214 Comments

"The X concept is a good theme for a TED Talk, but it never should have become a dominant element of Y discourse," for all X and Y.

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This would make for a good fill in the blank for Cards Against Humanity.

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I think slogans for urban planning concepts draw attention. Some attention is good - people may be excited about the concept and get interested in the field, or just understand the value of mixed use and walkable places in a way they never did before and might not if things just stayed more technically precise. Also, it draws nutcases to attack it.

As a general matter, should people avoid ever making urbanist concepts exciting because of the nutcases? Because I think the same would generally happen as much with any concept. And worse with some, like congestion pricing.

I think the substantive critiques of the 15 minute city are technically fair but mostly irrelevant. Of course the concept isn’t perfectly trying to cover everything and I don’t see people pining for Montalcino; it’s a way to better conceptualize and communicate the value of walkable urbanism in cities.

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>I think the substantive critiques of the 15 minute city are technically fair but mostly irrelevant.

Yes, but it gives Matt a chance to pivot a little and talk about how cities are more than just a bunch of little towns next to each other! And we're this close to getting a post from Matt that's just a Gordon Gecko speech about agglomeration.

> The point is, ladies and gentleman, that agglomeration, for lack of a better word, is good. Agglomeration is right, agglomeration works. Agglomeration clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Agglomeration, in all of its forms; agglomeration of life, of money, of love, of knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind!

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"Last winter, my car battery died and it was really nice to be a ten-minute walk to Target to buy a cheap battery charger" is 1) genuinely true 2) not a very snappy slogan.

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"The other day I overheard a conversation while hanging out at my local hipster battery-replacement Target."

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I think (as I expounded on at length below) the problem is that the simplification embodied in slogans attracts opposition as well as support, sometimes in excess of support. Land use is a very emotional topic!

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OK, but really, inertia and plain vanilla NIMBY-ism are a much more important impediment to making cities better than wing-nut opposition catchy slogans.

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Yeah, but it is preexisting.

If your slogan is drawing more net opposition to support, it is still making things worse.

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I think all of the wingnut opposition is fairly loud and visible while the benefit of people being educated and won over is not visible. So I wouldn’t say it’s at all clear which is larger; probably the benefits, though I don’t know for sure either.

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Never having encountered (barely even heard about) any right wingnut opposition to land use reform, this just sounded "off" to me.

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And, of course, completely ignores those with physical challenges. "Ride a bike!" "Get out and walk!" Funny how "inclusiveness" doesn't include everyone.

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Matt, I think you are both overthinking this and under thinking this.

The point of 15-minute cities is to relax residential-only zoning, because *most* people actually live in vast swathes of residential-only development where *nothing* except other houses exists within 15 minutes. That’s not just 15 minutes walking... where I grew up in the suburbs it was 15 minutes *drive* to get to the *closest restaurant* and further to get groceries. The only non-residential things within 15 minutes drive were a gas station and a church. And this was a place with a LOT of housing.

But even in a “walkers paradise” like San Francisco, you can live in the dense by American standards neighborhoods of the outer Richmond or Sunset and still have very little non-residential within 15 minutes of your house.

This whole concept is a slogan that’s simply trying to capture “wouldn’t it be nice if your neighborhood was super convenient” and then as an urban planning tool the “quilt” is an overly simplistic tool to identify where (and which) major gaps exist -- for example to spot which places have no grocery store within 15 minutes.

Now, you may be right that any slogan people on the left start to like will intrinsically, generate conspiracy, theories, and backlash on the right in today’s hyperpolarized environment. But as far as I can tell the only “solution“ to this problem would be to never allow any names for any of your ideas. That seems rather impractical. May be less extreme. We could just try to ask for message discipline from lefties to embrace the idea of 15 minutes as a message of convenience not a screed against cars. But I think in the hypermedia era where anyone can go on Twitter and the algorithm will elevate the nastiest and most enraging things that are said, message discipline is an impossible dream.

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Yeah, it seems like Matt has sort of bafflingly missed the point that Manhattan and D.C. and Montalcino are all atypical in having fairly dense mixed-use development. It's not banal to point out that that's nice for the people living in those places and that there should be more of it.

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Is Houston something of a counterexample to this? AIUI Texas in general and Houston in particular have famously lax zoning standards, yet there’s a huge amount of residential-only or commercial-industrial only development even as it’s supposed to be growing by leaps and bounds. Might this this suggest that mixed-use development isn’t preferred over residential only+having a car?

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I think Houston is super-interesting. Actually if you go to areas built before roughly the 1980s there’s much more retail and small business sprinkled in than is common elsewhere. But while Houston lacks zoning it has all the other regulations on lot size, parking, etc that mandate car dependency. And by the 80s financialization converged such that almost all developments everywhere follow single-product bank rules that are almost as strict as zoning. So then you start to see truly huge single-family developments built all at once not because commercial was forbidden but because Kaufman Broad got 400 acres on the cheap and they only do houses.

More recent development trends have changed this a little and it’s now common to see a small neighborhood serving retail area in medium scale residential developments, and in the very large ones there’s often a “village center” of some kind with a few shops built explicitly because it’s seen as a sought-after amenity.

TLDR; Houston has some cool quirks but overall it’s less of a development and regulation outlier than people think.

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Thanks very much for the insight on this! Can you elucidafe a little bit on the single product bank rules? Totally new concept to me.

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High level summary:

1. Banks offer something like 13 standard product types for real estate loans. These are things like “single family house,” “strip mall,” “pad site,” “apartment complex”, “office park,” etc. All of these are securitized, meaning the bank can issue the mortgage and then package it up with dozens of hundreds of very similar buildings into a Mortgage Backed Security, they can then issue a couple million shares of this and sell it on the open market to a mix of institutional and individual investors. When they do this it becomes very easy to get the money (because investing in securities is generally much nicer for investors than investing in actual projects or businesses). In this model the bank is shifting all (or most of) the capital risk to the investor pool, taking a small fee for this service instead of taking the interest on the loans, and also getting most of its capital back so it can lend that out again and repeat this process.

