Tokyo Crush

I’ve spent the first week of this journey getting lost in Tokyo, in the spin-cycle of its subway system, the enticing maze of its side-streets, and the rabbit holes of its subcultures. I am officially smitten. Its like that feeling when you meet someone for the first time and feel like you’ve known them your entire life. Tokyo, where have you been??

I wish.

I’ve been staying in a hip neighborhood called Shimokitazawa, which conquered my heart the first day when I got lost not 50 yards from the house I was staying in, and didn’t even begin to care until I was much further away than that. Just this week, Shimokitazawa was dubbed the coolest neighborhood in the world by Vogue magazine. Its not hard to see why: “Shimokita” is a few concentric circles removed from the chaos of inner Tokyo, close to all the action, but far enough away that you can sleep with the doors and windows open, a chorus of insects and frogs serenading you to sleep. The streets are narrow and go every which way, and they’re lined with funky old houses, crazy street art, vintage shops, and tiny cafes and restaurants. Everyone, young and old, has a beater bike which they use for shopping, dropping the kids at school, or calling out to their neighbors as they roll by. Bikes are left unlocked, bags are un-clutched.

Shimokitazawa street scene


Street art in Shimokitazawa. I was surprised to see a lot of Native American-inspired art and fashion here.


While Shimokita is its own distinct vibe, it does have something in common with Oakland’s Temescal, LA’s Silver Lake and East Sacramento. These first-ring suburbs with their admixture of grit, walkability, access to urban centers, history and a dash of unkempt nature are having a moment. They are taking over the mantle of cool that used to belong to places like the Haight Ashbury, Harajuku and Greenwich Village before the corporate chain stores moved in. Online room-sharing services like Air BnB also make it easier than ever for tourists to experience neighborhoods like Shimokita, which doesn’t have much in the way of hotels.

How lucky for me to have found such a place at the start of my trip, thanks to the ever-helpful and in-the-know Ann Cheng. The “exotic familiar” was exactly what I needed this week. I was also lucky that my Air BnB house was shared with an Irish ex-pat named Justin who gave me great advice. He also has an excellent blog called Ikimasho! which I recommend if you are planning to visit Japan or SE Asia.

One of the highlights from my time in Tokyo was due to a recommendation from Justin: a visit to a temporary underground art happening called ‘Bction.’ The setup: an older high-rise office building in central Tokyo is slated for demolition, but they let a group of artists take over the entire building for several weeks prior. I visited during the final week before the building, and all its art, will be destroyed.

What they did with the place is astonishing. Just imagine if you walked into the office one day and it looked like this:

And my personal favorite



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2014: Year of the (Two-Wheeled) Horse

In September 2014 I’m embarking on a three-month bike journey through Asia. I’ll be passing through parts of Japan, China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. I’m traveling alone, with a folding bike I found on Craiglist. To make this trip possible I have saved up, left my job, and spent many hours riding, fussing, and learning about my bike.

As I’ve dug into bicycle components and route maps, I’ve also been getting cozy with my expectations, aspirations and fears. Many people have asked me why I’m doing this journey, why I’m doing it alone, why I didn’t just take a sabbatical instead of leaving my job, what I’m expecting to get out of it.

I don’t have satisfying answers to those questions, but I am beginning to understand why Rilke said to “live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Let’s be real. I’m doing this trip, first and foremost, because I can. This is the first time since I started scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins at age 14 that I don’t know where my next paycheck is coming from — but I can afford to not worry about it. I’m lucky to have the means to do this trip. If you’ve ever clawed your way out of debt, then you know what I’m talking about. If you’re working to pay down debt and save money, stick with it.

I’m also doing this because its a little terrifying to not have a job for the first time in 20 years and if I didn’t have some kind of mission, I might lose my sh*t.

I’m also doing this because the scary, unfamiliar and challenging places in life are often where you discover beauty and truth.

And I’m doing this because I’ve grown attached to the identity that my work has given me, and I want to create a little breathing room around that. I want to see what happens when I step away from that identity for a time.

In the Chinese zodiac, 2014 is the year of the horse. According to Wikipedia, the year of the horse is characterized by “energetic and financial volatility and impulsiveness, including taking on various new projects with variable success, and borrowing and spending money.”

That sounds about right, doesn’t it?




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Stuttgart 21: Future Shock, Auf Wiedersehen

This is the final post in a three-part series about the controversial Stuttgart 21 project. Links to Part One and Two are on the right.

The controversy over Stuttgart 21 has gotten under my skin. This isn’t my city, I don’t have to live with the consequences of whatever happens here, but I can’t help obsessing about it. I think it troubles me so much because it mirrors the kinds of painful, divisive battles we have over transport and land use projects in California, magnified and amplified ten-fold.

Despite all the time I’ve spent reading and listening to people on both sides of the Stuttgart 21 controversy, I still don’t feel like I can pass judgement about who’s right and who’s wrong. So if you were expecting me to make a final pronouncement, let me kill the suspense now, cuz it ain’t happening.

But the intensity of this debate – which blows away anything I have ever seen in California urban planning policy – has refocused my attention on the complex interactions between local actions and global consequences.

Conflicts between local and global are not unique to urban planning. Solar installations in the desert have recently gotten a lot of media attention because of the interesting paradox that what’s good for the planet (clean, renewable energy) can be bad for the local ecosystem (destruction of wildlife habitat and watersheds).  In the case of energy policy there is a third path: distributed generation. Instead of building solar panels in the desert, put them on the roofs of houses and office buildings.

