Archive for the ‘Planning’ Category

I plan to watch this with a skeptical eye.

I agree there are serious environmental and social problems associated with suburbanization, but I do not agree that the automobile as a means of transportation is unsustainable. IMHO, we need to simply stop government subsidization and promotion of cars and urban sprawl and let the market decide the fate of the automobile.

The utility of the automobile, SUV and pickup truck is not easily replaced, especially by mass transit. A free market will not run out of energy and will find substitutes for oil should it become scarce and thus more expensive. Or you can make it scarce by making it  illegal or taxing and regulating it out of existence.  Is that consistant with a free society?

Finally, the economy of scale and inexpensive goods found in big box retail are here to stay as well. The corner grocery store with its limited range of items is nostalgic, but expensive. It will return en-mass only if forced on us.

I also believe land planning needs to be a local and state driven process, not dictated by the Feds. I can almost take bets on what position this program this take!

Enjoy. No doubt there will be some value in this program to make it worth watching. Just don’t suspend your brain.




Interesting summary listing of census data for  Metro Areas over 1 million in population. Birmingham is 23rd in growth  with 7.20 % growth and an increase of almost 76,000 people in the last decade. Other cities are listed as well, or course.

The Urbanophile » Blog Archive » Metro/County Census Results So Far (Plus a Brief Look at Jobs).

This is the second of two articles I have seen recently that claim that, although many central cities (like Birmingham) are loosing population overall, many are seeing residential growth in their inner urban cores, demonstrating a growing attractiveness of the urban lifestyle. » Downtowns Are Back, and They’re Bringing Central Neighborhoods Along.

I am looking for evidence of this in Birmingham in the recent census data, but have so far not been able to find a database that allows me to compare the population of different neighborhoods in Birmingham. If anyone knows of such a data base, please let me know.


Here is a great example of how Federal Policy has encouraged sprawl and discouraged the mixed use development that used to be so common in our communities:

CNU and NTBA’s Reform of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and related housing programs | Congress for the New Urbanism.


Kaid  Benfield proposes an update of smart growth principles for the 21st century in his blog:

Smart growth principles for the 21st century | Kaid Benfield’s Blog | Switchboard, from NRDC.

Here are the updated principals he recommends (Photos are from his blog as well-place cursor over image for photo credit):

  1. Foster neighborhoods hospitable to residents with a range of incomes, ages and abilities.
  2. I'On, Mount Pleasant SC (by: I'On Village)Enhance, create and maintain communities that encourage healthy living.
  3. Provide walkable access to shops, amenities, and services, including good schools, healthy food, and parks.
  4. Accommodate and provide a variety of convenient, safe, affordable and efficient transportation choices.
  5. Respect nature, integrating natural areas and systems into regional planning and neighborhood design.
  6. Identify, respect and enhance the strengths and character of existing communities.
  7. Keep regional footprints small and discernible, limiting the encroachment of new development onto natural and rural land.
  8. WHigh Point Hope VI housing, Seattle (by: Michael Wolcott, creative commons license)hen constructing new development, use land efficiently, with design appropriate to the context.
  9. Encourage collaboration in planning and development that leads to predictable, fair decisions that benefit all stakeholders.
  10. Take advantage of resource-efficient design, development and management practices.

I support these goals and look for opportunities to put them in practice. The trick is how to do it in a way that works with free market principles, consistent with the values of a free society. I think the key there is look at the subsidies, government policies and zoning laws  that foster, encourage and in many cases mandate urban sprawl and eliminate or update them. We have seen some progress in this approach lately in the Birmingham Metro area lately, in both Jefferson and Shelby counties, but many bad laws still remain on the books. Many of these goals can be met organically as our cities grow if we just get rid of bad policies.

After all, aren’t the traditional neighborhoods we like so much the result of free organic growth occurring before the automobile took over, rather than top down directives?  Let’s not forget that or we could end up with built  urban environments that are just as much a failure at satisfying our needs as our pro-sprawl past.


The Birmingham Transit System has been in the news again lately, once again. Faced with a funding crisis, it threatens to close down several lines unless Birmingham comes up with another chunk of money. The conventional wisdom has it that, if only the transit system had a permanent funding source, we could have a world class transit system and avoid these continuing crises.  While I believe a functioning transit system is vital to our economy, I am very skeptical of the idea that throwing more public money and subsidies will really make it better. A heavily footnoted recent study released by the Libertarian CATO institute makes a lot of sense to me on this matter.

This study makes a strong case that subsidized transit systems are not the panacea for what ails us, costing much more per passenger mile and polluting more than any other form of transportation in use, including automobiles. They make a good case for privatizing transit, arguing that public subsidy encourages inefficiency and waste and does not serve its target population as well as private entity would while costing more than any other form of transport:

Today, urban transit is the most expensive way of moving people in the United States. Airlines can transport people at a cost of less than 15 cents per passenger mile, barely a penny of which is subsidized. Driving costs less than 23 cents per passenger mile, which also includes about a penny of subsidy. Socialized Amtrak costs close to 60 cents per passenger mile, about half of which is subsidized. But urban transit costs nearly one dollar per passenger mile, with fares covering only 21 cents
per passenger mile and subsidies paying for the rest.