For this to work all those real estate projects *must* be totally cookie cutter so they can all be bundled together and treated as “basically the same thing.” This extreme sameness is what allows the securitization. If you have a loan on one strip mall, an earthquake or local market meltdown could mess the whole thing up. But if you have a bundle of loans on a thousand strip malls across the country then local stuff basically comes out in the wash and you are making a bet on the American retail market in general not a particular place.

So this is what banks do and it basically creates tons of capital at a very low cost. This is a lot of money hungry for projects to go in to. So the bank needs to convince real estate developers to go build these cookie cutter projects so the bank can continue selling MBS to investors. And they do this by offering lower interest rates and by generally making financing extremely easy so long as you follow one of the bank’s authorized recipes for the project.

2. This has been going on long enough that the entire market is now *financialized.* Just like a person can take out a bigger mortgage for the same monthly payment if interest rates are lower, a developer can service more debt on a project if the interest rate is lower. So if the rent from a cookie cutter project is the same as a unique project, the cookie cutter project can get a bigger loan via lower interest. *And every land seller knows this and so the real estate market has priced this in to the cost of land.* Which means you *have* to build a cookie cutter project or else you can’t get a big enough loan to buy the land.

3. The only way around this is to create some kind of noteworthy *prestige* luxury project where you will be able to charge a lot higher rent than a cookie cutter project, and thus can make the numbers work even with a higher interest rate. Or to be crazy wealthy and do it without a loan, which means you’re taking way more risk and making a much lower rate of return on your investment because the investment isn’t leveraged. So this rarely happens.

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Mar 12, 2023·edited Mar 12, 2023

Thanks very much for this! Reading it as a layperson it sounds less like the bank is directly incentivizing cookie-cutter projects but just offering cost of capital for a given product type, and the developer is not only incentivized but obligated to maximize return on capital (likely highest with cookie-cutter projects) based on the fact that sale price which will adjust to eat up any nominal reduction in cost of capital via increases in sale price (same as with residential home sales.), sort of a private version of the goal of Georgist land taxes.

The only way I see the bank directly favoring one class of development over another (as opposed to firm expertise limiting the universe of stuff that gets built, e.g. 'Kaufman Broad only does houses) is if some combination of land price and interest rates for SFHs combine to make the lowest cost of capital / highest rate of return apply to SFHs but not mixed-use development.

Am I overlooking something here or is that basically how it works?

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Mar 10, 2023·edited Mar 10, 2023

Texas in general, and Houston in particular, is a very unpleasant place to walk for a large chunk of the year. If I lived in Houston from May to September, I would drive 5 minutes to a grocery store that I could walk to in 15, simply to avoid the elements.

There may well be regulatory factors that drive construction habits as well. But absent those, consumer preferences can also just be different!

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Yes, exactly! The point of 15-minute cities isn’t that everyone should be within 15 minutes of an opera house or art house theater, it’s that they should be within 15 minutes of a grocery store and a hardware store. That’s useful, and in lots of places (even places one would think of as urban) it’s not true.

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I would say more explicitly than you do that the 15MC concept is implicitly both unrealistic and selfish.

It's unrealistic in that its proponents will not want to live within 15 minutes of amenities that can be supported by a small population. They want to live within 15 minutes of amenities that are supported by millions of people.

It's selfish in that, given that they want these amenities that require the support of millions, the 15MC concept simply amounts to saying that they want privileged access to them, access that will not be available to most of the people who support the businesses.

It's like someone saying, "I want to hear Bruce Springsteen in a 15-person venue." Well, sorry, the Boss's economics require him to play arenas. So what you are really asking for is front row seats in the arena, plus a backstage pass, all supported by the other 20,000 people in the bad seats.

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This take is too hot. 15 minute cities is just a slogan to say walking to stuff is nice.

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founding

It at least should acknowledge that some things that would be nice to be able to walk to depend on more people than can live in walking distance of them.

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"...some things that would be nice to be able to walk to depend on more people than can live in walking distance of them."

Bingo. Very concisely put.

Though on reflection I see that you also moderated my take as well as shortening it. Fair.

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yeah, but how often does the median person consume those things?

Like, I haven't been to a concert in years. If I lived a half mile from a concert venue, I'd probably go 1-2 times per year, which would be nice, but that's <1% of days.

The nearest place I can buy a fresh vegetable is a 29 minute walk away. The nearest cafe is 30 minutes.

And I'm in a medium-density municipality in my state.

Maybe I just haven't been consuming as much silly content, but the way I've come to understand the 15 minute city concept is that it includes basic stuff like a doctor's office, grocery store, maybe a couple of restaurants, and *maybe* AN entertainment venue of some kind (i.e. a movie theatre, or a Magic the Gathering store, not an opera house)

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Popular definitions of the 15MC often allow biking distance as well (and sometimes transit), which makes it considerably less unrealistic, but I overall agree

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Am I allowed to agree with both of you?

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"Am I allowed to agree with both of you?"

Flume? Do we allow it this time?

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Absolutely not.

...

Unless you want to.

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"...just a slogan to say walking to stuff is nice."

But everything depends on the "stuff". If there's no nice stuff, then it's not so nice to walk to. If there is nice stuff, then it may take more than the customers within 15 minutes to keep it nice.

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>It's selfish in that, given that they want these amenities that require the support of millions, the 15MC concept simply amounts to saying that they want privileged access to them<

In my view it's just marketing jive. Matt's right to call for caution, lest people take them too literally and Tucker Carlson starts convincing normies that liberals really *do* want to ban suburbs. (I'm sure he's already on the case).

But, as long as caution is exercised, it seems ok me to make the case for density and walkability with something snappy. I like Rory Hester's idea of the "15 minute neighborhood."

