates (unintentionally) why these types of subdivisions can be so problematic.

All quotes related to the annexation were taken from the Free Press. I recommend reading it here first.

South View Heights No. 2 is not part of the city while everything surrounding it is. The 1960s subdivision has been leapfrogged by other development over the years, but has rejected opportunities to join city services in exchange for lower taxes.

City v Not City

These are homes befitting the American Dream of the 1960s. The neighborhood has nice, modest homes and is surrounded by creeks and ravines. Nothing fancy, but residents genuinely care for their homes and take good care.

For the area, these are above average homes that range in value from around $170k to $290k. The median home price is approximately $213k, which is around $40k above the local average (thanks Zillow).

After the city adopts this neighborhood, the average house will pay around $2,800 per year in taxes (up from the current $2,000). Keep these numbers in mind and ask yourself, “Will the extra $800 in extra city taxes help cover the true long-term costs?”

Water. Sewer. Roads. All in disrepair.

50 years has passed, and as the newspaper accurately puts it; “The new addition to Mankato’s family of neighborhoods is handsome enough, but it’s showing its age.” 

“The water tower, obviously, is broken, and (roughly 85 percent of) the septic systems are non-compliant,” said [homeowner]. “And we have a failing water line. And the road is shot.”

This is the end of the first life-cycle of infrastructure, and this hamlet of 61 homes is unable to tax itself the necessary amount to fix the things that need repair.
Homeowners petitioned the city to consider annexation. This move would hook the neighborhood up to city water and sewer lines and help fix the street. The City estimates a hook up at around $2.66 million (approximately $40k per household).
“A recently completed feasibility report put the preliminary assessment against each property at $29,298 — which is down from earlier estimates that approached $40,000. (Most residents also will face several thousand dollars in costs for utility connections from their home to the city lines.)”
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The Best Bargain Around

The best bargain around

Granola Shotgun

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I was recently interviewed and asked what might happen to the stagnant poorly aging neighborhoods that are neither verdant and exclusive like the most desirable suburbs, nor vibrant and urbane like rapidly gentrifying city centers. My response was straightforward. They probably won’t be retrofitted and made more urban. And they probably won’t be retrofitted to become more rural and select. They’re basically stuck as they are for the duration. The best thing that could happen to them is for enough people to decide that instead of being the worst of both worlds, they’re actually a really sweet spot at a bargain price. I stumbled on this post war ranch for sale in just such a location in New Jersey and thought it would be a good case study.

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Here’s the context so you get the complete picture. This suburb hasn’t held up well over the years. It’s typical of places all…

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The Fight for Pedestrian Safety

Getting even a modest pedestrian improvements can be an uphill battle. We have a design bias and process that is inherently unfriendly to pedestrians and bicycles. While we’ve made great strides in the last decade, it’s still a constant (and frustrating) battle.

Take a recent incident in Minneapolis as an example; a simple concrete median that protects pedestrians and bicycles is about to be removed. It comes after a dozen communities meetings, a lengthy engagement process, broad-based community support, and the backing of local City Council members.


Why is it being removed? Because a guy in Public Works doesn’t like it. Apparently cars keep hitting it. And therefore, it must be removed? This may seem like a small deal, but it’s not. It’s an example of the uphill battle that bike and pedestrians advocates are up against.

The system – as it is currently structured – it designed at every corner to favor the automobile.

It’s so omnipresent that we often forget it exists. I was walking back from the St. Paul Farmer’s Market in walkable Lowertown this last weekend and I was stopped in my tracks at the corner of 6th St & Sibley as a car whizzed by.


For those unfamiliar, this is great neighborhood that most any urbanist would love. It’s mixed-use, dense, has wide sidewalks, on-street parking, outdoor cafe seating, good public spaces, and plenty of eyes on the street. Yet, despite all these gains, there are still plenty of anti-urban transportation hold-outs present in the design.

Problem 1: The Corner


This corner radii was designed not to improve the safety of pedestrians, but to help cars make a right turn without having to slow down. This is a classic example of highway design being imposed on our downtowns and it’s omnipresent across America. The goal of a city street should not be to maximize traffic flow.


This is Traffic Calming 101.