Many advocates of subsidizing public transit argue it much more energy efficient than automobiles. The actual truth may surprise you:

Far from being an environmental panacea, transit energy efficiencies have … dramatically declined. Between 1970 and 2008, the amount of energy used to move a passenger one mile by automobile declined by nearly 30 percent, but the amount used by transit buses increased by 76 percent and the amount by light- and heavy-rail transit increased by 17 percent.  In 2008, transit used an average of
3,360 British thermal units (BTUs) per passenger mile, while passenger cars used an average of 3,440.  This is hardly a big enough difference to justify huge subsidies to transit on the basis of energy savings, especially since energy efficiencies are rapidly improving.

Other problems with public transit include a lack of innovation, an explosion of debt, pension liabilities, declining transit worker productivity per passenger mile,  rising operating costs and a built in disincentive to maintain the system. There is also a tendency to promote large visible systems in lieu of smaller more efficient systems that would do the job better.

The article goes on to make a strong case for privatization. It includes several examples of successful private systems that serve the people better at lower costs. One that might work well in the Birmingham area is a “jitney” system, like the ones that exist in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico (emphasis mine):

The Atlantic City Jitney Association is a group of private bus owners that operate scheduled service on eight routes in Atlantic City. Four of the routes connect the New Jersey Transit rail station with hotels  and, being subsidized by the hotels, charge no fares. The other four routes charge fares of $2.25.91 The jitneys are all 13-passenger minibuses, individually owned by their operators, which run 24 hours a day. The association was first created in 1915 and claims to be “the longest running non subsidized transit company in America.”

A more extensive jitney or shared taxi service is provided by the públicos, or public cars, of Puerto Rico. Like the Atlantic City jitneys, they tend to be individually owned and most are 17-passenger vans. Routes and fares are fixed by a public service commission, and the públicos travel both within and between cities. Although San Juan has its own public bus and rail system and several other Puerto Rico cities have public buses, the públicos carry more people more passenger miles each year than all the public transit services combined. Público fares average $1.02 per trip, about twice the fares on San Juan’s public buses.

So, the people pr Puerto Rico are willing to pay a higher fare to ride the private system. Could it be because the service is better?

Could something like this work to reduce congestion on Highway 280:

One line that is more upscale is the Hampton Jitney, a bus service that has connected Manhattan with wealthy Long Island enclaves for more than 30 years. Offering comfortable long-distance buses, some of which have two-and-one seating and chef’s galleys, and charging around $24 per one way trip, the Hampton Jitney attracts 600,000 passengers per year, belying the claim often made by rail advocates that welloff people will only ride trains, not buses.

The case for privatization, supported by the  article, goes like this:

  • Transit productivity has declined because transit managers are no longer obligated to ensure that revenues cover costs. In fact, in the world of government, agency managers are respected for having larger budgets, which leads transit managers to use tools and techniques that actually reduce  productivity.
  • Transit’s tax traumas during the recession are typical of government agencies that create new programs during boom periods that are not financially sustainable in the long run. Private businesses do the same thing, but are able to slough off marginal operations during recessions. Public agencies have a difficult time doing so because each program and each transit line has a built-in political constituency demanding continued subsidies.
  • Public agencies are also more likely to run up debt because political time horizons are so short: what an agency provides today is much more important than what that service will cost tomorrow. This is especially true when it comes to pensions and other worker benefits whose true costs can be postponed to the politically distant future.
  • The tendency to build expensive infrastructure whose maintenance cannot be supported by available revenues is a particular government trait. As one official at the U.S. Department of Transportation says, politicians “like ribbons, not brooms.” In other words, they like funding highly visible capital projects, but they gain little from funding the maintenance of those projects.
  • The failure to innovate and the tendency to turn to social engineering when people will not behave the  way planners want are inconsistent with the values of a free society.

I realize that this will go against the grain of many people, but we need to consider all the facts before blindly committing to  conventional wisdom. So, if for those of you who agree that a better transit system is needed to support economic development in the Birmingham-Hoover metro area, I strongly suggest you read this study. It may well be that the better solution would be to simply do away with the monopoly the Birmingham transit system enjoys and see what happens. I predict several new businesses would spring up to better serve those who do not drive more efficiently and at a lower cost. It may even reduce the need for that expensive elevated highway proposed for Highway 280!


Want more greenways, bike lanes and sidewalks in Jefferson County? Here is your chance to contribute your ideas. Freshwater Land trust has set up a mapping site where you can easily draw your own proposed routes. You can also comment on your proposal as why it is needed or a good idea.

So follow the link below and have your say!

Our One Mile – Jefferson County Greenways Master Plan by the Freshwater Land Trust – CommunityWalk.