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.

13 January 2011

The Biggest Prize in Sport

Dubai Sport City

The business of sports, and it's relationship to the city, has been on my mind. A while back, this op-ed ran in the New York Times positing that rising ticket prices linked to tax write-offs for business entertainment has ruined baseball as a working-class diversion. Then this post, from the Guardian's soccer blog, on how in direct contrast to the English Premier League, Germany's Bundesliga has maintained a focus on the fans, kept ticket prices low and built impressive new stadiums, and as a result has the highest average attendances in Europe (if not the world). These caused me to revisit a post that Aaron Renn had over at the Urbanophile some time ago on pro sports naming rights. Get ready for some tangents.

I want to start off comparing apples with much larger apples. First, here is a satellite image of Toyota Park in south suburban Bridgeview, Illinois, home of Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire...

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...a perfectly acceptable small soccer stadium, one of the first specific-use facilities built in this country. Seats around 21,000 for a game. Now, here is Arsenal's new Emirates Stadium (still under construction in this shot), which holds just over 60,000...

View Larger Map

...notice anything? These are shown at the same scale. Here's the answer, from Ticketmaster's UK site: "PARKING: VERY difficult, street parking in a residential area with SEVERE restrictions." I chose Emirates to highlight a key difference in thinking when it comes to stadium development between the US and Europe. The stadium is a short walk from two London Underground stations, a British Rail station, and several bus routes. Meanwhile, Toyota Park is surrounded by parking lots and seriously awful pre- and post-game traffic jams, and a single bus line which gets stuck in that same traffic. And this for a stadium that would be considered adequate for a second or third division team in England or Germany. Compare it with the new Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington, Texas, which holds 100,000 and sits in the largest city in America with no public transit. Even more notable was the fate of Arsenal's beloved old ground, Highbury Stadium. Rather than tear it down, as would likely be the case in the US, it was converted to luxury condominiums for sale to well-heeled fans.

Aside from being yet another symptom of our national automotive addiciton, there's a serious public safety issue at play here. Anybody who has ever attended a professional or collegiate sporting event in America knows that folks like to throw back a few cold ones during the course of the game. But at the same time, we are effectively inviting people to drive home drunk by not providing adequate transit options. In Green Bay, a state legislator went so far as to suggest that installing roundabouts near Lambeau Field was a bad idea because it would be too difficult for drunk drivers to navigate.

New stadiums being built or proposed tend to fall in one of two camps: those in downtown cores, like LA's Staples Center or San Diego's Petco Park; or those nestled in exurban sprawl, like the aforementioned Cowboys Stadium. Los Angeles, in it's quest to lure an NFL franchise back to the city, is torn between the two models. The argument against the downtown stadium focuses on congestion and parking, and suggests that people wouldn't go to games if driving there was inconvenient. To which I ask, what are the two most-cherished stadia in the United States? Arguably, Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field...both of which are situated in dense, old urban neighborhoods with good transit connections, and neither of which provides much in the way of parking. Sure, a baseball stadium is different than a football stadium, but if you include transit improvements (which Los Angeles is already doing anyhow), and give people places to go hang out before and after the game, they will go. Besides, if people will go see the Cubs play, they'll see anybody.

03 January 2011

Winter in America

I've been awfully quiet over the past month, I do apologize. What with holiday travel, winter ennui and appointments to keep, December is always a harsh month. Just a quick post to reassure you that I'm still here, with things on my mind. I've been seeing this commercial a lot lately:

Um, terrifying? So yeah, proof that ice is bad for cars. Or, if you watch this as somebody who walks and bikes everywhere, proof that cars are bad for people.