More Unwelcome News for the California High Speed Rail Project

Decidedly, early June has not been the best of times for the California high-speed rail project.

On June 2, came a new poll showing that fifty-nine percent of voters would now oppose building high-speed rail if the measure were placed on the ballot again. Sixty-nine percent said that they would "never or hardly ever" ride the bullet train if it were built. (USC Dornsife/LA Times survey). The poll made news throughout the state, and indeed nationally. The public was treated to headlines such as "Voters have turned against California bullet train" (LA Times); "California high speed rail losing support" (Bloomberg); "California high speed rail doesn’t have the support of majority of Californians" (Huffington Post); "Voters don’t trust state to build high speed rail" (CalWatchdog) and "Poll finds California voters are experiencing buyers' remorse" (Associated Press).

Then, on the heels of the poll, came news that Central Valley farm groups have filed a major environmental lawsuit asking for preliminary injunction to block rail construction slated to begin later this year. Plaintiffs include the Madera and Merced county farm bureaus and Madera County. Still more agricultural interests in the Central Valley are reportedly threatening to sue.

The Sierra Club, traditionally a loyal supporter of Gov. Brown, announced it was "strongly opposed" to Brown’s proposal to eliminate California environmental (CEQA) requirements for the high speed rail program and its Central Valley construction project. The Brown administration has made its proposal despite a solemn promise to the legislature by the Authority’s Chairman, Dan Richard, that they would never try to bypass CEQA ("We have never and we will never come to you and ask you to mess with the CEQA requirements for the project level").

The multi-billion dollar HSR program is exactly the sort of large scale public works project that CEQA was designed to address, wrote Kathryn Phillips, Sierra Club’s Director in a June 5 letter to the Governor. "By removing a large-scale project such as high-speed rail from full CEQA coverage, the proposal grants the state a status that suggests it does not have to fully and seriously consider and mitigate environmental impacts. ... In the interests of the environment and in the interest of rebuilding public support for rail in this state, we urge you in the strongest possible terms to abandon the proposal to weaken environmental review for the high-speed rail system," the letter concludes.

Nor was this the end to unwelcome news for the Brown administration. A series of editorials and opinion pieces by some of California’s most influential columnists has reinforced the public’s growing disenchantment with the bullet train project and with the Governor’s stubborn determination to defy public opinion.

In a June 3 commentary,  the Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, a longtime observer of the legislative scene, refuted the Governor’s attempt to compare the high speed rail project with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Both projects, the Governor had said in a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the bridge, took much political courage and foresight, and both will go down in history as remarkable gifts to posterity.

"Nice try, Governor," wrote Walters, but the comparison is misleading. The need for the Golden Gate crossing was clearly demonstrable and the bridge used revenue bonds to be repaid with bridge tolls. The need for a bullet train, on the other hand, "exists only in the minds of its ardent backers" and the Governor assumes that the federal government will finance nearly two-thirds of the project’s cost—an assumption that is nothing more than wishful thinking. Asked Walters, if the train is as financially viable as Brown and the Authority insist it is, why wouldn’t they do what the bridge builders did — float revenue bonds to be repaid from the train’s supposed operating profits. "Public works projects make sense when they fit well-documented needs. When they don’t, they are just political ego trips," Walters concluded.

Daniel Borenstein, columnist and editorial writer for the Contra Costa Times, came to a similar conclusion. In pushing for the bullet train, he wrote, Gov. Brown is motivated by a quest for a legacy. But, the columnist warned, while the Governor strives to be remembered like his late father for the capital projects he leaves behind, he could derail the November tax measure by his "reckless exuberance for spending billions on high speed rail." "Does he really want to anger [the voters] when he needs them the most?" Borenstein asked.

Perhaps the most devastating criticism of the Governor’s high speed rail initiative came in a June 8 editorial in the San Jose Mercury News, one of the Bay Area’s most influential newspapers. Entitled "High Speed Rail Plan is Delusional" the editorial has been syndicated in a number of Bay Area and Los Angeles Sunday papers. Follow this link to read it at the Mercury News website.

