Is Lafayette the ’Strongest Town’ around?

by Christiaan Mader

Lafayette's up against 15 cities in a competition to find the town working hardest at reigning in suburban sprawl, hosted by urbanist blog Strong Towns.

Banner courtesy of Strong Towns

Nationally recognized city planning guru Chuck Marohn, doomsday prophet of Lafayette's unmanageable sprawl, has pitted the Hub City against Killeen, TX in the first round of his blog's annual "Strongest Towns" tournament. The contest compares 16 towns from across the globe in a search for the "Strongest Town" around, by measure of Marohn's brand of urbanism. That means identifying a town that's sobered up from suburbanizing and taken steps to reign in financially unsustainable growth.

Not two months since Marohn held Lafayette out as the poster child for infrastructure costs run amok, we're in a head-to-head with a Texas town of comparable size and issues. How do we stack up? Take a look here. The full tournament bracket is here.

Filled out by Carlee Alm-Labar, LCG's director of planning, zoning and public optimism, Lafayette's entry is nevertheless stunningly honest. Take the following portion of the competition's questionnaire —

Describe your town's transportation system and what transportation options are available for residents.

Our transportation system is very similar to that of a southern, suburban city. We are auto-dominant and dependent with a transit system and some bicycle and pedestrian activity. Our local University (a major employer and population center) has a bikeshare system. The community has room for growth in diversifying our transportation options.

That's an understatement for a city that reports negligible ridership for its transit system. Low ridership means the local travel demand model, used to plan and prioritize infrastructure spending, doesn't account for bus riders when crunching numbers to plan for infrastructure. With little measurable ridership, transportation planners can't justify spending money to improve the bus system. So long as people choose cars, transportation dollars apportioned by that model will go to building more roads.

Compare Alm-Labar's response with Killeen's answer to same question —

Describe your town's transportation system and what transportation options are available for residents.

Auto, bike lanes, hike and bike trails, public transit (HOP).

Hardly a haymaker, but punchy enough on paper.

To be fair, Killeen could be fibbing in hopes of securing the top prize — a free presentation by Marohn! And, in any case, the Killeen response doesn't really give a sense of how many bike lanes, trails and auto[sic] the city has.

Despite the foregoing, we feel good about our chances in this first round match-up with Killeen. Marohn says the contest rewards effort, not necessarily results. And at face value, Lafayette's offering in the contest shows a growing awareness of a problem that's spurred the City-Parish council to take a hard look at parish finances.

Admitting there's a problem is the first step on the road to recovery, and by Marohn's account, the first step to becoming a strong town.

Should we lose, we can take comfort in having already paid for the pleasure of hosting Marohn, and fellow urbanist notable Joe Minicozzi, back in 2015 as private consultants contracted by LCG.

Their message last time? Stop building so many damn roads.

How are we doing on that count? Ask the Verot School Road expansion, the Lafayette Connector, and the region's long range transportation plan. Not all city projects, but they do give a sense of the area's addictions when it comes to transportation infrastructure.