28 November 2011

It's Not a War, it's a "Global Struggle"

The opening salvo has been fired, and the much-anticipated "War on Cars" has finally made its way to the Windy City, via an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune by one John McCarron, adjunct professor of urban studies at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. It's the sort of screed we've come to expect, full of outdated stereotypes, faulty logic and straight-up misinformation.

Let's begin with the elephant in the room. From 2001-2009, 369,629 people died on America's roads, an average of over 41,000 per year. To put that in perspective, that is just above 0.1 per cent of the national population, equivalent to a city the size of Minneapolis being wiped out, or nearly 125 9/11 attacks. I really think it's time the streets-are-for-cars-so-everybody-else-can-get-out-of-my-way-or-go-fuck-themselves crowd drops the "war on cars" rhetoric. Unless, of course, they're willing to confront the crimes against humanity waged in their name over the past couple of generations. Nearly everybody has lost somebody near and dear to them in an automobile crash, yet somehow we accept these losses as the cost of simply moving around. Per capita casualty rates are significantly lower in every other industrialized nation, so why does it need to be this way?

To answer this, we must look at how we've built our cities over the past fifty years. It's no secret that trillions in federal funding has gone to subsidize freeway-centric development. We've paved over some of the most productive farmland in the world so that people could feel like gentleman farmers of yore, tending their quarter-acre lawns. It always takes time for latent costs to become apparent, in this case a confluence of factors including the housing market collapse, rising crude oil prices, crumbling infrastructure, political gridlock and a rash of other reasons have created a perfect storm of generational discontent.

He's right about one thing, all the bike lanes in the world are pointless for the elderly or infirm. But then again, so is auto-centric development. When my 95-year-old grandmother's eyesight got too poor for her to drive safely, she had to leave her small-town home of nearly four decades to move in with my parents. Not that she necessarily wanted to, but the nearest grocery store was twenty miles away, and the prospect of being a shut-in unable to walk to even the most basic of amenities can be a powerful motivator. This speaks more to a history of misplaced priorities than anything. You're expected to drive, drive, drive, everywhere you go, until you get too old and start running people over, then we don't care about you anymore. May as well check yourself into a hospice and welcome the enveloping darkness.

I'll grant McCarron one more point. He would look silly in "cyclist couture", then again most people do. But to presume that you need to be Spandexed-out to ride a bicycle is patently absurd, and proof that he is clueless about what is fueling this cultural shift. Anybody dressed in such a fashion who is not involved in an organized race, is, in my estimation, a dweeb, and I enjoy snickering and sneering at them every time they whip past me and my heavy steel-frame commuter. I'm in no mad rush, you see. Even at my slower pace I can make the trip downtown in roughly the same amount of time it would take to drive, fight off traffic and search for parking. Furthermore, I certainly get no ego boost from cycling. If anything, my id feels threatened every time a driver passes too close or speeds by.

It's time we recognize that maybe cars just aren't all that good for us. Something happens to us when we get behind the wheel, where even the most good-natured among us turn into assholes. We suffer from a national addiction deadlier than all illegal drugs combined. I readily admit that cars are useful tools, but heroin can also be a useful sedative. Our reptilian brains progressed through all of evolutionary history going only as fast as our two feet could take us. Then somebody domesticated the horse, and we maxed out for another 4000 years or so. We've had the use of cars, and the speed and power they represent, for about 100 years, "forever" in our short-attention-span culture, but hardly a blip in the Grand Scheme of Things. Will cars even still exist in another century? What am I, Kreskin? In some form I'm sure they will, but I doubt we would recognize them as such. Will every single person drive around by themselves all the time? Most assuredly not. People are changing their habits, and society is being forced to come along. This is hardly limited to Chicago, to the United States, or even to the developed world. As a species, we are finally realizing that moving people is more important than moving cars. And if you don't like it, move to Houston.

19 September 2011

Public-Private Regionalism

Just saw an unexpected commercial on television, on the surface a rare example of cooperation across state lines. An ad extolling the collective touristic amenities of the states along the Gulf Coast (Texas not included), rather than the time-honored provincial approach. As I watched, I thought to myself, "what a geographically unlikely and yet completely sensible idea". Right up until the end.

Y'all come on down to the Gulf and eat some gumbo, from your benevolent friends at British Petroleum! No wonder the states are involved in such a logical campaign. BP is facing billions in fines and clean-up costs (hopefully--the proverbial jury is still out), it makes sense that they would want to pool their resources, rather than paying each state's tourist board independently. The madness has even spread to the region's seafood processing trade group, whose executive director says "state marketing efforts are a mistake, trying to brand a product by a state label is inane." As true for shrimp as for steel beams or airplane parts.

So i guess all it takes for states and cities to rethink their spatial limitations is an environmental catastrophe. No doubt you've heard that local governments coast-to-coast are in trouble, and they increasingly look to corporations to finance everything from playgrounds to entire healthcare systems. Apple can spend $4 million to renovate one transit station in Chicago, or they can spend $10 million to spread the goodwill to five or six different cities through economies of scale. Probably a better investment than a Super Bowl ad.

Economy of scale also translates to a cookie-cutter attitude to projects. Rather than taking context-sensitive approaches, a company seeking some good short-to-medium-term PR can hire a design firm to create a playground/stadium/freeway interchange that "reinforces the brand" in some way, and offer the template up to cash-strapped municipalities across the land. Faced with crumbling infrastructures and lacking the funds to do anything about it, it's a deal many mayors and city managers desperate for tangible proof that they're doing something may be unable to pass up. It would be years (a couple of election cycles, at least) before folks realize whether or not a one-size-fits-all public works project in fact, does.