In the case of urban planning, there is rarely a third path. You can negotiate about the details of the project, but in the end you either built it – or you don’t. In the end, we will have to decide whether to build High Speed Rail in California, despite its mammoth cost and despite its unavoidable local impacts to farmland, wildlife and neighborhoods. We will have to decide whether to complete the subway to the west side of Los Angeles. And whether to sink more money into stalled redevelopment projects like the Sacramento railyard. And, of course, we will have to approve Sustainable Communities Strategies (the new regional plans required under SB 375) that will involve big investments and create some winners and losers.

None of these projects will be cheap, and all will have negative impacts, and all will have some amount of controversy, even among our allies. So how we decide when to say yes, and when to pull the plug?

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, evolutionary behaviorist Jared Diamond uses the example of Easter Island to illustrate how short-term thinking can lead to long-term ecological disaster. What were they thinking, he asks, when they cut down the last tree on Easter Island, thereby making the island uninhabitable? He argues that human beings are wired to understand immediate challenges and we are very adept at dealing with them. But we are not as good at recognizing – and responding to – long-term trends and changes. This is the reason we take on too much credit card debt, get into mortgages we can’t afford, sell people mortgages they can’t afford. . . it all comes down to our innate propensity to prioritize immediate needs over long-term considerations.

Similar thinking affects our urban planning decisions, in multiple ways. On the one hand, there is the inevitable response of people immediately affected by the project – the construction, the noise, the changes to my neighborhood. On the other hand, projects can also take on an inertia of their own – as the planning process drags on and on, project proponents and decision-makers just want to get it over with. They become impatient and resist asking – or answering – the difficult questions. This, too, is a failure to think long term.

Both of these forces are at work here in Stuttgart. You have the protestors thinking mostly about the immediate impacts – the trees, the money, the ten years of construction chaos – rather than the long-term, global benefits of better rail connections, less auto travel and focusing development in the city center instead of out in the rural areas. This project will fix one of the more problematic stretches of rail infrastructure in central Europe, and is part of a Europe-wide plan to create faster, easier connections among major cities. France has largely done this with their TGV system, which has made it faster and cheaper to take a train just about anywhere in France, dramatically reducing intercity car travel. Having such a system all across Europe would be a game-changer for CO2 emissions, but it won’t come cheap.

A map of Europe scaled to travel times via the envisioned high speed rail network.

But the agencies are also guilty of short-term thinking. They are digging in their heels, refusing to reconsider some of the decisions they made ten years ago because they simply want to get on with it. The protestors make a very compelling case that key elements of the plan should be revised – or at least studied – to make it cheaper and less impactful while still accomplishing the major goals of the project.

The agencies’ stubborn refusal to reopen the debate merely adds fuel to the growing backlash, undermines public support, and could very well cost the ruling party (the CDP, the center-right party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel) its majority in elections next year, throwing the Stuttgart 21 project into political jeopardy.

The CDP has ruled unopposed in this conservative region for 50 years, but recent polls suggest that the Greens and the center-left SDP have benefitted tremendously from this controversy and will likely win the city and regional elections in March. Its unclear what that would mean for Stuttgart 21. The Greens say they will kill the project if they win the election. The agencies say they already have a binding contract and the project must go forward, regardless of who wins. However it shakes out, its sure to be a long and bitter struggle, and one that will cast a long dark shadow over future transport and planning decisions in Stuttgart and across Germany.

So what can we in California learn from this situation? What can we as advocates and planners do to ensure we’re finding the right balance between local and global, short-term and long-term? I love to talk about how SB 375 is a win-win, how its forging unique alliances, how we’re finding unprecedented agreement amongst non-traditional allies, blah blah blah. All of that is true, of course, but its only part of the truth. If we are to sustain our momentum over the long-term and translate it into real successes, I believe we must:

Have meaningful cost-benefit analyses. Is 5 billion euros a lot to spend to get a 30% increase in train capacity? I don’t know. Is a 15% reduction in VMT by 2035 a reasonable goal? I think so. What will be the true costs of high speed rail and how do those compare to the benefits? I really don’t know. We’ve got to get better at standardizing these analyses and putting them in meaningful context, so that we can tell when something is a good investment, economically, environmentally and socially.

Recognize that we are biased. We humans do a lousy job of thinking long term and big picture. We need to be aware of this and must constantly remind ourselves – and everyone else – about what happens when we act locally without thinking globally.

When a project is delayed, realize that the world has changed. This is perhaps the biggest mistake they made in Stuttgart. Everything was OK ten years ago, so it will be OK now right? Wrong. When in doubt we should err on the side of more discussion, not less.

Put it on the TeeVee. Carol Whiteside, the grande dame of urban planning in the Central Valley, has been saying for years that we need a sitcom about urban sprawl. She’s totally right of course. Stuttgart 21 doesn’t have a sitcom, but it did have its own version of a reality show. After the bloody debacle in September, the government brought in an elder statesman (Heiner Geißler, known affectionately as Yoda)

Heiner Geißler aka Yoda during the televised Stuttgart 21 mediation.

to mediate negotiations between the two opposing sides, which he did in a public forum that was broadcast on television. A lot of people tuned in for the six-week series of meetings. While it didn’t bring about a happy compromise, it did educate a lot of people about the project, and changed their minds about it. According to the newspaper Stuttgarter Nachricten, before the televised mediation a majority of people were opposed to the project. After the forum, public opinion had shifted and a majority now support it – albeit with lots of caveats. It seems like a good idea. Too bad it didn’t happen earlier in the process.

