Is policing part of a Strong Town?

This is a response to the post on Strong Towns, titled “What’s the Role of the Police Department in Building Strong Towns?

I’m going to argue that a Strong Town does not depend upon or even much need policing. This strong statement comes from my experience in observing the interactions between law enforcement and citizens of color, citizens of low income. I’m a white male middle class person, so I have not directly experienced these issues, but I see them every day. Every day. In the city where I live (Sacramento), in the county where I live (Sacramento) to an even greater degree, and in most of the places I visit in the western US. There is data driven enforcement where I live, as follows: if they are black, they are guilty. If they are other people of color or poor, they are likely guilty. If they are black and poor and young and male, god help them, they will probably be dead no matter the nature of their perceived infraction. The district attorneys are part and parcel of the problem, as they will not prosecute law enforcement officers for violations of the law and of civil rights. The police unions are part and parcel, as they defend all officers, no matter how much of a bad apple they are.

I am not saying that all law enforcement profiles, in fact most probably do not. Not all officers are prone to excessive use of force, in fact most are probably not. However, the person of color has no way of knowing which kind of officer is approaching them. They have to assume they are going to be harassed, arrested for imaginary violations, and possibly murdered. Because that is what happens all too often. In fact, any instance is too often.

You might think I’m exaggerating. Let me refer to two cases in my area, both of which received national attention.

Nandi Cain was a young black male crossing the street legally. He was confronted by and severely beaten by a Sacramento City police officer for the imagined ‘crime’ of jaywalking. The officer did not lose his job and was not disciplined beyond administrative leave.

Joseph Mann was a middle aged black male killed by two Sacramento City police officers who first tried to run him over with their patrol car, and when they couldn’t hit him, pumped large number of bullets into him. What did he do? He was holding a pocket knife and behaving strangely. He had mental health issues. Neither officer was fired, neither was prosecuted, and it is not clear whether either were disciplined. Both eventually left the department. One later admitted in print that what they had done was probably murder, but the district attorney did not follow up. The interesting thing about this case is that other earlier arriving officers had largely defused the situation, the good officers, but the two later arriving ones assumed that the person was guilty of whatever and had to be killed, the bad officers. Data-driven enforcement, for sure.

This list could go on for pages, just in my region, and it could be a book nationally. I’m sure you have all heard of such incidents. The reason I picked these two is that they also relate to safety on the streets, which is a major component of a Strong Town. Nandi, the pedestrian, is the most obvious one. He could not safety cross the street in his own neighborhood, not because of traffic (though there are certainly issues with that as well), but because the police profiled and convicted him in the field. Joseph was killed while standing in the street. The officers used a deadly weapon, their patrol vehicle, to try to kill him, and only went to their other deadly weapons, their service revolvers, when that did not work.

The fact is, under our current policing paradigm, people of color, and particularly the young, black, poor male, cannot be safe. If any citizen is not safe, all citizens are not safe, and you cannot have a Strong Town.

The second major issue is the propensity of law enforcement to take the windshield perspective on all traffic collisions, and assume that the pedestrian or bicyclist was fully responsible for their injury or death. This shows up in the news media all the time. The officer on the scene will report that the bicyclist was not wearing a helmet, or that the pedestrian was wearing dark clothing. This is at the scene, before any investigation has even started. And that is the only thing the public ever hears. There is never a follow-up. And no one can get a copy of the investigation except the immediate family, if any, because friends and other family, and the public, is not considered an interested party.

Again, a specific example. I arrived on scene just moments after a student riding to school had been hit by a driver. His pack was thrown a considerable distance, and I made sure that it was not moved by anyone, as it gives an indication of the speed of impact. When I pointed it out to the officer, he went and picked it up and said it had no bearing on the crash. A neighbor who did not see the crash but had seen the student bicycling to school dozens of times, stated to me that she had never seen the student veer or do anything but ride in a completely safe and predicable manner. The officer would not take her statement since she did not witness the collision. How can anyone feel safe using the roadways if law enforcement sees only what it wants to see, not the facts? The student was transported to the hospital but did not have life-threatening injuries.

Traffic crash statistics, on which we base many of our decisions about traffic safety, investments in transportation systems, and how we value people who use the roadways and sidewalks, is suspect. Officers report that the pedestrian or bicyclist was at fault in most crashes, because that is what they want to believe. To believe otherwise would bring into question the built environment and the organizing principles of the city, and that is something most law enforcement personnel are not willing to consider.

