Measuring the Impact of Complete Streets

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“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.

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

moving_average

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

Community Policing and Human Settlement Patterns

Former Police Chief Rodney Monroe implemented community policing in Richmond is credited with bringing down the city's sky-high crime rate. Can his approach be replicated in suburban Henrico and Chesterfield?

Former Police Chief Rodney Monroe, who implemented community policing in Richmond, is widely credited with bringing down the city’s sky-high crime rate. Can his approach be replicated in suburban Henrico and Chesterfield?

by James A. Bacon

Community policing is key to the war on crime, agreed top law enforcement officials yesterday at a public forum hosted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Community policing gets police out of their cars so they can patrol neighborhoods on foot, interact with residents and build trust. “I do think the relationship piece … is the critical piece,” said Henrico County Police Chief Doug Middleton.

The reversion from police-by-patrol-car to community policing is credited with much of the downturn in crime in recent years, along with adoption of the “broken windows” theory of crime fighting, which advocates going after smaller crimes, and the use of statistical tools to predict areas where crimes are more likely to occur. In the city of New Haven, Conn., community policing has coincided with a 30% decline in serious crime since 2012, according to a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal today.

Community policing is back in the spotlight since a U.S. Justice Department probe into law enforcement practices in Ferguson, Missouri, where the police killing of a young black man triggered rampant protests. The suburban locality’s community-policing efforts “have dwindled to almost nothing in recent years,” the report said. Police had lost “the little familiarity it had with some African-American neighborhoods.” Continue reading

Bridj Comes to Washington

Bridj provides an interactive map of the Washington metro and invites visitors to plot the locations of their commutes. The data will help the company optimize its routes.

Bridj provides an interactive map of the Washington metro and invites visitors to plot the locations of their commutes. The data will help the company optimize its routes.

Last September, I posted about a Boston-area company, Bridj, that was reinventing the mass transit business by providing luxury bus rides to suburban commuters. For $6, Bostoners could get a comfortable, Wi-Fi-equipped ride from suburban locations to downtown Boston and Cambridge. Just as Uber was disrupting the taxicab industry, Bridj, I opined, would disrupt the bus transit industry.

Now Bridj is coming to the Washington region, the company has announced:

As the world’s first smart mass transit system, we deliver a fundamentally more efficient way of moving throughout the city. Powered by data and mobile tech, we’re able to optimize pick-ups, drop-offs, and routing based on need. Plus, since all rides are shared and each Bridj seats up to 14 passengers, fares cost only slightly more than the metro. However, on Bridj you’re always guaranteed a seat and an express trip between neighborhoods.

Our PhD-led data science team is developing our initial service area as we speak. Their algorithm takes into account dozens of different data streams on how D.C. moves, as well as feedback from potential users like yourself.

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Suburban Multifamily: Smart Growth or Smart Sprawl?

In a recent article in the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, law student Paige Pavone criticizes suburban apartments and condominiums as “green sprawl” because they “merely add density to suburban sprawl and exacerbate the very problems smart growth seeks to correct.” She explains that without public infrastructure to support walking and biking, these developments merely entice more people into car-dependent suburbia, and therefore should not be entitled to density bonuses and other incentives that a state might use to encourage smart growth. In particular, she claims that such “High-Density Islands” are cut off from “communities, local governments, nature, public transportation, and sidewalks.”

Is this critique fair? Somewhat.

Pavone examined a variety of suburban multifamily developments, but focuses on Reading Woods, in Reading, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. She claims that Reading Woods residents “cannot walk to the public library, a bank, or a grocery store” and would have to cross I-95 to reach a chain restaurant. So I decided to look at Reading Woods on Google Street View and see how horrible it is.

First of all, I looked for sidewalks. The main street serving Reading Woods is Jacob Way. Jacob Way generally has sidewalks, as does Augustus Court (the main street serving the part of Reading Woods further away from South). So it seems to me that a resident of Reading Woods can use sidewalks for most visits to South Street and other neighborhood streets. To reach Main Street (the neighborhood’s main commercial street) you must walk briefly on South Street, which also has a sidewalk (though it only serves one side of the street, and looks pretty narrow). Continue reading

Land, Density and Resilience

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org.

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org. (Click for detail.)

One more takeaway from the Resilient Virginia launch conference yesterday: All other things being equal, more compact communities are more resilient communities.

Like Bacon’s Rebellion, Cooper Martin, program director of the Sustainable Cities Institute, is a big fan of Joe Minicozzi and his maps and graphics showing how dramatically land value-per-acre varies between core urban areas, suburbs and the countryside. Densely settled urban cores have land values that are literally a hundred times higher per acre than low-density shopping centers and large-lot subdivisions.

In my commentary, I have focused mainly upon the fiscal folly of building disconnected, low-density development. The infrastructure — the roads, utilities, sidewalks and other amenities — are more expensive per household to maintain. But Martin added a new dimension when addressing the Resilient Virginia conference yesterday. Low-density development makes it more expensive to harden homes and businesses against disruption and catastrophe. When the taxable value of land is high, it’s easier to support expensive investments to protect that land than when the value of the land is low. Continue reading

Resilience and Competitive Economic Advantage

Flooded Honda factory in Bangkok, 2011 -- what you might call a serious business continuity issue.

Flooded Honda factory in Bangkok, 2011 — what you might call a serious business continuity issue.

by James A. Bacon

If you were a manufacturing company contemplating an expansion to Hampton Roads, you would take into account traditional criteria such as proximity to customers and suppliers, access to a skilled workforce, transportation connections, prevailing wage levels, taxes and so on. But as corporations become increasingly sensitive to the issue of business continuity in the face of disruption or disaster, you also might consider the region’s vulnerability to flooding.

Outside of New Orleans, Hampton Roads is the lowest-lying metropolitan area in the country. It is notoriously prone to flooding now, and the region’s vulnerability will only get worse as the sea level rises. You may or may not believe the McAuliffe administration’s predictions that the sea level will be 1 1/2 feet higher by 2050, but the risk that the forecast might prove accurate would have to factor into your calculations. Logical questions would arise: Would flooding disrupt rail and highway access to your facility? Would it hamper the ability of employees to get to work?

Perhaps the most important question is this: Do state and local governments have a plan to cope with recurrent flooding that will likely only get worse in time? How resilient is the region — not just one particular jurisdiction but, given the connectedness of transportation arteries and commuter flows — the entire region? Continue reading