29 August 2011

2011, A.D. (After Dooring)

I've been called a lot of names, both affectionate and otherwise in my day, and as of a little over a week ago, I can add yet another slur: statistic. Ladies & gents, I must now claim my place among Chicago's growing legion of victims of car doors.

There I was, happily trundling along Milwaukee Avenue on my evening commute when suddenly, a car door swings open just feet ahead of me. I managed to swerve out of the way and avoid hitting the woman and her door, but the sudden jerky movement of my heavy bike that is not designed for such sudden jerky movements brought both bike and rider crashing to the pavement.

In that split second, a hyper-awareness of my surroundings kicked in, predominated by the thought, "Oh shit, there's a van right behind me on my left." To the credit of the van's driver, he managed to stop mere inches from running me over. I hate to think what might have happened had he been momentarily distracted via text message, a bad song coming on the radio or what have you.

"I didn't see you!", I was told. Yeah, no shit. Luckily for all involved, damage to human and bicycle was minimal. I walked away with a sprained finger and a pretty gnarly bruise on my right thigh. I was pretty shaken up by the event, and in all the commotion dealing with the fire crew and paramedics that arrived on the scene, I somehow managed not to notice the motorist stealthfully leave the scene. One of the firefighters took down the license plate number before she left, and this was included in the police report. So not only was I doored, but I'm now among Chicago's lucky hit-and-run victims, as well. Bravo.

I've been relying on two-wheeled transport for several years now, and this was by far the worst thing that has happened to me. It's also been remarkable how one incident can erase years' worth of confidence on a bicycle. I got my bike out of the shop on Saturday afternoon and my first time in traffic that evening (mild traffic at that, and on my own block) nearly gave me a panic attack.

Of course, this sort of crash is entirely preventable. It's also entirely foreseeable. I wrote in this very blog just a few months back about Milwaukee Avenue's narrow chasm of doom also known as the "shared lane". Since that time, I had been riding up and down that strip anyhow, in the belief that the most direct route must be the best. I put that theory to the test this morning, my first day back on the steel horse for my commute. I took my winding, all-backstreet route from Logan Square to downtown, it added...wait for it...five whole minutes to my trip. During which time I was able to roll along at my own comfortable pace, without jerky dudes passing me on the right. So I guess this is it, Milwaukee Avenue. We've had a good run, but I'm not going anywhere near you until some changes are made in your street design.

As an aside, apologies for the recent dearth of posts. I started a new job a couple months back which has been taking up my time. The dust is beginning to settle now so I hope to get back to a semi-regular thing around here.

14 May 2011

Garden Crazed

It's spring in Chicago, and the lilacs are blooming (although it feels more like November at the moment). In the spirit of the thing, I present the latest installment of my occasional  "everything old is new again" series: community gardens. Examine the news brief to your right, from the March 19, 1917 edition of the Day Book, a fascinating advertising-free, pro-labor tabloid.

I love the reference to "food speculators". You can search the paper's full archives online, thanks to the Library of Congress. I wish that it made note of the location of the first garden. I've been on a bit of a hyperlocal history bender of late, and Hermosa is just slightly west of where I live.

In general blog news, I recently switched to a new URL. The old blogspot address will redirect you, but should you wish to update your bookmarks, you can now reach this page at http://blog.theplannersdreamgonewrong.com

Unfortunately, in the switch I lost my blogroll. So if I used to link to your site, and I don't anymore, it's nothing personal. Drop a note and let me know, I just couldn't remember all of them.

28 April 2011

Better Bike Routes

In discussions with Chicago friends who would like to bike in the city but do not, one thing I invariably hear is that they "don't want to ride in traffic". A lot of this has to do with non-cyclists' conceptions of safety, but still, I can't say that I blame them. In spite of what the vehicular cycling lobby would have you believe, most normal people would rather not cruise along next to several tons of careening steel. I've been on two wheels for primary transport for a few years now and often still get a little antsy when thrown into the mix against some of the most aggressive, least-forgiving drivers I've ever encountered (and I've driven in Tijuana). The city's official bike routes recognize this fact, which is why certain busy streets like Western or North Avenues are advised against. And yet a street like Milwaukee Avenue, which in it's current alignment only is wide enough for a shared lane, is a recommended route, with the highest concentration of cyclists. It is also where I have had most of my closest calls with being doored. Most of the time, Milwaukee's really not so bad. While I do subscribe to the "safety in numbers" argument, get out there during rush hour with idling cars backed up for a couple blocks in that narrow little gap between the parked ones, with a dozen or so other cyclists hot on your tail, and there's not much room for error.

I've lived in Chicago for going on eight years now, and I've resided that entire time west of Western Avenue, in various parts of the Humboldt Park, Avondale and Logan Square neighborhoods. This area easily has one of the highest rates of cycling per capita in the city, but only a fraction of the infrastructure that you would find further east. One part of the problem is the damage inflicted on the built environment by the Kennedy Expressway. Many side streets which used to have throughput now dead-end at a 300-foot-wide wall of concrete and congestion. As experience has shown, this has a deleterious effect on local traffic flows, forcing more cars onto fewer surface streets. As the traffic on those streets has gotten heavier, the conditions for cycling on them have deteriorated in hand.

