Q&A: Strong Towns at Today’s Orange County Transportation Forum

Charles "Chuck" Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns. Marohn will be the keynote speaker at Friday's Orange County Active Transportation Forum in Santa Ana. Image: Strong Towns
Charles "Chuck" Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns. Marohn will be the keynote speaker at Friday's Orange County Active Transportation Forum in Santa Ana. Image: Strong Towns

Today is one of my favorite days of the year: the day when folks around Orange County come together to talk about active transportation.

This year’s Orange County Active Transportation Forum is happening in Santa Ana’s Delhi neighborhood, with a theme centered on transit and housing. It has been a big year for both, with growing interest in looking for solutions to affordable housing in Orange County and heightened attention on the area’s homeless residents, while Santa Ana continues to be the brightest star in active transportation policy and developments — although only Streetsblog seems to find that last worth covering with regularity.

This year’s forum will feature keynote speaker Charles “Chuck” Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. The mission of Strong Towns is to inspire cities and neighborhoods to pursue development that allows them to be financially strong and resilient.

Streetsblog had a chance to talk to Marohn prior to his keynote speech, and to chat a little about California’s most pressing issues around growth and development–as well as some of the promising solutions coming out of Santa Ana.

Streetsblog: Let’s talk about transportation planning–specifically about how to develop a fair decision-making process on what transportation modes/infrastructure gets funded. For example, SB1, a gas tax and vehicle fee increase, will start bringing in more money in November, but right now there’s tension on how that money should be distributed. The same could be said with the state’s cap-and-trade money, which is relevant to transportation because it’s such a large contributor to GHGs–thus high-speed rail, active transportation, electric vehicles, some transit operations, and affordable housing have all been funded. So my question is: what’s a fair and smart way to divide funding at the state level between transit, active transportation, and “fixing roads,” even when that includes widening highways?

Marohn: We actually have to find a way to devolve both the decision-making as well as the actual revenue production and spending [to be] as hyper-local as we can get. California will spend billions adding a couple lanes on a congested highway–that has been done a couple times recently. [Yet] we can’t find $200 to put in a crosswalk, or $50,000 to fix a street and slow things down a little bit. Which one has more impact on people’s lives? Which one actually makes our cities stronger and healthier financially? The latter; the fine grain stuff. If we want our cities to be successful, I think we have to shift our entire transportation conversation away from state and federal priorities and way, way down to block-level priorities.

We’ve done this for almost seventy years. What we find is that at the [local] level, our transportation conversation is really dysfunctional. We have places where people can’t walk across their own street safely; we have places where you can see the store you want to get to, but you can’t get to it except in a car. This is a byproduct of the way that we fund things: we fund it from the top down, and so what we wind up with is kind of very coarse aggregation of some consensus policies. At the block level, it doesn’t work.

By the way, block-level priorities are hard to do at the state level because each neighborhood will have their own set of things, their own way of prioritizing things, their own distinct nuance that cannot be captured in a coarse-level dialogue at the state.

So, if you told me that we had this huge pot of money that we have to spend on transportation, what’s the best way to do this? To me, yes, I would deprioritize fighting congestion, deprioritize commuting, and focus as much as I could on connecting neighborhoods, and particularly pedestrian and bike infrastructure.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing California cities?

In California, there’s a great awareness and understanding from the top to the bottom on how to take the construction of new things and turn that into something positive. We’re going to take an old orange grove and we’re going to develop it. We’re going to go out and build homes and strip malls and highways. We know how to have that result in a certain level of prosperity. Even with Prop. 13, the local government gets a little bit more money, the real estate people make money, the contractors make money.

What California has no clue how to do is to take a maintenance project and have that result in people becoming wealthier. How do we go out and take a street that is in disrepair, fix that street, and have the tax base grow as a result? Then take that pipe that is cracked, dig up the street, replace that pipe and have the result be that more people want to live on that street, invest there, raise a family there, start a business there. We have no concept on how to do that.

And because of that, what we wind up doing is spending most of our money and resources trying to grow new stuff, while the existing neighborhoods rot and deteriorate. Santa Ana actually has part of the key to fixing this. Santa Ana is one the cities in the country that I think is a little further down the road of figuring this out than most places–but that is the fundamental challenge of California. You have a state that grew in these very fast blocks, and now everything is old and has to be maintained. Where does the money [for maintenance] come from? It’s not coming from your tax base; you don’t have enough tax base to afford it all. To me, that’s the key solvency problem for California. It’s not: how are we going to build high-speed rail; how do we get more highways; how do we build more interchanges; do we put the money into transit or highways? No, you’ve done that. How do you actually make good use of the stuff you’ve already built? Because you’re not even doing that.

And listen to the people who talk about high-speed rail. I totally get the theory: we’ll go out and build it, development will happen as a result. That’s a really seductive theory, but you’ve been trying that theory since the early 1950s. Build it and they will come. And for some reason, it’s not working out financially for you. You’ve built a lot of stuff, you’ve had a lot of growth, but for some reason, your tax base is not sufficient to cover all your expenses. Why is doing more of what you’re doing, just bigger, going to change that? It’s not. You actually have to rethink your development pattern.

Whether it’s homes, or infrastructure, it’s always hardest to adapt environments once they are built out. What are some strategies for using land wisely for greater efficiency?