When a street has a wider curve, vehicles can move around it much faster. When coupled with one-way streets, this can be even more dangerous. Simply reducing corner radius can have a huge impact. This (cheap) design element improves pedestrian safety.

This is a very simple, cost-effect way to improve walkability downtown. We need to start designing our downtowns for people, and not a thoroughfare for commuter traffic.

Problem 2: One-way Streets

The verdict is out, and it’s been out for a long time. Yet, these multi-lane one-way couplings still exist in most of our downtowns.


I don’t like writing about this because it’s so obvious. One way streets are bad for everyone except speeding cars. The struggle is that most our American downtowns are held hostage by a commuter culture. Politicians and traffic engineers are hesitant to disrupt that culture. It’s a shame, because they should.

Eric Jaffe at CityLab lists the most obvious reasons:

  • Livability: vehicles stop less on one-way streets, which is hard for bikers and pedestrians.
  • Navigation: one-way street networks are confusing for drivers, which leads to more vehicle-miles traveled; they also make it tough for bus riders to locate stops for a return trip.
  • Safety: speeds tend to be higher on one-way streets, and some studies suggest drivers pay less attention on them because there’s no conflicting traffic flow.
  • Economics: local businesses believe that two-way streets increase visibility.

One-way streets are a transportation relic that need to be expelled in most all cases. We need to value livability, navigation, safety, and economics above the desire to travel fast in an automobile.

Problem 3: Unneeded Turn Lanes


Every turn lane imposed on the urban environment where it is not needed does three things:

  • Increased crossing distance: pedestrians are in the intersection, where they’re most likely to be injured, for 10 to 13 more feet.
  • Reduced size of sidewalk: creates less space for people to walk or a business to have outdoor seating
  • Eliminates on-street parking: removes an important safety buffer, and each on-street parking space is one that doesn’t need to be expensively built off-street.

Again, this is difficult to write about because it’s so obvious. The dynamic needs to shift, and it needs to shift quickly.

The intersection I’m describing is actually okay for walkability – when compared to what most American intersections looks like. The fact that only three problems exist makes it one of the better one. This is a problem. And, we shouldn’t have a system where these auto-biases are built so ubiquitously. We shouldn’t have system where – after lots of effort and community support – an infrastructure improvement can be overruled because a person at Public Works doesn’t like it.

The American transportation system is designed at every corner to favor the automobile, and it’s a system that needs to end.

Rendering of proposed 494/169 interchange

Wasted: Before and After 125 Million Dollars

My very first post here at Strong Towns was on July 13th of 2011. Time flies.

In this post, I dove into a project that was underway here in Minnesota. It’s finished now, and the results shouldn’t shock anyone reading Strong Towns. The question isn’t whether the $125 million was wasted, but how wasted it was.

Highway 169 and Interstate 494 can be one of the more frustrating intersections to navigate in the Twin Cities. It was in 2011 and it is in 2015. During peak periods, it is either at a stand-still or creeping along slowly, and it went without saying that something needed to be done. That thing happened and it looks like what you see below.

Rendering of proposed 494/169 interchange

Rendering of 494/169 interchange. Completed in 2012.

Here’s a summary of what I wrote in 2011 about the $125 million interchange project:

Proponents of the new intersection argue it will reduce congestion and be a beacon of much needed “economic development” while “saving lives, time and money while strengthening the economy of our state and region.” Although well-intentioned, the advocates couldn’t be more wrong as they have based their assumptions on what is essentially a set of faulty principles.

Over the past 60 years, the American road building status quo has operated under the assumption “if you build it, they will come.” And for the most part, this has happened. We built more roads and continued to see more congestion. Like a broken record, we fell victim to the fundamental law of road building that states more roads will beget more traffic. This theory has been particularly true for I-494 and H-169. At its present capacity, the interchange is overused and outdated. Yet the current interchange, which was built during the mid-1990s, is only outdated because of the development pattern we’ve chosen.

For starters, I can’t believe I wrote that. I’m now more likely to write words like “dude” into my blog posts. Informal is the way to write.