Ensure complete transparency and democratic participation. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but this is a good reminder of what happens when people don’t feel like they have been heard. Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth to get people to show up to meetings and hearings in the early stages of a planning process, but we just have to do it. Agencies should partner with respected community organizations from all across the political spectrum to engage their constituencies and get them to the table. And it should go without saying that when agencies and project proponents try to hide the ball, it can backfire bigtime.

Recognize its a pluralistic world – left right blue green human rabbit. . . We have a tendency to frame everything in dualities. But the reality is far more complex. Take the white rabbits for example – remember them, the bouncing protestors with the bunny suits? Turns out they were not what I expected (not that I really knew what to expect).

I ran into the rabbits at the Christmas market one evening (they travel in packs). I introduced myself and asked them about the whole rabbit schtick. Why the bunny suits and sunglasses? Are there rabbits that live near the train station? Is the rabbit a metaphor for helplessness people feel? Turns out the rabbits are a pack of artist-music-subculture types whose favorite underground hangout will be demolished if the project goes forward. They are worried about the new urban redevelopment and fear it will only cater to the wealthy and displace the artists and underground nightclubs in the area. Their slogan is “Against the Demolition of the Subculture.”

They are dedicated advocates and well-educated about the project, but they also see the protest as an opportunity to create some interesting performance-protest art. They have some great photos and films which you can find on their Facebook page.

As for me, I won’t be running off to join the rabbits. Tomorrow is my last day in Stuttgart. I have learned a lot and, in the end, had a pretty good experience here. But I also feel exhausted by it. The other night I dreamt I was standing in a meadow that looked like a combination of Stuttgart’s central park and a meadow near my old house in Tahoe. In my dream there was snow and wildflowers and tall green grass – all at the same time – and a big flock of chickadees that landed in a small, perfectly round tree. I remember thinking, wow, this place is pretty special. Too bad it can’t stay this way.

Auf Wiedersehen Stuttgart

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Stuttgart 21: Down the Rabbit Hole

My second night in Stuttgart I was walking through the snowy Christmas Market when I heard a screeching racket like hundreds of kazoos being abused. I walked in the direction of the noise and found myself at a Stuttgart 21 protest outside City Hall. I’d encountered a handful of protestors at the train station the night before, but this was far bigger and more organized. There were, yes, kazoos, and costumes, and signs, and a song about the train station set to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and chants of “Oben Bleiben” which means “keep it above ground” (a reference to the undergrounding of the station and the tunnels). My favorite part was the dancing, chain-smoking white rabbit mascots.

This is about the time I started feeling all kinds of conflicted. On the one hand, I can’t help but relate to the protestors. I love a good protest. I love the expression of idealism, the truth-telling, the temporary suspension of political reality. Its hard for me to look on a scene like this and not want to be a part of it. These are MY PEOPLE.

On the other hand, I am inclined to support investments in transit and urban regeneration unless there is some really compelling reason not to. I get frustrated with NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard types) who would rather see the world burn than a three-story building or a new train line in their neighborhood.

So, are these just a bunch of NIMBYs, or are the angry bunnies right?

The Project:

According to the backers of the Stuttgart 21 project, the current Stuttgart station (which is, importantly, a “terminal” station meaning the tracks end at the station) and track system is too small and antiquated for the growing number of local, regional and international trains that pass through Stuttgart every day. Train congestion is a big problem here, and delays in one place create ripple effects throughout the system. Urbanists are also excited about the prospect of a huge redevelopment area in the city center, which is otherwise completely built-out. The project is being pushed by the City of Stuttgart and the national rail service, DeutscheBahn. Its also supported by the regional and state governments.

Without getting into too much detail, in essence the project would:

  • Replace the 1920s-era terminal station and railyard with a new, underground through station so that trains could keep going, rather than having to stop and go back the same way.
  • Create a new mixed-used district on the old railyard.
  • Build a new train station at the airport and a new, fast connection between the airport and the main station.
  • Build 30km of new underground tunnels to increase the capacity and facilitate the movement of trains in and out of the new stations.

Here’s a visual of the new underground station, with the old station above on the right.

Click here to see more photos of the proposed project.

The project made it through the planning and approval process in the late 1990s and early 2000s with little controversy, but construction was delayed by financing issues until earlier this year, and that’s when the trouble began.

The opposition:

The opposition is being led by the Green Party and environmental groups. Opponents cite concerns about the cost of the project being too high for the benefits – it will cost 5 billion euros and is projected to increase capacity by 30% – but opponents think the final cost will be higher and the capacity lower.  They argue that there are more pressing priorities elsewhere in the national train system.

The plan would also impact the adjacent city park, a jewel that stretches from the Neckar River through the heart of the city and includes a fantastic mineral spring complex, one of the largest in Europe. The park itself would remain a public space, but the area adjacent to the station would be affected, because the underground station and tunnels will go beneath a section of the park. Several hundred trees must be cut down to allow construction and tunneling to take place. September’s bloody protest happened when the first trees were cut down. Today, a round-the-clock volunteer park guard patrols the area, and shrines have been set up at the base of trees slated for destruction.


A shrine at the base of a tree slated for destruction. The german word for felling trees? Hack.

Perhaps the most deeply-held concern is the new development on the railyard site – what it will it look like? Who will control it, who will benefit from it? What will happen to the surrounding neighborhoods?

Opponents are advocating for an alternative which would keep the existing terminus station intact and upgrade it to include more tracks. This alternative would cost much less, would eliminate the need for extensive tunneling, and would also eliminate the redevelopment option.

