Monthly Archives: December 2011

Dopeman Music

When I was living in Houston without a car, I used to periodically bus up to IAH and rent one for errands, fun, etc. Repeatedly I’d reserve a midsize, then be offered a minimal-cost upgrade to an SUV (usually a Ford Escape). Unlimited mileage, those cars were driven all over the place. We did 90 through the one-lane section where the Westpark dives under 59. It was a blast.

The one time I actually needed an SUV – I was building a daybed and needed to pick up a twin mattress – they were out of every Escape-sized vehicle. But would I consider upgrading to a full-size?

Well, yes. I got the keys and walked out to a low-mile Yukon XL, leather everything, automatic trunk pop, backup camera, the works. Hellllllz yeah. Turned on the ignition, heard Rap, figured it was tuned to The Box. Some good shit though. Only when I got out to JFK did I realize “wait, this is a CD.” Press eject.


I still got the CD. Was listening to it tonight, running errands, rolling narrow and icy roads.

The way I usually tell it to people is this:
Fly to Houston, rent the bling SUV, and the gangsta rap comes pre-installed.

Heroic Infrastructure.

So I’m contemplating how we’re going to get into NYC on NYE. I roll without EZPass, and am used to a 40-minute wait at the Holland Tunnel on a normal weekend… I can’t imagine what NYE will look like.

Anyway, I look up the Verrazano and Wiki says it was the longest suspension bridge in the world! For 17 years! All the way from 1964 ’til 1981. And before that it was the Golden Gate, the George, and a bunch of American bridges going back to 1849.

Basically, this was a title we held continuously for 115 years.

What the hell happened?

PDX and the Sanctity of the Bungalow

Hypothesis: The common denominator between all Portland development and infrastructure projects is the need to preserve the Bungalow, the archetypical “craftsman” single-family detached residence. Official literature touts PDX as being a center of “smart growth,” but E. Kimbark MacColl was writing about a city of “backyards and barbeques” back in the 70’s, and wherever smart growth runs into established neighborhoods of single-family, 1.5-story dwellings, “preservation” wins out over “density” or “mixed use” every time.

The first Portland freeways escaped criticism because they bypassed bungalows. The Banfield clung to a freight rail corridor, the Baldock repurposed an existing interurban right-of-way, and Canyon was a piecemeal improvement of an existing highway. I-5 north took out houses, but those were largely black neighborhoods, and blacks in the 50’s didn’t have a lot of political sway over highway alignments. The first freeway to require bungalow demolition in white neighborhoods was the Mount Hood. It was a thick swath, with feeder roads and a wide median reserved fur future transit corridors, very similar to Houston’s SH 288. The Mount Hood, not conincidentally, is the one that got canceled, the “turning point” in the Portland myth where the city repented to pursue alternative transportation, smart growth, whathaveyou.

Since then, every big Portland project has avoided the bungalows. The headline urban districts – first the Pearl, now the South Waterfront – were both constructed on former industrial land. Portland built a new freeway through industrial sections as late as the 80’s (the US 30 – Yeon connector), and the Sunrise Corridor will likewise take out some warehousey stuff. So we know warehouses are fair game. What about other uses?

Portland has three major groupings of residential zoning (the headline districts use EXd, which is sort of a “hack”, since it’s nominally an “employment” district but allows unlimited residential units subject to design review). On the low-density end you have R7’s and R10’s which are sixth- and quarter-acre lots, respectively. You really only find it on the outskirts, near where Portland runs into unabashedly suburban places like Milwaukie or Gresham. On the high-density end you have various R1 and R2 zones and their friends, which are used for everything from inner-city apartment blocks to suburban garden units. And in the middle is R5, the sacred bungalow zone. So check out a zoning map:

The first thing you’ll notice here is strip zoning. Pretty much everything that fronts on an arterial is commercial or mixed-use. But if you get even 150′ from that arterial you’re into protected R5. Now, you might hear that this is to promote transit development and whatnot. But transit accessibility is determined by walking distance, which is the same on a sidestreet as it is along the arterial. Here, the sidestreets don’t allow transit development, which tells you the strip zoning is there not to encourage transit use but to push development to the fringes of bungalow neighborhoods. Arterial-frontage lots in southeast Portland are mostly single-story retail, which is fair game for redevelopment.

