Why Buses Are Inferior

(cross-posted from cnu.org)

Critics of rail often argue that buses are superior; they are cheaper, more flexible and (sometimes) run almost as fast.  But in a recent blog post, Houston planning student Maggie Colson explains why trains are better than buses, even if the train isn’t much faster:

The train system was much easier to maneuver than the bus system. I found the bus system to be more complicated because you had to find the correct bus stop with the bus number labeled on it. In addition, you could easily end up going in the wrong direction – the buses did not have the directions labeled like the trains. On the bus you also had to know where you needed to get off. Unlike the train system, the bus did not stop at every stop and instead you had to push a button to request for the bus to stop. While this is not necessarily an issue once you know the route, trying to navigate for the first time was stressful. Without the use of my smartphone, I would not have found or gotten off at the correct bus stops.

In other words, with buses you really have to know what you are doing.

Libertarian-Friendly Drought Control

(cross-posted from planetizen.com)

In response to California’s drought, Gov. Jerry Brown recently issued an executive order proposing a wide variety of water restrictions. For example, paragraph 3 of the order provides that the state Department of Water Resources shall “lead a statewide initiative… to collectively replace 50 million square feet of lawns and ornamental turf with drought tolerant landscapes.” In particular, the state will fund “lawn replacement programs in underserved communities.” It is not clear from the order whether the state plans to mandate replacement of every square inch of lawn in California, or merely to fund local governments who wish to do so.

This initiative certainly seems to have reasonable goals. In fact, one-third of all residential water use involves landscape irrigation of some sort, and it seems to me that lawn-watering is a wasteful use of water compared to agriculture or bathing or drinking. But cities and states can reduce lawn-watering through means less expensive and coercive than policing individual consumption or even spending taxpayer money on lawn reform.

Some local zoning codes require homeowners to have lawns or even to water them. A drought-sensitive local government would of course eliminate such restrictions—but since not every local government is equally enlightened, California could both reduce water use and expand homeowners’ rights by amending its zoning enabling legislation to prohibit local governments from enacting such restrictions. Statewide legislation would eliminate the primary excuse for lawn-watering regulations: that green lawns maintain property values. If state laws make green lawns scarce, homeowners are less likely to view green lawns as necessary for neighborhood desirability.

But even local governments without such restrictions encourage lawn creation (and thus, lawn-watering) by providing that homes and businesses be set back one or two dozen feet from streets and sidewalks. If you can’t build a house next to the sidewalk, you must put something else next to it—and that something is usually either an unsightly parking lot or a lawn.

So government could reduce the number of lawns and expand landowner rights simply by eliminating such “setback” rules and allowing landowners to build next to the street. Building that front the street have no space for lawns, and thus are likely to use less water.

In addition to reducing water consumption by reducing the number of lawns, such “zero lot line” construction would make commercial areas more pedestrian-friendly: setbacks force pedestrians to waste time walking across lawns and parking lots, thus making pedestrian commutes slightly longer and more inconvenient. In addition, setbacks reduce the amount of commerce and housing that can be built on a given plot of land, thus artificially reducing the number of jobs and residences on such land. Fewer jobs and residents per parcel mean less walkability: for example, if a office building is near a train stop, fewer tenants per office building means fewer employees who can walk to the train.*

Most commentary on California’s drought has focused on state control of water use—but in fact, some regulatory reforms can both reduce water use and reduce government intrusiveness.

*I note in passing that I addressed the non-water-related harms caused by setback requirements, as well as government justifications for such rules, in this post.

Cars Are Expensive (And Other Things The Census Taught Me)

(cross-posted from planetizen.com)

I just learned that national tables from the 2013 American Household Survey (AHS) are public. These tables contained a variety of information that I thought was at least mildly interesting. To name a few items:

*Cars are really expensive—even when gas is cheap. The average household spent $800 per month on car-related costs. (Table S-04C). Only $200 of this sum was on gasoline—which means that even if gas was free, cars would still cost $600 per month. About half of household spending was for car payments, 15 percent was for insurance, and the rest was split between parking and maintenance.

