What I’m Reading: Tolls and Apps

by mcfcrandall

There is a lot of great stuff being written every day.  I can’t blog about it all. The previous several weeks I was just listing a bunch of articles, however I found that did not add a lot of value. This week I’ll try a new approach. Instead of listing everything, I want to highlight some themes that emerged from the list and then provide a brief summary below.


Tolls and Polls



This week I spotted two themes that I felt were worth highlighting, tolls and apps. From the first, the Globe and Mail published an article on the results of a poll that focus on funding transit in the GTA. The results;

27.1 per cent of respondents named road tolls as their first choice for revenue collection. An increase to the gasoline tax ranked second, with 15.8 per cent selecting it as their preference, followed by a hike in transit fares at 12.1 per cent.

The New York Times meanwhile posed the question “You pay the toll, Where should the money go?” to five experts with different view points. The responses are excellent and well thought out. I highly recommend taking a look at it.

The second theme I saw in this weeks list was the rise of civic minded apps. Governing.com wrote new technologies and the way it was transforming how government interact with citizens and employees. Philly.com reporting on the free CityHall App, complements Governing’s article perfectly  The app, CityHall, is being used to report landlords and tenants who blight their blocks. It has apparently been effective;

Henon, who introduced his CityHall App last spring and quickly saw hundreds of Northeast residents download and use it, discovered that when property violations go viral, most offenders cave. If they don’t, he’ll summon them to public hearings and alert Licenses & Inspections – which is never good news for a noncomplying city property owner.

To wrap up the list, Fast Company is reporting on another app, LocalData. Three young American Fellows have develop the app the provide a digital tool kit to let communities collect data about the places they live. For example;

They used an early version of LocalData to help a community track urban blight, and later, to help urban planning students carry out a sweeping commercial parcel study. “They mapped 9,000 parcels [of land] in a matter of weeks, which they wouldn’t have been able to do using traditional survey methodologies,” Rouault explains. “It proved our hypothesis–that this could be a useful tool not just for community groups, but for experts.”



Did the government create the suburbs?

South San Jose, Photo by Sean O’Flaherty

Is one piece of legislation the root of the modern suburban landscape? Writing in a series about laws that shaped Los Angeles Jeremy Rosenberg argues that yes, one law led to the suburbs. The law? The National Housing Act, which established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934.

How did this one law create the suburbs? The FHA is important in the history of the suburbs because it was the agency that established the design guidelines that qualified subdivisions for federal financing. For example, some of these guidelines include;

  • Layout should discourage through traffic
  • Minimum Width of a residential street should be 50 feet, with 2.4 feet of pavement, planting/utility strips and walks
  • Cul-de-sacs are the most attractive street layout for family dwellings
  • Minimum setbacks for houses should be 15 feet
  • Front yards should avoid excessive planting, for a more pleasing and unified effect along the street

These guidelines set the standard for suburban design across North America. To illustrate, it is not difficult to see how the same guidelines are still visible in the new San Jose suburb pictured above.

While I agree with Rosenbergs premis that the FHA guidelines had a significant role in codifying the design for the modern suburb, is this one law the root of the suburbs? I would argue no. Why?

First, because suburbs are not a modern invention. I am sympathetic to Robert Bruegmanns’ arguments in Sprawl: A Compact History that suburbs are created as part of a process ‘that affects every part of the metropolitan area.” As cities grow and become wealthier they expand outward. This process is generally limited only by the geography of a place, the available means of transportation, and the affluence of residents.

Second, the FHA did not invent the design of the suburbs.  As Robert Fishman persuasively demonstrates, the suburb, as we picture it today, emerged in 18th century London. It was at that time and in that place that the nuclear family originated  and along with it the idea of creating a domestic home and community separate from working districts. As a result, the first middle class residential districts emerged at the edge of the London and were designed to emulate the lanscape and homes of upper class British estates and country houses.

Therefore, I do not believe one law lead to the suburbs. The process of suburbanization was well underway by the 1930s and the design principles of the modern suburbs, codified by the FHA, had already existed for nearly 200 years in England and North America.

Suburban Ideal 1839 – Photo from Jane Austen’s World

The Suburban Ideal 1882 – Photo from London Architecture