The second thing you’ll notice is how there are big chunks of higher-density zoning to the east, around 82nd. Now, one might ask, why? The inner neighborhoods are the more desirable ones, they’ve got more parks and retail within any given walking distance, rents are higher, commutes are shorter. But here all the allowed density is out along 82nd. Doesn’t make sense if you’re thinking in terms of urban services, etc. But it makes shitloads of sense when you realize that the inner ring is bungalows, the outer ring is ranchers. 40’s and 50’s ranch houses aren’t sacred the way bungalows are sacred. They don’t exude that “Craftsman charm.” So it’s OK to tear them down for redevelopment.

Some might argue that this zoning is there because of Green Line MAX, that this is actually transit-oriented development. But this isn’t the case. For one thing, these higher densities continue well east of any MAX station walk circle:

For another thing, closer-in MAX stations, like 60th Street, have R5-protected bungalows within 100 yards of the damn platform:

So the list of building typologies it’s okay to demo and redevelop are:
-Heavy Industrial
-Light Industrial
-Postwar residential

Stuff that’s off-limits?

Fanis Grammenos’ follow-up to his Portland-grid diss ends with a praise of protected bungalow zoning in Ladd’s Addition:

Having a strong sense of community identity and an appreciation of its valued attributes, residents fought and achieved a down-zoning of its future density. Though by no means urban at 7 dwelling units per acre (18 per ha), it seems to produce a satisfying milieu. The residents have embraced the result and the APA lauds their strong attachment.


The primary problem with bungalow preservation uber alles is that it’s a mismatch with all the rest of the Portland region’s policies regarding growth and transport. The specific issues that arise from this mismatch depend on which perspective you address it from.

From a “smart growth” standpoint, zoning based on bungalow preservation acts to stunt growth. It prevents east and north Portland from experiencing the kinds of density increases that have spread throughout Houston’s inner loop. There is, fundamentally, no reason why the entire swath of Portland north of Woodstock, west of 50th, and south of Fremont could not be zoned EXd tomorrow. Certainly the demand is there. And Portland’s older neighborhoods have more going for them than the brand-new from-scratch places like the Pearl or South Waterfront.

From a “bungalows uber alles” standpoint, Portland’s transport setup is poorly designed. Longstanding decisions to run MAX light rail at grade in Downtown render it useless for crosstown trips. When I lived in PDX I was known to hop off at Goose Hollow and ride a bike to Lloyd Center, jumping 2 or 3 trains ahead in the schedule by doing so.

If the bungalows are the heart of Portland than it’s important to make them accessible, and that means better connections to the region’s employment centers. In this respect I call out the Sellwood Bridge reconstruction plan as particularly bad. The Sellwood redo should have been part of a major east-west capacity addition – a 4- or 6-lane bridge, conversion of Tacoma Street to half of a one-way couplet, and widening of portions of Taylor’s Ferry, Terwilliger, and Multnomah Boulevards.

Then again, perhaps no one wants a six-lane Sellwood. Either method is a legitimate growth strategy. You can accept that auto traffic will get worse, and instead focus on upzoning and building out transit infrastructure and upzone. New York City follows this approach; they haven’t added any new auto capacity in well over fifty years, and the only transport improvements being seriously planned all run on rails. You can also build a city full of single-family zoning, and focus on building the highway infrastructure this requires. Phoenix comes to mind. The vast majority of Maricopa county is zoning-restricted to a sprawling, low-rise form. But the freeways are new and smooth, arterials are being expanded, and there’s even a light rail system that I hear is doing pretty well.

My personal preference hews towards allowing everything, like Houston does. Houston just passed an extension of the “urban” area (which allows higher densities), and they’re building craptons of light rail that will support a denser, more urban form. At the same point, highways have not been neglected, whether you’re talking about rebuilds of inner-loop radial freeways or outer beltways like the always-controversial Segment E. You can have your cake and eat it too.

But the common denominator between all these cities is that their land use plans and transport plans are in harmony with each other. Phoenix’s highways support its sprawl. New York’s rail lines support increased urban densities. And Houston, which has no zoning at all, is building a bunch of highways *and* trains so pretty much whatever happens, they’re down. But Portland is building bike lanes and slow-loris light rail while simultaneously prohibiting urban redevelopment in almost all of its myriad low-density neighborhoods. What’s up with that?

Portlandia and the Importance of the Jog

Moved HERE

How it’s done.

Check out this suburban intersection in Calgary:

Obviously, not my personal favorite style of development. But if you are going to build this sort of low-density, segregated-use, single-family (and a lot of us prefer this stuff), this is how to. The right-of-way banking at this intersection is agnostic – it could support a grade separation with uninterrupted movement on either the east-west or the north-south arterial. On the non-road side, there’s a good heirarchy of green space – improved parks/ballfields within the neighborhoods, and the much-vaunted “open space” with trails outside.