Chuck Marohn has expressed concern about traffic enforcement, in More Thoughts on Ending Traffic StopsIt’s Time to End the Routine Traffic Stop, and many other posts and episodes. The Internet is full of posts questioning whether law enforcement can be a constructive partner in Vision Zero.

Robert Severance III of Cleburne TX is probably an honorable person. But I’d speculate that one or more persons on his force are not. As BWTrainer commented in response to the Strong Towns post, there is no mention of what the citizens think. A Strong Towns approach values all voices but emphasizes the voices of those who are not usually heard. That’s what I think.



Yes, and lower speed limits

I believe that stroads should be turned back into Streets, and roads preserved for their transportation function. I’m a Strong Towns member, and fully support the argument that the best solution to stroads is to reconstruct them into streets. #SlowTheCars is the right approach. Key to that approach is that changing speed limits doesn’t do much to slow cars, and that ticketing people for going the design speed instead of the posted speed is often just a pretext for profiling and oppression.

BUT. It will be a long while and trillions of dollars to accomplish that. Undoing the damage of the past is not easy, because the money it would take to fix everything has long since gone into the pockets of those who profited from unsustainable (socially, economically, environmentally) development. We will have to triage, changing the most dangerous places first, and those places with the best chance of becoming walkable, livable, and vibrant second. We may never, and perhaps should never, get to those places that are the model of the suburban experiment. Many suburban places will fail and go back to agriculture. Others will not. But spending a lot of money to fix a suburban stroad, adding sidewalks and bike lanes and street furniture, will be good money after bad because these places won’t ever be dense enough or successful enough to pay back the investment.

Back to speed. It will be a long while before we can lower the design speed of stroads and streets back to the correct speed. In most cases, that design speed should be 20 mph. Occasionally higher or lower, but mostly 20. In the interim, I think that we should reduce the speed of all urban streets, that are not arterials and collectors, to 20 mph. I am not suggested that this limit be tightly enforced, as the point is not enforcement but education and commitment. A community willing to lower the speed limit to 20 is a community willing to think about safety and livability, and to accept that the way we have done thing in the past is absolutely not what we need in the present or future. Setting speed limits to 20 is a message to pay attention and think about consequences. Portland and Seattle have recently reduced some speed limits to 20.

Continue reading “Yes, and lower speed limits”

time to get off the infrastructure treadmill

Hwy 50 slide, @kellyinmedia
Hwy 50 slide, @kellyinmedia

With the recent storm damage to roadways, as well as some transit and rail lines, the governor has proposed about $600M in quick fixes. This adds on to $59B deferred maintenance on state highways, and $78B on local roads (the actual local roads number is likely much, much higher). Pretty soon, we’re talking real money.

I am not opposed to fixing storm damage, or to keeping roads in a state of good repair, abbreviated SOGR and often called “fix-it-first.” However, if it isn’t obvious by now, let me clearly state that we already have more infrastructure than we can ever afford to maintain. Even without climate change, we probably could not keep up, and with climate change, we don’t have a chance.

We have a transportation system built on the idea that someday there will be enough money, our kids will be richer, the economy will be better, the federal government will offer an infrastructure windfall, a fairy godmother will wave her wand. It’s not going to happen. The bills are already coming due, and there will be far greater bills coming due in the near future. Politicians, and the voters who support them, have been running a growth ponzi scheme (see and other Strong Towns references), gathering the political and economic benefits today while putting the costs off to the future.

So, what to do? Well, first, stop digging the hole. We don’t need any new roads or highways, or additional lane miles. We do need to make the ones we have more efficient (defined as the number of people moved per hour per dollar, NOT the number of vehicles moved per hour per dollar), and on the whole, we do need to keep them repaired.

But we also need to realize that we have already overbuilt, and we are going to need to let go of some of it. Return rural roads and residential-only streets to gravel (bicyclists, get your mountain bikes). Stop paving parking lanes to the same high standards we use for the travel lanes, and in many cases, let them return to gravel as well. Or just remove some of them – we don’t need as many cars, either. Where sidewalks are needed and don’t exist, don’t take them out of people’s property, but out of the existing roadway. Where roads have been built wider than will ever be needed, take the extra width out and sell it off, with adjacent property owners getting first right of refusal. If there is no market, then give it away to the adjacent property owner. In suburban Sacramento county, there are streets that go from narrow two lane to four lane to extra-wide four lane and then back down again. These are safety hazards and maintenance nightmares. Let’s put this wasted road space back to productive use.

