Friday, December 31, 2010

Cincinnati and Urban Economics

I'm visiting my grandmother in Cincinnati for New Years Eve and the city has been making me think hard about my urban economics class. My cousins who live here were telling me that mall after mall has closed down. They mentioned one mall in particular that could be "a zombie movie set." The Ponderosa Steakhouse had a diminished clientele, consisting, it appeared, of retirees and those most likely to suffer from structural unemployment (and me, unfortunately).

Yet Cinicinnati has a beautiful natural setting, great housing stock, and is the home to Proctor and Gamble, Great American Insurance, and a few banks. What's dying isn't the downtown, its the suburbs, and not all suburbs. Mason, OH is a fast growing satellite city with good schools and many offshoots of the big businesses. Its neighbor, Sharonville, would have gotten a rail stop had the new idiot not been elected governor. It still might, if local rail advocates can convince the city to apply for funding on its own.

I suppose it's also not entirely true to say that downtown isn't dying. It is losing population and has a school system that is up against some seriously unfriendly social dynamics. Moreover, it's suffering from clogged transportation arteries--highways and freight capacity-- and some really stupid planning decisions, like separating downtown from the river by the Fort Washington highway trench and the removal of the streetcar system. On the other hand, they are beginning to look at other cities and recognize these mistakes, and may even bring back the streetcar. So let's call downtown in critical, but not terminal, condition.

The suburbs, on the other hand, the ones fueled by the construction of the highways, populated by white flight from downtown, and based around the malls and office parks, are unlikely to recover, for a number of reasons. One, gas prices are likely to rise over time, increasing the cost of that particular kind of suburban lifestyle. Two, the decline of malls likely signals a market readjustment due to an oversupply of retail. Once a new equilibrium is reached, even if an economic resurgence restores demand, it likely won't look the same. Increasingly, newly vibrant economic districts are happening in places with higher densities and more mixed use development. Three, the population with the wherewithal to do so is relocating to the suburbs with jobs, like Sharonville and Mason, leaving the populations in other suburbs less attractive to businesses as an employee base. Four, the land use pattern in the suburbs does not lend itself to easy realignment with popular smart growth principles.

In other words, Cincinnati is undergoing many of the same changes that we were asked to discuss on our urban economics final, the one where nearly every paper got the same comment: But what happens to the suburban houses and retail?? No one could answer it.

I still don't really know. My guess is that change is sticky and the towns won't really die, unless Cincinnati's economy loses P&G and gets no one else for a century. Instead, buildings will lie vacant and for sale, as will houses, like my grandma's condo. Grass will grow over empty patches where malls were demolished (in an attempt to reduce the property value, or as projects are attempted and fail). Eventually, if the other towns continue to find economic success, in part based around their greater capacity for resilience and adaptation, they will annex or spill over into the "dead" suburbs, rebuilding and repurposing them and absorbing the populations, likely to needed larger amounts of social services than the residents of the more successful towns.

Additionally, as they lie dormant, those who hold property will see their assets depreciate significantly. It may, in places like Cincinnati that are undergoing significant demographic and landuse shifts, be prudent for the local government to purchase and hold onto the land and houses until there is a use for them. Yes, they will be taken off the tax rolls, resulting in a loss of revenue, but I would wager that in many cases, the tradeoff makes sense. I would say do that only for those who cannot afford the lost assets (the elderly, families, and small businesses, NOT national chains or mall developers). It will minimize the long-term economic impacts of the temporary dead zones, and increase the likelihood (assuming a semi-enlightened government, a risky thing to do in Cincinnati) of them eventually being planned and utilized in a way that will make them more resilient in the future, and keep the great housing stock in place.

Well, it's officially 2011 as I write this! Happy and healthy new year to everyone!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

High-speed rail

As governors-elect in Ohio and Wisconsin prepare to hand back high-speed rail money to the US Department of Transportation, it's a little disheartening to read this article about objections to a new high-speed rail line in Britain. On the other hand, I don't think that this situation is analogous to objections raised by the opposition to high-speed rail in the US, and would hope that this article isn't used in that argument (although I'm not naive enough to think it won't).

The article is about the residents of towns along a proposed high speed rail corridor between London and Birmingham. They object to having their view despoiled, to the noise and mess of construction, and other general complaints of NIMBYism which I was inclined to dismiss at first, especially given the beauty of iconic images like the Shinkansen under Mt. Fuji. However, Y pointed out that the faster the train goes, the more it disturbs those around it due to increased noise and danger in case of obstruction. In addition, the increasing numbers of towns it must pass by to maintain those speeds and the need for straighter right of ways, which reduce flexibility in route planning, create real costs attributable to increasing speeds. These problems are mentioned obliquely in the article as well and they seem like reasonable claims to me.