The opponents have been unsuccessful in getting traction for their proposal, largely because the adopted plan was approved ten years ago and fully financed three years ago, and their alternative wasn’t studied at that time. As so often happens, they came too late to the party.

What’s really going on here?

I think the culture of protest that has sprung up around this project runs deeper than what is being debated in the newspapers and meetings. People don’t let themselves get bloodied by police because they’re worried about whether a through-station or a terminal station will increase capacity. There’s a sense that people have lost the power to determine their city’s future, that large and invisible forces are pulling the strings for their own nefarious purposes.  Most of all they suspect those who want to redevelop the railyard. In the context of the last century, I can understand why Germans would feel helpless when it comes to their cities.

Stuttgart, like many German cities, was obliterated by Allied bombs at the end of WW2 and had to be almost completely rebuilt. A great debate among architects and planners all over Germany was whether to faithfully reconstruct the old city, or to make a clean break with the past and start fresh with new, modern architecture. The modernists largely won the debate. Much of Stuttgart’s architecture is bland, generic post-war architecture – at least 60% I’d say. Some of it is OK, but a lot of it was built quickly, to get a roof over many heads, and lacks any sense of place or character.

In downtown Stuttgart, historic buildings are mostly dwarfed by post-war monoliths.

But now the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other direction. The handful of pre-war buildings that survived the bombs are cherished, and in recent years all across Germany cities are investing millions to faithfully reconstruct pre-war churches and palaces. Stuttgart spent millions to rebuild its historical Neues Schloss palace after it was obliterated by the bombs.

The rebuilt Neues Schloss palace

Stuttgart’s main train station is one of those rare important buildings that somehow survived the war. Built in the 1920s Weimar Republic era and completed just a few years before Hitler came to power, the building is simple and unimposing, not particularly beautiful. To me it feels heavy with foreshadowing.

Stuttgart's Central Station. Photo: Der Spiegel/ Bernd Weißbrod dpa/lsw

But as one protestor reminded me, Germany has a long history before those twelve horrible years of Nazi rule. For obvious reasons, Germany has turned away from glorifying its past and instead focuses on being a modern, forward-looking society. But in this relentlessly globalizing world, people long to feel a sense of place and history. The train station and its adjacent park are one of the only places that are untouched, where you can feel a sense of what Stuttgart must have been like before the war changed everything.

So along comes a plan which promises to radically remake the city – again – and fundamentally alter an historic touchstone. The plan calls for keeping the main part of the train station intact as a sort of entry hall and museum, but one wing of the building will be knocked down and most of the station’s essential functions will move into a new underground station. And the whole area around the station will look completely different as the railyard is redeveloped.

On the deepest level, Stuttgart 21 has sparked feelings of helplessness in the face of powerful forces that can tear apart communities. People here feel like they were blindsided by this project and didn’t have the opportunity to have their opinions heard. Most of the protestors didn’t even know about the project, or only had a vague sense of it, before construction began. The ten-year delay between approval and construction certainly didn’t help. One planning official admitted to me that they didn’t foresee the protests, and so they didn’t make enough of an effort to make sure people were fully aware of what was happening.

Is this what happens when smart growth goes mainstream? In California we’re struggling against the old paradigm of cars and sprawl. We are trying to create a new paradigm, and in the last few years we’ve made a lot of progress. In Germany, they’re already there. The powerful institutions all support massive investments in transit infrastructure and urban regeneration, both because they’re politically helpful and there’s money to be made. Stuttgart is perhaps a cautionary tale for what can happen when good ideas go mainstream and get ahead of their constituency.

Coming Thursday: Part Three (the final installment), where I’ll tackle the question of trading off local impacts vs. global benefits and how those forces are seeking equilibrium in Stuttgart. Also, I have a chance encounter with the chain-smoking bunny mascots – and learn what they REALLY want.

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Stuttgart 21: Welcome to Dystopia

This is the first in a series of three postings about the controversial “Stuttgart 21” project. Part two will be posted on Tuesday and part three on Thursday.

Part One: Welcome to Dystopia

I have been in Stuttgart for one difficult week. In the space of that time, I have been stripped of my illusions about transport-utopia and forced to confront my conflicting feelings about activism, identity and social change.

Things got weird even before I arrived. I left Paris on Monday morning via the TGV, the fastest train in Europe, chasing a snowstorm east. The storm had dusted Paris but seemed to be gathering strength as it moved inland. Here’s one thing about high speed rail I never considered: if you’re following a storm, chances are your train is moving faster than the storm, so you’re gonna catch up with it and then get stuck in it – which is exactly what happened. As we approached the German border, the snow got heavier and our train slowed to a crawl. Hours and missed connections and drippy, standing-room-only train rides later I arrived in Stuttgart’s central train station. When I stepped off onto the platform I was greeted by a wall of blowing snow and angry people protesting the construction of a new train station. Welcome to Germany.

Now, don’t think I was predestined to have a bad time in Germany. Quite the opposite, in fact. German is the foreign language I speak best, thanks to my arbitrary decision as a seventh-grader to study German, which I continued with right on through high school. When I travel, I always seem to end up hanging out with Germans. One summer I even worked at a German-owned dude ranch in Idaho, where I took a whole lot of German tourists on horseback rides through the Idaho wilderness. I love that the Green Party is an actual political force in Germany. I love that Germans are into trains and bikes and mountains and beer.

Despite all this I’d never actually been to Germany, so maybe I was harboring some outsized expectations. I expected a wonderland of efficient trains, happy hikers and enlightened regional governance. Instead I found myself in the twilight zone of urban planning, where Greens protest train projects and the most powerful regional government in Germany has the highest VMT per capita in the nation.

