Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Trevor Owens.

What the 15 Minute City Gets Wrong

Creating walkable communities need not be a contest between conflicting interests. Here’s how everyone gets what they want.

This story originally appeared in Randy by Name, our new Substack.

Recipe for an American Renaissance: Eat in diners. Ride trains. Shop on Main Street. Put a porch on your house. Live in a walkable community.

Those of us who keep abreast of the sustainable development movement, as I have since about 1991, have lately heard of a new buzz phrase: the 15 minute city. The concept embraces many of ingredients in our Recipe, namely the walkable community, the shopping on Main Street, and the ride trains part. I knew this without even reading about it, and this video I watched confirmed my assumptions. 

What is the 15 minute city? Depending on which video you watch, it’s either a common sense plan to improve the environment, our health, and our happiness, or it’s a dystopian scheme designed by elites to corral us all into designated districts to keep closer tabs on our every movement. In my experience, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and as proposed, it promises to make no one happy.

Some parts of this make perfect sense: Live and work closer to what we need. Design and build for people and not cars. Keep your car, but don’t rely upon it so much. Personally, I love to drive, and I never saw a conflict between car ownership and walkable neighborhoods, but I must stress that the Recipe urges people to make the choice to live in such a community. It was never a blueprint for policy.

Both sides tend to ignore the origins of urban decline and the sprawl encircling it. Urbanists will blame auto companies. They blame the railroads for mismanagement and greed. And they blame developers for swallowing up pastoral landscapes to build homes that drain our cities of productive residents.

Suburbanites point the finger at poor civic management for the decay, crime and poor school performance. Meanwhile they defend their desire for more space and highways without acknowledging the tax benefits of home ownership and the hidden costs of building and maintaining so much low-density infrastructure.

Neither side seems to acknowledge how both their political traditions played in creating a national transportation policy in response to the demand for more and better roads. 

From City Beautiful to Urban Renewal

The twentieth century began with the “City Beautiful” movement, a concerted effort to bring more grandeur to cities previously defined more by industrial expedience than artful planning. Philadelphia, for instance, built its Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a veritable Champs Elysées connecting its Beaux Arts City Hall with a brand new classically inspired Museum of Fine Arts. Railroads constructed palatial passenger stations by the scores that proudly asserted the 20th century as the American century. 

Then comes the Depression, another World War, and in between, a World’s Fair that sold the American public on a bright future of free highways. People could soar, if not in the sky, then smoothly along impediment-free roads in their new automobiles. 

Up until this period, private companies provided most of our mass transportation and charged for access which reflected the actual costs of the service, and that mechanism guided the design of our cities and towns. In most of the western world, the important stuff stood at the center, like city hall, the general store, the post office, and the depot. Business and housing radiated out from those things. Further development was incremental but adhered to the pattern.

The advent of the automobile disrupted this tradition — not because of market forces — but because tax-funded highways removed the profit motive from passenger transportation. While this helped to create the most mobile society in history, it decimated a passenger rail system that was the envy of the world. It also created a nasty pollution problem.

By the 1920s, our rail network stretched across nearly 280,000 miles of track, most carrying passengers and going everywhere of consequence. Fifty years later, the passenger rail business nearly disappeared, and today we have less than half the total rail network. This was a political decision.

Pride of Place

Thomas Sowell wrote that “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” If true, then how does each side accept the inevitable trade-offs without creating resentment? We want people to take pride in their homes, but when someone imposes rules that conflict with their values, it threatens their happiness and makes that pride elusive.

I still consider myself an urbanist, but not one that sees the need for top-down solutions. Under this video on this topic, a commenter succinctly summarized that the 15 minute city requires “…bureaucracy to deal with the foreseeable unintended consequences of past central planning. Free market urban development tends to produce very efficient land use patterns without government planners, however this has been severely constrained by ‘good intentions’ for at least a century.” 

The pro-15 video I watched acknowledges but glosses over claims of opponents who predict less freedom of movement for those living within these cities. Will the 15 minute city assign fine-enforced quotas for automobile usage, especially if one still drives a gasoline fueled car? Inquiring minds want to know.  

I live now in a sort of 15-minute borough, so I say with some experience that having neighbors who do not value the features of urban living diminishes the experience for all residents. I don’t want to live next to someone who hates where they live. As a woodworker, I can assure you that when I turn on my surface planer, you’ll wish I lived an hour away.

And once my family and I move out to a more rural area, I simply ask that proselytizing but well-meaning urbanists don’t follow us. I want us all to have the opportunity to live in a place that makes us happy at a cost we can afford. 

If you’d like to read about the origin story of our country’s transportation policy, I strongly recommend the book Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century by Stephen Goddard.

For more information about the 15 Minute City, watch these videos and decide for yourself. Then come back here and comment!