To put it another way, we should not take the 15MC crowd literally, but we should take them seriously. It's the same way I interpret "One Billion Americans" (a snappy way to say we need to grow the population a lot faster, and here are the policies that'll help).

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I think it’s bad when the areas where Springsteen plays is an island in a sea of 20,000 parking spaces, but I don’t insist on walking to the concert. For that I can take the train. The things I insist on being able to walk to are the sorts of things that would be in strip malls in suburbia.

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To try to turn the heat up a little more in this realm of takes, what's the alternative to the 15MC concept at play here? Are we agglomerating all amenities in one big central location? If so, then the people who are the lucky ducks to have housing next to/within this agglomeration are getting metaphorical backstage passes and front row seats to all the shows and venues, not just one Springsteen show.

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"...the people who are the lucky ducks...."

I think that describes the status quo in NYC, Paris, London, wherever else there are major cities with museums, opera houses, etc.. And it's not a good status quo.

On the other hand, the current lucky ducks generally pay for their front row seats with outrageously high real estate costs. That's not good either, but it may involve a lower degree of people in the cheap seats subsidizing the front-row seats.

To borrow Springsteen again, it's a little more as though he said, "okay, I'll play a small 15-person venue. Tickets are 2 million bucks a seat." Not a good situation, since most people are excluded. But at least the 15 people who buy seats are paying full freight.

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Mar 9, 2023·edited Mar 10, 2023

Is the minimal time savings of access to flagship amenities really something people care about that much? “Casually going to the Met” isn’t really A Thing people do, so you might as well make a day of it and just eat the transportation costs of getting into / out of Manhattan even if takes 3-4 hours instead of 1 hour from one of the outer boroughs because you’re making a day of it in either event. Similarly, who is casually going to live music shows or Broadway, especially at today’s ticket prices? (Meanwhile, the Jets don’t even play in New York even if they *didn’t* suck.)

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Yeah - using a NYC example the time cost to do things in cultural mecca Manhattan are very different depending on whether you live in Harlem, Staten Island or Coney Island.

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" what's the alternative to the 15MC concept at play here?"

I think it's that we do what transit proponents constantly say we're doing - totally ignore the experience of anyone who lives in the city who isn't the driver of a car.

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Tucson metro has about 1m people (not millions) and downtown Tucson is more or less my perfect combo of cultural and fitness amenities. There is not much missing.

I get that not everyone can live near downtown and the University of Arizona, but honestly I think some extra 4-plexes in a neighborhood with some mixed use zoning can support pubs, coffee shops, food marts, and yoga/fitness studios. That is like 80% of my actual needs extracted from a 100% amazing FMC. If I can meet up in a 3rd space, buy some basic food, and join an exercise class, then I am nearly set. Some FMCs will have more than that, but I don't agree that most people will be unsatisfied with that, especially if their baseline is a bone dry suburb with a strip mall 1 mile away on an arterial stroad.

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Maybe the should just rebrand to 15-minute neighborhoods (which I always assumed they meant anyway).

As much as I really like Matt (he has a blue collar vibe), sometimes he just idly drops things out there that remind me his life is disconnected from the average Americans. Spending a month in Italy? Got to admit I am jealous. Coincidentally I was researching the Amalfi Coast this morning. I really need to travel more. (the irony of this paragraph is I am writing this while working in Brazil... though my job isn't nearly as glamourous).

I digress... anyway. I really like my little single-family neighborhood in Boise. It's safe. Kids can play outside because its shut-off from through traffic... but it certainly isn't walking friendly. I don't have a single place to spend money on within 15-minutes of walking, though everything is within a 5-7 minute drive. Sort of sucks. I do have to admit though, my e-bike does make things better in the summer.

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Mar 9, 2023·edited Mar 9, 2023

Matt is definitely not blue collar at all - he went to Harvard! - I think he's just self-aware enough to realize that most people aren't him.

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Yeah, I'd be down for Rory to expound on the blue collar vibes he picks up from Matt.

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Its a vibe... you can't explain vibes. I'm going to go with his twitter snark.

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A blue collar guy would call his “favorite dive bar” “the bar.” Having a “favorite dive bar”* is hipster, or at least hipster adjacent.

*PBR on tap, natch.

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Who drinks PBR on tap??? Straight from the can, or gtfo.

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I was very much within ground zero of PBR transitioning from the top blue collar beer to the top hipster beer as a college student in Portland in the early 2000s.

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I hope you’ve matured.

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You know the general idea of where I live in Boise, and I very much targeted that area because I wanted to be close to a wide array of amenities. I get very grumpy and sad when I'm stuck in a car trying to get somewhere, as I've always felt I'm just wasting my time stuck in there.

Your last sentence deserves to be highlighted, though: the e-bike and other forms of micromobility are real game changers as far as achieving goals of the 15MC and getting away from being chained to a car, as it greatly increases the range of places you can go. I've ridden a human powered bike to get around for over two decades, but I'm also aware that not everyone has the ability or fortitude to do that, and I know that I'll eventually get old enough where it won't be feasible for me to do so as well. A 15MC concept should not include only walking.

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Man, I am off-base on this comment.

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You're not off base, Rory, you're a visionary.

I've said it before, but Matt works hard to understand the normie perspective, because that's where the votes are. And if you want to understand a perspective then it helps to emulate it. So, Matt also sometimes attempts to emulate the normie perspective, and he does an okay job at it.

But it is primarily an emulation-mode, more than an expression of his own origins, which were highly non-normie. Factors pushing him towards genuine, not simulated, normalness are now the familial responsibilities of kids and bills, plus the wise choice of a partner from gun-toting Texas, who gives him sympathetic access to other sensibilities.

He's making progress, and, who knows, Rory, in time your read of Matt may come true!

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Well damn you... you did a better of explaining my perspective than I did. I would like to see Matt take up a "hands on" hobby... remodeling a house, cars, something lowbrow... that involves physical work/reward.