Counting Trees in San Diego

Recently, I came across “Taking Inventory of County’s Trees” in the San Diego Union Tribune, an article that describes Robin Rivet’s “ambitious effort to map every urban tree in San Diego County”. Rivet is an urban forester-arborist at the Center for Sustainable Energy California and she ”aims to quantify the value of all local trees and make a statement about a huge but often underappreciated resource.” My concern is that this article may be alerting San Diegans to more regulations, costs and loss of property rights coming our way.

Through California’s legislative sustainable development and smart growth initiatives SB375 and AB 32, look for the implementation of ‘urban forests’ to be another area of focus by the State of CA and environmental NGOs to significantly reduce GHGs by 80% to below 1990 levels by 2050.

“The website keeps a running tab of the trees’ “yearly eco impact.” The nearly 300,000 trees listed as of Thursday, according to the site, have reduced 19,622,883 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere, conserved 83,213,745 gallons of water, conserved 8,502,988 kilowatts of energy, and reduced 46,244 pounds of pollutants from the air.”

This project is being funded by CalFire. Why? Details in the CalFire AB32 Scoping Plan for Forestry reveal that CalFire is looking to assess CO2 sequestration in all forests and range lands across the state in order to mitigate GHG emissions. Capturing a map of San Diego County’s canopy becomes useful data to the state of California that is about to launch their highly controversial and lucrative Cap and Trade auction in November. The CalFire AB32 Scoping Plan states:

“Unlike engineered projects or measures that reduce emissions at a point source (e.g. stack or tailpipe), the forest sector sequestration benefits are accrued through tree growth over large areas of the landscape, including urban areas. With such a large land base carbon benefits need to be accounted for in average stocks (amount of carbon stored).”

Not only has the state of California legislated the reduction of GHG emissions through AB 32, it is mandating General Plan changes via SB375. SB375 is requiring municipalities (MPOS) to update their Regional Transportation Plans (RTP) and local land use plans to “reverse sprawl” with the intent of mitigating GHG emissions. Through the forest sector, CalFire suggests that if landowners saw the economic value of carbon sequestration, they would resist selling their land to developers and choose to participate in the carbon off-set market instead.

“The creation and maintenance of carbon markets for forest carbon, both
voluntary and compliance-based, will increase sequestration by providing
landowner incentives to increase carbon stocks on their ownership. The value of
carbon at $10/t is sufficient to interest landowners in changing their management
practices to increase carbon storage. Updating the current California Climate
Action Registry (CCAR) Forest Protocols can create the opportunity for a larger
number of forest landowners to participate in carbon offset markets. The success
of these markets will depend upon quality of the carbon that is being sold, which
will depend upon the accounting principles applied in development of forest
protocols used to verify and register carbon sequestration projects.

Other incentives include providing landowners reduced tax or regulatory liabilities, which will encourage the retention of working forest landscapes, instead of land division and development. Additional opportunities may exist for subsidies or carbon taxes/fee revenues collected and reinvested in carbon sequestration projects.”

The CalFire AB32 Scoping Plan for Forestry is full of useful information that can help us to understand and assess future regulations that might develop from their global warming mitigation and adaption schemes.

“Tree planting under the urban forestry strategy has direct overlap with the goals
of the “Cool Communities” strategy in the Land Use sector to encourage the development of communities that have lower surface temperatures. Urban tree planting may also have overlap with the Land Use sector strategies for “Landscape Guidelines” and “Smart Growth”. In addition, the forest sector Reforestation mitigation measure would require developers to provide 1 to 2 acres of reforestation as mitigation for every acre lost to development when converting forest land to other uses.”

Based on what I know about sustainable development and smart growth, I propose we watch out for the adaptation portion of this urban forestry implementation plan in San Diego.

How the Tobacco Companies Should Spend Their Money

Once again, in the debate over California’s Proposition 29, the tobacco companies seem to have all the money in the world, even though relatively few people smoke nowadays. Under the circumstances, I don’t shed much of a tear for them.