For one, the distance between London and Birmingham is exactly the same as the distance between Charlottesville, VA and Washington, DC, and shorter than the distance from DC to Philadelphia by 10-15 miles. The British train would cover the distance between the two cities in 49 minutes at a speed of up to 250 mph, and stop nowhere in the middle. Comparably, in Amtrak's pipe dream plan for the Northeast Corridor, only the fastest service, reaching speeds of 220 mph, would go direct from DC to Philadelphia without stopping in Baltimore. There is a difference of 19 minutes in the proposed travel time from DC to NYC between the Super Express (which stops at only the four hub stations) and the Express (which stops at 8 additional stations between DC and NYC). My guess is that, if this plan is carried further, a rigorous cost-benefit analysis will find that a fraction of those 19 minutes aren't worth losing ridership to and from Baltimore, and times will slow a little. Many will object, saying that the US should have the fastest trains out there, but this article would suggest that they are wrong. Since our highway building extravaganza of the 1950s and 60s, I would hope that US transportation planners have learned something about listening to the concerns of those who live near corridors. A 180 mile an hour train that can curve to avoid important places and stop in a couple more cities can compete just as well as a higher speed train that generates resentment and fear among its neighbors, who become avid non-consumers because of poor planning and communication. US trains should continue their reputation for being an enjoyable way to travel for those both on and off the rails, even if it means letting France hold its fastest train award.

More importantly, Britain already has the 180 mile an hour train as an option, with upgrading, and a great rail system even without an upgrade. The reason it is RIDICULOUS for Ohio and Wisconsin to give up their rail money is that that money, while incorrectly labeled high speed rail, would have permitted upgrades that would get them close to the level of service currently provided in Britain. Yes, it is a smaller step than it was sold as. Perhaps the money should have been called "Viable Rail", an attempt to make rail a good option for travelers before we run out of oil and/or space to build highways in cities and need electrified rail desperately. The highways in Cincinnati and Chicago are already clogged (they may be in other cities that turned down rail money too, but I've only been in those two so I can't say for sure), so it would strike me that they may already be at the point of really needing another choice. This is a choice that would not require the acquisition of much new right of way, just upgrades to existing infrastructure. It's not comparable to Britain's decision, which is more about being faster than France than about providing better service between Birmingham and London.

Look for a future post on why it is also ridiculous for Amtrak to propose two New York stops on even the Super Express train.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Blogging for real now (hopefully)

So, having recently graduated, I finally have time to start blogging. More importantly, I have found a topic that angers me enough to provide incentive to write the first real post.

The topic? The train station in my hometown of Charlottesville, VA (image courtesy of the CVille Weekly, a local paper). The picture reflects the town's opinion of the parcel of land. It emphasizes the sad state of the parking lot (the station is a red brick building behind the lot). The lot has so many potholes I feel like I need an off road vehicle to pick up a friend at the station.

So, do we blame Amtrak, the perenially cash-strapped government-owned corporation? While providing decent and improving service does it just not have the money to fix up the lot?

No. The station and lot are, in fact, owned by private developers, specifically Union Station LLC, a rarity among Amtrak stations. As far as I can research, the developers purchased the property in 1997 and since then, have installed one restaurant next to the station and spruced up the building somewhat. It is also possible that they are responsible for the refurbishing of the platform used by trains heading North-South (the Crescent and the Northeast Regional). Still, the literally gaping sore of the lot has gone untouched.

Why? My best guess is that the city, which also owns a stake in the lot, has prevented them from charging for parking, aside from a 5 dollar-a-day honor-based payment for passengers leaving their cars there for a trip. Therefore, because they can't make money from the paving, they won't do it, no matter how much we all kvetch.

But the story gets worse. Apparently, when the developers purchased the lot, they had great visions of transit-oriented development (TOD), with 7 story mixed use buildings, a parking garage, and a new and improved intermodal station that would serve as the hub for the public transit buses that serve the area. In other words, a lot of value-added for a lot they purchased for just over $700,000.

They met with the city about this, and tried to get something done. The city secured federal funding for the intermodal station and a prepaid lease from Amtrak. Tentative plans were drawn up, and then a representative from the city council and the primary developer sat down to negotiate. And failed. According to one insider, negotiations fell apart over the number of parking spaces reserved for the development as opposed to being for general use by passengers and West Main Street shoppers. All of that potential development and profit for developers disappeared because of a parking lot. Ironic, when you think how much well-designed TOD, combined with the imporved transit system being planned now, could have reduced the need for the lot at all.

So now I have a dream. Work for two years for the government, at the DOT, learning the policies and regulations. Get a Master's in planning, and then return home and get enough investors to buy the parcel off their hands. Build what they wanted, but better. It won't be the hub, because the federal funding went to a different site right on the downtown mall, with no train access so it is not truly intermodal, but it can at least be bus accessible. Periodically, I'll post developments to this dream: drawings, local news, cost estimates, etc. Hopefully, someone will get there before me, but given that the property (which is up for sale) is priced at 13.5 million, I doubt it. However, if that person, slightly farther along their life journey is out there and ready to try, let's talk, because right now, that lot is literally a gaping wound.