So as a person who simply wishes to reach his destination without being flattened, and while breathing as little exhaust as possible, I often take to the side streets. It's easier than it sounds, what with Chicago being on a neat, tidy little grid and all. But finding quiet streets that intersect busy ones at places where it is possible to cross them is rather trickier. Illinois motorists are required by law to stop if you're in a crosswalk, but I've yet to see many people actually do so. But breathe easier, timid near-northwest side denizens! I've done the work so you don't have to. Behold, a new map to get you where you're going in one piece:

As you can see, I focused primarily on the Logan Square, Avondale and West Town community areas, as that is the section of the city I have the most familiarity with. You may also see that Lincoln Park already has a much more extensive network than the lower-income neighborhoods west of the river. 

It is certainly not perfect, this is still very much a work-in-progress and subject to many future revisions. I apologize that I was unable to include labels on this version, due to it's small size. I am open to any suggestions that any of you may have. The red lines indicate current, CDOT-approved routes, the yellow ones are mine, and the orange are where they overlap. Many of the streets are one-ways, which could make a case for the city building more contraflow bike lanes (we have a grand total of ONE so far) or bike boulevards. Many of these side streets have speed humps or pretty awful potholes in some places, but that's a trade-off I'm willing to make for the sake of having the entire street to myself for blocks at a time. I have steel rims, anyhow.

Another issue is access over the Chicago River (link to Steve Vance's map of "untreated" bridges). Diversey is an official route, but personally I hate using that bridge on a bike. Webster and Kinzie are much quieter in terms of traffic, and make for good bike routes, but they are open-grate bridges which always feel like they are going to shred my steel-belted tires. Cortland is the only bridge across the North Branch with the combination of relatively low speeds and a surface safe for bikes, but that doesn't do you much good if you have to go a mile out of your way to get to it.

Much work needs to be done to provide citywide routes safe enough for people to overcome their fears and get onto bikes. Ultimately, I'd love to see separated infrastructure all over the place, but realistically it could be decades. But with this guy coming in to head Mayor Emanuel's version of CDOT, we might just get lucky.

UPDATE: 4/28 6:32pm

I've fixed the kml layer that was at the base of the map, no small feat as Google Maps constantly crashes on me. My own fault for not labeling it as I was going along. So now, a version with labels. You're welcome. Full size available here.

19 April 2011

Beginning to See the Light

Back in November, I wrote (among other things) about the need for new streetlights in Chicago. I didn't realize it at the time, but the city was actually already in the progress of testing new models. Hopefully, I can be excused for the gaffe, as even now I'm finding it incredibly difficult to locate any information online about them. I was slightly taken aback to actually see some of the new residential street lamps yesterday, on the 2600 block on North Hamlin in Logan Square. I ride my bike down that street all the time and only just noticed them, so they couldn't have been there more than a few days. I snapped a photo with my phone:

They were switched on in the middle of the afternoon, and I've yet to see how these look at night, but I think I like the design. The light overhanging the street is significantly lower than the old models, suggesting that the amount of light pollution given off should be at least partially mitigated. The addition of the pedestrian-scale light on the sidewalk side is a huge plus in my estimation. From what little information available out there, I believe these use metal halide bulbs rather than LEDs, but I could be mistaken. I would love to hear from anybody with additional info.

03 April 2011

Chicago Cycle Chic, 1915 Streetcar Strike Edition

Two posts in one night, it's a record.

Finally, thanks to a streetcar strike 96 years ago, and countless hours digging through the Library of Congress American Memory site, I can contribute a Chicago entry to the global Cycle Chic craze. I can't not do it, as the math states that bikes+Chicago+labor history+natty dressers=irresistable.

A rainy day in the Windy City. The building on the right looks familiar, but I can't place it. Anybody?

This dapper young gent has the right idea.

Both photos come from the Chicago Daily News archives.

The Stuff They Didn't Build & Crowdsourcing History

While doing some digging around in various online archives, I came across a digitized journal brief that appeared in the November 1892 edition of The Manufacturer & Builder, heralding the development of "An Asphalt Bicycle Road from New York to Chicago":
It is seriously proposed, by the great bicycle manufacturers of the country, to build an asphalt road, from 20 to 35 feet wide, and extending from New York to Chicago. At all events, the proposition is announced to have been made in good faith, and has already been discussed in the daily papers. 
Peter Gendron, of the Gendron Iron Wheel Co., of Toledo, Ohio, is reported to be the prime mover in this remarkable scheme, which is said to be under consideration by the bicycle makers of the country. A highway of this character would be, indeed, an object lesson is propagating the gospel of good roads. We will watch the future development of this enterprise with interest.
I'm a sucker for old-timey language, and I seriously would like to own stock in the "Gendron Iron Wheel Company of Toledo". Obviously, a thousand-mile "bicycle road" never came to fruition, but paved highways were a reality in most of the country within a quarter-century. This is yet another reminder of the role the cyclists' lobby played in developing the federal roads-building projects of the early twentieth century.

Some cycling amenities were built, however, like the pictured California Cycleway. It looks suspiciously like this recently-erected cycle bridge in the Netherlands. A private consortium built the link between Pasadena and Los Angeles, but eventually went bankrupt. The right-of-way was later used for a streetcar line, and finally became the Arroyo Seco Parkway, one of the world's first freeways. Quite the encapsulation of Southern California history.

Of course, bicycles were all the rage at the turn of the last century. Races draw huge crowds to velodromes around the country. Check out this view showing the start of a bicycle race outside Chicago's historic Water Tower on Michigan Avenue overlaid on the modern streetscene.

