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 […]

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.

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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. […]

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.

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

“Not all economic development is created equal. Not all local investments build wealth in our community. Not all open markets produce optimal outcomes for all places. If we want our places to prosper over time, we have to be prepared to ask a tougher set of questions at the local level.” Charles Marohn, in Dunkin […]