So, this post goes on to say that most of the congestion on 494/169 exists for reasons other than engineering (by the way, the actual engineering is good). It exists because we’ve built lots and lots of single family houses outside of the metropolitan beltway where people are reliant on driving long distances. Take a look for yourself: Scott County in 1991 versus 2009. This is precisely the type of development we’re likely to get out if we continue to subsidize massive road projects like this one.

The structural problem in our road building system is that we’ve based these large financial decisions on faulty premises and inaccurate estimations. We’ve justified and enabled the subsidizing of less efficient forms of development through the aid of cost-benefit analysis. The 494 /169 interchange looks great on paper at first glance. It’s going to create jobs, handle more traffic, help the economy, and save time.

If only these things were true.

I went to the Minnesota Traffic Mapping Application and pulled the most recent (and accessible) data. Note: traffic data collection is not perfect, and these are estimates. It’s especially difficult to accurately capture daily traffic on roads like these.

169 Northbound: 2008 = 80,000 / 2014 = 87,000 (increase 7,000 cars)
169 Southbound: 2008 = 54,000/ 2014 = 48,500 (decrease 5,500 cars)
494 Eastbound: 2010 = 104,000 / 2014 = 107,000 (increase 3,000 cars)
494 Westbound: 2008 = 134,000 / 2012 = 132,000 (decrease 2,000 cars)

We’ve spent $125 million and 2,500 more vehicles use the roadway than in 2008/2010. While over two thousand vehicles is a lot for a resident street, it represents approximately a .6% overall increase. By itself, these numbers don’t really show us much beyond relatively flat vehicle miles travels. But, let’s imagine it is growing. Where are these 2,500 cars coming from? I think we all know this answer.

The cost-benefit on projects like these look merely at numbers. In this case, the interchange project has a 1.19 b/c ratio; meaning that for every dollar spent, there will be a benefit of $1.19. This savings would be remarkable if only it were true. Of the $198 million in “benefits,” $181.6 million is in the form of incremental time savings.

Like so many things, Chuck summarized the situation best in a blog post about costs and benefits:

There is no direct or indirect financial return to the government for this savings. Sure, the application argues that the “delays have a direct impact on the productivity of our local businesses and schools”, but nobody is arguing that this increased productivity will result in … million[s] in increased sales, income and property tax receipts. Or any real increase. The time savings is a purely social benefit for the people … who will now enjoy reduced travel times from the construction of the overpass.

This $181.6 million benefit is a “social benefit” – no money is actually being exchanged nor is government revenue increasing. And these small, incremental pieces of time savings do little to improve overall economic vitality. Improving an individual’s commute from, say, 1 hour to 20 minutes might spur growth, but improving the average daily commute by an estimated 3 minutes and 15 seconds will not.

We are acting under the assumption that moving cars is of the utmost importance and that traffic must be moving at a consistently high speed at all times, no questions asked. MnDOT has identified H-169 has a “high priority interregional corridor,” meaning it must “function at a free-flow level of operation, with a minimum of 60 mph speeds and minimal conflicts and interruptions to traffic flow.” A considerable segment of Highway 169 cuts in relatively close proximity to many residential neighborhoods and commercial areas. Is it absolutely necessary for vehicles to be, at all times, traveling at 60 miles an hour minimum?

Not only do policymakers need to more accurately link traffic growth estimates with current economic realities, but they also need to ask the question of whether we even want to continue to subsidize more sprawl-inducing infrastructure?

Even if this intersection does make new suburban growth possible (which it won’t), it’ll be the type of development that is destructive to our current infrastructure and simply not needed. Minnesota doesn’t need another housing subdivision or big box store.

Here’s my sales pitch: I started a brief weekly musing about local news, culture, urban development, and transportation. Each “newsletter” is only 2 paragraphs, plus 1 recommendation. You can sign up here.

4 Easy Steps to Squash the “There’s No Parking” Complaint

Before we start, I wanted to insert a shameless plug. I am starting a newsletter (via TinyLetter) that includes 2 short, smart, witty paragraphs each week, and 1 local Twin Cities recommendation. You can sign up here.

“There’s no parking!” – Concerned Citizen

I wish I had a bus ticket for every time I heard someone say this. Unless you’re Manhattan or San Francisco, it is fair to say you don’t have a parking problem. I take that back. You do have a parking problem – there’s too much of it.