  1. They could put on their packs, in type as large as the health warning, “DISPOSE OF PROPERLY – PUT BUTT BACK IN PACK”. Or, they could include a little plastic bag with each pack, of the kind that we insist dog walkers carry – no one crusades against dogs as a health hazard, and the way we deal with solid dog waste is the way we should deal with cigarette waste. It’s amazing, in a society where so few people supposedly smoke, how much litter is composed of butts. In fact, one reason I took up smoking cigarettes at the advanced age of 59 is precisely that I wanted to be able to practice what I preach, and show that it could be done. A stupid reason for starting smoking? Well, is there an intelligent reason for starting smoking? I don’t think so. I mean, if the beer companies can put on their cans “Dispose of Properly” so can Altria, or whatever it’s called.
  2. They could take back filters and recycle them into something, paying us a penny per filter, like we already do with certain kinds of glass bottles and cans. Surely all those filters can be used for something. And surely the tobacco companies have enough money to be able to support some research on this subject. And, for those who wish to keep the penny in circulation (the Canadians are phasing out theirs, and no coin in common use in Europe is worth that little) here’s a use for it.
  3. Tobacco taxes could be used to support the supplemental health insurance system, for those who have trouble affording health insurance, because their product does burden the health care system. I’m not in favor of a “public option,” necessarily, so I don’t know how it is to be worked out. Maybe an “assigned risk pool” like with auto insurance. Anyhow, tobacco should not be the cash cow for everybody’s favorite cause, as it seems to be now. Cigarette smokers and rich people – not much overlap between the two nowadays – are the “other people” or “not me” whom we feel free to tax heavily.
  4. I never want to go back to the days of indoor smoking, with the possible exception of some bars (not restaurants) in colder or more extreme climates. (I still find the idea of smoking with food, or with anything but water, beer, coffee, or bourbon, disgusting.) The companies could chart and promote “smoking patios,” which are places where you can have your alcoholic drink and smoke at the same time, as people like to do. Amusing to British people are the restrictions on taking one’s drink outside; if you can’t smoke inside, and can’t drink outside, only on these patios do the two universes intersect. Here in my own community, the individual bars are allowed to choose whether their “patios” (which you have to enter from inside, not from the street) allow smoking, or not; some do, some don’t, depending on their clientele.) And, apartment complexes that ban smoking in their apartments could have an outdoor space in the courtyard, where you can also take your drink. It encourages certain people to leave their rooms and their video games and come out into the courtyard or street and be reasonably social. Another reason why I don’t want to return to indoor smoking. Public and street life is encouraged by banning it. The New Urbanists ought to take a note of this. And if people are trained to not drop their butts on the ground, the aesthetic and litter aspects of the vice can be minimized. Smoking cigarettes, given the hazards, is something of an extreme sport; I have no problems with it being mainly an outdoor one.

Thoughts on High-speed Rail and Buses

I’m back from a California trip – beautiful state, beautiful weather, completely dysfunctional government.  For example, even with massive fiscal problems it’s still trying to build a vastly expensive high-speed rail line from San Francisco to San Diego. On a related note, a private group is exploring building a Houston-Dallas HSR line with no subsidies of any kind. I’m totally okay with private efforts.  I’m probably even okay with a little eminent domain to get the right of way at a fair price. I hope they can make it work.

Here’s a great alternate perspective on HSR: a TED talk on the value of perception and psychology vs. economics and technology.  Go to the 6:12 point to see a great example of the Eurostar train, where they spend a vast amount of money to reduce travel times by 40 mins, when for 90% or 99% less money they could have improved the experience instead and actually gotten higher rider satisfaction.  I believe the absolute same principle applies to bus vs. rail, whether intra- or inter-city: spend 1% or 10% of the same money improving the bus service and get higher customer satisfaction than the rail line would generate.  (hat tip to Karl)

And Greyhound is doing just that, learning from Megabus and upgrading their service with wifi, power plugs, and nicer seats with more leg room.  With that kind of service option available at say $30 one-way within the Texas Triangle, how many people do you think would pay $150+ to go on HSR?  On second thought, maybe nobody should mention this possibility to the Texas HSR group…  ;-)

Architecture Critic Paul Goldberger on Silicon Valley, San Jose, and Apple

Last week Paul Goldberger, Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, sat down with Allison Arief of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) in downtown San Jose to discuss the state of 21st Century urbanism with a focus on Silicon Valley. Though admired the world over as the preeminent center for technological innovation, Silicon Valley has never been known for its great architecture. Goldberger suggested that this reputation could’ve improved had Apple not missed the mark with the design of their proposed Apple Campus 2 building in Cupertino.

