Sunday, 16 October 2016

Economic development, taxes, fietsstraaten and Edmontonian roads

It's been a while since I made my last blog post, sorry about that (insert Canadian apology joke here), but I've been seeing how well I adjust to my new high school my (attempted) relationship with a girl and doing more activism related to the US presidential election (I know that it isn't my country you Americans in the viewer list, but what you do affects the rest of the world and not just by invading places like Iraq, thrice, and Nicaragua). I've also been doing more research into blogs like strongtowns.org on many subjects.

I also did some more cross section profiles of suburban arterial roads, seeing how much space where was left over, and remembering what I knew about fietsstraaten from the Netherlands and the dimensions of the kind of stores that StrongTowns suggests, about 10-25 metres per side and multiple levels if possible directly affronting the sidewalk, it made me wonder. Could we actually put those buildings in without acquiring land?

As it turns out, yes. Most of the arterial roads in Edmonton except quite old ones are between 32 and 55 metres wide, which is actually just enough to put down the design I like. Here is a sample design, based on a 35 metre wide profile:


As you can see, I put a 16 metre wide placeholder on one of the sides. This is actually just enough for a fairly wide array of uses. It can have an apartment building, 6.1 metre long apartments on either side of a central hallway. It can have commercial structures, a bike store for example or groceries, offices, tailors and barbers, and it's relatively easy to reconfigure the inside structure if a business goes broke. And they can be on multiple levels, 2-4 is an ideal number here. Big box stores aren't like that, they have a very specific business model, it cannot be changed easily. Oh, and I might add that a 50 metre wide road designed like that, and many arterial roads have widths of 50 metres including the clear zones, can have these sorts of buildings on both sides of the road, doubling the return. 

Also, think about history. How long have these small businesses been around? Thousands of years, if something was wrong with them, don't you think that we would have come up with a better idea, and why would the Dutch stores built like this continue to not be replaced if they were so good, they have good education. It's not like they're not open to change after a long history in something, they revolted against the Pope in the 1500s, and that trend continues today just with less mass murder, and that's far more significant a change for an individual than a company which of course is motivated by money and the most efficient means of getting it, not crosses and the Yin and Yang. 

Of course in relation to the big box style of business, I'm leaving out the elephant in the room, how much space must be devoted to parking. It's not called an ocean of asphalt for nothing. In the area covered by the Walmart parking lot closest to my house, with 61 thousand square metres, in a 4 story apartment block that big, you could fit several thousand people living full time in 50 m^2 apartments. Of course it also makes it more attractive to drive, as well as making the distances further away, especially given that they compete to a level we've never seen before with the traditional model of store. It also contributes massively to the area that is not permeable to the ground without a real use above the ground, contributing to floods. 

As you can see, we have a major problem with these large box style businesses and I haven't even gone into the realm of worker's rights in developing countries and how hard it is to use consumer power to force them to chose between ethics and going out of business by having a less automatically loyal market and less competition and more consumers to cover risks. 

But what to do about it? 

As you saw, I made a cross section showing a 35 metre wide street with this sort of business on it. But isn't that contradictory to the idea of the stroads I have rallied against before? Not really, it's a small scale road without the high speed design of roads involved That can be downgraded in width and speed, down to 50 km/h. It wouldn't affect all distributors, some would remain 2-4 lane divided 70 km/h urban through roads with much less complexity and no direct access and no new businesses facing the road. But most of the distributors in Edmonton would be like that. I also would save enough space to provide things like roundabouts to prevent a common problem with minor side roads. 

I also know that many of you will be concerned about the congestion that can arise from going from 4 to 2 lanes. But as I've said before, the number of lanes actually has a lot less to do with traffic capacity than you might think. The main reason congestion happens is because of a slowdown somewhere, be it a merging car, a crash, a bus stopping outside of a roadside bay, a traffic light or stop sign, or a long delay for a turning vehicle, many of which could be avoided with the downgrade. Of course there would be fewer stretches of road where you could actually need to merge or diverge anywhere or change lanes, there would be room for roundabouts which reduce crashes, even the property damage only crashes which also contribute significantly and makes the road able to handle more cars than a traffic light. There would be room for bus stop laybys, and turning lanes would be lessened by the use of roundabouts for turns and service roads for most of the remaining turns. 

Also, remember, that these sorts of streets would be much more conducive to the use of cycling and walking and even transit. There would be safer provisions for making these streets, successful fietsstraaten in the Netherlands with sufficiently low speed and volume of motor vehicles are very pleasant to ride on as are of course the cycle tracks, I rode on several in the Netherlands including a very nice canalside one in Utrecht, walking would have fewer traffic lights, subjective safety and without feeling like cars were passing you closeby even though you had your own sidewalk, and a walk that felt like you were passing interesting sights and feeling faster by passing more buildings rather than just seeing endless parking lots and huge businesses, the same actually goes for cycling too. Distances would be shorter for the most part due to the higher density and the lessening of independent zones for living, working and selling, including common non food amenities like libraries, theatres, barbers and clothing. This alone would generate something like a 20-50% reduction in the rate of car usage, which could easily drive a street that had say 30 thousand trips, requiring 2 lanes per direction, to maybe 19 thousand, which could be handled by one lane per direction easily. 

