Monday, June 1, 2015

Another lesson from Caro: the importance of robust local news coverage

One less obvious lesson of Robert Caro's The Power Broker (which I wrote about last week) is about the value of old-fashioned, shoe-leather local reporting in exposing corruption. Several of his most powerful sections recounted the neighborhood deterioration caused by the Gowanus Expressway and the blatantly destruction to families and the Bronx from the Cross-Bronx Expressway. His anger at the lack of on-the-ground news reporting from the multiple New York newspapers of the time seemed to leap off the pages at me.

Today, in my city of Charlotte, local news reporting is a fading art, because of the destruction of the revenue base for city newspapers all over the country.  Worry, if you want, about the New York Times (which back in the day appears to have ignored most of what Caro was writing about), but I worry a lot more about the hundreds of newspapers in cities like Charlotte, Raleigh, Portland, Charleston (which just won a Pulitzer), Kansas City, Fort Worth, Biloxi, Cleveland and so forth. If you live in one of those places, it's your local newspaper that has aspired to cover the community well and in-depth. (Are they perfect? Of course not. But who else is better positioned to noticing what is happening on the ground, and following a story that takes months or years to ooze along and that includes no murders or car wrecks? TV reporters? Please.)

Digital news significantly lowers the entry-cost for a news operation. No presses, no paper, no delivery. For years now, conventional wisdom among the chattering classes who observe the news media has been that hyper-local news sites have a built in audience and a built-in revenue base, if they can offer good content and their community is affluent enough.

Last week, a couple of excellent hyper-local, online news operations near Charlotte folded. Davidsonnews.net and its sister Corneliusnews.net covered their communities with serious, well-reported journalism. The community of Davidson, home to Davidson College, predates its surrounding suburban communities and possesses a historic and specific sense of itself as a "place," not just a suburb. The founder and editor, David Boraks, knew his communities and knew his business.  They are affluent places with plenty of disposable income. But online advertising was not sufficient to pay reporters -- even reporters of the species so familiar to journalism: young, inexperienced, smart and energetic. He did not pay himself much, if anything.

If a freeway were destroying a neighborhood in Davidson, Boraks and his staff would have been write there, chronicling it.

He folded. Online advertising and reader donations (he never put up a pay-wall) did not bring in enough money, even after nine years.

Traditional in-print newspapers have seen serious declines in advertising revenue, which has been their major income stream.  Online advertising has not picked up the slack. The Charlotte Observer has seen round after round of layoffs and buyouts, as have most newspapers in the nation.

If he were alive today, I'm fairly sure Robert Moses would be delighted at this turn of events. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

More lanes in Houston, and longer traffic times

Here's a great example to buttress the point I made earlier today, in "Highways, congestion and a power broker's lessons." Which was this: Since at least the 1930s planners have known that adding highway lanes does not reduce congestion, but rather counter-intuitively seems to increase it.

As reported by Thursday by Angie Schmitt in Streetsblog.net,  a Houston Tomorrow analysis of driving time on the I-10 Katy Freeway found it took 51 percent more time to get from downtown to Pin Oak on the newly expanded, 23-lane freeway than it did in 2011 right after the new lanes opened. An expansion project that ended in 2010 cost $2.8 billion-with-a-B which was $1.17 billion-with-a-B more than its original price tag.

Coincidence: The Federal Highway Administration's 2012 list of projects that details the cost of the Katy Freeway also lists the Monroe Bypass, with a due date of 2016. Better get hopping on that one, guys. Or better yet, don't.

Jay Crossley of Houston Tomorrow concludes: "Traveling out I-10 is now 33% worse - almost 18 more minutes of your time - than it was before we spent $2.8 billion to subsidize land speculation and encourage more driving."

