Friday, April 17, 2009

Density debates in Oakland, the Brooklyn of the West …

Oakland    Few places in the nation crystallize modern America as well as Oakland, California.  One of the most diverse cities in the country – diverse both in range of wealth as well as in race – Oakland stretches from fantastic million-dollar hillside homes to some of the most dangerous slums in the country, along with corporate headquarters and major league sports teams.  As the bluer-collar side of a very wealthy, educated, and white-collar oriented metro area, with convenient public transportation, comparatively low housing costs, and a pleasant climate (without all the fog of that other city across the Bay) and wealthy exurbs that strain against the mountains behind it, Oakland should have been set for a great revival in recent years.  And indeed it did, to some extent, boom during the recent boom – its population even rose to all-time high of nearly 400,000 (bigger than Minneapolis or St. Louis) and a revived downtown.
   But happiness has not come to Oakland as quickly or as thoroughly as circumstances might have suggested.  It has not really become “the Brooklyn of the West.”  (I thought I had just coined this, but Google has disabused me.)  One reason is a disturbingly high crime rate (see this article in this week’s Economist).  Another is a contentious debate over density.  Commentator Joel Kotkin has chastised former Oakland mayor Jerry Brown and others for slow-growth policies that hamstring California today.  Columnist Chip Johnson also criticizes what he views as excessive zoning and land use restrictions in the city.  But Oakland is considering widespread changes that would allow for greater density and height in the city.  Some may complain that they don’t want Oakland to become overbuilt, like Dallas or Los Angeles.  But, hey, what about Vancouver – another west coast city with a diverse population, very high density of modern buildings, some serious crime problems, and but all in all a success story? …

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April 17, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Public transportation, in the heart of the Sunbelt …

   I went to Ft. Worth, Texas, this week and decided, as I often do on travel, to check out the public transportation, both for the adventure of it and to assess the nation’s commitment, or lack thereof, to alternatives to the car.  It is often an eye-opening experience.
   Finding online, before leaving, that the Trinity Railway Express (TRE) runs from the huge DFW airport to downtown Ft. Worth, just blocks from my hotel, I decide to take the plunge, with visions of a train pulling right up to my terminal, as in Washington, DC, or many European cities.  Although I’m scheduled to arrive after dark, the online schedule indicates that a few trains run late into the evening.  Rail-TRE    Upon arriving at the DFW terminal, I look for signs to the train.  Seeing only a sign for “Ground Transportation,” I follow the arrows.  I’m quickly dumped outside along a lonely service road, surrounded by acres of concrete (like much from the 1970s, the mighty DFW airport has not aged well).  I see arrows heading to a taxi stand and rental cars, but no train.  After a little wandering around, I find a phone for information, supposedly reached by dialing single digits.  I pick up the phone, get a welcome message, and then notice a sign that says to dial “0” for “public transportation.”  I dial “0,” but then receive the same welcome message.  I try again, with the same results.  Stymied, I then try “8,” for “Remote” (what’s this?) and am connected to a human being.  I ask how to locate the TRE train.  I’m told to take a bus to “Remote South,” and then another bus for the TRE.  I sigh, wait for the “Remote South” bus (which arrives with no indication that this is the way to get to the TRE) and, many miles and a half hour of travel across the north Texas prairie, finally arrive at a nearly deserted rural train stop.  No building; no employee; no working Snickers machine (and dang, by then I was hungry).    
   After a brief panic that I have only a lone single and 20 dollar bills for what I expect will be a few-buck ride (it’s $2.50), I’m thrilled that the outside ticket machine both accepts credit cards and actually works.  The double-decked(!) train arrives on-time.  The nearly deserted conveyance is clean and gets me to Ft. Worth on-time.  Over the next two days, I hop on the TRE for a round trip to Dallas – it’s also on-time, busier, and holds a more diverse array of customers than on my first night – and then successfully use it get back to DFW at dawn today.
   I return home to news that President Obama (story and video here) wants to have the government fund more high-speed rail lines, including one through the self-proclaimed cow town of Ft. Worth.
  My conclusions?  We spend, and probably will spend, much money on rail lines that work fairly well, as far as they go.  But the option of public transportation, especially extra-urban rail, still has not worked its way into our nation’s consciousness, and we do not do the little things that would facilitate its use.  Until then, the United States will not join countries such as Japan and those of western Europe (see Obama’s speech) as a nation in which rail is once again an integral part of the nation’s land use fabric …

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April 16, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bacchus versus Stoic, on the beach in Florida …

   Among the contradictions of the American psyche that worm their way into land use law is the combination of, on one hand, an acceptance of even wild-eyed “individual expression” with, on the other, a puritan regulation of alcohol use.  This contradiction is playing out in a local controversy at Sunset Beach, a peninsula that is part of the city of Treasure Island near me on Florida’s Gulf coast.  

    The beach is one of few in the area in which alcohol has been permitted.  This system of varied laws seems to be a good Tieboutian approach, under which government laws create a market:  those who want to avoid alcohol have many other options, while those who want to drink choose Sunset Beach.  One of the better results of the compromise is a famous beach bar and restaurant called Caddy’s, where patrons watch the sun set with sand under toes from pleasant beach tables.
    But the attraction of alcohol and beach-going is sometimes too much; residents have complained that this spring’s tourist season brought an overflow of cars (it’s a dead end peninsula, remember), drunks, and urination.  This unpleasant situation led to a proposal before the city council to at least temporarily ban drinking on the beach.
   But, at least for now, Bacchus holds the field.  Faced with much public opposition to the proposed change, the city council decided last week not to put the ban to a vote.  I suspect that this compromise may not hold.  Last call? …

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April 13, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)