The Dreaded LULU

Smart GrowthIn planning vibrant cities, residents get excited about parks, multi-use dense neighborhoods and public transit. But there are also necessities that most folks don’t want near their houses or workplaces: power plants, heavy industry, halfway houses or shelters are also necessary for societies to run effectively and thrive.  The authors of The Smart Growth Manual called these developments “Locally Undesirable Land Uses” or LULUs.

Where LULUs get built should be planned as carefully as we plan the locations of highways or bike paths. If, because of a lack of political will or imagination, the LULUs collect in the part of the region with the least political capital, that area will become or remain blighted. Shortsighted politics can put resources in places that compound their negative attributes, this reduces their ability to accomplish the purposes they’re designed for.

At the same time, no benevolent dictator should decide at random where things should go. In an ideal situation, a regional design authority can create plans to distribute LULUs in a way that is both equitable and efficient to the geographic and cultural realities of the region. Then, that planning group can share this plan with the public to try to understand the concerns of the community. Though some single-issue residents can create counterproductive discussions, engaging with the public usually uncovers insights that are impossible to uncover through any other method. Public comment provides a way to bring the views of a wider audience into the conversation and give planners access to view they wouldn’t necessarily hear otherwise. Read more

Abandoned Corporate Headquarters, Spurned Suburbs, and The End of Sprawl

GE Headquarters

GE Headquarters

The Wall Street Journal ran a story today that highlights the fallout from building sprawl. It explores US suburbs’ struggle to deal with abandoned corporate headquarters.

“Companies from General Electric to Weyerhaeuser are pulling their headquarters out of leafy* suburban campuses and moving downtown.”

The small communities that host these headquarters make huge infrastructure investments to accommodate these employers. They’re also asked to grant tax breaks to woo these companies. Even dinosaurs like Sears, a few years from extinction, can extract this type of benefit by playing one suburb or state against another. Unfortunately for towns like Upper Saddle River, outside of New York, which recently lost Pearson Education, these companies can’t extort the talent they need in the same way they extort the communities they occupy. Read more

Against the Streetcar

Street carsStreetcars are a bad idea. They embody the worst of the two classic kinds of public transit. They aren’t flexible like buses, which can move between routes and have their routes altered with relatively little cost. They don’t avoid traffic like trains do because they use the streets. To make matters worse, street cars that don’t have dedicated lanes cannot change lanes if there’s something obstructing their path. In this case, streetcars move slower and cost more than busses, without delivering any benefit.

Yet cities are constructing or planning to build streetcars in Detroit, Grand RapidsMilwaukee, and Cincinnati, and
this list is limited to cities in the Midwest. It’s my firm hope that the notion of a streetcar never becomes popular in Chicago. Public transit funds are precious and we need to use them as best we can to make a system that serves the people the best. Bad transit can kill economic opportunity especially for the poor. Read more

A Very Bad Idea from Russian Railways

From an article in this week’s Economist:

A more radical approach to powering trains is that proposed by Russian Railways, which says it is designing a nuclear-powered train in conjunction with Rosatom, the state nuclear giant. Able to generate immense power, such a train could, in theory, move extremely fast or be used to supply power to a remote town or industrial site, using an on-board reactor similar to those found in nuclear submarines. Even if this nuclear-powered train takes to the rails, however, concern about the consequences of a derailment will probably impede widespread adoption.

Woah. That is nuts.

I take a pretty pro-nuclear power stance generally. A more sensible storage policy for waste and the construction of new safer nuclear power plants would make a huge difference in carbon emissions in the US, but this idea is pretty out there.  Imagine the security, and safety issues; there’s a reason we don’t build power plants in the middle of cities. Also, as The Economist notes trains sometimes derail. If  a train had a nuke on it and it hit a truck… that would be bad.