Highways, congestion and a power broker's lessons

Frontispiece of The Power Broker maps Moses' roads, bridges, parks and playgrounds. 
The headline in this morning's newspaper could not have been more appropriate for the day I have to, at long last and reluctantly, return to the UNC Charlotte library my copy of Robert A. Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

I checked it out in September 2013. It's roughly the size of a cinder block and just as heavy, and the librarians graciously let me keep renewing it, since apparently no one else wanted the tome. Which is sad. Published in 1974, it should be required reading for anyone studying public administration, transportation, planning, urban studies, political science, sociology and journalism. I finally finished it a few months ago but after so long it felt almost like a family pet and I didn't want to part with it.

The headline today: N.C. DOT says Monroe Bypass construction has started. The article by Steve Harrison notes a lawsuit over the project is still active, and it could well be stopped for a second time.

As it happens, one of Robert Moses' faithful techniques for getting money for his projects was to start work on them

Friday, April 17, 2015

N.C. transportation funding: 'If you're not at the table, you're on the menu'

A Charlotte light rail station
If you were at the Charlotte Chamber's 2015 Transportation Infrastructure Summit this morning, you got two pointed lectures. The first, from N.C. Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, was about dealing effectively with the N.C. General Assembly.

The background: North Carolina's transportation dollars aren't keeping up with needs. This is true whether you'd prefer new light rail and no roads, or new roads and no light rail, or whether you're thinking about ports, aviation and ferries. (Wonkish but important point: North Carolina doesn't have "county roads." Roads are either state- or city-maintained (or private).The state has a larger role in road-building and maintenance than in some other states.)

The gas tax, intended to support state transportation needs, is not keeping up, because people are driving less and driving more fuel-efficient cars, and transportation projects today are more expensive than in decades past.

For cities like Charlotte, growth and congestion mean more voters and businesses want mass transit as well as expanded roads. But the General Assembly today is dominated by Republicans who are more likely to represent rural or suburban districts. Here's Brawley's advice:

"Whenever you do anything to raise money for transportation ... you make people mad," he said. In that atmosphere, it's important to try to build a statewide consensus on funding before you even approach politicians. But when Charlotte comes to Raleigh seeking money for transportation projects, he said, "Charlotte comes with Charlotte-specific projects.They don't talk about the state as a whole. They don't work on building support with the state as a whole." In other words -- and this is my wording here -- act like you care about more than Charlotte.

His final words: "In Raleigh, if you're not at the table, you're on the menu."

The second lecture was even stronger. Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (whose successor is former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx) would have pounded the table if he'd had a table to pound. "Transportation infrastructure is at a crossroads. It's at a standstill," he said. "It's at a crisis."

"The long rich history of our country ... is about being No. 1 in transportation and infrastructure," he said. "We're not No. 1 in infrastructure any more. We're No. 16."

 "America is one big pothole!" he all but shouted. "Because we haven't invested. We haven't fixed up our roads."

As he's done for months -- years, really -- LaHood, a Republican from Peoria, Ill., pushed the idea of raising the federal gas tax 10 cents a gallon, and indexing it to the cost of living. The tax has not been raised since 1993.

"We need to bit the bullet," he said. "Voters are not going to vote you out of office if you fix a big problem"

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Burnham backlash: Make some 'small plans'

You can barely attend any conference of architects, planners or even local town planning boards without seeing, at some spot in the PowerPoint presentation, the famous quote from Chicago architect and town planner, Daniel: “Make no little plans,” he said. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

But, as Alan Ehrenhalt points out in an essay in Governing magazine, “Urban Acupuncture Is Coming to America,” that view of city building helped promote a lot of what went terribly wrong in U.S. cities in the 20th century. Urban renewal is just Exhibit No. 1. So here’s Ehrenhalt’s suggestion:

“For the next century, it might be helpful if someone came along who could offer urban practitioners a dose of Burnham in reverse. Something akin to, 'Be careful about making huge plans, because they take forever, cost too much and generate myriad unintended consequences. Make small changes that improve everyday life for ordinary people; make them right away and build on small successes to try something a little more ambitious.’ ”

Ehrenhalt recounts the work of Jaime Lerner, a Brazilian architect who became mayor of Curitiba, a city of 1.7 million, and later governor of the state of Parana. It’s pegged to the fall 2014 release of an English translation of Lerner's book, Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change That Enrich City Life.  (Disclosure: I’m a board member of the nonprofit Center for the Living City, which found funding for the publication of the English translation.)