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To DT's point about home ownership, that might be an avenue that Matt has experienced before but hasn't talked about before. I know I got a bit of a baptism by fire here when I bought my property, which has not one but two houses on it.

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" I would like to see Matt take up a "hands on" hobby...."

Agreed. Sometimes, that follows from home-ownership. The gooseneck below the kitchen sink rots out, and you can't get a plumber to come. All of a sudden, you learn how to replace a gooseneck.

But I agree that working with one's hands has benefits beyond avoiding plumbing bills.

Cars -- man, I have given up. I had a '67 Dodge Dart that I could do pretty much everything with. Carburetor needed a screwdriver and a crescent wrench, or a pair of slip-joint pliers if you didn't have your crescent wrench handy. But nowadays? On new cars? You cannot figure out anything without the computer diagnostic system. There's just no fun in it anymore.

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But I was speaking about cars… I was talking about more recreational. Like a classic car. He should restore an old Chevy or Mustang. Hang out with old car guys.

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I found the comment intriguing and want to learn more! I guess I just suck at picking up inexplicable vibes.

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I think vibes was the wrong word... maybe "sympathies" would have been better.

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That sounds right, it seems like Chuck Schumer's fable about the Baileys really stuck with Matt when he interned for him.

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Great post. I wish Matt had engaged more with the proposed plan in Oxford that set things off, though. I lived there, and still frequently visit, and as far as I can tell, the local council really is attempting to divide the city into smaller cells in a much more direct way. If you wanted to get from one cell to another, you were according to the plan supposed to walk or bike, or use public transport. You *could* drive, but the intention was to make that extremely inconvenient (you basically would have to take a huge detour through the ring road, and even then only had a limited number of yearly permits for such a drive). This, of course, goes way further than what most people are willing to accept, and so provided an excellent target for critics of the 15MC concept.

I guess I wish that Matt would have either shown that the plans in Oxford have been misrepresented and that they do not in fact propose to do something extreme. (It is very possible, I have not chased down original documents myself.) Or come out and say that this specific plan went too far, and to disavow it. Or maybe the plan is extreme and he supports it - I would guess not, but as the article stands, I do not know.

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Mar 9, 2023·edited Mar 9, 2023

I totally agree: I linked the plan in my comment above and feel like the criticisms are basically accurate. The irony is that Oxford is *already* a city that fulfills new urbanist goals better than most. I've lived there periodically over thirty years, roughly two years total, and I've never needed a car except for the occasional weekend outing, to the Cotswolds or Harry Potter studios.

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Yes, Oxford is great. The historic streets and crowded city centre already make driving inconvenient so most people walk or bike. It seems unnecessary to make it much harder still, and it would hurt some people much worse than others.

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I find it strange that Americans have such a strong interest in the urban planning of a medieval city like Oxford. I'm not sure you, or Matt, has even been to Oxford, seen its congestion issues, and discussed with local stakeholders how they like the city to look and feel. All I know is elected officials in the town want to reduce car traffic, noise and pollution and make it easier to walk, bike and bus around town, so they've come up with a plan to divide the town into quadrants and limit *car* travel directly between said quadrants. Seems like a decision for the local government to make?

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Well, as I wrote in the comment, I lived there, and still spend significant amounts of time in the city. I walked or biked to work when we lived there, and we had lots of restaurants, parks, pubs, stores, etc within walking distance. I loved the lifestyle. We owned one car that was used rarely for occasional shopping, outings, and road trips. But the proposed plan is extreme, and I really hope that it does not pass.

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I'm only learning about this now through Matt, and it sounds like the reason why Oxford in particular is getting picked up here is via the right wing outrage machine trying to make it a thing.

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Isn’t the “permit” just for a limited number of *free* drives? I don’t see any discussion on what the fees are, but if they are reasonable, this kind of just sounds like whining that some externalities of driving are being priced in.

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You can read the plan here: https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/residents/roads-and-transport/connecting-oxfordshire/traffic-filters.

It's easy to navigate:

> When the filters are operating, cars without a permit driving through the filters will receive a fine of £70 (reduced to £35 if paid promptly).

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Mar 9, 2023·edited Mar 9, 2023

I would support that if it was more of a normal congestion-pricing type fee. That’s outlandish.

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Mar 9, 2023·edited Mar 9, 2023

I guess it's my week to defend cranks!

I appreciate and strongly agree with the larger point here, and I love the idea of 15-minute neighborhoods, but criticisms of Oxford's implementation are absolutely not "insane conspiracy theories". The Oxford plan is directionally dystopian and I think most people would be at least a little shocked to read the details of how it assumes the surveillance state ought to be involved with our daily decisions, and its presumption that people's behavior ought to be subject to committee by default.

Most of us accept tolls collected to maintain roads. I'm even up for congestion pricing. This is a different matter. From the plan itself (https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/residents/roads-and-transport/connecting-oxfordshire/traffic-filters):

> We want to reduce unnecessary journeys by private cars and make walking, cycling, public and shared transport the natural first choice.

Even the fevered "fact-checks" and "debunkings" are Orwellian! Here's a paragraph from the Bloomberg coverage of "the conspiracy paranoia":

> At issue was the proposed introduction of six new traffic filters intended to limit car use through residential parts of the city at peak hours. Monitored by automatic license plate readers, these filters would fine drivers from outside the county of Oxfordshire who entered central areas during high-traffic periods. Oxford residents will be allowed fine-free peak-hour access for 100 days per year, with residents of the wider county able to apply for a 25-day fine-free access permit.

Two aspects of the coverage stand out . First, the authors describe the Oxford plan as the "introduction of six new traffic filters"- as if traffic filters were commonplace!

Second, the middle sentence gives priority to the idea that the filters are aimed at "drivers from outside the county of Oxfordshire", with admirably simplicity. Perhaps I'm taking this too far, but a moderately careless reader might not even untangle the syntax of the last sentence and realize that it also applies to Oxford residents.