*Single family housing dominates the landscape. 64 percent of all occupied housing units (and 62 percent of units built over the last several years) are detached single-family houses (Table C-01). This is especially true for owner-occupied units: even in central cities, 79 percent of owner-occupied units are detached houses (Table C-01-00).

*Most single-family housing is not dense enough to support public transit. The average owner occupied housing unit takes up 0.3 acres, as does the average housing unit built in the last several years. Thus, most blocks probably contain about three or four units per acre; basic bus service requires at least seven unitsper acre to be economically viable. (Table C-02).

*Despite public controversy over high-rises, they are far more rare than low-rise apartment buildings. Only 3 percent of housing units (including only 6 percent of central-city rental housing units) are within half a block of a multifamily building with over seven stories; by contrast, 18 percent are within half a block of a multifamily building with one to three stories. (Table S-03, Table C-01-RO). Even among multistory structures in central cities, only 22 percent of buildings even have elevators (Table C-01).

*Commuting statistics underestimate public transit use. About 17 percent of occupied housing units used public transit to some extent (Table S-04-A), but only a quarter of that group always used transit to get to work or school. The rest used transit for other uses or less frequently. Transit use is especially high among central city renters—41 percent of their households included a transit user (Table S-04-A-RO), as did 1/3 of all poverty-level renters regardless of their location. New construction continues to be more auto-oriented than other housing; in units built over the last four years only 10 percent used transit. Although transit advocates often focus on the concerns of seniors, seniors were actually less likely than the general public to use transit: only 12 percent of households headed by someone over 65 used transit.

*Americans will put up with more hassle to use faster modes of public transit. 80 percent of bus riders walked to a bus stop, and 93 percent lived within a mile of transit. By contrast, only 41 percent of subway/light rail riders lived within a mile of their stop, and only 44 percent walked to a rail stop. (26 percent drove, and the rest took a bus to the train or biked. (Table S-04-B))

*Many Americans have inadequate pedestrian access to nearby blocks. Only 55 percent of American housing units have sidewalks, including only 49 percent of over-65 householders. However, new construction is actually more likely to have sidewalks—about 60 percent of units built in the last four years have them (Table S-04-C). Only 43 percent of southerners have them, as opposed to 69 percent of westerners (the North and Midwest hover around 60 percent). Bike lanes are still pretty rare; only about 14 percent of units have them.


What Density-Phobia Gets Wrong

(cross-posted from Planetizen.com)

Some prosperous American cities have a housing supply problem: they have made zoning more and more restrictive over time, thus causing limited housing supply, thus causing escalating housing prices. And because some people fleeing high housing prices move to automobile-dependent suburbs or smaller cities, restrictive urban zoning means more suburbanites with more cars, creating more pollution everywhere.

So one might think that the logical solution is to build more housing in urban areas, especially in the costliest markets. Yet in a recent article, the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Inga Saffron wrote: “density has to be relative to what already exists … so neighborhoods can step up density gradually.” In other words, don’t build too much stuff because…why? Most of her article seems devoted to the evils of tall buildings.

As far as I can tell, there are three myths underlying Saffron’s article.

Myth 1: “Beware! The high-rises are coming!” Saffron writes that some unnamed “hard-line” density proponents “assume there is only one way to achieve real density. They use density as a rallying cry to justify the construction of more and bigger high-rises, in both America’s thriving cities and its hollowed-out ones.”

This claim is a straw man; I don’t know of anyone who thinks that the “only” way to create more density is high-rises. Even in dense places such as Manhattan or San Francisco, huge increases in density could occur without skyscrapers. For example, San Francisco has many one- and two-story buildings. If most of those buildings were replaced by four-story buildings, San Francisco could be two or three times as dense, and yet still have no high-rises.

If Saffron was really opposed only to tall buildings, she might argue that cities should seek dramatic increases in density and population by allowing more mid-sized buildings. But her suggestion that only “gradual” increases in density are appropriate implies that she would not like this idea either—so I actually don’t understand what Saffron is trying to say. If she was just against high-rises, she’d be for large increases in density that didn’t involve high-rises. But if she is against all significant increases in density, then why is she devoting so much space to attacking high-rises?