A lot of the big MPCs in Houston do a good job with this sort of park heirarchy. The Woodlands comes to mind. But the Woodlands absolutely fails at moving the massive east-west traffic flows which attempt to use its arterials every morning. It can take longer to get from the back of the Woodlands to the front than it does to get the rest of the way downtown via the Hardy or the HOV.

People tend to brush past this when they talk about Calgary being transit-centric. Certainly, it’s got a great system – the C-Train provides 21-22 hours of a coverage a day and runs every 15 minutes from the moment the trains start, every 3 minutes during the rush. But when you hear people talk up Calgary’s transit, they’ll say stuff like “the city chose not to build freeways connecting Downtown.” That’s technically true, in the sense that there’s no “10th Avenue Expressway” spitting out traffic right at the heart of the core. But Calgary didn’t and doesn’t exactly neglect auto infrastructure.

For one thing, Downtown has a dense arterial network connecting it to those freeways which don’t quite go all the way there. From the west, a combined 14 lanes are available via Memorial, Bow Trail, and the 11th/12th Couplet. From the east, there’s 12 lanes between Memorial and 9th alone, more if you count some of the other arterial routes in.

For another thing, Calgary is big on grade separations. Streets have a few (Blackfoot) or maybe five or six (Memorial) or even twelve (16th Avenue). You can actually get pretty good performance out of an arterial network this way. A 45mph arterial grid with grade separations (Calgary) can provide the same travel times as a 60mph freeway network which interfaces with a 35mph arterial grid with stoplights everywhere (Houston).

So give these guys credit for planning. Give ‘em credit for running an LRT system that doesn’t degrade into suburban bus-type headways after 10pm like Trimet does. But don’t drop any narratives about “showing a way forward with less dependence on cars” or some sort of thing like that. Calgary’s got a solid highway network, and they’re planning for more.


Why are we randomly chucking citations at Numbers and Avant Garden?

From a process perspective, you need to provide written warnings and some objective means of compliance (e.g., decibel meters) before you go around passing out citations.

From a land use perspective, Siouxsie was playing #’s long before any of those condos or townhomes went in.

All good Libertarians are pro-transit

It constantly blows me away that rank and file (L)’s don’t like trains. I can understand the REASON foundation or someone else who’s getting a frackload of money from the oil companies, contractors, etc. But the rank and file?

To me it’s really simple.

Once upon a time, there were trains. They were private. And it was good. A Krugman- or Yglesias-style argument in favor of stimulus will point out that the transcontinental railroads were made possible by ginormous land grants from the federal government, a clear-cut “in kind” capital cost subsidy. And of course, they’re right. But there was no operating subsidy. The Rainhill Trials, that was all private financing. And more important, all the streetcar and urban rail was private too. The BMT was private (and tasty), the Key System was private, and the Galveston-Houston Electric Railway, that was definitely private.

Sometimes the trains were tied up with land development interests (private) or freight railroads (private) or utility companies (TRUSTS!), and once in a blue moon they were even public from the start. But for the most part it was all capitalism, “free enterprise” in the preferred GOP newspeak.

Meanwhile, governments large and small set about using YOUR TAX DOLLARS to build FREE competitors to the trains. In 1926 we came up with numbers and then in 1935 we dumped scads of money into roads. We also made it ILLEGAL for an electric company to own a streetcar company, which, if you think about it, is really stupid, since the primary infrastructure of an electric company is a bunch of wires and the primary infrastructure of a streetcar network is also… a bunch of wires, and the primary nonlabor input to streetcars is electricity, which electric companies sort of by definition have in spades… but hey, it was the 30’s, Americans had been screwed by Wall Street, they were tired of monopolies, shit happened.

