Flip: Google and Congestion


This fourth installment of Flip, which tracks keen new convergences between urban affairs and new media technology, was suggested by Joe Mielke, an IT professional and a colleague at the Michigan Land Use Institute. It’s Google’s recently introduced tool to track  urban congestion in real time, and available now in New York. Click the traffic link on the top right of the page.

The applications for this tool are immeasurable. If you’re swinging up the New Jersey Thruway from D.C. it’s possible now to call this tool up on your Blackberry. Lincoln Tunnel looks tight? Try the Holland or the GW Bridge. Better yet, you’re in Philadelphia and need to get to New York. Traffic is tough. Take Amtrak out of 30th Street Station. 

I’m looking longer term. The same technology that enables Google to measure traffic flow over such a large region could also be applied to new construction permits, and new homes and businesses actually built. The GIS information systems already provide the software capacity. Data is available in many jurisdictions on a weekly and monthly basis. Google could tie the systems and data together to give residents an accurate picture of development patterns over time. Each new building could be represented by a tiny blue dot that appears with every permit approval. Over time the various constellations of dots would indicate the speed, location, and density of new development, a more graphic and urgent picture in most cases than residents can obtain by just looking around.

Wonder why traffic is heavy and getting worse? It’s not just the number of vehicles. It’s where they come from. Google’s creativity and technical capacity could add a new narrative that prompts greater public insight into the where, how, and why of development trends and of traffic.

Green Cities


 The American Prospect, one of the important forums of progressive thought, published a special section last month on “Emerald Cities.” 

“The environmental movement and the movement for a new urbanism come together in a quest for cities that are both affordable and sustainable,” write the editors. “With more sensible land use and transportation strategies, and better use of scarce subsidy dollars, America could provide more livable cities with lower energy costs, as well as cities that are not just for the urban gentry. The federal government is not leading in this area, but state and local government and private foundations and businesses are.”

The point that none of the pieces makes strong enough is that the cities achieving the American Mode Shift also are the most prosperous. That’s true here in Michigan, where Ann Arbor, Traverse City, and Grand Rapids are changing the rules of the development game and also are leaders in business development in a state anchored by the old tires and obsolete hierarchy of its auto industry. 

Ann Arbor established a green belt. Traverse City killed a needless beltway and bridge and replaced it with a $1.36 million regional land use and transportation project. Grand Rapids leveraged $2 billion in private and public funding to rebuild its downtown and use its water and sewer lines to lasso development at the edge.

It’s even more true in the metropolitan regions in other states that are pursuing new green strategies, and installing the civic equipment — trains, rapid buses, sidewalks, parks, safe neighborhoods, greenways, energy efficient buildings –that residents need to thrive and survive in this century.

Portland, Oregon halted a $1 billion freeway in the early 1990s and replaced it with two light rail lines and a downtown streetcar (see pix) that prompted $2 billion in housing and retail development. The city supports a multi-million dollar sustainable investment fund for green business start-ups and projects.

Seattle is weighing whether to tear down a shoreline freeway even as it prepares for new downtown businesses and 60,000 more jobs without expanding the number of parking spaces, which take up valuable room.

Denver is building a 172-mile regional rapid transit system financed in large part by the decision residents in seven counties made to increase their sales tax. When it’s finished it will be the largest rapid transit system in the West, and its transit stop and stations will serve as the new nodes of the metropolitan region’s business and housing development.

Salt Lake City reduced emissions of global warming gases by 36,000 tons annually, built a rapid transit that will grow substantially in the next decade, required public buildings and any publicly financed buildings to achieve the highest standards of energy efficiency and environmental design, and attracted thousands of new homes and residents. The city’s population has reached 182,000 and is closing in on the peak of 189,000 achieved in 1960. Salt Lake City and its suburbs, by the way, also registered an unemployment rate last month of less than 3 percent.   