Myth 2: “If high-rises don’t solve everything, they don’t solve anything.” Saffron correctly points out that South Florida has plenty of high-rises but is not particularly walkable. But all this shows is that high-rises alone do not create walkability.

To be walkable, a neighborhood must have the “3 Ds”: density, diversity (of land uses) and design (for pedestrians). There are parts of South Florida (most notably Miami Beach’s South Beach) where all these elements exist together.

But most of South Florida has at most one of these elements. In many areas, high-rises are only common within a few blocks of the water—so even dense high-rise blocks are islands of density in a low-density sea. Moreover, these high-rises are often separated by huge patches of parking or greenspace, thus reducing density. For example, go to Google Street View and look at 1340 A1A in Pompano Beach; you see will a few high and mid-rise buildings, but the blank spaces between the high-rises are one reason why the town only has 5080 people per square mile, far below the level generally necessary for good public transit service.

Moreover, Pompano Beach lacks diversity of land uses. The Walkscore of 1340 A1A is 28, indicating that there is almost nothing within walking distance of the high-rises.

Finally, a walkable area must be designed for pedestrians; streets must be narrow, and shops must be in front of the sidewalk rather than being set back behind a football field of parking. Much of South Florida, however, is dominated by multilane, high-speed stroads.

By contrast, a high-rise in a dense area designed around the pedestrian is likely to be pretty walkable. The buildings of Manhattan’s Upper West Side are taller than those of Pompano Beach, yet more people get by without cars than in Pompano Beach. Why? Because the overall density of the neighborhood is much higher. Non-high-rise spaces are used for low-rise buildings rather than for parking. The Upper West Side is also designed for pedestrians as well; buildings are behind sidewalks rather than parking lots, and I suspect that on average streets are narrower than in Florida, although some are still too wide to be truly safe for pedestrians.  Thus, the unwalkability of South Florida is not an argument against high-rises in San Francisco or New York.

In sum, high-rises are not sufficient for walkability. But that doesn’t mean that they are incompatible with walkability. All else being equal, high-rises should add to walkability by adding density—but even if this is the case, building height is only one of several important factors.

Myth #3: “Cities don’t have the infrastructure for more people.” Saffron writes that Hudson Yards (a new development in Midtown) is a failure* because “Midtown’s subway platforms and sidewalks are already oppressively crowded at rush hour.” This argument, even if persuasive, is completely irrelevant to height: new residents might mean more crowded subways whether they live in rowhouses or whether they live in high-rises. So I’m not sure I understand Saffron: is she really just against height, or is she against density?

Let us assume for the sake of argument that Saffron is really against new urban residents, because new people mean more crowded subways and sidewalks. But this argument is essentially a “beggar thy neighbor” argument: if people are excluded from cities because of fears about traffic (pedestrian or otherwise), they will go somewhere else and create traffic. If they move to suburbs, they will buy cars and use those cars to create traffic jams in the suburbs—and in the cities too if they drive to urban jobs.  And when they drive, they will create lots more pollution than if they were crowding the subways and sidewalks. Moreover, if the suburbs they move to are undeveloped, they will require costly, new infrastructure to service them, possibly imposing even higher costs on the public than new city residents.

*I note in passing that since Hudson Yards is so far west that it is (a) not very close to subways and (b) in the least crowded part of midtown Manhattan west of Ninth Avenue, Saffron’s claim, even if true, doesn’t really seem relevant to Hudson Yards.


Can Short Pump Be Salvaged?

Short Pump. Photo credit: Henrico Monthly

Short Pump. Photo credit: Henrico Monthly

by James A. Bacon

The Short Pump area of Henrico County, the largest retail concentration in Central Virginia, is a fascinating test case for the proposition that it’s possible for state and local governments to build their way out of traffic gridlock. My verdict: Henrico has managed to beat the odds so far, but future prospects look bleak.

