Today the Sedgwick County Commission considers whether to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant.
One reason we ought to reject this grant and the planning process it funds is the attitude of planners. A recent example comes from the planning process for downtown Wichita, which is characteristic of government planning processes and planners.
Consider the attitudes of Goody Clancy, the Boston planning firm the city hired to lead us through the process. At a presentation, some speakers from Goody Clancy revealed condescending attitudes towards the lifestyles that many in Sedgwick County have chosen. One presenter said “Outside of Manhattan and Chicago, the traditional family household generally looks for a single family detached house with yard, where they think their kids might play, and they never do.” In other words, this planner knows the desires of people better than they do themselves.
David Dixon, who leads Goody Clancy’s Planning and Urban Design division and was the principal for this project, revealed his elitist world view when he told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is only found at the core.
This idea that only downtown people are socially and culturally rich is an elitist attitude that we ought to reject. Considering the members of the Sedgwick County Commission, I don’t see anyone who lives in the core area. Do the commissioners accept Dixon’s criticism?
These attitudes reflect those of most of the planning profession — that people can’t be relied on to choose what’s best for them. Instead they believe that only they — like the planners at Goody Clancy — are equipped to make choices for people. It’s an elitism that Sedgwick County ought to reject.
The irony is that when we start to look at what exactly planners like Goody Clancy are selling us, we find that we ought to reject it.
In January, Dixon used Walk Score in a presentation delivered in Wichita. Walk Score is purported to represent a measure of walkability of a location in a city. Walkability is a key design element of the master plan Goody Clancy has developed for downtown Wichita.
Walk Score is not a project of Goody Clancy, as far as I know, and Dixon is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of the Walk Score website. But he presented it and relied on it as an example of the data-driven approach that Goody Clancy — and by extension, planners in general — takes.
The score for 525 E. Douglas, the block the Eaton Hotel is in and mentioned by Dixon as a walkable area, scored 91, which means it is a “walker’s paradise,” according to the Walk Score website.
But here’s where we can start to see just how bad the data used to develop these scores is. For a grocery store — an important component of walkability — the website indicates indicates a grocery store just 0.19 miles away. It’s “Pepsi Bottling Group,” located on Broadway between Douglas and First Streets. Those familiar with the area know there is no grocery store there, only office buildings. The claim of a grocery store here is false.
There were other claimed amenities where the data is just as bad. But the chairman of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation told me that Walk Score has been updated. I should no longer be concerned with the credibility of this data, he told me through a comment left on this website.
He’s correct. Walk Score has been updated. Now for the same location the walk score is 85%, which is considered “very walkable.” The “grocery store” is no longer the Pepsi Bottling Group. It’s now “Market Place,” whose address is given as 155 N. Market St # 220.
If someone would ever happen to stroll by that location, he’d find that address, 155 N. Market number 220, is the management office for an office building whose name is Market Place.
Still no grocery store. Not even close.
Again, David Dixon and Goody Clancy did not create the Walk Score data. But they presented it to Wichitans as an example of the data-driven, market-oriented approach to planning that they use. Dixon cited Walk Score data as the basis for higher real estate values based on the walkability of the area and its surrounding amenities.
But anyone who relies on the evidence Dixon and Goody Clancy presented would surely get burnt unless they investigated the area on their own.
And since this January reliance on Walk Score was made after Goody Clancy had spent considerable time in Wichita, the fact that someone there could not immediately recognize how utterly bogus the data is — that should give us cause for concern that the entire planning process is based on similar shoddy data and analysis.
Anti personal automobile, anti-mobility
Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole, author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, writes the following regarding the tremendous boost the personal automobile has given Americans: “Since the dawn of the Republic, no invention has enhanced the quality of life of the average American as much as the mass-produced automobile. Americans today are far more mobile, they earn much higher incomes, and they have access to far more consumer goods than a hundred years ago. It is no exaggeration to attribute most of these improvements to the wide availability of automobiles.”
This is important to know because the planning process the county is considering is definitely anti-automobile.
One of the goals for the plan is: “Regional Transportation Plan: Develop multi-modal transportation options/programs for the region and connects housing options to emerging employment clusters.” This sounds like a good and noble idea. But in practice, government transit systems fail to produce what riders truly need, and are very expensive. The last time I checked, only 22.5 percent of the costs of running the Wichita transit system is paid for by riders through the fare box. Taxpayers — most of whom don’t ride the buses — pay the rest.
But owning an automobile gives people mobility, and that is very important for workers. Some examples:
“Studies show that car ownership is a significant factor in improving the employment status of welfare recipients.” (Job Access, Commute, and Travel Burden Among Welfare Recipients)
“Raphael and Rice (2002) found in their study that car ownership has a strong effect on the probability of an individual being employed as well as on the number of hours they work per week. Generally, car ownership better enables job seekers to look for jobs. They can consider work outside of regular transit service hours, and they can travel faster, more safely, and more flexibly than with public transportation.” (Transportation & Work: Exploring Car Usage and Employment Outcomes in the LSAL Data)
Also from this study: “Overall, car ownership does appear to have an important relationship to employment status, wages, and weeks worked.” And “Having a car as a primary mode of transportation makes a respondent four times as likely to be employed. Car ownership also improves earnings by several hundred dollars and increases weeks worked by up to eleven weeks.”
In the rankings of factors that are important to obtaining employment, a car was more useful than a high-school-equivalent diploma. We should be working to increase automobile ownership, especially among lower-income people. The planning process you are considering adopting today, with its emphasis on government transit rather than private automobiles, will decrease mobility and economic opportunity for everyone.
Finally, consider the Wichita transit system. It is in financial crisis at this time. There are proposals floating around city hall for a sales tax to pay for transit.