I chose Stuttgart as one of my case study regions because they have the first directly-elected regional government in Germany and are widely cited as a model for effective regional governance. Stuttgart also seemed particularly relevant for California because its a stronghold of car culture in Europe – Mercedes, Daimler and Porsche are all based in Stuttgart. Its not a transit utopia like Amsterdam or Stockholm that would be impossible to achieve in most parts of California. So I was prepared for the fact that automobiles would be a more powerful force here.

But I was not prepared for the deep divisiveness and violent protest – from the left – over a project designed to improve transit service and regenerate a brownfield site in the center of the city. The project in question is called “Stuttgart 21” and it is a massive undertaking to modernize the central train station and surrounding rail network, build a new system of railroad tunnels beneath the city, and convert the existing railyard into a new, mixed-use neighborhood in the city center.

Sounds great right? Well tell that to the thousands of residents and Green party leaders who have been staging protests against the project on a regular basis for months. Protests began in early Spring, just as construction was getting underway. The protests grew larger and larger over the course of the summer, with groups of protestors moving in to tree-sit in the park adjacent to the station.

One day in September, when crews were slated to cut down approximately 25 trees next to the station, the protests culminated in a violent clash between protesters and police. The police used pepper spray and water cannons on the crowd of thousands, injuring hundreds of people. Images of bloodied protestors made it into newspapers and TVs across Europe and sent shockwaves through the political establishment.

Police used truck-mounted water cannons to break up a protest against the Stuttgart 21 project. Photo Michael Dalder/Reuters

A protestor injured by water cannons in September was permanently blinded in one eye. This image has become the iconic photo of the Stuttgart 21 movement. Photo courtesy of Das Bild.

After this episode construction was temporarily halted and mediator was brought in by the central government to try to calm things down, but the protests continue. I’ve encountered four protests since I arrived, and that’s without even trying.  The largest I’ve seen was last Saturday, when I encountered two thousand protestors walking in a ring around the downtown.  Today’s newspaper reported that four people were injured and one woman went to the hospital on Saturday after clashing with police.

About 2000 protestors gathered outside the central train station on Saturday. Photo by me.

All this over a train station? How is it possible that this could happen in Germany, the shining beacon of sustainable transport? As an outsider and an activist, I find it confusing and troubling to witness this conflict. While I didn’t come to Stuttgart with the intention of focusing on this project, it raises so many difficult and uncomfortable questions that I feel I have to explore.

How do we evaluate the tradeoffs between localized impacts and global benefits? At what point do the costs of massive new infrastructure outweigh the benefits?

What does it mean  when smart growth goes mainstream in California, as it has in Germany?

How can we create truly effective public participation in large-scale regional decision-making to avoid these kinds of conflicts?

Tomorrow, in Part II, I’ll share some details about the project, some encounters with the protestors, and my own feelings in reaction to this quagmire. In Part III, I’ll do my best to explore some of these difficult issues. There are of course no easy answers, but this is a unique opportunity to be a fly on the wall (fence?) of someone else’s backyard.

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And now for something completely different . . .

I’ve been tackling a lot of heavy subjects in my blog lately so I thought I’d throw in some lighter fare, for your sake and mine.  Here’s a collection of quirky, silly and mostly irrelevant observations from my trip so far.  Enjoy!

French planners think of everything:


This pedestrian signage made me very happy:


Warning: Swarm of angry machines ahead!  Run for your lives!


Tram cat in Lyon. Pets are allowed on transit in most of the places I’ve visited – so enlightened!


You know what this beautiful historic statue needs? A parking garage.


Italians are so eco-conscious, they even recycle their bras!


Trying out a wine-delivery bike cart – and my impersonation of a grumpy old Frenchman – in Lyon .

I came across an architecture exhibit about Singapore.  If the US were as densely developed as Singapore, here’s how big our urban footprint would be.

It was a really good exhibit.  But I did a double-take when I saw this photo – what exactly are we conveying about architecture here?

. . . and umm another reason Singapore’s architecture is awesome . . .

This painting, called “The Ricotta Eaters” is in the Musee de Beaux Arts Lyon:

When at all possible, its a good idea to have your mode of transport match your architecture.

Anything sounds better when you put a “le” in front of it –

Thanks for reading.  Next up – Stuttgart!!

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Eye Candy for Sustainability

The theory of sustainable development has become hip recently. But putting the theory into practice is a surefire way to lose any popularity contest. Many new urban developments get shot down by people who hate the density, fear the change, loathe the design. And sometimes those fears are justified. Just look at the blocky concrete 1960s architecture that defines much of California suburbia – whose bright idea was that? I even saw some of it in Lyon.



This is France?? I felt like I’d been transported through time and space to Mountain View, California circa 1986 and was standing in the old San Antonio Shopping Center, with its massive concrete expanses and desolate public plazas frequented only by skateboarders and crows.

It turns out Lyon went through its own frenzy of auto-oriented development during the 20th century, building highways and expressways and malls and sprawling industrial complexes. Now the region is trying to attract new investment to regenerate these older industrial and commercial areas to become mixed-use districts centered around transit.

Is it possible to design a new development that everyone loves? I wouldn’t bet on it. But if we’re going to get serious about making California communities more sustainable, we’ve got to get better at designing communities that people want to live in.

So the other day I visited the Lyon Confluence neighborhood, a large urban redevelopment area where I saw some dazzling new infill development that really got me thinking about the importance of good architecture. Confluence gets its name from its location at the confluence of two of France’s major rivers: the Rhone and the Saone.   Lyon’s raison d’etre is that it sits at this junction.