I focused on the transportation challenges of Short Pump in a cover story published this month in Henrico Monthly. A rural crossroads thirty years ago, Short Pump in Western Henrico County has exploded with development. Ranked by traffic counts, the stretch of West Broad between Interstate 64 and Pouncey Tract is the second busiest non-Interstate road in the entire Richmond region. Given the profusion of stop lights, it may be the most congested. With the Short Pump Town Center and other top-of-the-line retail, Short Pump is a location that Richmonders love to hate. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Henrico County planners and elected officials are acutely aware of the horrendous traffic conditions, and they have responded as suburban governments always have — by laying more asphalt. More than $150 million in state and local dollars have or will be spent between 2011 and 2017 to improve mobility in and around the area. For a while at least, the road projects seemed to be doing the job. After peaking at 69,000 vehicles per day in 2006, traffic counts along West Broad declined to 50,000 vpd by 2012. How much was due to the 2007 recession and how much due to Henrico’s road construction program isn’t clear. But there are indications the decline was only temporary. In 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available, the county spiked back up to 69,000. Continue reading

Measuring the Impact of Complete Streets


“Complete Street” projects that make streets more hospitable to pedestrians, bicycles and mass transit have a multitude of benefits, concludes Smart Growth America in a new report, “Safer Streets, Stronger Economies.” In a study of 37 projects, the authors found that complete streets tend to result in higher property values, fewer traffic accidents and injuries and more walking, biking and transit usage.

Previous studies of complete streets tended to focus on the health benefits associated with encouraging people to walk and bike more. People who live in walkable neighborhoods get 35 to 45 more minutes of moderate physical exercise each week, reducing their incidents of obesity. Youths who walk or bike to school tend to focus more and perform better in classrooms. The Smart Growth America report focused more on the economics of Complete Streets. Among the findings:

  • Fewer collisions. About 70% of projects studied experienced a reduction in collisions, and more than half a reduction in injuries. That translated into $18.1 million in lower collision costs in a single year for the 37 cases studied. “If a Complete Streets approach was used strategically … the savings over time could run into the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.”
  • More walking, less driving. Among projects that tracked pedestrian and biking activity, 12 of 13 projects showed an increase in walking and 22 04 23 showed an increase in cycling. Among those that tracked driving, 19 of 33 projects had fewer cars than before, 13 had more, and one did not change.
  • Positive impact on local economy. Although results were mixed, the redesigned streets tended to report an increase in the number of businesses and the number of people employed. Of the ten projects that reported before-and-after data for property values, eight reported an increase in property values while two reported no change. In two-thirds of the studies for which comparable data was available, property values outpaced that of the city as a whole. In one project, Dubuque, Iowa, property values increased 111%.
  • Lower construction costs. The construction cost of upgrading streets to “Complete Streets” costs less per mile than average arterial cost per lane mile.

Continue reading

Uh, Oh, Maybe We Haven’t Reached “Peak Car”


Click for more legible image.

by James A. Bacon

Proponents of Smart Growth, of whom I am one, have been arguing for several years that Americans embarked upon a fundamental shift in driving habits beginning in the mid-2000s. So marked was the decline in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) that a certain triumphalism set in — the drop in driving signaled a shift back to mass transit and walkable urbanism. To be sure, some of the downturn could be attributed to the slow economy, but profound changes in values — a rejection of auto-centric development — was taking root. Some commentators went so far as to proclaim that America had reached “peak car,” and predicted that VMT per capita would continue to decline.

Well, the Federal Highway Administration has reported the latest numbers for 2014, and that triumphalism doesn’t seem quite as justified as it did a couple of years ago. Cumulative travel (measured by the moving 12-month average of Vehicle Miles Driven) increased 1.7% last year, bringing the total travel to a point just shy of the record in 2007. Even more worrisome, drivers were really on a tear at the end of the year. Traffic volume in December increased by 5% compared to the same month the year before.

I haven’t seen how other Smart Growthers have spun this data, and they may have interpretations that confirm their conviction that a big re-set is occurring in human settlement patterns. But I regard the data as grounds for re-examining some of my long-held beliefs — not to change them necessarily, but to go back and take a fresh look and see if they still hold up. Continue reading