Be prepared to lose the rest of your day after clicking the link, as it directs you to WhatWasThere.com, a site that allows users to upload historic photos and layer them over modern Google Streetview images. This is a website that I've been wanting to exist for quite some time, and was quite glad to find it. So glad in fact, that much of my free time over the past few weeks has been spent filling in the map of Chicago's Near Northwest Side, among other places. I can envision this being an indispensable tool for urban planners, historians, educators and all manner of folk with an interest in changes to the built enviornment. See these views of Logan Square in the '30s or of the 1966 Division Street Riots for some other great contrasts.

16 March 2011

Youth Explosion

A few weeks ago, the Urbanophile posted a piece on the generational shift happening in this country. I largely agree with what Mr. Renn had to say. I've written about this a little bit as well, but I would like to add something to the discourse. I am 33 years old, an age that puts me just at the tail-end of the accepted range for Generation X'ers. Just old enough to know what a busy signal sounds like or what a mimeograph machine was for. However, unlike people just a few years my senior, I grew up amidst what will no doubt come to be seen as an epochal event, the revolution in data processing and telecommunications that gave us everything from personal computers to mobile phones to the 24-hour news cycle. I'm not saying that somebody in their 40s can't wrap their heads around these modern marvels, or that there are many computer scientists & engineers older than me who are doing things I myself couldn't even begin to comprehend, but they were certainly at a later stage of brain development than those of us my age and younger by the time they were introduced.

Our family got it's first of many computers, an Atari 400, in 1980. My dad was an early adopter, as he's always had a penchant for gadgetry. That said, there is a disconnect between myself and my parents when it comes to technology. My mom still doesn't know how to use e-mail or send a text message (two things I'm secretly grateful for), and my dad apparently has yet to find a better use for a computer than playing solitaire or checking stock quotes. For me, growing up with microprocessors and modems that got exponentially faster every year, the possibilities were more limitless. For one thing, inside a computer, national borders are meaningless. I've been interacting with people from a multitude of countries since I was in high school, all it took was a 2400 bps modem and finding people who could speak English. We take websites like eBay & PayPal for granted now, but the notion of having a global marketplace with an instant payment system is pretty revolutionary stuff in historical terms.

And it's a revolution that's still playing out, as we've seen recently in Egypt and elsewhere. This is a generation that is just coming into it's own, and as should be expected from a group weaned on satellite tv and the internet, the expectation of instant gratification is high. Egyptians too poor to travel abroad could go online and see that people in other parts of the world took for granted the same freedoms that they desired. It's the great promise of the freeing power of mass communications technology that our neo-liberal State Department has pushed for the last decade...until WikiLeaks came along.

The long-term implications of what's taken place over the last twenty years will take decades to sort out. Some have wondered whether our brains can psychologically deal with all the information that we're now bombarded with. Technotopians counter that this is just going to unlock parts of the 80% of our brains that we're not currently using and human evolution will advance as a result. Who knows? We're only now coming to terms with the darker side of the automotive revolution that changed this country after World War II. And as technology marches on, it's hard to fix an end date. We've reached a point where microchips can't get much smaller and still work effectively, so it may be close. There's no "new" technology in the iPad 2, for instance, just improved and repackaged ones, some of which have been around since the early '80s. What is clear to me is that the younger generation and those that follow are likely to have much different views of the world than our parents. That's always true, of course, but I think that today's youth are much more flexible than their forebears. It's out of necessity, mostly. We can't expect to find a job that will employ and feed us for forty years and give out a nice pension at the end, because they just don't exist anymore.

In part, I think the reason younger people have embraced low-tech solutions to the world's problems, like riding bicycles or producing food locally, is out of a desire to reconnect with "simpler times". If you attend an event like the Renegade Craft Fair, you may be surprised at the entrepreneurial spirit on display. Hundreds of small businesspeople, selling handmade whatnots, to people who appreciate such things. It may seem overly precious to some, but none, or few, of them seem to have set out to become huge financial successes, and there's a cooperative attitude which is refreshing. Many business owners I know in Chicago work out trades for their services, libertarians would no doubt be appalled at such a collectivist mindset. Lest we forget, Portland, often seen as the incubator of such things, saw the country's largest protest against the Iraq invasion in 2003, nearly 100,000 people on the streets of what George H.W. Bush christened "Little Beirut". Mostly young people, and now that they're older they are trying to break the country's addiction to petroleum products in myriad ways.

Every generation that comes along bemoans the mess left by the prior one, it's nothing new. But it's certainly true that the leaders of the last sixty years have really done a number on this country. I take a small amount of solace in thinking that it could be worse, we could be Greece. Then this morning, I read this opinion piece from a Greek newspaper which could just as easily apply to the United States. The youth are just as undervalued in this country, as older workers are either unwilling or, as has been the case with my parents, unable to afford to retire, it's left huge numbers of recent college graduates (myself included) unemployed or underemployed. an entire generation's potential is being squandered, largely due to economic conditions. Something has got to give, I hope it doesn't take a Greek-style collapse (either in the financial sense, or of the kind that left it in literal ruins) to awaken the change.

09 March 2011

The Thick Blue Head

"You were put here to protect us, but who protects us from you? Every time you say 'That's illegal' doesn't mean that that's true." - KRS-One, 1989
I guess I've always had a mistrust of authority figures. My attitudes toward the police were formed by a misspent suburban youth listening to hip-hop and punk rock, and I came to see them as a reactionary force meant to enforce the status quo. But I'm no wild-eyed, bomb-throwing anarchist, and I'm far from a criminal. I realize that for all the bad cops you hear about on the news, most are decent folks who join the force for the "right reasons". Most of the personal interactions I've had with individual officers have been relatively pleasant, and I've always assumed that after all these years of not being a criminal (and being white), I deserve that privilege. So I found myself dumbfounded this afternoon, after daring to question an officer's seemingly inconsequential actions, to be on the receiving end of a torrent of verbal abuse.