Katy Freeway (I-10) Texas; By Socrate76 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Katy Freeway (I-10) Texas; By Socrate76 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Freeways are the next big thing to reduce. The major Interstates are economically critical for freight movement and to a lesser degree people movement (though quality rail can take much of the pressure off). But they’ve gone from two lanes per direction to four to six to eight to ten, with Texas holding the record, I believe, at thirteen lanes per direction (in the U.S. at least). What are all the extra lanes for? Mostly commuters, and for about two hours a day. People who have been allowed and encouraged to live a long way from where they work, just to save on housing costs. But the bill has been paid by all of us, private car commuters or not, and we have only just begun to pay this bill. It may be larger than our entire economy. So, let’s shrink the Interstates back down, in most cases to two lanes per direction. The other freeways? Most of them are not needed at all and can be removed in favor of surface streets with a restored street grid. People will adjust over time, make different decisions, and it will take long enough to accomplish that it won’t be a sudden shock.

There is no better time than a crisis to re-think our transportation system. If we don’t think now, we will go back to sleep and assume that it is all going to work out, somehow, someday, some fairy godmother.

Each of these ideas deserves exploration, and I will do that as I can.

Strong Towns strength test for Sacramento grid

The latest Strong Towns blog post is on the Strong Towns Strength Test. Ten simple questions. A Strong Town should be able to answer “yes” to each of these questions.

Here are my answers for the grid portion of Sacramento, downtown and midtown.

  1. Take a photo of your main street at midday. Does the picture show more people than cars? I picked J Street at 16th; others might pick other streets. No, more cars than people. However, there are a few intersections in downtown and midtown that probably have more people than cars, due to state workers walking to lunch.
  2. If there were a revolution in your town, would people instinctively know where to gather to participate? Probably yes, at Cesar Chavez Plaza, where Occupy Sacramento started.
  3. Imagine your favorite street in town didn’t exist. Could it be built today if the construction had to follow your local rules? My favorite street is actually an alley, Liestal Row, with Edible Pedal bike shop and Old Soul coffee. It has a woonerf-like design more welcoming to pedestrians and bicyclists than cars. Unfortunately, only one block long, and there aren’t any other alleys or streets like it. Yes, I think it could be built today. In general, developers can build what they want, but if it is outside the norm, it takes a long time and a lot of money.
  4. Is an owner of a single family home able to get permission to add a small rental unit onto their property without any real hassle? Not easily, and often not at all.
  5. If your largest employer left town, are you confident the city would survive? In Sacramento County (much larger than midtown/downtown, but I could not find city data), the largest employer is the state (Sacramento is the state capital), followed by the county itself, then health care organizations in 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th, followed by three school districts, and then the city itself. The largest private employer is Intel at 5th. Except for Intel, none of these are leaving town, though some or all could shrink. I don’t know what the statistics are for midtown/downtown, but since the state capitol and most government buildings are in downtown, the state would be even more prominent. One of the blog post commenters suggested that the measure should be largest industry rather than largest employer. I would answer yes, just because so many employers would not leave that a private employer would not make that much difference.
  6. Is it safe for children to walk or bike to school and many of their other activities without adult supervision? Moderately safe, so yes. Since Sacramento City School District eliminated most of the neighborhood schools, children are now largely bused or delivered to school in parent’s cars. So a question I’d add is, are there neighborhood schools?
  7. Are there neighborhoods where three generations of a family could reasonably find a place to live, all within walking distance of each other? Yes, in midtown, no in downtown, so somewhat.
  8. If you wanted to eat only locally-produced food for a month, could you? Yes, if you define local as including Capay Valley and the foothill farms and ranches.
  9. Before building or accepting new infrastructure, does the local government clearly identify how future generations will afford to maintain it? No. I’ve never heard the government even raise the issue.
  10. Does the city government spend no more than 10% of its locally-generated revenue on debt service? The city budget of $873 million indicates that 10.8% is for debt service. However, the city has $2.1 billion in unfunded long-term debt (before the arena and any of the proposed civic projects), so if the city were actually paying down debt rather than accumulating it, the percentage would be higher than this. So, no.