An aerial view of the Lyon Confluence

In the photo above, historic Lyon is in on the left with its dense, traditional neighborhoods. The Confluence redevelopment area is on the right. At the dividing line sits a highway and a train station which, importantly has high speed rail service as well as local/regional trains.

With its size (65 hectares, or 26 acres), proximity to the historic city center and excellent transit connections, the Confluence is a big infill opportunity site. The first phase of the project is nearly complete – and its unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  I was blown away by the architecture.

Here’s what the site looked like before – this is the Phase Two site, currently being planned.

Some cool facts about this development:

  • 30% of the housing units are set-aside for low-income residents.
  • 80% of the energy for the buildings is generated onsite through solar panels and wood-fired boilers.
  • The buildings consume 50% less energy than the current energy efficiency regulations require, and 10 times less than comparably-sized older buildings in Lyon.
  • The project won an EU Concerto program award for bioclimatic design.
  • Parking is 0.6 spaces per unit.
  • 65% of the funding for the project came from private investors. The rest was from a mix of local, regional, and national funds.

Lyon’s regional planning approach played a key role in attracting the private investment to make this project possible. Not only did the regional agency coordinate all the different elements such as infrastructure and site planning and permitting, it also has a economic development department that actively promotes the Confluence site – and other TOD sites around Lyon – with investors.

A major aspect of Lyon’s marketing strategy is that its only 2 hours from Paris via high speed rail – and rents in Lyon are 2-3x less than Paris – so they are attracting companies to come to Lyon instead of Paris, and locate their offices close to the train station. This approach seems to be paying off – Lyon has fared relatively well during the economic downturn and has seen rents, investment levels and vacancy rates stay relatively stable compared to Paris, Barcelona and other nearby job centers. All while concentrating new development in places that are helpful, rather than harmful, to the environment.

In California I doubt we’ll see MPOs playing such a central role in development anytime soon. But the idea of having a coordinated set of regional priorities about where – and how – economic development occurs is already becoming a reality. During last summer’s target-setting process there was a lot of hype from certain business interests about SB 375 being harmful to California’s economy. But as the Lyon example demonstrates, a stronger role for regional planning can help – rather than hinder – the “right” kind of development.

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Its hard not to love Velo’v

Before coming to Lyon, I was skeptical that bike-sharing could work in California –  but I am becoming a convert. Lyon’s wildly-successful Velo’v program (pronounced Vell-LOVE, it means “bike love”) is putting a dent in driving without breaking the bank of the municipalities and residents.

The mastermind behind the Velo’v program is Lyon City Council member Gilles Vesco. In France, many elected officials are in charge of a particular department or issue – a good idea, I think – and Gilles is responsible for urban mobility for the City of Lyon. He also serves as the Vice-President of Greater Lyon, the body that oversees regional transport and municipal planning for the larger metropolitan area. Gilles welcomed me to Lyon on my second day and showed me how the system works.

Gilles Vesco demonstrates how to use the Velo'v system

Step 1: Wave your membership card in front of the sensor. (Non-members can use a credit card instead).

Step 2: Enter your pin . . . what was it again?

Step 3: Just like the vending machine. Decide which bike you want and enter the number of the post its attached to..

Viola! The bike is yours. Thanks Gilles!

So that’s how it works for users.  Behind the scenes, its a little more complex. Velo’v is run by a private company called JCDecaux that also manages Lyon’s bus and bike shelters – basically the street infrastructure for transport. (On a side note, I find it very interesting that most of Europe’s transport systems are operated by private companies rather than public agencies.  Something to explore another time.) Around the time that JCDecaux’s contract was coming up for renewal, the City asked them to develop a pilot bikesharing program as part of their new contract. The company agreed.

Velo’v launched in 2005 with 2,000 bikes and was an immediate success. Another 1,000 bikes were added a year later, and another 1,000 the year after that. Today, the big, sturdy bikes with the red bumper are ubiquitous throughout Lyon and neighboring Villeurbanne. There are 350 stations with almost 4,000 bikes (that’s one bike for every 150 residents).  On an average day the Lyonnaise make approximately 20,000 trips using Velo’v.

A colleague of Gilles told me that Velo’v was a “revolution” in Lyon, and I have to say I think he’s right. Every single person I’ve talked to in Lyon knows Velo’v and loves it. I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm for a local transport program. There’s even a video game called Velo’v racing in Lyon.

There are now similar programs in other French cities and across Europe but as many proud locals have told me, Lyon did it first and became the model.  The Paris program, modeled on Lyon’s, is massive (16,000 bicycles) and is called Velib (bike liberty).  My landlord Eduoard told me he loves to correct Parisians who visit Lyon and mistakenly assume that Paris did it first.

But how much does it cost? Amazingly, the program is basically cost neutral for the participating cities and relatively inexpensive for users. The first half hour is FREE and after that its 1.5 – 3 euros per hour (its cheaper if you have a membership).

How is this possible?  Because Velo’V is privately managed, the exact financial details aren’t public. But apparently the low cost of the program is offset by the company’s exclusive rights to advertising space on the bus shelters and other street infrastructure the company manages on behalf of the city.

According to Gilles, the program’s biggest (and costliest) headache is also a key to its success. With Velo’V you can take a bike from any station and return it to any other station in the system. This flexibility makes it very appealing to users.

On the other hand, it also makes for some big logistical nightmares. For example, on a sunny Saturday, all the bikes end up at the city’s main park. In one hilly district, everyone rides the bikes to the bottom of the hill, but no one wants to ride them back up. The administrators of the program have had to learn to anticipate these supply/demand imbalances and develop a system for re-distributing the bikes (via truck, I’m afraid).