Pasted below is my verbatim report to the Independent Police Review Board:
Today, I was verbally assaulted by a plainclothes officer. At approximately 3:30 PM on Wednesday, March 9, 2011, I was walking southbound on N. California Avenue, south of W. Logan Blvd. A silver unmarked police SUV ran through the intersection on a red light, and blocked the crosswalk as pedestrians waited to cross the street. I am very sensitive about motorists flouting the new crosswalk law, so I made a gesture of the arm toward the crosswalk. Driver of the vehicle flashed lights at me and the passenger asked what my problem was. I told him. He proceeded to verbally assault me, using much profanity and repeatedly insulting my intellect before driving away. There was absolutely no reason to act in this manner to a citizen who had tried to do no more wrong than point out an infraction of traffic law to authorities who are supposed to be on the lookout for the very same behavior. I found his actions to be reprehensible and completely unprofessional. Unfortunately, I did not get the license plate number before they drove off. I am copying this complaint to the fourteenth district and to the first ward alderman's office.
And that's my story. I guess it must be my own fault for thinking that the police should follow a law that they rarely enforce. The defense was "what was I supposed to do, run over the car in front of me?" Spoken by the passenger. That definitely makes me a "fucking moron" (in the repeated polite words of the officer). And my attempts to protest civilly and explain what upset me in the first place (all of which were interrupted with profanity-laced tirades) are further proof that I have a "big mouth". Further proof of my moron-hood was when I finally told him "Whatever, just go away." I didn't feel the need to be run in on some made-up bullshit because of this guy's control issues.

I suppose what he didn't count on was that this big-mouthed moron would know how to read the Chicago Police Department's Code of Conduct, which prohibits: 
Rule 8: Disrespect to or maltreatment of any person, while on or off duty. 
Rule 9: Engaging in any unjustified verbal or physical altercation with any person, while on or off duty.
Yeah, I'm a moron. I don't have very high hopes that anything will come of this. I didn't get the miscreant's name or badge number, but I do possess a very small bully pulpit in the form of this blog. I'm not so offended personally at being called a moron, and I probably would have walked home and shrugged it off. But the use of obscenities by a public servant in speaking to a law-abiding citizen was totally over the line in my opinion. Maybe Rahm Emanuel's election made him think this was an acceptable way to react, I dunno. I do know that if I spoke that way to somebody at my job, I would expect to be fired. This guy's probably laughing about it right now. Police constantly complain that the public doesn't assist or trust them, and with behavior like this it's not hard for me to see why. If you want to get respect, you need to give it. I wasn't keeping this guy from responding to an emergency, I wasn't questioning his skills as a policeman, I wasn't even all that upset until after the fact. This isn't about me, it's about a general lack of respect and civility on the part of the police. I'm not a prude, and have been known to use salty language on occasion, but I save it for the proper times and channels. One place I don't do it is on a public street, at full volume, in the middle of the afternoon, when there are kids nearby. If my 95-year-old grandmother were there, I think she would have slapped this asshole. 

And please, don't interpret this as a screed against cops. It's a screed against dickheads on power trips.

02 March 2011

Two Different Maps of the Economic Downturn

A friend posted a random question on Facebook earlier, and I wound up doing a bit of unintended research into business closings today as a result. Put together a couple of interesting thematic maps as a result. (H/T Deanna McMillan)

First, a map showing the percent change in total number of employees between the second quarter of 2007 and the same period in 2010:

The only state in the contiguous US to add jobs in that three year period was North Dakota. And yet, I haven't heard of any land rush in Grand Forks. (Alaska also created 994 jobs in this time, a .39% growth, while Hawaii lost 9.75% of it's workforce.) As you can see, most of the rest of the country has taken a licking.

Secondly, and much more interesting to me, is the percent change in total number of "establishments". The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines an "establishment" as "an economic unit, such as a farm, mine, factory, or store that produces goods or provides services."

A broad classification, to be sure. I would venture that Louisiana is an outlier, and that much of the growth is related to businesses reopening post-Katrina. But I don't think it's any coincidence that states like Wisconsin, Indiana & New Jersey, which lost workplaces, are going after businesses in Illinois, which actually gained. Furthermore, this map would seem to indicate to me that despite current budget woes, Illinois and California would seem to be on the right trajectory for creating new jobs, while the South and Inland West may be in for an extended period of stagnation. Only time will tell, of course, but interesting to consider.

15 February 2011

Five Minute Fashion

My cycling philosophy, as it were.

It's quite simple.

I don't care what you say, I think that this guy...

...looks much cooler than this guy.

10 February 2011

The Day We Caught the Train

Randomly came across this video, a segment from a 1982 episode of PBS' Nova called "Tracking the Supertrains", all about the great, then-new advances in high speed rail. Included are details about a planned Shinkansen from San Diego to Los Angeles. It didn't happen. Funny to realize that France's TGV has been up and running for thirty years now, and we've yet to see a fast train in this country.


The Damen Avenue CTA Blue Line station, as seen on Google Streetview. Did somebody lock a shopping cart to the bike rack?

Anybody recognize their bike?