PHotos shows damage to a sidewalk apron in Jenkintown.

Walking the walk: government reporter explores the reasons for Fort Worth’s crumbling sidewalks

This article is republished by permission. 

During the holiday season, Fort Worth Report journalists are remembering their favorite stories of 2022. Click here to read more essays.

Fort Worth residents have been responsible for shouldering the full cost of sidewalk repairs in front of their homes and businesses, or face misdemeanor citations, for more than 60 years. Now, the city is considering a 50-50 cost share program with a particular emphasis on low-income homes, seniors and disabled residents.

I first learned about the plight of Cowtown’s cracked sidewalks when I moved into a home in 76104 and started taking daily walks. In some parts of my neighborhood, the path was smooth and fresh; in others, the concrete had cracked and disintegrated so much I hardly recognized it as a sidewalk.

Sidewalks in front of rentals, in particular, were often littered with large fractures and divots, the rentals’ owners far away from the realities of the area. A renter myself, I couldn’t help but notice the sidewalk beside my home didn’t look as polished as my home-owning neighbors.

So I hit the stacks like any good government reporter would. What I found surprised me: Fort Worth has required private homeowners to maintain sidewalks since the 1960s, but stopped enforcing the penalties included in that ordinance several decades ago. What’s resulted is a patchwork of sidewalks in various states of disrepair across the city, with little recourse for owners with lower incomes or disabilities.

I spoke to a disabled activist about the problem in June, who told me it shocked her how much worse Fort Worth’s sidewalks were compared to where she went to college in Austin. Our conversation prompted me to research what other Texas cities do and present their policies in a June article on the subject.

It came as a pleasant surprise when, four months after publication, city staff presented a proposal to city council to establish a cost-sharing program similar to Dallas. Under the proposal, the city would use a portion of the fiscal year 2023 PayGo funding, totaling $2.6 million, to develop the program.

The best part of being a local journalist is seeing the impact your reporting has in your own community. I can imagine a future where, 10 years from now, my walks through my neighborhood will be on new, secure concrete, without a crack in sight. Until then, I’ll keep walking on these uneven paths and reporting on the issues that matter most to the city I love.

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at [email protected] or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Jenkintown Police

Did Jenkintown Council rightly target police budget for cuts?

Blaming budget woes on COVID, Council spotlights the size of the borough’s police force

Last year, the Borough and the Jenkintown Police Benevolent Association agreed to a new four-year contract that determines compensation and benefits for our police force. This agreement was the subject of much discussion and not a little controversy that involved the fate of Jenkintown’s K-9 unit. 

Most residents wouldn’t otherwise read this contract nor did they hear much about its details, because Council rarely shares information that doesn’t advance its happy-talking agenda. We found this document attached to the lawsuit filed against the borough that we reported on yesterday.

I’m happy to let others debate the need for a K-9 unit in a town of 4400. I’ve lived in Jenkintown for 18 years, and outside of a Borough Council ceremony, I don’t remember ever seeing the dog on patrol. (I’ve never seen a cop walk the beat either, but that’s another matter).

It pains me to agree with anything asserted by Borough Council, but in the newsletter they sent out two days ago, they made a valid argument for targeting the budget of Jenkintown’s unusually large police force for a town this size.

Unfortunately, the Borough’s chart doesn’t break out the part-timers in the mix. Jenkintown’s entire force employs 13 full-time officers and a police chief, which according to the contract, either draw or will soon draw six-figure salaries — or more than $1.4 million — plus benefits and expected overtime.

A new hire starts at about $75,000 per year, but after two years, they receive a 30% raise then about 4% per year after that. Police in Abington and Upper Dublin receive similar compensation. In fact, a cop serving in Upper Dublin for five years or more receives more than $182,000 per year in total compensation not including overtime. Jenkintown is right on their heels. State-wide, the median police salary is $57,500.

I acknowledge the challenges and dangers of police work, but this is Jenkintown, not Fort Apache, The Bronx. According to the Attorney General, crime for the county is trending down, not up.

Reasonable people can and should question whether a community of 4400 really needs 14 full-time police officers. For instance, Hatboro also has a 14-person force, but it serves a population of 10,000. Springfield Township has 20,000 people protected by a police force of 30, but some of those are likely part-timers. Their budget documents don’t say. 

Download the Agreement here.

Jenkintown Borough Hall

Jenkintown cops file civil rights lawsuit against borough

Suit claims that officers faced hostile work environment after discovering mismanagement and financial irregularities in K-9 unit non-profit

While Jenkintown residents digest its Christmas dinner leftovers along with the Borough’s recently released newsletter detailing its financial distress, another civil rights suit filed by against the Borough in Federal court last November makes its way through the system.

The gist of the complaint centers around officers Christopher Kelly and Edward Titterton attempts to report and remediate the mismanagement of the non-profit set up to support Jenkintown’s K-9 unit. The suit alleges the officers suffered backlash from their superiors as a result.