Now you’d think that this would kill the trains. Certainly, more than a few small-town trolleys folded once the electric company umbilical cord was cut. But actually what happened was the trains came back stronger than ever. Basically, the “free enterprise” railroads decided to take their subsidized government competition head-on. And the result was this:

But, the government just kept on building highways. And not only that, they passed a law that said trains could only do 80mph unless the railroads installed a ridiculously expensive signaling system. So what did the railroads do? They all went and bought these:

In fact, the 50’s turned into the greatest decade for passenger rail. Smoothsides and E-Units were cranked out by the hundreds. Even commuter trains got streamlined. So what did the feds do? They went and did this:

And what did the cities and states do? Well, they spent a whole frackload of money building these:

And against that two-front assault, the trains folded. Most of the interurbans and streetcars got tore out in the 50’s. Railroad petitions to abandon passenger service really took off in the 60’s. In 1971, Amtrak took over most of the passenger trains and immediately cut over half the routes. In fact, far from being the national savior of passenger rail which some now ascribe to it, Amtrak was originally intended to facilitate an orderly wind-down of passenger service in the US. That’s why it doesn’t have a guaranteed funding source, why it’s constantly subject to the whims of who’s appropriating this year, why it squirrels away money like a battered housewife and why it maintains a staunch institutional commitment to incrementalism. It simply wasn’t intended to be a permanent entity.

Nowadays you propose a train system and (L)’s and (R)’s scream “socialism.” For me, that’s a serious WTF moment. Because railroads were PRIVATE ENTITIES THAT SUCCESSFULLY FOUGHT FREE PUBLIC COMPETITION FOR NEARLY FORTY YEARS.

So let’s posit an alternate history eh?

In 1926, the federal government nationalizes the core, trunk national rail system. (They leave the little branch lines and whatnot to private operators). They don’t make huge improvements at first, but they do create standardized train names, lots of reliable clockwork long-distance routes, and publish it all in a big national timetable.

Soon after, the depression hits. In 1935 the WPA and the PWA began sinking money into railroads in earnest. The biggest programs are electrification – where the US is still using steam in the 30’s, by the time the program wraps in 1943 you can travel under wire nonstop from NYC to LA, from Miami to Seattle.

In 1946 the federal government passes the “60mph rule,” which installs a maximum speed limit of 60mph on all public and private highways unless continuous rubberized guardrails are installed on both sides of the road. The Pennsylvania Turnpike installs these, and later the New Jersey Turnpike follows, but highway authorities elsewhere find the cost to be prohibitive.

Nevertheless, the nation’s automobility won’t be tied down. Throughout the 50’s, more people are driving cars then EVER. So in 1956, the federal government passes the “national system of interstate and defense railways.” From whole cloth, an entirely new system of high-speed railroads is constructed. These are fully grade separated, allowing speeds of 130mph throughout the system. Meanwhile, states and cities embark on subway programs throughout the 60’s and 70’s, replacing slow surface streetcars with fast municipal trains.

What do you think such a system would look like?

Well, it’s not even a hypothetical question, because I’ve just described Japan.

OK, so there was never any 60mph turnpike speed limit. But the basic outline – government nationalizes railway, government spends lots of money on electrification, government then constructs brand-new parallel high-speed system out of whole cloth – is exactly the history of the JR Group.

Know what? JR is private. Well, it’s private in the sense that GM is private. The Japanese National Railways had a whole chunk of debt from building the Shinkansen system, so the Japanese government spun it off into two companies – one that just held the primary rail assets, one that held the debt and other assorted frivolities. All the union contracts were renogiated. Pretty much like “old GM” and “new GM.”

But if that doesn’t quite meet your definition of “free enterprise”, you can’t really argue with the 100% privately owned suburban railways, which have survived by successfully competing with the government railway for 80 years.

That’s the Moonlight Echigo, doing about 55 by my estimate.

Other trains are faster. The Hokuhoku line runs at 100 (160km/h):

Should we try to emulate Japan? Naw. For one thing, that rail network is supported by a density that doesn’t exist here. And I’m cool with that. No, if I had to pick a country to emulate, it’d be Germany, ‘cuz you get ICE-T‘s and unrestricted Autobahns. But the truth is I don’t want to emulate any country. We build kickass roads here in the US of A. We used to build kickass trains, too. In fact, back in the 60’s, Japanese train companies licensed American train technology. Think about that for a minute. The Japanese… paid for our train knowhow.

Blows your mind.

So what I want, is for us to take our proven national badassery as regards highways and apply it to fast trains. And I want the (L)’s and the (R)’s to stop acting like roads that are half-funded by gas taxes are some sort of capitalist paradise while trains are an evil government plot to brainwash you into collectivism.

Trains were the original private enterprise. Roads were pretty much always socialism. That’s why the stuff on your N scale layout is all painted different eye-catching colors, whereas the highways all look pretty much the same. And (R)’s wanna call Amtrak a “Soviet-style operation”? Please commit Seppuku.

Then let’s build some more trains.