Or take the AP's "fact check"! Its summary boils down to this:

> CLAIM: “15-minute cities” are designed to restrict people’s movements, increase government surveillance and infringe on other individual rights.

> THE FACTS: The urban planning concept is simply about building more compact, walkable communities where people are less reliant on cars.

Those ... aren't incompatible.

This feels like the lab leak controversy playing out again, in exactly the same ways. At least I hope it is, since that would suggest that we will someday be able to discuss opposition to traffic filters without dealing with the "conspiracy theory" misdirection.

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founding

I think I’m missing the dystopian part. Is it dystopian to try to encourage people to limit car use to special occasions? I can see that people often claim it’s dystopian to identify cars with cameras, but it doesn’t particularly seem dystopian to me as long as there is sufficient privacy control of the data.

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founding

"Encouragement" comes in many forms. But when the state imposes laws that limit free movement (enforced with fines or imprisonment) then that moves away from encouragement and into something very different.

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But is it limiting all free movement, or just free movement via using an automobile?

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founding

If Beverly Hills limited the number of times “outsiders” were allowed to enter their town, I suspect we’d all view that as bad.

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The term quoted above is "drivers" not "outsiders."

>these filters would fine drivers

If it's not possible to visit that town without a car then you might have a point, but if Beverly Hills had a train station I'm not sure this would be a problem?

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This doesn't address the distinction I'm making about entering by car versus entering via non-car.

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You can also still enter by car since this doesn't apply to taxis or vans for some reason

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founding

So wait, now you're telling me that jaywalking laws are dystopian?

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founding

Of course not. But a law that limits the number of times an outsider is allowed to enter a city isn’t like jaywalking.

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founding

Who is proposing that?

What I saw is a law that says that cars have to pay if they enter many times, which seems much less restrictive than jaywalking laws.

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What some call imposition of control on free movement, others call congestion pricing. Driving has a lot of externalities that aren't priced. Will this idea work? I'm not sure, and it won't work everywhere, but I can see why an old town like Oxford would consider it.

As for surveillance, yeah you need automatic enforcement for it to work. London uses it, and it's had a lot of effects, good and bad, depending on your persuasion.

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Mar 9, 2023·edited Mar 9, 2023

The proposal plainly states their goals (cited above), which have nothing to do with congestion pricing. The filter target I'm most familiar with, Marston Ferry Road, for example, has an extremely low traffic burden.

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founding

I’m all for congestion pricing. But the proposal is something different. It is a fixed limit on number of times a citizen is allowed to enter a city.

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That would be pretty weird for a place like Beverly Hills where most of the traffic on the main boulevards (Olympic, Santa Monica, Wilshire) are passing through the city going to someplace else.

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so a toll road would be dystopian? Are you aware they already exist?

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Congestion pricing is a sane method to allocate and optimize the scarce commodity of peak-traffic road space. Price in costs and allow people to make decisions.

Closing central roadways outright to allow pedestrian or outdoor venue use is a reasonable decision when done in moderation.

Road reconfigurations that improve traffic flow and allocate more space to non-car use, likewise.

Making driving on still-extant, unpriced roads under certain (rather arbitrary) parameters an illegal offense *for certain classes of people* is absolutely dystopian as hell.

And this is coming from someone who supports blanketing every city in automated traffic enforcement high-resolution cameras.

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founding

Wait, they’re saying *illegal*? I thought they were saying it’ll cost you.

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I think the problem is a fine means you did something bad. Too many fines of the wrong type and you can go to jail. Honestly, this I don’t think this would freak people out as much if they’d called it congestion pricing or a toll and then given residents some free days--those are paying for convenience, not being a bad driver.

I suspect plenty wouldn’t like it, but it wouldn’t feel like as scary a decision.

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A £35 fine with no reference to traffic levels or any other circumstance is not a price, it is a punishment.

At that point, just bollard the roads you want to turn over to pedestrians and be done with it.

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founding

£35 does sound like a lot! And if they're calling it a "fine" rather than a "fee", I can also see how people would react more harshly to that.

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35 pounds for miscounting and driving on a road 101 days instead of 100. I think it fails on the principle of not expecting regular people to do accurate bookkeeping.

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The part that's really dystopian is the intrusion into our lives at an individual level. To some degree, my objection is that the Oxford proposal is way too *detailed*. It's "Seeing Like a State" turned up to 11, in high def, and I'm not as sanguine as you are about our ability to enforce sufficient privacy controls (nor our collective interest in privacy controls, for that matter).

It might be useful to imagine what a similar intervention might look like in different areas of policy. The natalist equivalent of congestion pricing might be child credits and/or tax breaks. The 'traffic filter' equivalent would be registering your birth control purchases with a government agency.

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founding

I think I have to understand more of the details here. But a congestion charge that gives locals 100 free days doesn't seem that significant.

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As I mentioned in another comment (or maybe two!), this is most certainly not a congestion charge. It's probably hard to believe if you haven't spent significant time in Oxford, but you don't have to take my word for it. The plan's authors aren't even claiming that reducing congestion is among their goals.

The plan isn't long [0], but here's the entirety of the section "Why we're proposing traffic filters"

> We want to reduce unnecessary journeys by private cars and make walking, cycling, public and shared transport the natural first choice.

> This will help us deliver an affordable, sustainable and inclusive transport system that enables the county to thrive while protecting the environment and making Oxfordshire a better place to live for all residents.

> Traffic filters are an important way to achieve this in Oxford. The proposed traffic filters will:

> make walking and cycling safer and more attractive.

> make bus journeys quicker and more reliable.

> enable new and improved bus routes.

> support investment in modern buses

> help tackle climate change, reduce local air pollution and improve the health and wellbeing of our communities.

[0] https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/residents/roads-and-transport/connecting-oxfordshire/traffic-filters

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founding

How is that not a congestion charge? It’s about limiting the number of cars on the street so that it is more usable for everyone else.

