Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Central Corridor: Who is supposed to use it?

With any luck, MSP will eventually build the central corridor light rail (see details here). The basic idea is to link both downtowns with a light rail line running down University Ave. There are still lots of details to work out, funding chief among them. Also, stakeholders have not agreed on the final route through the University of Minnesota.

One thing that has troubled me about this whole venture is this: Who is supposed to benefit from this line? Who really needs to travel back and forth between the two downtowns? I guess there are probably lawyers and government folk who would benefit, but do ordinary Twin Citians need to make the trip very often?

I imagine the demographic that stands to benefit the most is commuters. Except, well, I don't quite see how the Central Corridor will help commuters all that much. Unless you live within walking distance of University Ave (between Dinkytown on the west and Rice St on the east), you'll have to take a bus and transfer to get on the light rail line itself. But wait--you're already on a bus! And buses go downtown! Hmmm. Maybe I'm not seeing something.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Metropolitan Ecosystems

Tonight, I got into a conversation with a fellow resident about (big surprise!) cities. I (as you know) have moved here to Minneapolis from Cleveland. He (the fellow resident, that is) moved here from San Diego. We talked a bit about why Minneapolis is a pretty cool city. There are, of course, a lot of advantages. Tonight, I want to write a bit about the city as a ecosystem which serves a broad and varied demographic.

A city works when it can provide enough variety of lifestyles in enough quantity to fulfill demand. Remember, there are two "enoughs" in that previous sentence: enough VARIETY, and enough QUANTITY.

Let's unpack that a bit. Take a look at Cleveland. Why is the region faltering? In many ways, the region is ideal. The suburbs are beautiful, well-maintained, with great houses and great schools. The cost of living is low, the amenities are great (visit the lake! visit the parks!), the transportation network is solid, and so on. These are all wonderful virtues of the suburban world.

But wait.... virtues of the suburban world? Now we're hitting on something. The Cleveland region provides a high-quality "traditional" suburban lifestyle to a huge number of people. And indeed, there are hundreds of thousands of families in the region who want just that lifestyle.

There are, however, demographics who do not want that lifestyle. I am among them. I am an urbanist, and want to live in a vibrant, diverse city with a lot of economic opportunity. I flatter myself to think that I am NOT the only former Clevelander who has these priorities. As a matter of fact, I know a number of people who left Cleveland for exactly this reason.

So what is Minneapolis doing right? It is still largely a suburban region. The vast majority of my coworkers have families and live in the burbs.

But not all of them. Many people still do live in the city. The housing stock in the city itself is fantastic. The fellow resident (from San Diego) just bought a place in southwest Minneapolis, a gorgeous neighborhood. The city offers a much more urban llfestyle, plainly put. The variety, and quantity, of cultural events is simply stunning. And, I might add, the availability of mid-level professional jobs is a significant incentive to locate here (more on that in another post).

Ok, enough blind praise for the moment. I'll write more about the economic ladder later.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Driving Rules India-Style

In my previous article, I wrote a little bit about India and referred to the new super-cheap ($2500!) car from Tata motors. This reminded me of a rather hilarious and scary-as-hell YouTube video of traffic at an intersection in India. Please go ahead and watch it. It's intense.

(Pause while reader watches crazy video).

Ok, so why do I bring this up? What does this have to do with urban studies?

Well, obviously it's an amazing example of how it is indeed possible to have a functioning transportation network without the firm hand of the law AND without ingrained safety-minded behavior among drivers themselves. The astounding thing about this video is that there aren't any accidents during the whole thing. To be fair, accident (and fatalities resulting from them) are way higher in developing countries, India included. But still, this video should give you pause: It is possible to loosen restrictions on driving and still have a working system (crazy as it is).

In Holland, there are certain streets in which all forms of traffic are allowed, and no visual markers exist to delineate which portion of the street is available for which mode. Pedestrian, bikers (motorized and non), and cars all tool down the same street. Cars drive slow as hell, because there are people walking right in front of them. It's not exactly an efficient system from a driver's point of view, but accident rates are far lower and non-vehicular transportation modes are much more viable.

Back From the Dead

Well, I'm back from a several-months hiatus. I suppose an explanation is in order: I started grad school (again!) last September. My time management is not so hot, and I found that schoolwork was simply taking up a lot more time than I had anticipated. With the new semester starting next week, however, I'm optimistic that I can devote the time necessary to post regularly. I'm shooting for three posts per week (Monday / Wednesday / Friday). With any luck, the gods of urbanism (Jane Jacobs, can you hear me!?) will smile upon me and grant my wish.

So let's get back to the plan: cities! What are they? What does it mean to live in one? Will they still exist 50 years from now? Is suburban sprawl and endless force marching over all we urbanists love? Will a Democratic administration (cross your fingers!) be a more urban-friendly administration?

Whoa there. That's a bit much to cover in one entry. I will, however, speak briefly about question #3: Will cities still exist 50 years from now?

The long-term viability of cities has been a fascinating question as long as urban studies has existed. Admittedly, that's not a very long time. Even before urban studies was called urban studies, however, people have wondered whether cities--or, more properly, urban agglomerations--would always exist.

There are indeed interesting arguments suggesting that cities won't last: chief among them is the influence that information technology has in making it possible to distribute work geographically. In a word: telecommuting. The no-cities-in-the-future-ists tell us that telecom allows for the geographic decentralization of work. Everyone can just call / fax / email / vpn his way to work, and voila! The economy will tick along, only no one will really ever need to see coworkers face-to-face.

It's an interesting trend, but it's unclear whether telecom in the long run will really break up cities. The number of telecommuters remains small (as a percentage of American workers, anyway). The more significant impact telecom has had on the economy is that it has facilitated connections between countries. India, of course, is the obvious example: The stunning boom in telecom (brought about by American innovation, no less) led to explosive growth in IT-services delivered by India. I'm sure we're all familiar with that.

And, by the way, go check out India if you think cities are headed the way of the dodo. Every week the WSJ publishes another article about Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, or Delhi; those cities are ridiculously huge and getting bigger. Hell, even a 37-hp Tata can't stop that!