Score on these ten questions = four no, one somewhat, and five yes.

Continue reading “Strong Towns strength test for Sacramento grid”

Walk to the grocery store

Strong Towns issued a challenge to document your walk to the grocery store. Here is my contribution.

N Street, nice crosswalk, rude drivers
N Street, nice crosswalk, rude drivers

Grocery Outlet: One-and-a-half blocks. Out the apartment complex gate, through the alley, along and then across a quiet residential street (17th), across a two-lane one-way traffic sewer (N), and a block to the store. There are good sidewalks the entire way. Both crosswalks are clearly marked. The traffic on the larger street rarely yields to pedestrians, though that is the law in California, but most of the time it is not a long wait for a gap. I visit this store 2-3 times per week, almost always walking and carrying one large bag

Safeway: Nine blocks, 0.5 miles. Good sidewalks, nice streets, two semi-traffic sewer one-way streets (P, Q, same story, drivers seldom yield but gaps are available), one block without sidewalks but on a low traffic street (R). Sometimes I walk, sometimes I ride.

Sacramento Natural Foods Coop: 1.4 miles. Good sidewalks, mostly nice streets, several one-way traffic sewers (P,Q, 19th, 22nd, 29th, 30th). I occasionally walk this, but most often ride. I could take light rail, with a two block walk on both ends, but I seldom do. Depending on route, I can have quiet streets and/or bike lanes most of the way.

Trader Joes: 2.5 miles. Good sidewalks, mostly nice streets, two more traffic sewers than above. I have walked this, but rarely. I can take light rail, and sometimes do, two blocks walking on one end and three blocks on the other end. Mostly, I ride. Quiet streets part of the way (M Street, the closest we have to a bicycle boulevard), bike lanes available but on the less pleasant streets.

Farmers markets: Saturday farmers market seven blocks, 0.6 miles; Sunday (main) farmers market, 1.3 miles; other farmers markets at varying distances

You might think, well how lucky to live close to a store, but luck has nothing to do with it. I chose this place to live primarily for its proximity to grocery stores. Other considerations were tree lined streets, close-by coffee shops, restaurants, bars, bike shops, breweries, etc. Walk score is 86, and yes, I did look at it before I moved here.

I have a bag on my bike that is perfect for carrying groceries, and I can carry quite a bit of weight that way. I am also willing to carry quite a bit of groceries when walking. I prefer to go to the store more frequently so that I can have more fresh food. No family, I’m just shopping for myself.

More photos: Transportation (collection) > Sacramento sidewalks (album) > Walk to the Grocery Store (tag)

No net pavement: a modest proposal

I have long been thinking about a policy for construction of roads and highways, that would result in no more pavement. A post by Charles Marohn on Strong Towns blog titled “What is the federal role?” reminded me that I’d not posted on my idea. An excerpt from his post:

So if you forced me to have a federal transportation bill, then I would want it to do two things. First, I would want it to place a moratorium on the expansion, extension or construction of any new auto-oriented facilities. No new road miles anywhere. There is no need for this country to ever build another mile, another lane, another overpass or anything — we have far more than we can take care of now, most of it very unproductive. I would make this exception, however: any state that wants a new mile of highway has to remove two miles of existing. This would allow flexibility for states that wanted a strategic contraction, allowing them to allocate scarce resources to areas that would have the greatest benefit. In short, I would ensure the bill funded maintenance (which would make it politically irrelevant in the current context, but that is beside the point).”

I worked for several years in the Lake Tahoe basin, doing watershed education. The policy for hard coverage such as buildings and pavement, which produces runoff to the lake and a decline in water quality, is that there be no net increase in coverage over time. If a developer or homeowner wants to increase their coverage by expanding the areal extent of a building or parking lots, they must retire other buildings or pavement. The policy has been quite effective, and is primarily responsible the reversal in the steep decline of lake clarity. I realized that the policy would be a good one to apply everywhere. Pavement everywhere has the same effect, causing rain and snow to run off, carrying sediment and debris into waterways. Less pavement equals cleaner water. But there are so many more benefits of less pavement to the environment and to livability in towns and cities, that it makes no sense to continue paving, anywhere, anytime. Continue reading “No net pavement: a modest proposal”