Thursday, August 30, 2007

Heading North

Family and friends, if you'd like to read occasional dispatches from Cambridge you may visit my personal blog, Heading North, at I'll try to update it every few days or at least weekly.

But if you're seeking punditry, or opinions on topics in the news, you should look elsewhere until my return next July.

Have a great year in The Naked City!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What's your own 'Walk Score'?

Some of you already know this, but at the end of this week I'll have to close down The Naked City for a year, while I take part in a fellowship program for midcareer journalists at Harvard, called a Nieman Fellowship.

It's a wonderful opportunity for me and my family: I can take any courses I want to at Harvard. But I'm not allowed to do any professional work. (Throw me into that briar patch!) That means no Naked City. Sorry, folks. Maybe you can convince Ed Williams to start a blog or something. (And for you conspiracy theorists, I applied for the fellowship last winter, long before I had ever heard of Lizardking or Edd Hauser ... )

My last posting will be tomorrow or Friday. Until then, here's a cool link my buddy Joe Sovacool showed me. This site rates the "Walk Score" of your neighborhood.

Example: "90-100 = Walkers' Paradise: Most errands can be accomplished on foot and many people get by without owning a car." Or, "0-25 = Driving Only: Virtually no neighborhood destinations within walking range. You can walk from your house to your car!" My neighborhood rated a 35.

Warning: The site is slow, and earlier today it was having a spasm. Seems to work better on Firefox than IE. It isn't up-to-date. Told me I was only half a mile from Providence Hardware -- which closed in 2003. And I don't think it measures threatening dogs or places where poison ivy is growing too close to the sidewalk. Still, it's fun. Check out your own area's walk score.

The site's principles are based in part on those of Dan Burden, a consultant who's been to Charlotte several times to try to infuse the city DOT with info on pedestrian and bicycling needs.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Which 'burbs boomed?

If you want to keep arguing about transit, please do so, on the comment string from my previous post. This is about other topics.

Booming 'burbs: What's the country's fastest-growing suburb? Not Marvin. Not Fort Mill. See this Forbes magazine story for the answer, and for a list ranking suburbs by growth rate. (Want to skip Forbes' annoying full-screen ad before reading the article? Click on "Skip this welcome screen" in upper right corner.) The chart, ranking growth from 2000 to 2006, tallies Holly Springs at No. 18, and Wake Forest at No. 20. Both are in Wake County. You might say Holly Springs is a suburb of Fuquay-Varina ... Huntersville is No. 46, and Cornelius No. 51.

Back off, bulldozers: Salisbury, which takes more pride in its historic buildings than, say, Charlotte, on Tuesday will consider (but not vote on) an ordinance to require the City Council to issue a permit for any downtown demolition. Here's the Salisbury Post's article.

Hummer Houses in Hotlanta: Here's a link to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's article last month about a proposal to limit the size of large houses on small lots. (A Nexis search didn't find any follow-up articles.)

On the verge of importance? UNC Charlotte's Ken Lambla, dean of the College of Architecture, offers a thoughtful look at the role of art and architecture in this month's Charlotte Viewpoint. He starts, "We all know that Charlotte is on the verge of something big; the question that follows is whether we are on the verge of something important? After 24 years of teaching at UNC Charlotte and being involved in architectural and urban practices, I am convinced that we are just about ready to make a shift in substance."

Anti-sprawl in Greensboro: Read about an "un-sprawl" development in Greensboro, from, "A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments." Here's a link. It's about Southside, one of that city's first significant mixed-use infill projects, and winner of an American Planning Association award in 2003 for Outstanding Planning: Implementation. The photo shows Southside infill housing (in yellow) and renovated housing.

Driving drives down volunteering: Long commutes have a negative effect on community volunteering, a new study finds. The study says four factors influence the rate at which a community's residents volunteer: (1) residents’ attachment to the community, (2) commuting times, (3) socioeconomic characteristics such as education levels, and (4) the capacity of a community’s nonprofit groups. The study found that volunteer rates in central cities are lower (24%) than in suburbs and rural areas, which rates (29%). Here's a link to the study. Charlotte ranked No. 9 nationally for volunteering, below Milwaukee and above Tulsa. Minneapolis-St. Paul ranked No. 1.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Naked City's back on track

At long last, I'm freed up from other duties to get back to Naked City topics. I've spent this past week researching topics such as impact fees and land transfer taxes. More on that in later posts.

First, to take the wind out of some conspiracy theorists' sails: I opted to start Potterblog about two weeks before the books came out because I thought it would offer fun online reading that no one else at was going to do. I didn't plan it months in advance. I didn't do it to escape writing about that transit study. I did it because I thought it would be interesting (believe it or not, I have many interests) and give readers something they'd enjoy.

Second, although I do appreciate the devoted (if sometimes mean-spirited) commenters and readers of The Naked City, honesty compels me to reveal that Potterblog was far more popular, measured in page views. (Blog readership -- high or low -- doesn't affect my pay, by the way. And no, I don't measure the value of what I do by page views, otherwise I'd be opining about Brad Pitt and the NFL.)

But back to Naked City-land:

Yes, I goofed in making such a big deal of the UNCC transit study . Edd Hauser wasn't forthright in explaining its origins to me, and I took him at his word when I shouldn't have. However, a few mistakes in one apparently sloppily done rush-job research report do nothing to undermine the importance of having a good transit system here. It's just one study, for crying out loud.

Further, nothing in the somewhat obsessive reporting that's been devoted to the UNCC study indicates Hauser or anyone else cooked the results. Steve Harrison's analysis confirmed many of the study's findings. Of the mistakes, some made CATS look worse than it should have, others made CATS look better. To me that shows hasty and sloppy work, not intentional skewing.

The bottom line remains: Much statistical information you'll read about transit comes from people either stoutly for it or stoutly against it. They mine data charts for tidbits that support their views and ignore tidbits that don't support their views. I don't believe the UNCC study did that. Compared with much of what I see, especially from the anti-transit crowd, it was far more even-handed. (It's not sheer coincidence that the anti-light-rail John Locke and Reason Foundations hire anti-light-rail UNCC prof David Hartgen or other rail transit critics to do their transportation studies.)

Overall, finding dispassionate analysis is tough. Academic studies, as opposed to advocacy group studies, tend to be more even-handed. But academics often have views that affect what they study and how they approach it. That's true for many subjects, not just transportation.

Even people who aim for even-handed analysis face difficulties comparing one city's transportation experience with another's, because each city is unique. They differ in topography, financing, growth rates, growth patterns, land use rules and local culture.

Should Charlotte be compared with Atlanta, which until recent years didn't require transit-supportive development around MARTA stops? (Miami was the same.) Or with slow-growing Pittsburgh? Or Portland, which decided to support its transit system by capping the number of parking places downtown? Any comparison is, in its own, way, apples to oranges.

At bottom, the issue facing Mecklenburg County is whether the city needs a mass transit system funded with a half-cent sales tax, or not. Some people think it's a waste of money. I -- and many other people -- think it's fiscally irresponsible NOT to build one.