09 February 2011

I Care About Detroit

There are many reasons why one cares about a city. Why you care about it's problems, its people, and, indeed, its very future. Is it friendly, warm, hospitable? And are there good job opportunities, educational facilities and a cultural center? Are you proud to call it your hometown? When you come right down to it, I venture to say you'll all agree to a resounding "Yes" when you're talking about Detroit.   -   Smokey Robinson, 1967

One of my earliest posts on this blog shared the 60s promotional film Detroit: City on the Move with you all. That post has received a fair bit of traffic from search engines over the months, I think because people are clearly fascinated by the city's decline, and ruin porn exposés can be found all over the internet.

During the Super Bowl the other night, Chrysler's "Imported from Detroit" ad featuring Eminem garnered a lot of positive buzz, even from people who don't really like cars or Eminem, for offering what was likely the first positive media view of the city in decades. You may have missed this, though. Last summer, iconic French bootmaker Palladium released a film featuring, uh, Johnny Knoxville showcasing some of the more positive things going on in Motown. It features interviews with local artists & entrpreneurs, as well as musicians like Martha Reeves, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, techno pioneer Carl Craig and members of the Dirtbombs, and a soundtrack that draws on the city's long and storied musical history. Hipster street style meets urbanism, and it's surprisingly effective stuff on both levels.

Part one:

Part two:

Part three:

There's more on the brand's "explorations" page, with pieces on abandoned buildings in New York, Cold War relics in Berlin and London pirate radio. Excellent marketing, in my opinion. (It worked on me.)

PS: I can state with 99.997% certainty that this is the only time Eminem or Johnny Knoxville will be mentioned on this blog.

04 February 2011

Night Falls on Hoboken

I would like to send a message to the nation's governors. Please stop with the whole "let's lure businesses from Illinois" trip. I just can't keep up. Latest on the bandwagon is Chris Christie, 55th Earl of New Jersey. On one hand, I don't mind this one as much. Jersey is clearly a part of a different region, so it stings a lot less than when Wisconsin or Indiana gets in on it. But on the other, Christie has already proven himself to possess tunnel vision (pardon the pun) regarding New Jersey's place in a broader mid-Atlantic region. And let's face it, New Jersey without New York City & Philadelphia across the rivers is just...Delaware.

Christie is in Chicago today to play up New Jersey's recent income tax cuts, because taxes are always bad. As I've written, tax rates aren't everything. I doubt the governor's presentation mentions that New Jersey has the highest fifth-highest median home prices in the nation, and that the state has some of the highest property taxes in the country. He also probably won't mention that New Jersey receives significantly more federal aid per capita than Illinois does. These are inconvenient facts when one is trying to portray one's fiefdom as a tax haven.

Rather than attempting to poach jobs from fellow Americans, states like New Jersey should be making investments in new businesses, incubating entrepreneurship in economically depressed places like Camden and Newark. Investment is key not just for businesses, but for the modern infrastructure that this country (and New Jersey) is sorely in need of. New Jersey on it's own is nothing. Without adequate transportation links within the New York and Philadelphia metros that drive the state's economy, it would die. All of this might require (gasp) temporarily raising taxes. Putting things off for the next occupant of the office is the way of American political life, and it is killing the country's economic future. Americans will always complain about taxes being too high, until they actually start seeing a return. Voters in Scandinavia don't seem so preoccupied with this issue, even though their tax rates make the United States look like a libertarian's wet dream. This is because they know exactly where those taxes go. They pay for first-rate infrastructure and health care and for their children to attend college, not to subsidize corporate interests and fund despotic regimes and endless wars. Meanwhile, China is investing in infrastructure and planning on a regional scale that will ensure their continued ascent. We'd better get used to looking up.

27 January 2011

Driving Me Backwards

I have a confession to make. I am a bad driver. It seems like an almost un-American thing to admit. I've known this for some time. I was involved in three serious crashes (two of which were my fault) within two years of getting my license. No injuries resulted, thankfully, but only through sheer luck. I'm a little too easily distracted behind the wheel, and this was in the days before texting, GPS units and in-dash computer madness. After the third, I made the decision that not driving was in the best interest of myself and everybody else on the road. This wasn't too hard, I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time, and working downtown. As I've mentioned before, this predated there being many bikes on the roads, but Portland also has better public transit than just about any other American city of similar size. So no problem in the short term, I managed to get around quite well with my bus pass.

Later on down the metaphorical road, I had more difficulty. When I lived in San Diego, many of the jobs I was qualified for were situated far out in the suburbs with no transit access. I began to feel as though I was being penalized for making a thoroughly sensible decision. I think I'm an intelligent and capable person, and could have gotten one of these jobs easily. I could have caved and bought a car, but lucky (?) for me, I couldn't afford one. I also couldn't afford to live closer to the jobs that were available. So I lived in the urban neighborhood I could afford and I took a minimum-wage service job downtown that I could walk to. A vicious cycle, that. That, above all other factors, drove me to relocate to a city with decent transit infrastructure. I think a lot of people would like to do the same, but opt instead for getting a car to get to the job that's available to them. I've been fortunate in one sense, I haven't been at all financially successful, but I have been able to live my life on my own terms.

This has popped up again lately. Yesterday I applied for a job, the description of which sounds great. The location of which, however, is anything but. Far out in the suburbs, beyond the reach of commuter rail. Even if I had a car, I wouldn't want the fifty-mile roundtrip commute. So why did I even apply? Well, it's a good job, and I could use one of those...but it got me thinking. I've read article after article on how the younger generation of workers want to live and work in the cities. I can tell you that everything you read is true. I have friends all over the country, mostly late-20s to mid-30s, I can think of only a handful who live in the suburbs (even then, they're close-in ones like Evanston or Oakland). Those who do commute to suburbs for work unilaterally hate their commutes, if not their job itself. Even those with children have so far chosen to remain in the cities. Here in Chicago, with a good (if ailing) transit system and a nice Midwestern flatness that's conducive to biking and walking, I would venture to say that a slim majority of my friends don't own a car. I'll brag a little bit, most of my friends are pretty smart and talented people. By extrapolation, this means that setting up for business away from the urban core, you're probably missing out on some good talent.