Chicago’s green development strategy is based on improving parks, planting trees, conserving the Lake Michigan shoreline, and making public and private buildings more energy efficient. The city’s population is growing and thousands of new homes are under construction.  

You can read more on March 7 in a special Green Business section published by the New York Times and on the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Web site.

Organizing Principles

Seven years ago New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell published The Tipping Point, which explored the mix of episodic and serendipitous stages that turn a good idea into a cultural event. Gladwell’s book is as useful for explaining the genetics of a modern sensation as Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave was in the 1980s for understanding the economic and cultural consequences of rapid change.

Both books are essential reading for grasping how global climate change has so recently and quickly evolved into one of the most significant economic and social organizing principles of our time. You might find that an odd statement since it’s been almost 20 years since NASA scientist James Hansen’s famous Congressional testimony in which he linked the fires then burning in Yellowstone National Park and the drought gripping the Great Plains to global climate changes wrought by man. I’d just returned from a trip to Montana and Idaho to cover the drought when my New York Times colleague, Philip Shabecoff, returned from the Hill and excitedly told several of us in the Washington Bureau about Hansen’s testimony. Phil, one of the fine environmental reporters of the 20th century, was certain that Hansen’s convincing testimony opened a new era of scientific and environmental research that would have consequences for every person on earth.

He was right about that. It just took 19 years for the idea to gain social currency. It gradually became clear that we were responsible for the ever more severe meteorological events of our time — a great Midwest flood in 1992, severe Florida hurricanes, the drowning of New Orleans, enduring drought on the Colorado Plateau. The tipping point, plainly, came last year with Al Gore’s courageous film, An Inconvenient Truth , that provided viewers with an engrossing narrative that joined a tale of personal discovery with a harrowing environmental journey of ruin that no longer can be denied. Gore is said to be a top candidate for the Nobel Prize. And if he chooses to run for president, he’d immediately be the front-runner and barring a meltdown of some sort, would win.  

Now that global climate change has elevated to common knowledge and popular concern, it’s just astonishing how communities are responding.  Several cities, among them Portland and Salt Lake City, are clear leaders. Portland built a fabulous light rail rapid transit system that is now attracting development around its transit stations (see pix).todportland.jpg

Since 1999, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, a Democrat, has managed much of his administration around the goal of reducing global climate change gases. The city was among the first to require muncipal buildings to be constructed to LEED standards. Miles of light rail line have been constructed in and around Salt Lake City, and much more is coming. Anderson directed that every city-owned light be changed to energy-sipping bulbs, saving $33,000 a year. In all, the Anderson administration reduced the level of global climate change emissions by 36,000 tons a year, a pinch of pollution in the global context, but enough to make Salt Lake City operate more cleanly and efficiently. While pollution decreased, the city’s population has grown, reaching 182,000 and nearing the 189,000 peak in 1960.

Anderson also was one of the nine original signers of the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which commits those nine cities and 393 others that have signed on to reduce their global climate emssions. Traverse City, the center of our northern Michigan metropolitan region, just signed the agreement too. Every declared Democratic candidate for president in 2008, and Republican John McCain have embraced early campaign platforms linking energy security and global climate change. Governors, whether they are Democratic of Republican, are focusing ideas on energy and the environment through the global climate change frame. The two are likely to be serious issues in 2008, along with the war. All three, of course, are connected and the discussion could break through the usual campaign blather we’ve been subjected to for over a decade. 

The last point is that responding to global climate change involves the very same steps that communities already are taking to reduce congestion, conserve farmland, protect natural resources, lower municipal costs and taxes, and make their places better. The Mode Shift we are seeing all over the country is prompted by the need to  be much more efficient in how resources, land, energy, and money are used. It means applying technology — whether it’s energy efficient building designs and practices, or new modes of transportation and community development patterns — in ways that limit pollution. And those are the very same ideas we’ve been talking about since I was in the eighth grade and dragging tires out of the Bronx River on the first Earth Day in 1970. The new market signals of the 21st century are higher energy prices, higher land costs, record population growth, intense global competition, speeding technological advances, and a menacing environmental breakdown. It takes awhile. But, fortunately, we’re showing we ain’t stupid.