The overall point, of Lerner’s book and Ehrenhalt's essay, is simple but too often overlooked by urban planners, city administrators and elected officials: Sometimes a small change is better than a huge project. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

The mayor's view: Transit funding (the dilemma), a more diverse city, and more

Local dignitaries at a 2012 ceremony for the Blue Line Extension. Then-Mayor Anthony Foxx, now U.S. Transportation Secretary, is at right. (Photo: Mary Newsom)
Charlotte Magazine's Greg Lacour has posted a meaty Q-and-A interview with Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter, in which the mayor discusses the city's dilemma on transit funding, what's different about being mayor vs. being in the N.C. Senate (where Clodfelter served 1998-2014) and what's different about Charlotte compared to when he was on City Council (1987-93).

The questions hit heavily on the problem the city and county face in funding any expansion of the Charlotte Area Transit System. (For more background, see this PlanCharlotte.org article about remarks Clodfelter made in  September, "Mayor: Transit sales tax funding may be at risk.")

Among his other remarks to Lacour, Clodfelter had an interesting analysis of state transit funding -- or the lack thereof. He suggested that the state would be disinclined to pay any more for mass transit projects (for the first two legs of Charlotte's light rail, the state paid 25 percent of the cost) regardless of which party is controlling state government. Why? Because statewide transportation needs are great, and gas tax revenue is lagging. Add that up and it's difficult to fund anything, he said.

On a more political note, although Clodfelter isn't saying for sure he's running for mayor, he also recently gave an interview to Qcitymetro.com. Here's that interview

(At-large Charlotte City Council member Michael Barnes this week hopped into the mayor's race, joining Democrats Jennifer Watson Roberts and fellow at-large City Council member David Howard. To date, no Republican has emerged as a likely candidate. But filing isn't until this summer, with the primary in September.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why slow-growing light rail ridership should not surprise anyone

A bus in uptown Charlotte, where most bus routes begin and end. Photo: Claire Apaliski
Today's Charlotte Observer brings an article from Steve Harrison noting that ridership on Charlotte's light rail line, the LYNX Blue Line, has finally rebounded to its pre-recession levels but has not increased dramatically despite rapid growth in apartments along part of its route. See "Lynx light rail ridership back to 2008 levels."

Some background: Charlotte's first and only light rail line opened in late 2007, just in time for the massive 2008-09 recession that had Charlotte unemployment lingering in double-digits or near it for months. The northern couple of miles of the 9-mile route, closest to uptown, have seen massive apartment development in the past several years. The southern part of the route? Nada.

But the South End neighborhood – an area of old industrial buildings dating from the 1960s back to the late 1800s – is popping with hundreds of new apartments, and hopping with new microbreweries and trendy restaurants.

Car-free in Charlotte? It isn't easy by Carolyn Reid, published last June at the PlanCharlotte.org website I run, helps explain why ridership may not be growing as quickly as you'd think.

Even in South End there's little easy or walkable access to routine shopping needs like grocery and drug stores, no easily accessed, widely connected network of bike routes, nor robust bus service with headways under 10 minutes that spreads cross town. Because of lack of funding, the city's bus service – while much improved over 1990s levels – still focuses on  delivering workers to uptown rather than building a widely connected network.

South End remains a place with better transit, bike and pedestrian connections than almost any other Charlotte neighborhood. But it's still not a place where living without a car is going to be easy. Unless you're trying to go uptown, the light rail can't deliver you where you want to go.

My prediction: Ridership will zoom when the Blue Line Extension opens in 2017, taking riders to the 27,000-student UNC Charlotte campus about 10 miles northeast of uptown.