BRT to Nowhere?

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

by James A. Bacon

There’s a whole lot of fuzzy thinking going on. People in the Richmond area are so enamored with the prospect of building a Bus Rapid Transit route through the city that they are saying the most astonishing things.

Bus Rapid Transit can be a great idea if done correctly. But it must be done correctly, or it will create a long-term drain on public resources in the City of Richmond and, to a lesser extent, in Henrico County that neither locality can afford.

In the company of Governor Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and other local luminaries, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Saturday that Uncle Sam will provide a $24.9 million grant toward the cost of the $54 million project, which would run along Broad Street from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. (See the Times-Dispatch story here.) Virginia, flush with transportation tax revenue from former Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase, will kick in $16.8 million toward the project, while Richmond and Henrico will contribute a total of $8 million. (If that adds up to $49.7 million on your calculator like it does on mine, that leaves more than $4 million unaccounted for.) Continue reading

A Myth Exploded

Every so often I read the following argument: “We shouldn’t upzone popular urban neighborhoods, because if we freeze the status quo in those areas, the people who are priced out will rebuild our city’s devastated neighborhoods.”  This argument has a conceptual flaw: Most middle-class peoples’ choices aren’t limited to rich urban areas and poor urban areas, because they can always move to suburbia.

A recent blog post by Chicago blogger Daniel Kay Hertz makes the point decisively. He shows that Chicago has been so effective at limiting redevelopment in its affluent lakefront areas that such neighborhoods actually lost population in the late 20th century. If people priced out of rich urban areas inevitably moved to poorer ones, then Chicago’s traditionally poor south and west sides would be growing and gentrifying. Instead, many such areas have lost more than half their 1950 population.

(Cross-posted from

Beauty and Boredom in Kansas City

Every so often, I walk forty-five minutes to work rather than taking a bus. My walk takes me through Kansas City’s Brookside neighborhood, an area full of distinguished-looking old houses on gridded streets with sidewalks. Sounds great, right?

Yet my walk is missing something: variety. Once I leave the commercial area a couple of blocks from my apartment, I see almost nothing but single-family homes until I get to work. One lesson of my walk is that even if an area is incredibly well-designed, it gets boring without diversity of uses.

(Cross-posted from

Best Practices in Sprawl: Apartments


When I visted Fargo, North Dakota, I saw a few things I liked, such as a nicely fixed-up downtown and a beautiful historic district just south of downtown.

But I also saw something I liked in the suburb-like west side of town. An apartment complex was right in front of a far-too-wide suburban commercial street, rather than being set back behind a giant driveway as is often the case in suburbia.*  Why is this a good thing?  Because when an apartment building is right next to the sidewalk, its occupants can easily walk to nearby bus stops and stores (even in a suburb where crossing the street is a problem).

*For excellent examples of what NOT to do, go to Google Street View and look at Big Tree Lane in Jacksonville, Fla.

(Cross-posted from

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

LinkedIn office building in Sunnyvale, Calif. --insulated from the street by a parking lot and a landscaping berm.

A LinkedIn office building in Sunnyvale, Calif. — insulated from the street by a parking lot and landscaping berm — hews to traditional “sprawl” design. The rest of the campus does better but still misses an opportunity to connect with the surrounding community.

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60′s-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It’s making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

by James A. Bacon

LinkedIn Corp. has built a wildly successful business model around connecting business people through cyberspace. Ironically, the fast-growing Silicon Valley corporation gives short shrift to connecting people in the physical world. Its new corporate campus in Sunnyvale, Calif., located in an emerging “innovation district,” misses an opportunity to foster creativity by encouraging employees to interact with others outside the organization.

In some ways, the LinkedIn campus represents an improvement on the traditional sprawling settlement pattern of Silicon Valley. The facility is higher density than neighboring office and industrial buildings in Peery Park, one of the valley’s oldest office parks. The company conserves acreage by replacing open parking lots with a five-level deck. The buildings have interesting architectural features and the landscaping is attractive.


Erik Calloway

But the LinkedIn complex falls short of what it could have been, Erik Calloway told me when I visited the San Francisco Bay area this spring. An urban designer with Freedman Tung & Sasaki, the firm engaged to help the City of Sunnyvale develop Peery Park as an innovation district, Calloway had ridden his motorcycle from San Francisco to show me how urban design can stimulate — or dampen — economic innovation. If only LinkedIn had tweaked the layout, he says, it could have opened the campus to the outside world, contributing to the vitality of the district and perhaps to its own enterprise. Says Calloway: “They weren’t focused on connections to the district.” Continue reading

Let Our Children Walk

In 1969, American children walked to school as often as not. But today, many parents frown on children doing anything outside while alone. In fact, some parents have been arrested for allowing their children to walk or play outside.

Why can’t children be free to walk? Many Americans believed that the United States is chock full of perverts ready to grab the nearest unsuspecting child, behave in some indecent manner, and bury them in some deserted place.

In fact, such incidents are rare and possibly becoming even less common over time. According to the FBI, fewer than 150 American children per year are abducted by strangers, and only 1 percent of abductions of children involve sexual offenders. Where children are victimized, they are usually victimized not by strangers on the street but by acquaintances and relatives in their homes; only 4 percent of all sexual assaults of persons under 12 involved strangers, and 84 percent of them occurred in the victim’s home. Violence against children occurs less frequently than 20 years ago; murders of children under 14 from all causes have declined by about a third since 1993, from 2.2 per 100,000 to 1.5.

Of course, these statistics are unlikely to persuade Americans traumatized by intense television coverage of the most unusual, horrifying crimes. The average American might argue that even if one child is murdered by a stranger every hundred years, children should be kept safely locked away to prevent such horrors.

But this argument proves too much. Why? Because parents who do follow the conventional wisdom are also exposing their children to equally severe risks.

The most long-run risk of state-mandated helicopter parenting is physical harm from lack of exercise.  As terrified adults have shoved children off their feet and bikes, childhood obesity has increased, doubling over the past thirty years. In turn, obesity is a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, cancer and a wide variety of other fatal disease. Continue reading

The Emerging Exurban Dead Zone

Hope Plantation, Bertie County, N.C., circa 1800. The McMansion of its day.

Hope Plantation, Bertie County, N.C., circa 1800. The McMansion of its day.

by James A. Bacon

The Northern Virginia exurbs, like exurbs across the country, are cruising for a bruising. EM Risse would never express himself so inelegantly or imprecisely but that’s the thrust, in colloquial terms, of a new essay, “The Great Submergence,” he has posted on his website.

The United States economy, argues Risse, a former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor, is in the midst of a profound shift — what he calls the U Turn — away from the scattered, low-density pattern of growth widely referred to as “suburban sprawl” (a label he avoids as a “core confusing word”) toward infill and re-development of the nation’s urban cores. This trend, which is taking place for reasons amply documented on this blog, has profound implications for homeowners and political jurisdictions on the metropolitan edge where landowners, developers and speculators valued land with the expectation that it would be developed some day into shopping centers, office parks and residential subdivisions.

Given the cost of providing transportation, utilities and municipal services, the logical limit for development in the Washington metropolitan region is about 20 to 35 miles from the metropolitan center in Washington, D.C., Risse writes. Land beyond that limit, he contends, is experiencing collapsing demand as people seek to live closer to the metropolitan core, closer to jobs and amenities in walkable communities with more transportation options. That collapse he calls “the Great Submergence.” Continue reading