For all of human history, the early development in California, the early development across the continent, development through Europe and Asia and everywhere, you see a city going back thousands of years–what you see are places that were built incrementally, on a continuum of improvement. Places that would start as a collection of small shacks and someday wind up to be Manhattan. The concept there is not that anything is ever done or built out, it is: what is the next iteration of intensity? And so in traditional cities, there’s been an increment of building out, but there’s also been an increment of building up and an increment of becoming more intense. So, taking single-family homes and making them duplexes, taking duplexes and making them quad units. Taking a collection of quad units and making them row houses. Taking a series of row houses and making them tenements. There’s a continuum of improvement that cities have always gone through. Once we start with “our places are built out,” what we’ve done is we’ve limited one whole side of the equation in a way that is unhealthy–and it’s bankrupting us.

Let me give you an example of how we do things differently today. Largely, our transportation projects go through the public works or engineering department. And they’ll get a grant or they’ll get state aid, they’ll look at how much in the local budget they can match that with. And then they’ll take state development standards and go out and build a roadway that meets these third-party criteria that have been imposed on them or have been adopted around the objective of moving vehicles quickly and efficiently.

Why don’t you go around and observe where people today are biking and walking and where they’re struggling to get around, and then say what is something we can do right now, quickly, cheaply, easily? And I mean right now, I mean within the next 48 hours. What can we do to make that a little easier for people? So, we notice over here people are having a hard time crossing the street. What could we do to make that easier? We notice over here that people are walking to these businesses, but we have some of these businesses a block away that are kind of struggling; is there a way to get people to traverse that extra block?

In other words, the high return on investments today is not about how far you can get, and how much you can drive, but how many options can we give you where you’re not forced into an automobile. Those investments– they’re small investments, they’re very low risk. But they also tend to be the types of investments that, when you invest a dollar, you’ll get back $5, $10, $50. When we invest a dollar in auto infrastructure, we tend to get back ten cents, fifteen cents, twenty cents in terms of real money coming into the government. We have an urgent need to shift from low return on investments to high return on investments. And the high return on investments aligns with walking, biking, small-scale projects, and quality of life.

Santa Ana has incredibly high density considering its land area. Clearly, that’s because you have adapted–whether legally or not according to zoning rules–you’ve adapted an existing building to get more out of it. We have to do that on a large scale. And so the things that Santa Ana is doing right–the things that maybe people who look at Santa Ana and say, oh, we don’t want to be like that–those are actually the lessons we need to learn. How do we do that at scale, how do we make that so it’s easier? Those are the things that interest me about Santa Ana, because they figured something out that culturally the rest of America can’t get to.

Gentrification has been a hot-button issue, both in Santa Ana and around the country. In Santa Ana, this process is often seen happening in downtown and spreading outward. And downtown being one of the few central gathering places in the city that is not a mall or a strip mall, where the most public activities happen, there is a feeling of erasure–that development and new businesses are out of local residents’ control and don’t reflect the more than seventy percent Latino/Mexican population of the city. So, how does a city like Santa Ana, that is going through these painful changes, coexist with these market changes when many of its current residents feel like their identities and realities are at risk?

First, when we go back to traditional cities, what we experience in traditional cities that were successful was a continuous amount of incremental change. So neighborhoods were always growing, they were always changing, they were always becoming more intense, they were always becoming wealthier. I think the big difference today between what is really a necessary and needed thing–which is the increasing prosperity of the community, something we have to have–the tension is that that prosperity is not being shared with the people that are there.

In other words, if you own the half-million-dollar house that becomes a million-dollar house, well, gentrify away. Those kinds of things are how you build wealth that you can pass on generation to generation. People who were investing, moving to cities on the frontier of America in their infancy were always hoping that the city would continue to grow and expand and their property would become more valuable and their investment would become more valuable and by the sweat equity they put into their place–their neighborhood–would grow and become more prosperous and they would benefit from that.

One of the challenges we have is that the places where we see gentrification being the biggest issue today are neighborhoods where locals don’t own the businesses and people living in the buildings don’t own the buildings. There is no equity in the growth. So what it becomes is a large real estate transaction, as opposed to a culmination of success that makes individuals wealthy. It winds up more of a transaction that sucks wealth out of a community than building it from within.

We tend to focus on the change aspect of it because that is a disruptive event. I think the problem though is deeper. It’s not the change–the change needs to happen. If your city does not change and grow and evolve it will die. It will atrophy and go into decline, and that decline is terminal, especially in auto-oriented kind of places. So cities need to evolve and adapt. The big difference is that today our economic system–because it’s so centralized, because it’s so top down, because we focus on the efficiency of delivery–what we’ve done is we’ve changed the dynamic of who wins from growth and who wins from the community getting better. And I think that’s the aspect that we need to focus on. How do we get more local entrepreneurs? How do we get more local people being the ones who actually start the businesses and benefit from their growth? How do we get more people actually owning real estate?

The federal government did try to answer that question with subprime loans: forcing large banks to loan to people who couldn’t afford things. What actually needs to happen is that finance needs to be scaled back to the local neighborhood so that lenders and borrowers, people looking to make investments in their community, are all connected at the block level again. That’s a harder, less satisfying answer, because it doesn’t give us either an evil boogeyman to hate or one or two things [we can quickly get done], but I think it’s a more honest evaluation of the problem.

Anything else you’d like to add?

The tragedy of the 2008 housing crisis in a place like Santa Ana is that you saw people induced to buy a home, because in the crazy up-market that’s what made sense–that’s how you got ahead. You didn’t get ahead with the little storefront, living in the back, working and sweating. You got ahead by buying a house.

That’s the new way you got ahead in the early 2000s. Then we took all those people who did the smart American thing and we just wrecked them. And then who came in afterward? All the investors with all the money looking for a place to go. Now you have all these people who did the thing that they were supposed to do, and got wrecked because of it, and now they’re subjected to volatility again and they’re powerless. That is the end result of centralizing the system around the notion of growing quickly and efficiently. And I know that there are no easy fixes.

This interview has been edited for publication.