Charting A Future For Michigan Through Maine

If you read the growing number of economic development proposals about how to solve what we in Michigan call the “one state recession,” it’s readily plain that they all say pretty much the same thing. Promote the idea that educational attainment is a priority, and make it possible for more students to attend and graduate from college. Improve Michigan’s cities so that they are magnets for talented entrepreneurial young people. Develop strategies that leverage Michigan’s treasure trove of natural resources in new ways. For instance, a state surrounded by more clean fresh water than any place on earth should be the planet’s leader in developing new companies and technology to promote its sustainable use. Michigan, in other words, has to figure out what it wants to be.

That, friends, is a new idea. And as anyone who’s paid attention to the 35-year decline of the American auto industry knows, new ideas aren’t a virtue in Michigan. The hierarchical way of doing business, learned in the auto industry and which worked so well in Michigan for much of the 20th century, is not only obsolete it’s completely unfit for the innovative, collaborative, accelerated, and competitive 21st.

Now, we aren’t the only old economy state challenged by its own outmoded rules of the game. Another is Maine, where fishing and woolen mills and paper factories are all going the same way as the American auto assembly line. But Maine, which has just over 1 million residents, one-tenth as many as Michigan, is on the verge of figuring out what to do about it. 

Last October, GrowSmart Maine, the state’s non–profit smart growth organization based in Yarmouth, held a conference that attracted 800 participants, all of whom gathered to hear what the Brookings Institution recommended for building the state’s new economy and ensuring the quality of life. Brookings spent a year studying Maine and its final report, “Charting Maine’s Future,” is a great piece of economic and cultural analysis and can be secured on the GrowSmart Maine Web site.

The report’s most important contribution was not in identifying what was wrong with Maine, but in focusing on what was right, especially Maine’s fabled high quality of life based on its maritime and North Woods culture, and all of its innovative people, many of them educated in New England’s elite colleges and universities. What was missing, said Mark Muro, the report’s principal author and a policy specialist at Brookings’s Metropolitan Policy Program, was discipline. The courage to decide to act. 

The Brookings researchers, financially supported by a ton of money raised by GrowSmart Maine, suggested three steps to prosperity. The first two would establish a $190 million fund to revitalize cities, protect forests and farms, and make it easier for people to hunt and fish, and a $200 million fund to promote innovation and entrepreneurism.

Now right here is where Maine can help Michigan. Brookings suggested paying for the two investment funds by eliminating waste, duplication, and inefficiencies in state and local government. “A top-to-bottom overhaul of bureaucracies would not only improve service and finance needed  investments, but could also make a down payment on tax reform,” said the report.croppedalan1.jpg

As Alan Caron, GrowSmart Maine’s founder and executive director (in pix left), told me earlier this month, Brookings helped his organization fashion the perfect message of the moment. Conservatives like the limited government piece, while liberals hanker for the government activism portion. Maine knows its paramount challenge is defining its place in the global economy. The state now has a message — the money saved here can be invested there — that makes such sense that the political community, including both parties and every level of government, from the town halls to the Legislature to the governor’s office, is  essentially on the same page. Bills to enact the full scope of the Brookings recommendations have been introduced. Serious debate is under way. Alan told me he expects many to be approved. A poll of 500 registered voters that GrowSmart Maine released on February 1, 2007, showed that 91 percent of those polled agreed that the  Legislature should “streamline government al all levels to free up resources for investment in the new economy and lowering taxes.”

Governor Jennifer Granholm. Legislative leaders. Michigan mayors, business executives, non-profit administrators, and citizens. Maine has pointed the way to achieving a new economic strategy in our great state.