One of the most interesting things about Velo’v is its ripple effect on bicycling in Lyon. Before Velo’v only about 1% of local trips were taken by bike. But after Velo’v, more and more Lyon residents began riding their own bikes. Local transport researcher Marc Ellenberg told me that for every 1000 bicycles that Velo’v added to the streets of Lyon, private residents have added 2000 bicycles. Why would people start riding their own bikes after a bike-sharing program started?

I can think of a few possible explanations:

Cycling became cool. Gilles and others told me that Velo’v helped lessen the social stigma of riding a bike. Yes, even in cycle-happy France there is a stigma associated with riding a bike. (Cycling for sport ala Tour de France is distinguished from cycling for transport).

The lemming effect. Personally, I always feel safer when there’s other cyclists around, for rational and irrational reasons.  Maybe the Lyonnaise do too.

The upgrade effect. Perhaps people tried Velo’v and liked it so much that they decided to invest in a bike that fits them better. The Velo’v bikes are – by necessity – heavy, slow and one-size-fits-all.

Whatever the reason, this magnifying effect of Velo’v has had a pronounced impact on travel in the city. Before Velo’v, 1% of daily trips were made by bicycle. In the five years since the program began, that number has tripled to 3%.  Considering that the program is essentially revenue neutral for the municipalities involved, that’s a pretty good cost-benefit ratio.

Currently the program only exists in Lyon and Villeurbane. But after witnessing the program’s success, the regional government Grand Lyon has made it a top priority to expand cycling throughout the region. Their goal: 7.5% bicycle mode share by 2020. In addition to the expansion of Velo’v, the plan calls for the expansion of the bicycle network (600 km of new bike lanes by 2020) and a new long-term bike “leasing” program for students and low-income residents.

Could bike sharing work in California? A handful of California communities and universities have created bike sharing programs but their scale is generally quite small and, importantly, they are centralized – ie you have to return the bike to the same location where you got it.  If Gilles is correct and the decentralized, one-way model is a key to success, then we would need to make a bigger upfront commitment.  Could SB 375’s regional framework create the opportunity to do a large-scale program like Lyon’s?

You can read more about Velo’v on its english-language website.

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Parlez-vous transport?

Time is strange when you’re traveling alone and don’t speak the language. My month in Torino felt like an eternity at first – especially when I was struggling to communicate even the most basic things in Italian – but suddenly I found it was almost over. In my final week I rushed to wrap up the loose ends of my Torino research, visit the museums I’d meant to visit, and spend time with people I’d met.

For the next month I will be visiting two other regions: Lyon and Stuttgart. Then I’ll return to Torino in December to wrap things up, write my final report, and do all the things I still haven’t done there.

So late last week I said goodbye (for now) to Torino and boarded an evening train headed west across the Alps to Lyon. I was nervous about leaving behind the familiarity of Torino, my colleagues at SiTI, and the Italian language – which I had finally become comfortable with. There’s no SiTI in Lyon, just me in a rented apartment and a handful of contacts through the German Marshall Fund’s network. AND I speak no french – none zero zip – so I was bracing myself for a more challenging experience.

That first night my fears felt confirmed. I had either misread the train schedule or miscommunicated with the French station agent and found myself stuck at the wrong train station on the outskirts of the city, some 30 km from where I needed to be. It was 11 pm and the connecting train I expected was apparently not coming. My choices were a very expensive taxi ride or a series of tram and subway connections. This fellowship being what it is, I gathered my courage and opted for the latter.

I expected an ordeal but instead it was incredibly easy and fast.  That is the first lesson of Lyon: their system works, even late at night, even across long distances, even when you don’t speak the language and don’t know where you’re going. At every step along the way there was good information, fast connections and helpful people that spoke English or Italian, or suffered patiently through my hand gestures and incomprehensible attempts at French. I reached the city center – a distance of 30 km – in just over 35 minutes, using two different modes (tram and subway) across multiple municipalities.  When I arrived at my station I was two blocks from my new apartment. Vive le effective transport!

The next morning I went out for a cup of coffee and ended up wandering the city for hours, pulled from one beautiful place to the next.  Here are some first impressions of Lyon –


Old Lyon is on a hillside above the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. Lyon's newer commercial center, known as "Part Dieux" is visible in the background.

A subway station in central Lyon

Everywhere a bike share. Lyon's hugely successful bikeshare program became a model for similar programs across France and Europe.

Lovely Lyon - not as scary as I thought. Pedestrian bridge over the Saone River.

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A Tale of Three Mayors

An issue that often comes up when talking about regional planning is the dynamic between the big (and usually more powerful) cities and their suburban and small-town counterparts. So I was curious to talk with officials from smaller municipalities around Torino to hear what they thought about the regional plan. Was it a success for their communities, or were they overshadowed by the more powerful interests in the City of Torino?

Last week I met with three mayors of small suburban communities. One is currently serving as mayor, one is a former mayor, and the third will be sworn in as mayor next month. All three have been supportive of urban transformation and involved in regional planning, but they had radically different perspectives. The current mayor had only positive things to say about the regional plan and its benefits for his community. The former mayor was quite skeptical about the long-term prospects for regional collaboration. The soon-to-be mayor has a lot of ideas and enthusiasm.

Note: The interviews were conducted in Italian with help from translators, so what follows bellow are approximations, not exact transcriptions.