While acknowledging that Apple is probably the best design company at the moment, Goldberger asserted that the company’s design abilities end with small consumer gadgets and fail spectacularly at the urban level. Calling the Norman Foster designed building for the new Apple Campus a ‘beautifully designed donut or spaceship’, he lamented the lack of context and connection to anything around it. Speaking to an audience that included members of San Jose’s city government, Goldberger suggested that Apple missed the opportunity to take the reins to help transform San Jose by relocating at least some of its operations to help its long struggling (and subsidized) downtown.

The reality is that most of the big tech companies in the Valley, not just Apple, have an extreme indifference to place-choosing to locate operations in suburban office parks. This has much to do with the history of Silicon Valley planning as it does with the nature of tech companies, which tend to employ legions of introverted computer engineering types and go to great lengths to remain insular and secretive (Apple taking this to the extreme). Perhaps it also makes perfect sense that rather than even acknowledging the true urban environment, companies whose primary business is creating the virtual world in which we increasingly experience public life take an active stance on turning their backs on the city.

Yet for those still interested in experiencing the delights of pre-Information Era, pre-21 Century urbanism, there is always San Francisco not far up the road.  Goldberger made the point that the handful of tech companies who do choose to locate their operations in the city probably have a different mindset than those that stay in the Valley. Twitter being the prime example of the moment- the micro blogging site just leased 400,000 square feet of space on a long-maligned section of Market Street. Up in Seattle, Amazon recently announced its plan to build three new 37-story towers in the downtown area, which the proposal’s architect said is “not about building a corporate campus, it’s about building a neighborhood.”

So even though not every tech company is averse to the city, the Richard Florida argument that high urban density is a prerequisite for innovation and creativity is a bit of a stretch, as the economic success of suburban Silicon Valley continually disproves. Near the end of the discussion, Goldberger suggested that deliberately designing space for innovation might be a bit too self-conscious. This implies that rather than design, factors such as human resources, access to capital and a culture with openness to trial-and-error matter more than the traditional urban hardware of cities.

Adam Nathaniel Mayer is an American architectural design professional currently based in China and California. In addition to his job designing buildings he writes the China Urban Development Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @AdamNMayer.

84% of 18-to-34-Year-Olds Want To Own Homes

A survey by TD Bank indicates that 84 percent of people 18 to 34 years old intend to buy homes in the future. This runs counter to thinking that has been expressed by some, indicating that renting would become more popular in the future. Much of the "home ownership is dead or dying” comes from short sighted trend analysis in which home ownership data begins with the start of the housing bubble in the late 1990s. The latest data from the Bureau of the Census indicates that the home ownership rate in the first quarter was 65.4 percent, the lowest rate since 1997. In fact, however, before the housing bubble, homeownership hovered generally at 65 percent or below, after having increased strongly from 44 percent in 1940 to 61 percent in 1960. The increase in homeownership during the bubble was the result of profligate lending policies that were not sustainable. The decline from the artificially high housing bubble peak in no way diminishes the successful expansion of homeownership in the nation during the decades that reason prevailed in home lending.

Sydney's Long and Lengthening Commute Times

The New South Wales Department of Transport Housing and Transportation Survey reports that the average one way work trip in the Sydney metropolitan area (statistical division) reached 34.3 minutes in 2010. As a result, Sydney now has the longest reported commute time in the New World (United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), except for the New York City metropolitan area (34.6 minutes).

Longer Commutes than in Dallas-Fort Worth or Los Angeles: Sydney's average work trip travel time has increased approximately 10 percent since 2002. The 34.3 minute one way travel time is approximately 30 percent higher than that of larger Dallas-Fort Worth, which about half as dense. Part of the reason for the longer commute time in Sydney is its far greater transit dependence. Approximately 24 percent of work trip travel is on transit (which is slower for most trips). This compares to approximately 2 percent of travel in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Even Los Angeles, with its reputation for "gridlock" has a shorter average commute time, at 28.1 minutes. This is made possible by the extensive Los Angeles freeway system, greater use of automobiles and more dispersed employment patterns (despite the higher density of Los Angeles relative to Sydney). The average Sydney commuter spends nearly an hour longer traveling to work each week than the average Los Angeles commuter.