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Wow, I really put my foot in it. I stand by my position that this isn't a congestion charge, because I've seen what a relatively small role cars play in Oxford, but re-reading the list through fresh eyes, I can see how it might appear to be otherwise.

So I guess you would have to take my word for it or visit yourself. Probably not worth it either way, though I daresay you'd be better off doing both!

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This rules. How many kilograms of tomatoes and cucumbers do I need to bring to cover buying a house in Oxford?

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I think any system that privileges those who can afford local housing prices over those who can't isn't the way forward for America.

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So if I'm looking to expand my fake/expired paper license plate business. Oxford looks like a great market.

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Good move. Just remember that in the UK license plate, the letter "Z" is replaced by a zed.

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I can always remember this just by thinking of the great movie quote "Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead.".

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This dynamic reminds me of the taboo among progressives to criticize "allies" who take extreme and unpopular positions. Instead of saying that "Person A advocates position X, which I believe goes too far" you get these debunkings that claim that "nobody argues for position X". The "proof" is to cite mainstream progressives who do not support X. It is very frustrating.

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Oxford is a deeply weird place. It's a medieval village, plus a modern tourist trap, plus an industrial base, plus a residential town. Oh, and there may be a university in there somewhere. It has problems.

It's worth comparing it to two other historic towns that I can think of where the weight of history plus modern tourism has combined to make Disneyfication, i.e. enforced exclusion of traffic, the only viable solution. Both in Harper's Ferry, W.Va, and in Mont St. Michel, Normandy, the old towns have been converted into car-free tourist areas. Tourists are shuttled in and out by mass transit (e.g. shuttle buses), and no one expects to be able to drive in town. Sucks to be a resident! But it also sucked when the cars of tourists packed the streets so much that you couldn't get through the traffic. (And I remember those days in Harper's Ferry, not too many decades ago.)

Similar things might be said about Venice. It has been converted from a town into a museum. The loss of car traffic is just one aspect of that (though of course cars were never as common in Venice as they were in Harper's Ferry or Oxford).

I think Oxford will inevitably have to be converted into a car-free museum instead of a town. It's a harsh fate, but I don't think the current combination of half Disney and half normal town is sustainable.

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"Similar things might be said about Venice. It has been converted from a town into a museum. The loss of car traffic is just one aspect of that (though of course cars were never as common in Venice as they were in Harper's Ferry or Oxford)."

I'd be surprised if there were ever cars in Venice proper. I turned in my rental at the station - I presume one would only drive around the modern mainland part of Venice.

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"I'd be surprised if there were ever cars in Venice proper...."

Yeah, I don't know the city well enough to know the answer. My impression is that there are some service vehicles now driving some streets on the main island. But traditionally the hauling of freight (i.e. the equivalent of truck/lorry traffic) was done by canal-boat.

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Mar 9, 2023·edited Mar 9, 2023

Why isn't it sustainable? It has reliable, affordable, and frequent buses, bicycles and electric scooters abound, and the downtown is surrounded by villages with amenities: Summertown, Botley, etc.. (At a minimum, necessities like Boots and Tesco.)

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"...It has reliable, affordable, and frequent buses, bicycles and electric scooters...."

If your reply is, "sure it's sustainable -- as a car-free town!" then I don't think we are disagreeing.

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Mar 9, 2023·edited Mar 9, 2023

Haha, true!

On the other hand, I absolutely love Oxford and feel like the city is taking care of itself in this regard. There's no need for heavy-handed intervention, and I'm worried that the clumsy attempt to push the process further and faster (in dystopic fashion), will turn the city from an advertisement for livability into a warning against it!

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Mar 9, 2023·edited Mar 9, 2023

I drove in the part of Italy that Matt is talking about and went to the small towns like Montalcino. Reading up on driving there, it was made very clear to me that I would be fined in my rental car if I made wrong turns into the old part of Florence when I was leaving from car pickup or if I entered the historical core of these small Tuscan towns like Montalcino instead of leaving the car in the parking lot outside the walls. These zones were marked in Italian. If you want to go into those areas, you need to have your license plate on a pass.

So traffic filters are a thing.

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Yes, I agree that traffic filters are a thing - I just suspect that most people aren't familiar with them.

That aspect of the coverage was hard to communicate, since I'm not aware of a term for that rhetorical gesture. But it's pretty obnoxious when an author treats a novel concept - or one likely to be novel to most readers - as if were normal and common, to sort of bully a reader into accepting it.

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I've never driven in Italy, but in Spain and Portugal - which don't have this, but have lots of medieval towns where driving is annoying - it's very common for people to park in lots on the outskirts of these towns and walk everywhere. According to Matt, it looks like this is how it works in Montalcino, with the additional impediment of fines if you have the wrong plates.

I'm not at all familiar with what's happening in Oxford, but Oxford is more like a small city (population ~160k), so I'm not sure Tuscan towns are comparable. The precise locations of the traffic filters seem like they would matter a lot in this situation.

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Florence is a city and you have to be aware where the exclusion zones start, or really be able to pay attention to Italian signage, if you don't have a pass. I bet many cities in Italy are like that.

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This is a really confusing post, it's a congestion charge to reduce traffic. Is the dystopian part that they are using cameras instead of toll booths with people (would be an enormous waste of time and money)? Are you just a libertarian that thinks all traffic laws (e.g. register your car) are dystopian overreaches?

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Look at their stated reasons deadpan posted below. It's not a congestion charge per se (for one the penalty is quite large). It's much more a form of social engineering, which is why I think it gets people's hackles up.

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How in the world is this "social engineering"? The goal is explicitly to get less traffic. They are telling you they are going to fine (it is not really worded as a congestion charge you're right) you for driving through. All of the nefariousness of this relies on ignoring what they are plainly telling you and have made publicly available.

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My point is just that some people don't agree with their goals, e.g., "We want to reduce unnecessary journeys by private cars and make walking, cycling, public and shared transport the natural first choice," let alone their tactics. And they view whatever society that results on the other side as worse (that's what I mean by "social engineering", albeit an overstatement to be sure).