Existing businesses do not have to go away. I saw many McDonald's in the Netherlands, they just occupied the first one or two levels in a store depending on how popular they are. I saw many chain stores too. It's just that it isn't the default option and local businesses can be easier to pop up and with more variety. My dad works in an office that could easily work in the space of a one person apartment, imagine how many small companies could work here in a space something like 4-32 times bigger (including the added number of floors, and this is per building), and none of the employees work in the high density method of cubicles that offices often use. 

Oh, and I imagine that many of you are snickering, thinking that rebuilding the road would cost far too much. It's actually far more affordable than you think. Just focusing on the property taxes alone, they are massively improved. I did some math and found that the taxes per square metre that Walmart pays in Grand Rapids Michigan was so much lower than a one level tiny art store that if you even had such small businesses with so little use of that art gallery, let alone the highly productive streets seen in Amsterdam, would make reworking the street to entice that development would repay itself within a single year through property taxes. And they pay this for a long time, to the tune of billions more per city, which would make the transformation to Dutch style streets almost comically quick. And given that this is just property taxes, think about business license fees. I looked it up on the city`s bank of PDFs (oh the things you find, I never knew some of the businesses that Edmonton officially licensed before), and found that for the space of one Walmart store that, parking lot included, 65 thousand square metres, you could fit 130-260 businesses in that space, which despite the lower rate for being minor on retail, would give in between 30 and 60 thousand dollars per year, that one Walmart would pay 460 dollars per year. Even going by storefront's per km, the small stores would earn about triple in business licensing fees alone. 

And you can of course chalk up all the other money saving measures, less snow to clear for one, less covering the cost of expansion, having to deal with so many cars which costs the healthcare system a tremendous amount of money via pollution, laziness and crash victims, more enticing atmosphere to cycle, including children cycling, so less spending on school buses. Each time the police, fire department and ambulance department is called, sometimes all at once, to a car crash, it`s incredibly expensive, we`d save tremendously by rebuilding our roads like this by just avoiding the costs of the emergency responders and police being deployed. Crashes would be avoided by having a lot fewer conflict points, having separation of masses, speeds and directions better, lower speed where the conflict points remain and by controlling speed effectively via roundabouts, editing the width of the storefronts so as to have some of them jutting out more, some less, that would begin to influence the curve of the distributor road and alternating the side of the road that parking is on that would affect the 30 km/h access road, as well as raised intersections and crossings and narrow lanes, plus optical narrowing and smaller clear zones. Trucks don't have to be so large to provide for these companies and homes, smaller, and especially electric these days, vans, and smaller trucks, are used more often instead of the bigger trucks and so that saves on the damage to the road and it's repair, and the damage to the road in general. 

It`s saving us a lot of money that isn`t all that obvious, but it`s real, even on the side of the expenditures on the part of the government alone, think about how much more indirect money we`d get from parents being able to let their children be independent, freeing them up to do more things that they want, perhaps including working better and shopping as they please. They'd spend less money on cars and their fuel, even if they had an electric, and that can be diverted into consumer spending, which is one of the biggest if not the biggest driver of consumer growth, in fact the lack of it caused the Great Depression in the US and kept making it a more vicious circle. People would be able to keep more of their money too and companies would have more incentive to keep their workers well paid and by having a structure that avoids the ease of paying CEOs and top dogs much more than lab rats, er, I mean employees, that also increases average income. But the worker also does more with boosts of energy that employees who cycle tend to receive if they do it. Schoolchildren also get that boost of energy which makes them better students and eventually leads to them being able to go and do more things for the economy. All of these income sources can be taxed I might add, even without changing the actual rates, we'd be by far better off for roads designed like these. 

If you've ever been to Amsterdam, and if you haven't, you need to go online and book yourself a room to go there now (believe me, it's safe and it's not all about the red light district which is much a much smaller part of Amsterdam than you think it is), and compare the experience of riding a bike, walking, if you're determined enough to drive there, and even just feeling the street, which one would you rather use? Which one feels more people friendly, like you have the freedom to go where you chose and live close to your work, school, and the other chores like groceries and books? Which one, provided that you didn't have a slow father who needs to ride with you, feels like you can feel safe walking at any time of the day that you chose, even at night? 

I see no reason to fail to adopt these types of roads. I dare you to try and find one. 


2 comments:

  1. One point; with the land being released for building, who gets the land back? In the UK, highways are often built "over" land and when the highway is removed by redevelopment, the land (and therefore value) goes back to the original landowner. We'd want the land to remain public and rents to generate revenues for local authority?

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    1. Well, we didn't have a feudal system like you in the UK did. I am guessing that we'd come up with the plan for the rebuilt road, rebuild the road itself completely and at the same time, extend any sewer and utility lines for the development, and then size the parcels into units that can be sold off one by one and that must have unique renters/tenants for each 15-30 m^2 parcel if commercial and similar regulations for apartments. The building code would need to be amended that makes development like this happen, so as to not just have one big long Walmart. It would be sold at market value for similar prospective land of similar intended density.

      Some land would be public, the city would own the land and the building used to house the library or at least have an agreement that the city can use a portion as a library indefinitely for no cost, but if the city chooses some other place, then the developer can use the building for something else, and same with other public amenities like a city tax office. I'm not enough of a (democratic) socialist to make all land public like you say even if we'd rent it out like that.

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