Even Longer Commutes Ahead? Sydney's densification policies (urban consolidation policies) seem likely to lengthen commute times even more in the future, given the association between higher densities and greater traffic congestion.

A Free Range Life

Some may have never heard of the term exurbia before now. According to the free on-line dictionary it means: The exurbs collectively; the region beyond the suburbs.

Exurbia to me is an expression that defines a free range lifestyle. Where I live there is space, nature surrounds my house, I can play music as loudly as I care to, trails connect me to beautiful places, when a recipe calls for lemons or rosemary, I can walk outside and collect whatever I need, and a seasonal garden provides all the abundance I require to make healthy and organic meals.

Getting around town is easy and I usually find everything I need in one trip. I used to live in an urban area and now feel grateful that I don’t have to cope with the inconveniences of that lifestyle any more. More on that later!

It takes about 20 minutes for my husband to commute to work every day. When the day is over and he comes home, he looks forward to propping up his legs, reading and smoking a cigar. We have neighbors and we like waving to them from across the way. Recently, we have been getting together to make wine.

We did not always have the privilege to live in this atmosphere of peaceful, quiet living. When we lived in the city, we were constantly fighting for parking spaces, we had to traipse up and down stairs to do laundry and then dry clothes on a line outside and risk icicles on the sleeves of our shirts and the bottom of our pants.  The traffic was exhausting and the noise from the neighbors below us, behind us, and on top of us was annoying and distracting. Raising kids in this environment was tedious and kept us constantly vigilant.

The day we finally moved into our house in the exurbs was a great day! Unfortunately, our dream of retiring in this home, developing the orchard and the garden, and enjoying our new quality of life, may be directly impacted by a new trend in planning called sustainable development and smart growth.

As I research these new planning trends I have learned that what this force of change really means is a whole life plan. Sustainable development seeks to change the way we live, how we interact with nature, how we choose to use our land and our property (all property–even your own person!!), where we live and how we live! It is a massive propaganda piece to change our behavior and how we think.

We must educate ourselves about the truth behind the ‘green’ agenda, the urban consolidation agenda, the livability agenda, and any and all agendas having to do with sustainable development.

In order to recognize this whole life plan when you see it, you must understand the words they are using and the methods they are using to implement it. The planners, environmentalists, social activists, city, state and federal officials, media, and public relations firms are telling us what these plans are. We are not educated yet.

I want to share my exurban quality of life.

Check out Mary Baker’s new blog, Exurbia Chronicles.

Manila Shantytown Fire: 800 Homes Destroyed, 10,000 Homeless

London's Daily Mail reports upon a May 11 fire in a shantytown (informal, illegal settlement) destroyed 800 dwellings and left 10,000 people homeless. The Mail article included 17 photographs of the fire, the ruins  people looking for belongings in ash suffused waters and man who has rescued a cat in debris filled waters. The fire occured in the Tondo district, which is two miles from downtown Manila on Manila Bay and two miles from the Doroteo Jose station on the Manila urban rail system as well as the principal commuter rail station.

More than 4,000,000 – more than one-third – of Manila's (National Capital Region) residents live in slums, shantytowns and informal settlements. Government projections indicate that the slum population will rise to 9,000,000 by 2050. More than one-half of Manila's population will be in slums.


Observations on Exurban Trends

Getting the Migration Story Straight: Analysts continue to misunderstand the recent metropolitan area census estimates. Much of the misunderstanding arises from a misinterpretation of a chart produced by the Brookings Institution, which indicates that the rate of population growth has fallen in exurban counties and was, last year, less than the rate of growth in what Brookings calls emerging suburbs and "city/high density suburbs." However, the Brookings chart characterizes  only total population growth, which is the combination of the natural growth rate, net international migration and net domestic migration. In other words, the Brookings Institution chart includes both people who move between areas of the United States and the net of those who move from outside the United States, are born or died.