Carlo Novarino, Former Mayor of Moncalieri

Carlo Novarino, former mayor of Moncalieri (no I didn't take this photo!)

Carlo Novarino was the mayor of Moncalieri, the largest suburb of Torino and location of the Savoy summer “home” – a large castle that is a popular tourist destination. He served as mayor throughout the strategic planning process in the 1990s. Novarino swears he is done with politics, and currently works for the local Association of Architects. I met with him at his office in central Torino and haven’t yet had the chance to visit his town.

What are the unique traits of the smaller cities and towns in this region that impact the regional planning process?
The smaller regions have less financial resources than the city. As of 2002, the public spending per person in Torino was 1500 euros. In Moncalieri, it was 700 euros. This holds true for transport, schools, culture, planning, everything.

Also, the small communities, many of them have existed for a thousand years, so they have a strong sense of independence and a tradition of municipal government that is competitive with other municipalities, not collaborative.

Will the new Metropolitan Rail System benefit these communities?
Yes, but its not perfect. All the trains lead to Torino. But there are many people in Moncalieri that commute to another suburban community, not Torino. Some of the smaller municipalities suggested that the system should include better connections among the outer ring suburbs, for example by expanding bus service on the highways that connect the smaller suburban communities. But the City of Torino didn’t like this idea, so it didn’t happen.

Why are the biggest challenges to regional planning in the Torino metro area?
The two major problems are 1) lack of a clear governance structure and 2) choosing projects. The municipalities quarrel over where new development and transportation projects should be located, because each municipality is looking out for their own interests.

It is easier for municipalities to compete than to collaborate. 30% of the municipalities’ funds comes from development, so more development = more money. Outlet malls are the big thing now because they make a lot of money for the municipalities. Also, mayors are accountable to little special interest groups, not the city as a whole. So this makes the politics difficult. What may be good for the city or region as a whole isn’t necessarily good politics for the mayors.

How can the metro area work together more effectively?
They should focus more energy on smaller projects and those that are less controversial, to build trust. For example, there is a string of parks and tourist sites along the river in the south of the region, and improving and marketing this area to tourists would benefit all the municipalities and the region as a whole.

Thinking broadly, how would you improve regional collaboration and planning in the Torino are and Italy as a whole?
Regional planning won’t ever truly succeed until we simplify the governance structure and create better financial incentives to collaborate. Right now there are too many competing entities and duplication of roles. This is inefficient and wasteful of public resources. But this won’t happen without intervention at the federal level, and there is a disconnect – the federal government doesn’t listen enough to the regions.

Marcello Mazzu, Mayor of Grugliasco

Marcello Mazzu is the current mayor of Gruliasco, a working class inner-ring suburb of Torino. Mazzu is a physician by training and has served as the City Council since 1994.

I rode the Metro and bus out to Grugliasco to meet with Mayor Mazzu at the modest city hall in Grugliasco’s small historic center, which has a lovely old church, cobblestone streets and a nice public park. Outside the center, the town bears the signs of rapid growth typical of Italy’s post-war boom: generic high-rise apartment buildings surrounded by parking lots, swaths of industrial areas along the rail lines and wide arterial roads dominated by cars.

Mayor Mazzu was deeply engaged in Torino’s regional planning process and gives it glowing reviews. While it does seem like Grugliasco has seen some real benefits, I also got the sense that, as a sitting mayor, he was reluctant to say anything overtly critical. Here are some excerpts from my interview:

Overall, how has the regional transportation plan affected your city?
The regional plan has had both benefits and costs for Grugliasco, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. Grugliasco has a line on the Metropolitan Railway system and a Metro station is at the edge of the city.

The tram and bus network in Grugliasco has been reoriented to deliver passengers to the Metro station, and similar changes will happen when the new rail system is complete. Transit ridership has ‘certainly’ increased as a result of these improvements.

But aren’t these changes costing a lot more money? How are you paying for it?
Not for Grugliasco. Its a matter of using existing resources more wisely. Also, collaboration with the city and the other small municipalities can be helpful in offsetting costs. For example our bike sharing program is very successful and almost pays for itself now. But we couldn’t have done this without the City of Torino and the other municipalities, who are all using the same program.

Recommendations for other regions that want to make regional planning work?
It should not be political or a left-right battle, because these problems are not left-right problems, they are everyone’s problems. Also state and fed governments need to give the regions more power and control, as well as resources.

Ann Cheng, soon-to-be Mayor of El Cerrito, California

Madame Mayor enjoys a cappucino in Torino


Well, OK, so I didn’t actually “meet” with Ann. She is a good friend and she came for a visit while traveling through Europe with her husband Wiley. Their visit coincided with my mayor meetings, and Ann is indeed about to become Mayor of El Cerrito, so it was opportune timing. Ann currently serves on the city council of her hometown of El Cerrito, an inner-ring suburb in San Francisco’s East Bay Area. She’s also a planner and a walk-bike-transit-activist, so her goals for El Cerrito are very much aligned with the goals of SB 375. She has already outlined her agenda for when she becomes Mayor, and it was really interesting to hear her perspective on what it means to run a city and try to make change happen from the inside.

Ann has also developed a great new tool to evaluate the transportation impacts of a proposed development project. The tool is called GreenTRIP and, like the LEED certification program for energy-efficient development, it certifies projects that meet the highest standards for reducing traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. You can read more about GreenTRIP here.

Ann is also the person who told me about this fellowship, and sent me the call for proposals. So I’m very grateful to her! Speaking of which, the German Marshall Fund is now accepting proposals for next year’s fellowship. You can learn more about the fellowship and apply here.

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