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15MC? FMC? Pick one terrible acronym and stick with it.

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15MC should be used here because the F could mean four, five, fourteen, forty, fifty, or a bunch of other numbers.

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"FMC" sounds like the monstrous offspring of PMC and FGM. Worth avoiding.

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That’s hilarious.

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QHC*

* Answer at the very bottom of the comments.

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I don't think you and 15MC advocates are in opposition. It's more that if you're going to have an "ideal" city, it's one where a good amount of amenities are within walking distance of your home while still accessing all of the business and culture that a city has to offer within a larger radius. Is anyone arguing that literally *everything* you need should be within a 15-minute walk? I thought it was more "plan to be like New York or Paris or Berlin rather than Houston."

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What I don't understand is where and how the 15 minute city conspiracies suddenly sprung to life and became part of the discourse. I'm a pretty dedicated urbanist and YIMBY, and while I know what the term meant, its not one I often saw used.

Then all of a sudden a bunch of kooks and weirdos are protesting it and calling it the road to hell or the George Soros plan to enslave us in pods? Did Tucker or Alex Jones do a show on the concept or something? It just feels like this was an overnight explosion in interest into what is usually an uncontroversial marketing term for mixed use density.

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Reading the AP article, I think it's a holdover from how sore some on the right still are about covid restrictions. There's still a lot of enmity (and understandably so) being held over the idea that one can't freely move to some places at any time, and it doesn't take much creative writing cleverness to try to turn 15 minute neighborhoods into 15 minute zones that you're chained within.

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I've seen the phrase "climate lockdown" thrown around.

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Mar 9, 2023·edited Mar 9, 2023

> to turn 15 minute neighborhoods into 15 minute zones that you're chained within.

It's an exaggeration but not completely made up. What's being tried/proposed in Oxfordshire is that you would be granted a certain number of passes to be able to drive in your local area (100 days/year) and those outside could apply for a smaller number (25). Obviously you can use alternative means to commute in/out, but for many, being told you can't drive is akin to being chained.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-03-02/how-did-the-15-minute-city-get-tangled-up-in-a-far-right-conspiracy

edit: credit to deadpan above, who I just saw is engaging with this more thoroughly:

https://www.slowboring.com/p/what-the-15-minute-city-misses/comment/13445075

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There seem to be a number of people freaking out because they do not comprehend they can get to places without *driving* there. And they could also just drive there and pay the fee if they really want to.

Of course if you drive a van you are exempt (not sure if thats a british term for transit though) and taxis are also exempt so you could even get around the fee.

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If taxis are exempt I feel like the council's goals could be accomplished by just restricting parking spaces. Why drive yourself somewhere when you have no place to park? But you can still be driven there in a taxi. There isn't a need to track people's movements.

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I'm not sure but also this isn't even tracking, toll by plate already widely exists and any threats to freedom or whatever are entirely imaginary, no ones being "tracked". Which is besides the fact cars are already registered with the government, required to be identifiable, and are using public roads, so passive tracking wouldn't even infringe on anything

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"More thoroughly" is such a polite way to put it.

(I will try to restrain myself now - I *think* I still have work and a family.)

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It's worth keeping in mind that COVID lockdowns and health protections created a bizarre conspiracy ecosystem and now that all those protections/restrictions have expired there is a lot of excess production capacity for these conspiracy mills. I don't know about USA but here in Canada it's all the same "freedom convoy" kooks who are now focusing their energy into screaming at municipal urban planners about their plans to "lock us in open air prisons"

Their COVID-related grift is over and they need a new grift. Simple as that.

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It’s just folks sitting around throwing ideas into the ether trying to see what sticks and get clicks.

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I'm an urban planner, and we've been using the term "20-minute neighborhood" for years to articulate a policy goal. And I think that term actually does work and is not arbitrary.

First, 20 minutes was chosen because that is about how long a typical person will actually walk to get somewhere on average, something borne out by research. 20 minutes is conveniently also a 1 mile walk for most people. So we say that "most" daily/weekly needs should be able to be met within a mile radius. More recently, this was expanded to include biking, which works out to be a 3-mile radius. So the idea is to have a good transportation and land use system so that you can walk to your really close destinations or bike to the destinations a bit further away but still 20 minute bike ride or less.

Second, it works because it uses the term "neighborhood" rather than city. We would never claim people can literally meet all their needs in walking or biking distance. Your job, your school, your medical appointments, your occasional big-box shopping trips, these are all likely to be further away and for those you more likely will take public transit, or drive, or maybe ride an e-bike to extend that biking range. And a city has great agglomeration effects and special destinations that warrant longer-distance travel. So we're not saying everyone should live in a small town or stay in their neighborhood forever, just that each neighborhood should have a lot of destinations so people don't have to travel as far for quite as many trips.

I don't know who came up with this 15-minute city nonsense, but it seems to be a bad idea, a poor attempt at articulating those ideas, and now it has spread and become polarizing. It's unfortunate, because there was nothing wrong with the term urban planners actually use and have for decades, the 20-minute neighborhood.

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It's also confusing to see this being pushed by the mayors of large European cities like Paris. What parts are Paris aren't already '15 minute cities'? So like, what's the goal here for these already large and dense places.

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founding

I think the idea is to figure out if there are “deserts” for some kind of daily amenity (groceries, hardware stores, coffee shops) and fill those in.

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One of the criticisms of the 15mC concept in Paris that that Paris is mostly already a 15mC, so it’s an empty political slogan. In the US it is a tangible, brutal indictment of government zoning and how much time we waste stuck in traffic

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My main takeaway from this article is that this is Matt saying he is a YIMBY, not an urbanist--even though he personally prefers an urbanist lifestyle. This was a question I was thinking of answering him in a mailbag that I can probably take off my queue now, though Matt can correct me if my inference is wrong.

