Thursday, July 9, 2009

The risks of relying on rail …

   This is another “hometown week” post about my old hometown of Silver Spring, Md.  I don’t usually write about transportation policy in this blog, in part because the topic can swallow up everything else.  But today is an exception.  Near my old hometown was the fatal crash of the Washington Metrorail train a few weeks back.  The crash and its aftermath have slowed the one-track-each-way Metrorail red line, famous for its running through the wealth and power corridor of Northwest Washington (Silver Spring is on the other, unfashionable side).  Having ridden the red line every day for more than a decade, I see this crash as an example of some of the drawbacks of a public transportation policy that places so much Metro emphasis on a thin rail system.  Metro depends on the uncertain largesse of the federal and local government, and in certain aspects the system shows all the distress of a typical underfunded government project.  For example, the red and green lights that tell riders whether a turnstile is set to enter or exit have faded so much over the past 30 years that many stations have resorted to crude hand-written signs, crudely taped on the turnstiles; in other stations, it is simply trial and error for hopeful riders.  This week came news that the technical problem that Metrorail failed to notice probably would have been noticed by San Francisco’s BART, which is often compared (sometimes favorably, sometimes unfavorably) to Washington’s Metro. 
     The focus of so much money and transportation policy on one complicated rail system holds great risks.  If I were to run public transportation policy, I would put more money and emphasis on dedicated-lane bus routes – a simpler and cheaper technology and more flexible from of transportation, but something that is sorely lacking in many cities in which billions have been  spent on the more glamorous systems of rail ….

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July 9, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

“Hometown week” … and the tentative success of diversity ….

     I’m spending July in my old hometown of Silver Spring, Md., which in my humble opinion is a rich locale for examining topics of land use law.  Accordingly, I introduce “hometown week.”
SilverSpring-downtown     Silver Spring is a large suburb in Montgomery County, just north of Washington, DC.  While Montgomery County used to be nearly all white and had the highest median household income in the nation when I was young, the eastern half of the county – including Silver Spring – has become far more racially diverse over the past few decades, in part because of migration of black and Latino families from Washington, DC, and elsewhere, and in part because of Montgomery County’s famously inclusive zoning laws, which have encouraged the construction of large numbers of moderately priced apartment buildings in the eastern part of the county.
    I have been critical of the county’s expenditure of millions of dollars over the past decade to foster the building of a new planned “downtown” shopping district – Starbucks, Borders, a mainstream movie center, and a number of independent restaurants – which was called a “revival” of Silver Spring by proponents, but by others (OK, me) as a way for the county to encourage affluent white people to return to  downtown Silver Spring, whose old retail stretches were patronized for the most part by non-whites by the 1990s.  Earlier, smaller-scale efforts at “revitalization” were less than successful, in part because the number of white patrons tipped below sustainable levels (in my opinion).  A couple of years ago, however, it was apparent that the big new planned “downtown” was quite successful, in sheer numbers:  the sidewalks teemed with people all days of the week, and even less popular retail outlets, such as the kabob place, seemed to be doing well.  What fascinated me most was the racial makeup of the crowd:  My rough estimate placed a typical cross-section of the patrons at about 50 percent black, 30 percent white, and 20 percent Latino (with some Asians as well, of course).  Some social commentators have suggested that this kind of community patronage is inherently unstable – that many if not most white Americans (even non-racist ones) will discontinue (in other words, “flee”) social situations in which they are the minority.
    Returning to downtown Silver Spring last week, I endeavored to see whether the crowd had “tipped” beyond the point of ensuring diversity.  To my pleasure, the patrons seemed to reflect the same mix as two years ago.  The bulk of whites do not appear to have decamped elsewhere for their entertainment.  True, Silver Spring may be not reflect mainstream America:  White residents here tend to be rather liberal, and by their presence in the area, with schools that reflect a deep diversity, they presumably tend to be the more tolerant type.  But it is still satisfying to see what so far has been fairly unusual, but will slowly become more common in our changing nation:  the voluntary acceptance of white people as being a minority in a community setting.  Stay tuned …

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July 7, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Floodplains and FEMA … and parentalism in Washington State …

   In this year of federal government intervention throughout the economy (do we really need standards for light bulbs when we have a cap-and-trade system coming, which would allow for the expression of preferences in carbon emissions?), it is no surprise that today’s land use story from the cool Pacific Northwest concerns federal insinuation in land use decisions.   Along the Snohomish River, near Monroe, Washington-st-snohomish northeast of Seattle, the county of Snohomish has permitted a mobile home park.  The area regularly floods during the wet winter months.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently informed the county that unless it uses its land use powers to move the mobile home park out of the floodplain, FEMA will withdraw insurance coverage for the county. The County thus has no real choice (quick, somebody alert Justice Thomas!).
   Isn’t it paternalism for the federal government to tell people who live in a floodplain (probably with low rents and other housing costs) that it’s unsafe to live there?  Well, sometimes paternalism makes sense.  If there’s a big flood this December, would we allow FEMA to tell residents crying for help:  “You made your floodplain home, now lie in it”?  Of course not …   

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July 1, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)