Here is a quick how-to guide on dealing with those who claim your city or town lacks adequate parking.

1. Understand Perception

The easiest and most time-effective way of convincing your opposition is to have them acknowledge that the perception of parking availability is different than the reality. People come to the conclusion of parking scarcity for a good reason; many live elsewhere and only visit the city during peak periods or special events.

The mindset is beautifully captured by a recent Twitter exchange. I asserted that our downtown does not have a parking problem, and a person responded by complaining that parking for his dinner at an upscale restaurant was an unreasonable $20 (the timing coincided with a professional baseball game on a beautiful weekend night). It was pay $20, or he would be forced to walk from somewhere near the interstate (which happens to be about 5 blocks).

This person likely visits from the suburbs once every other month, and each visit is likely for an event or dinner on a weekend night. They are not present when spaces sit vacant 90 percent of the time. I recommend politely asking them if they’d be willing to drive and park on a Sunday afternoon, Tuesday evening, or Friday morning.

Now, before you start rapidly Tweeting links about Donald Shoup (such as this, this, and this), I recommend the next step …

2. Map Parking Supply

Load up Google Maps in your favorite web browser, search for your local area, and do a screen capture. Paste the image into MS Paint, or similar program. Start highlighting the open surface parking lots and parking garage structures. I recommend downloading Google Earth for this task.

Don’t spend a lot of time doing this. If you know your downtown, it should be straight-forward. Be honest, but don’t nit-pick; this isn’t a scientific peer-reviewed study. Here is a map of downtown St. Paul (created in 2013, slightly outdated):

downtown parking

Creating a visual can be shocking. The above blue spaces represents only off-street surface parking lots and parking garages; but do not highlight on-street or underground parking. Also, they represent only, to the best of my knowledge, available public parking. There are a few more small parking lots but Google limited me to 75 shapes per map.

Make this map and share it on social media and e-mail it to your local Council Member.

3. Document Unused Supply

Walk around your selected area during normal conditions and take photos. By ‘normal conditions’, I mean you shouldn’t document supply the evening of a Rolling Stones concert, nor should you snap photos at 4am on Monday morning.

IMG_0163 IMG_0168

I did this in St. Paul’s Lowertown. I decided upon an early Thursday evening and a Saturday mid-afternoon. I figured these times would capture both commuter parking during the weekday and out-of-town visitors on the weekend (photo collage available here).

Optional upgrade: convert images into black and white to maximize effect. However, most American downtowns don’t need the extra help. Here is a sample comparison:

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It is at this point where you may be called out as cherry-picking locations. Hence, I encourage you to be fair and also document areas that have cars parked, such as this. As a final bit of advice, make sure to also snap photos of people out and about. Here is a block of sidewalk cafes during the same time frame, such as this photo taken on Saturday afternoon.

4. Use Yourself as a Case Study

Do it yourself advocacy is as simple as parking. I recommend getting a cheap dashboard camera (or mounting your phone) and recording yourself trying to park. I did this and here are the results on YouTube. I called it a challenge. It was anything but. As expected, parking was simple.

The rules: drive to the contested area, take the same route everyday, park as close as possible to most congested spot, and park for free (yes, $0).

To quickly summarize, my findings for the “Challenge”:

  • Furthest distance: 610 feet away
  • Closest distance: During three of the trips, I found a spot directly on the park
  • Cost: I never once paid for parking (note: I did pay for gas)
  • Shortest time spent finding a spot: 2 minutes and 15 seconds
  • Longest time spent finding a spot: 3 minutes and 41 seconds

All of the times included waiting at stop lights. To enhance enjoyment, I added a soundtrack and sped up the video to 2x. Now, this is not an academic study. I merely sought out to prove that, under current conditions, a person can drive into Lowertown and park with relative ease and do it for free. I also wanted to mention that I’m keenly aware of the limitations of this challenge (e.g.; time of day, work week, etc.).

Follow these three easy steps (and one difficult, time-consuming step involving video) to start combating the perception of a shortage of parking supply in your downtown or neighborhood. These won’t solve anything overnight, but act as a visual display of advocacy that people can relate to.