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I found an article today (via Planetizen) that made me happy.  Ed Glaeser, the Harvard economist, writes that in addition to the traditional economic explanation for cities – agglomeration, in which it is more efficient for manufacturing firms to share resources by being physically near each other – there is an information component to agglomeration as well.  While the manufacturing version of agglomeration becomes less relevant as transportation costs have decreased in recent decades, Glaeser asserts that information- and knowledge-based productivity increases along with density:

via NY Times

Glaeser, "Why Humanity Loves - and Needs - Cities" (NYTimes)

One of the issues I have with the traditional agglomeration argument is that it does not sufficiently describe individuals’ desire to be near other people.  This isn’t quite that argument, but it’s getting closer!

Is this the new economic model for twenty-first century cities?  Or does it over-estimate the influence of the knowledge-based economy on urban form and our settlement patterns?

[Read the article here]

I was skimming a Brookings report on “job sprawl,” the decentralization of job distribution in several metro areas.  The study period was 1998-2006, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the pattern continues today.  According to the report, Chicago was one of the most rapidly decentralizing, with 68.7% of jobs more than 10 miles outside the city center.

In my limited experience with and knowledge of employment in the Chicago area, that sounds about right.  Certainly there are a number of jobs in the city:  financial firms, consulting firms, law firms, city and federal offices, design and architecture firms, etc.  Not to mention the usual laundry list of retail and service jobs.  And while there still are industrial operations in the city, many have either gone out of business or are now centered out in places like Maywood or near O’Hare.

As a result, there is a great deal of reverse commuting from city to suburbs – most of my co-workers chose to live in the city, even if it meant a 15 to 25 mile one-way commute.  There is also a great deal of commuting between suburbs, such as from Evanston to Elmhurst or from Arlington Heights to Libertyville.  And unfortunately, most of the El lines don’t go beyond city limits; the Metra is set up in a hub-and-spoke system which is only useful for those commuting to downtown or along the same train line; and the buses take forever if you’re going 20 miles (assuming, like the El or Metra, they run along the route you need to go).

I’m not sure what the solution to all this is – better transit networks, more incentives for businesses to stay in the city center, or better housing options to convince people to move closer to work.  If the trend continues, it will certainly have an impact not only on things like cities’ commercial tax bases and economic health, but it will also make driving commutes worse and worse.

Read the full report

Elizabeth Kneebone, “Job Sprawl Revisited:  The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment”

I was talking with some friends this morning (and by “morning” I mean 2 PM) about cul-de-sacs and how, for planners, they are a really inefficient and disconnected urban form.  I thought I would reproduce my argument here, since it’s a pretty simple exercise in Google Mappery.

Case in Point:  Going to Target in western Columbus, Ohio

Figure 1:  My parents’ neighborhood in relation to a nearby recent development – the aerial photo is out of date, but in that empty land east of the interstate, there is actually a medical office complex and, on the other side of Trueman, a Home Depot and Target (marked in map).

Figure 1. The cul-de-sac in context, Hilliard, Ohio

There is a cul-de-sac separating the neighborhood from the road.  Trueman was built around 2006 or so, the houses are only a few years older, and the construction of that road had been on the books for years.  In addition, the houses around that cul-de-sac have all put up sturdy metal fences to prevent anyone from cutting through their small yards.  There is luckily a nature trail just south of the neighborhood with an outlet onto Trueman, with a sidewalk on that side for relatively pedestrian friendly access (along a 35-mph, four-lane road).

If you wanted to walk from my parents’ house to Target, with a total distance of about 0.7 miles, you would take the following route (Figure 2):

Figure 2. Route from Scioto Run to Target, Walking

Now, let’s say you wanted to drive to Target instead.  Even if you combine this with other trips down the line, it will add 2 miles to your trip (note:  this is Google’s suggested route):

Figure 3. Driving from Scioto Run to Target, Google's Suggested Route

There is a slightly shorter route if you instead take Hilliard Cemetery Road, but because of an odd U-turn and boulevard situation, you pretty much have to go further out of your way to get home (Figure 4):

Figure 4. Alternate Route, Equally Out of the Way

Now, not all cul-de-sacs are extremely inefficient like this one was, but it pretty much illustrates why they are a bad idea.