On the politics, I'm begrudgingly inclined to believe Matt is correct to take this path. People are going to have their differing living preferences, trying to appeal to as many of them as possible is good coalition building, and since he says posting is praxis, attacking the 15 minute city as a standard probably makes sense.

Yet on the merits...there still needs to be city planning that doesn't gobble everything up into the car being the only viable mode of transportation. Even if it's some simple things like always adding sidewalks, bike lanes, and basic bus routes, this should be part and parcel of any new publicly operated transportation corridors constructed, so that we don't create networks that are unworkable to retrofit for forms of transportation other than by car.

So I guess my own political pitch for a 15 minute city would be one of freedom: freeing people from the necessity to do most life tasks with a car. And getting there means building the ability to use that freedom.

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Totally agree! But I think that, to win on the merits, we have to frame correctly so as to win on the politics. NIMBYism has been so successful because for many years, their arguments "felt true" to a lot of people and nobody pushed back; disingenuous left-NIMBYism was the worst strain. The planning obsession with "listening to the community" was extremely unhelpful in this regard; YIMBYism broke through with non-jargony arguments that aren't easily characterized as right or left.

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The YIMBY response is to remove the zoning restrictions separating residential and commercial zones and restricting multifamily housing. These have been the main roadblocks to 15 minute cities.

Not everyone of course wants to live in a 15 minute city, but it is my bet that the supply of people would like to live in one exceeds the supply of housing in such places, and this is not due to purely market forces but zoning regulations and NIMBYism.

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I don’t think you need “city planning” to ensure that cars aren’t the only viable transport mode, if by “city planning” you mean prescriptive land use. A city can let itself grow and redevelop, via market mechanisms, and then take what it needs to put down bus lanes, bike paths or train.

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The planning I'm talking about is on transportation corridors that are publicly owned. That has to be decided regardless of how development on private land occurs.

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As a person who wrote a lot about Agenda 21 conspiracy theories back in the day, I think Matt is right to be concerned about the glib framing of FMC.

Yes, it's helpful shorthand for people who haven't thought about walkable urbanism before. But I think it appeals to the already converted while setting up an unnecessarily binary choice that, understandably or not, will alarm some people (while giving ammunition to others who cynically want to fan the flames in the discourse and, more harmfully, at local public meetings).

Planning, unfortunately, is susceptible to this kind of faddish groupthink. Many of us went into the profession because we like walking to the grocery store and having art-house movies in or close to our neighborhoods, and we don't like big-box stores and giant surface parking lots. But not everybody appreciates those things to the same extent (or at all). There are ways to "retrofit" suburban areas to enable more multifamily housing and a wider range of uses, and in a lot of places, the real estate market reflects the desire on the part of a lot of people to increase walkability in their neighborhoods.

These places will never be FMCs, nor, as Greg Steiner points out above, will nice small/college towns. But they share a lot of their characteristics. So, as Rory says, do neighborhoods. In the spirit of popularism, I think we (planners and people who are interested in planning) should keep the focus as broad and inclusive as possible.

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I think you are overlooking the possibility of small towns or, better yet, networks of small towns. I live in Bentonville, Arkansas (population 54k). It's part of a region called "Northwest Arkansas" that includes nearby cities of Rogers, Springdale, and Fatetteville. Not long ago, they truly were "small towns" but were connected by a two-lane highway and were lucky enough to have a state university and a few really big corporations. Now, there is an interstate, a nice airport, and each of the town squares of these cities are now walkable hubs of social activity and commerce. There are Farmer's Markets, food trucks, museums, outdoor concerts, and lots of festivals. NIMBY problems are starting to emerge as land within the city limits is becoming scarce, and rising home prices are a problem. But, there are other small towns in the region that can be added to the network.

My point is there are lots of other places in the country with similar possibilities for regional growth. Many are around college towns. I was born in Mankato, Minnesota, and it is booming. Texas has Waco and Bryan/College Station. I drove from Houston to DC last summer and went through several areas that seem to be doing this already (Tuscaloosa/Birmingham, Chattanooga, Blacksburg/Roanoke). There are lots of them and they are good spots for corporate relocations and startups. It would be a lot easier to leverage existing infrastructure and build up these regions of walkable small towns effectively into networks rather than trying to continually retrofit and gentrify large metropolitan areas at incredible cost. If there were more of them, then the people who live here wouldn't be so worried that their secret would get out.

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founding

I hate to break it to you but there is no walkable small town in the Bryan/College Station area. I live by downtown Bryan, and I can in fact walk to a coffee shop and a couple bars and restaurants, but not much else. If you live on the north edge of campus, you can walk to the undergrad bars and to the businesses and restaurants in the new Century Square parking complex. But anywhere else in town you can only really walk to your local big box power center. We do need to start actually creating little regions where there’s lots of things that you can walk to.

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That's a damn shame, a metro that houses Texas A&M could really use more improvement in that regard.

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Is Century Square a “parking” complex or a “shopping “ complex? Or have the two become synonymous in Texas?

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founding

Well, it's a bunch of parking spaces with shops between them. Some people call that a shopping complex, and it's definitely a lot nicer than your usual big box center or strip mall, but it's still mostly parking.

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When I read Matt's sentence of the practicality of locating a major multinational corporation in a small town, my immediate thought was "Bentonville". Thanks for this for more info.

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15mC frames the value of dispersed, mixed-use development in an extremely tangible way. In the US people often have no experience of this, because separated-use zoning makes it illegal to open amenities close to where people live, so going to an ordinary codfeeshop and grocery store is a 20-minute drive, errands take hours i the car, you need a giant car for these errand runs, and nobody sees any downsides to this because it’s perfectly normal. You really should try living in a place where there aren’t basic amenities within a 15-minute walk or bike ride! That a large city has unique amenities that are 25 minutes away isn’t an argument against the idea that it’s valuable for people to have basic amenities near to home! Noting that you have several movie theaters within 15 minutes but the cool one is 16 minutes away is not a refutation of the 15mC, but a validation of it!

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