Perhaps the most befuddled was the Arch Daily, which says that "people are leaving the suburbs and once again flocking to the cities..."  In fact exurban and suburban areas continue to grow, though their growth rates have fallen. The highly touted decline in exurban growth rates is for one year only (2010-2011) and represents only the first year in the last 20 that the exurban has trailed that of the "city/high density suburbs." It is also the first year out of the last 20 that the "city/high density suburbs" did not trail both the suburbs and exurbs.

However, aggregate growth rates say nothing about moving to or from cities. Only one of the components of population change, domestic migration, can possibility indicate movement from the suburbs and exurbs to the cities. People who migrate from outside the nation, for example, are not moving from suburbs to the city (the suburbs of Paris don't count). People who are born or die are not migrating from the suburbs to the cities (where they might come from or are going has been the source of endless debate through history). The only people who can possibly be moving from suburbs and exurbs to the city are domestic migrants ---people who move within the United states.

Figure 1 indicates the components of population change in the core counties of the nation's 51 metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population (there are no city level migration data).

  • There was a net gain in natural growth of 556,000 (births minus deaths)
  • There was a net gain in international migration of 295,000 (people who moved from outside the nation to the core counties.
  • There was a net loss in domestic migrants of 67,000. These US residents moved  away from the core counties.

As we indicated in Still Moving to the Suburbs and Exurbs: The 2011 Census Estimates, there was net domestic migration to the suburbs and exurbs between 2010 and 2011. There was net domestic migration out of the central counties (there is no "city" migration data). This is illustrated in Figure 2, which has been annotated to make the actual moving of people clear.

If it should ever occur, it will be very clear when people are moving to the cores from the suburbs and exurbs. There will be PLUS domestic migration numbers to the core counties and MINUS domestic migration numbers from the suburbs and exurbs. Until that time any flocking (though that is too strong a word for current trends) will be away from the cores and to the suburbs and exurbs.

Of course, in the greatest economic downturn in more than 75 years, domestic migration has slowed considerably. It is not surprising, therefore that population growth rates in the exurbs and suburbs have fallen, since far fewer people are moving.

All Domestic Migration was to the Suburbs: Finally, all of the net domestic migration in the nation was to the suburbs and exurbs of the nation's major metropolitan areas (Also see Figure 2).

On the Health of Exurban Housing Markets

On a related subject, University of South Florida Professor Steven Polzin offered an interesting comment on the Planetizen site:

While I have not explicitly researched the distribution of home foreclosures as a function of the transportation costs of residents, I would caution analysts to more fully explore the nature of the housing foreclosure trend before jumping to the assumption that transportation costs were a significant contributor to geographically differential rates of foreclosure. Foreclosures were more prominent in homes purchased more recently relative to the housing crash. These new home purchasers were more often highly leveraged, had little equity in their home, and in many cases younger workers with less job seniority and more susceptible to layoffs. In addition, in fringe areas that had been growing there was a high concentration of homes all purchased recently. Thus, new growth areas were more susceptible to both foreclosures and the cascading effect of home depreciation spreading based on nearby foreclosed properties.

In a new suburb a young financially extended family may lose their job, have no equity in the house and quickly lose their house. Its depreciated value is soon reflected in adjacent appraisals cascading the stress throughout relatively fragile neighborhoods. On the other hand in established neighborhoods only a relatively small share of the homes changed hands near the peak of the building bubble. Thus, many of those homeowners had far more equity in their home and perhaps more job seniority and security enabling them to whether a housing downturn. In addition, the diversity of home ages and types and the less frequent occurrence of foreclosed properties will control the pace at which home value depreciation will cascade through the neighborhood.

If commuting cost was as big a contributor to suburban fringe foreclosure rates then one would have expected downtown condominiums to weather the housing bubble. In many locations like Florida large clusters of new downtown residential properties suffered the same rapid depreciation as did suburban fringe areas. The concentration of new units seemed to be more critical than the location.

Similar sentiments have been posted on these pages from time to time, such as here and here.