Well, I went on a bit of a tangent there, so allow me to return to my original point. Being a bad driver hasn't precluded me from being a licensed driver, or even getting jobs requiring driving around for hours on end. After my old Oregon license finally expired, I went to get one in Illinois and I was appalled at how simple both the written and behind-the-wheel tests were. Driving a car isn't exactly rocket science, but I see people driving badly on pretty much a daily basis. The ad world's culture of fear has taught us that driving is very dangerous, due largely to human error. But thanks to the sprawl brought on by decades of federal highway subsidies and suburban tax breaks to companies willing to relocate to their god-awful industrial parks, making it more difficult to get a driver's license would unfairly prevent people from accessing good jobs.

Then again, if you've chosen to live without a car, you've already faced that disadvantage.

24 January 2011

Indiana Wants Me (But I Can't Go Back There)

Scott K. Walker can sleep a little easier, as he's not alone in the political world's Limited Horizon Club. Meet the newest member, Indiana commerce secretary E. Mitchell Roob. First, Wisconsin "opened for business" (catchy catchphrase, that), now Indiana has proposed it's own (final?) solution to the vexing problem of The Rent Is Taxes Are Too Damn High: "Solution Indiana". Stirring. Reminds me of the many other problems Indiana has sought to solve over the years. For instance, excitement, interestingness, and diversity.

It's comforting to know that politicians are willing to look outside their state's own boundaries for ideas, so long as those ideas are dedicated to political theater. It's also very reassuring to know that two of Illinois' neighbors are apparently dedicated to driving our state even further into economic turmoil. Missouri, you'd better get in on this quick. I'm not entirely certain what effect the administrations in Wisconsin and Indiana think that a bankrupt Illinois would have on their own states, but I can tell them that it would not be a positive one. Chicago is undeniably the finance capitol (the capital capitol?) of the Midwest, if Illinois defaults (not likely, but also not out of the realm of possibility considering the massiveness of the budget hole), lines of credit extending from Chicago around the region would seize up. Farm financing in particular would be hard hit, and you can just imagine the national crisis if already-tenuous family farms start going under.

I have to admit, I feel bad for Pat Quinn. I don't think the guy ever really wanted to be a politician, and that would explain why he hasn't been a very effective one. He's made numerous missteps since taking office, but he's faced with a pretty unenviable job. And like it or not, he does seem to at least be trying. He inherited a state government that has been slowly decaying for decades. It's not his fault that the bulk of state legislators are either incompetent, beholden to special interests, or both. Voters keep electing these clowns and apparently don't see the irony when they don't do a good job. It's bad enough for Governor Quinn to be assailed by Republicans in Springfield, but now he's getting it even harder from across statelines.

I'm actually pretty torn up about this. On one hand, if the state goes under, then maybe we can have a chance to reimagine regional governance and maybe even redraw the boundaries. On the other hand, it would be an enormously painful process, politically and economically. I keep talking up Richard C. Longworth, but I really hope some of these politicians start listening to him before it's too late. There needs to be cross-border cooperation, not competition. Otherwise, you'll need to ask yourself just how "United" these States are? Policy decisions tied to the political cycle can only offer short-term gains, I would like to think there there are fewer people buying them.

Furthermore, I've been to Indiana. And seriously? Do businesses believe that they will be able to recruit star talent from the world's top MBA programs and engineering schools to live in Elkhart or Kokomo? Maybe one out of a hundred will go for the small-town milieu, but New York City has taxes just as high as Chicago's, yet I don't see Indiana trying to get anybody to relocate from midtown Manhattan. Indianapolis might be better than it used to be, but it's still not all that great. It's easy for Republican governors in neighboring states to play the Illinoisan-bashing card, given that we're seen as the Midwest equivalent of Massholes. But I've got news, Chicago ain't Illinois.

Don't feel too bad, Hoosiers. I have many dead relatives buried beneath your fine state, and there's even a Tinkey Road in what I can only assume is thrill-a-minute Kosciusko County. Also, I will always love Reggie Miller.

22 January 2011

I Hate to Say I Told You So...

Well, actually I don't mind it at all. Scott K. Walker, eat this. Just came across the news that Evraz NA, the North American subsidiary of the steel company partially owned by Russian oligarch and world's fifteenth-richest man Roman Abramovich, is relocating its headquarters to Chicago. As much as I hate Chelsea FC (which he also owns), it's nice to have my opinion validated that international business cares less about a couple percentage points worth of taxes than transportation links. It was between Chicago and tax-haven Delaware, after all, and those links need to be paid for somehow. It's only seventy jobs, most of which will be transfers from the Portland office, but symbolically it's huge.

I'm not going to go into whether or not this particular deal is actually a good one for the city. Or the fact that this does nothing to add to the city's industrial base. Or how this marks a huge psychological loss for Portland to lose what was once one of it's flagship corporations, the former Oregon Steel. Or whether Abramovich is the kind of guy we want setting up shop here. I'm trying to be positive for once.