The 41-page complaint itself cites, among many things, that the non-profit set up to support the K-9 unit was suspended for failure to file tax returns and that its funds were siphoned off for other purposes. Titterton and Kelly alleged that as a result of their actions to expose and correct matters, their superiors created a hostile work environment for them.

The suit also alleges that:

  • Police Lieutenant Richard Tucker “took vacation each year from November to January, which he achieved by converting the training hours to compensatory time in violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.”
  • Tucker spread rumors that Titterton was having “sexual relations with Shelby Smith”, undermining Titterton’s stance within the department
  • Titterton and Kelly found themselves excluded from overtime hours
  • Titterton and Kelly were not informed of Police Benevolent Association meetings as required by bylaws or of special Borough Council meetings that discussed their collective bargaining agreement
  • the department expressed little concern for potential exposure to COVID and that it failed to provide sufficient PPE.
  • Titterton was taken to task for getting mud on his police car.

Titterton and Kelly seek damages related to violations of their civil rights, emotional distress, civil conspiracy, and defamation of character.

Read all the allegations for yourself by downloading the complaint here.

Gretchen Wisehart

Gretchen Wisehart is the best we can do

As mentioned in our last post, I believe that the concept of strategic voting is a fools errand. I’ve always believed that people should vote according to their own conscience and always in their own best interest. Voting against a candidate rarely works. Statistically speaking, one vote counts for little in state elections and practically nothing in presidential elections. 

However, we have a primary looming for our 154th district that includes three candidates from Jenkintown, and this town does itself no favors at all sending them to Harrisburg. 

The Democratic candidate online forum from the last week showed us why. Jay Conners who seems to be running on his wife’s nursing scrub-tails dribbled stances that he must have pondered for all of a half-minute.

Jennifer Lugar, though poised and measured in her responses, lacked any palpable confidence of her convictions. She’ll get less done than McCarter, if that’s at all possible. 

And Adrienne Redd? Wow! I said in my last post that Ms. Redd does not play well with others, and right on cue, she shoves her foot deep down her throat with remarks about “assault weapons” that brought State Senator Art Haywood out of the woodwork to denounce her.

If you drive past my house, you will see a Gretchen Wisehart yard sign. I will be voting for her but with wincing reservations. 

Watching the forum, it was plainly evident that Ms. Wisehart is the most professionally qualified for the seat. She’s got the chops, she looks good, and she appears approachable. 

Sadly, on the issues, I disagree with her on almost all of her tired Democratic boilerplate proposals related to spending and taxes.

School funding? Ms. Wisehart would spend more and restrict the spread of charter schools. Forgive me if I don’t quite understand the government monopoly on education. If you received a voucher for $24,000 (Jenkintown’s current cost-per-pupil) to send your kid to any school you wanted, would you send them to Jenkintown if you had a choice? Or would you shop around first? 

Infrastructure and mass transit? Ms. Wisehart would “make investments in climate-resilient infrastructure and mass transit that improve our connectivity and environment.” Our infrastructure problem is yet another created by long-standing government policy. Government aggravated and then cited the problem, blamed others, then promised fixes — with more money. Never mind that Pennsylvania already suffers under the highest gas taxes in the country and a Turnpike teetering on bankruptcy. Government subsidy of suburban development created our car-dependency, which is already breaking the back of taxpayers. Throwing more money at it only makes matters worse. 

Horse racing? I hardly thought this would pop up on my radar, but Ms. Wisehart defended a state subsidy for horse racing of $242 million. Read that again. Yes, taxpayers prop up a business where only fools, state governments, and our current president lose money. Ms. Wisehart justified the subsidy saying that it helps to spur development and provide jobs, but it also ignores the opportunity costs of using that $242 million for services that benefit everyone, or better yet, return it to the taxpayers. It also aggravates gambling addiction and exacerbates homelessness. The subsidy siphons away $242 million from property tax relief in a state where tax foreclosures claim 10,000 homes every month. 

Guns? She would pass “common-sense legislation to keep guns off our streets.” I’m not sure what that means since most of the gun violence on “our streets” involves illegal guns. With school shootings, while unspeakably tragic, the stats have long shown a decline despite the media hysteria. I would suggest better enforcement of the laws already on the books before passing still more laws that criminals will continue to ignore. 

Finally, Ms. Wisehart promised greater transparency, but she echoes similar promises made by Barak Obama, who led an administration less transparent than the the one that preceded his. This remains to be seen, so to speak. 

So why vote for her? Simply because of the six running, and because the Republican challengers have no chance in hell, she’s still the best of the lot, and she’s clearly more capable than the bush league faction from Jenkintown. Such is the sorry state — and commonwealth — in which we now live.