From the Tribune's story:

The announcement comes shortly after Illinois hiked its corporate and individual income tax rates, a dramatic step that triggered a hue and cry that businesses will exit or avoid moving here. The founder of Champaign-based Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, for instance, this week told the Champaign News-Gazette that he’s considering moving the corporate headquarters out of state.
But Mike Rehwinkel, Evraz NA president and CEO, said the tax increases, while hardly a welcome turn of events, did not influence the company’s relocation decision. The key factor, he said, was getting easier, less expensive air travel out of O’Hare and Midway airports to customers with offices dotted around North America, from Dallas and Houston to Calgary and Montreal. 
“As much as people say they don’t like those airports, we love them,” he said. “We can reach all our customers, all our mills and into Europe when we need to.” Being able to reach a customer in a day trip should translate into more revenue, he said, noting that often is not possible when flying out of Portland.

Personally, I'll take an international steel conglomerate over a regional sandwich chain. Potbelly is better anyhow. Just imagine what a 220mph high-speed rail network would bring. Read the rest here.

On a more personal note, this has been the busiest week on the site ever. A huge tip of the fedora to Aaron Renn for the linkage. Monday's post on provincialism is already the most-viewed thing I've ever written, and I couldn't be happier. You all are the real heroes. I can only hope that Scott K. Walker is shedding a single tear into his Cheerios right now.

18 January 2011

The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

I suppose I should thank the good voters of Wisconsin for electing Scott "Special K" Walker as their governor. As repellent as I find him, at least I'll have a lot to write about over the next four years. No sooner had my last post made the (admittedly small) rounds, then the Chicago Tribune went and published this op-ed of his. Clearly, he must not read my blog (I'm shocked), let alone Richard Longworth's.

Hooray, my suspicions are confirmed, the man has vision about as broad as the Milwaukee River. Shouldn't be surprised, given how squinty his eyes always seem to be. How is it good economic policy to attempt to take jobs from one set of Americans to give them to another set of Americans? That's not very neighborly, let alone patriotic. Pursuing a regional policy would entice businesses from other parts of the world...China, Germany, Australia, for example? Those are places you currently have to drive down to O'Hare to get to.

Governor Quinn responded with an op-ed of his own, making the case that Illinois is the "economic engine" of the Midwest. True, in a sense...but really it's the Chicago metro. Cook County alone accounts for 43% of the state's population. I don't hear of much innovation arising from East St. Louis or Cairo.

So thanks, Badgers. And uh, go Bears, I guess. (As if it really matters.)

17 January 2011

The New Provincials

America has never been a very curious nation. Sure, we've produced great inventors and entrepreneurs, but you could probably count the great "American philosophers" on one hand (at least one of whom, de Tocqueville, wasn't even American). Americans are not prone to world travel, evidenced by the fact that only 37% of us own a passport. A lack of curiosity is not the sole blame, obviously it costs us far more to travel abroad than it does for Europeans, with flights so cheap they make Southwest look like a legacy carrier. But in the wake of the 9/11 security changes, lack of a passport means 2/3 of Americans aren't even flying to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean, destinations which are often cheaper than, say, Florida.

I have long posited that we are victims of our own geography. The vastness and relative emptiness of the North American continent gave the young nation room to grow and flourish, while leaving it free from foreign influence. Immigrants were generally eager to assimilate, as the threat of repeated bodily harm at the hands of nativists would entice you to try and blend in. Europe consisted mainly of poor, oppressive backwaters in those days, so most didn't see much point in holding onto the old ways in a land that gave them an opportunity to reinvent their identities.

Last month, I attended the Global Metro Summit here in Chicago. One of the panelists, Barcelona Deputy Mayor Jordi William Carnes, made the observation that "America is important to the rest of world, but spends too much time looking inward". I would agree, but even within the United States, infighting and provincialism rule the day. As Richard Longworth has written extensively, the states compete against one another for finite resources, whether in the form of federal transportation dollars, or in wooing corporations to set up shop. This is a losing battle, since state borders are completely arbitrary lines which have no real effect on the life of metro areas, other than to unnecessarily complicate things. Eight of the twenty-five largest metros in the US span state lines that were established two centuries ago. In effect, we govern ourselves under a system that was designed for the 1820s.

This provincial attitude reared its tiny head again this past week, when Wisconsin Governor Scott K. Walker (that "K" is crucial to avoid denigrating the proper Scott Walker) slammed Illinois for it's tax hike and invited businesses to relocate to his state. As James Warren wrote, this shows a lack of a broader vision on Walker's part. He's playing for votes within his own little fiefdom, seemingly oblivious to the fact that if Chicago's economy were to fail, Wisconsin's would go down right beside it. As much as I love our neighbors to the north, Milwaukee does not have the transportation infrastructure necessary to link it to a global marketplace. This is the same guy, mind you, who basically ran for office on his opposition to high-speed rail, which would be one of the best possible assets in building a regional economy.

So allow me to state for the record my philosophy of how the future is aligned: neighborhood - city - region - planet. Note that "county", "state" and "nation" do not exist. These are eighteenth-century constructs that serve little useful purpose in a connected, digital global economy. The hard question is asking what it will take to achieve this in these "United" States. No politician has ever voted themselves out of a job, and yet a thorough realignment of local and federal governance is necessary. Industrialized Europe had to be more or less leveled in World War II for the stakeholders to recognize the value of cross-border cooperation and a free exchange of people and ideas. I certainly hope we don't need such a serious jolt.

Wisconsin and Illinois, despite their football-based loathing, have too many issues which demand cooperation. And you can add Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario to that mix, as well. In coming decades, stewardship of the Great Lakes will become crucial to the region and to the world. Transportation linkages already radiate from Chicago like an octopus, in a common region with common concerns, these absolutely must be brought up to speed with the rest of the developed world. There is really no other option.