More Evidence That Urbanists Should Support School Choice

(Cross-posted from

A recent scholarly article , “School Choice Programs: The Impacts on Housing Values” reviews literature relating to the impact of charter schools and other types of school choice programs on housing values.  The article discusses studies from Minnesota, North Carolina, New York City, and Vermont (among other places) and finds that the traditional American “neighborhood school” system, which locks children into nearby schools, creates a hierarchy of housing values: places with disfavored schools (as a practical matter, anyplace urban or socially diverse) experience degraded housing values, while places with highly reputed schools (usually suburbs) become more desirable.

By contrast, the authors find that school choice programs disrupt this hierarchy.  For example, in Minnesota students can now attend schools in any school district in the state.  Even though transportation difficulties prevent many students from taking advantage of this program, property values rose in school districts with weaker academic reputations.  Similarly, in New York City the presence of charter schools and magnet schools increased values for nearby property, regardless of the prestige of nearby public schools.

These findings suggest that school choice will make areas with less prestigious schools more desirable- an important finding for weak-market cities with weak public schools.   Today, parents often shun such cities because of their weak public schools.  If school choice programs of various types allow parents to stay in the city without sending their children to typical urban schools, cities will become more desirable.

High-Rises and Streetlife

(cross-posted from

One common argument against tall residential buildings is that high-rises reduce a neighborhood’s livability by reducing its streetlife. For example, a few months ago I read a blog postclaiming that “people who live in the high floors of a high-rise are less likely to leave their homes.” I have lived in elevator buildings for the past couple of years, and can verify from personal experience that high-rise residents leave their homes for the same reasons that homeowners do: to go to work, to get groceries, and to perform all the other little functions that are necessary for a normal life. To be sure, a few people do work at home and get groceries delivered, but the overwhelming majority of people need to leave their homes on a regular basis, whether they live in a single-family house, a small multifamily building, or a high-rise.

Moreover, this argument doesn’t seem to be supported by what I have actually seen with my own eyes. New York City neighborhoods like Times Square and the Upper West Side certainly have plenty of elevator buildings, but these places have far more street life than many low-density suburbs or quiet rowhouse neighborhoods. Why? Because even if a few shut-ins are less likely to go outside than in a low-rise neighborhood, any negative results of this phenomenon are outweighed by the positive effects of density. So many people live, work and play near Times Square that its streets are far busier than those of a less dense rowhouse area such as Washington’s Capitol Hill (or even of higher-density rowhouse areas such as New York’s West Village). By contrast, my current neighborhood in Kansas City is not particularly lively—but my block (dominated by a 10-story building) seems no more lifeless than the street a block away dominated by three-story buildings, or the single-family home blocks west of my building.

In fact, high-rises may sometimes increase street life by increasing the popularity of city life and thereby increasing urban density. The “streetlife” argument against urban high-rises assumes that people who don’t live in high-rises would be happy to live in low-rise apartment buildings. In other words, it assumes that consumer preferences are: (1) highrises, (2) lowrises, and (3) suburbia. But some consumers may prefer (1) highrises, (2) suburbia, (3) lowrises, because they are only willing to live in the city if they can get the amenities that come with (1)- for example, doormen to enhance security (which are more common in high-rises than in smaller buildings) or elevators to reduce stress on aging knees and hips. In turn, these consumers are more likely to walk on city streets than if they lived in suburbia, thus increasing urban streetlife. And if they are business owners or executives, they are more likely to place their businesses in the city than if they lived in suburbia, thus causing even more people to walk on city streets.

To the extent that government uses the “streetlife” argument to prohibit or limit high-rise development, this argument has no logical stopping point. If the goal of public policy is to encourage people to leave their homes and use the streets, herding them into smaller buildings won’t really do very much, since some people can still be perfectly happy recreating in a rowhouse or single-family house. Instead, cities should make these homes as uninviting as possible; for example, cities could impose maximum apartment sizes instead of minimum sizes, and perhaps abolish all these pesky building codes that make apartments safe and comfortable. The Sustainable Cities blog post says that the high-rise “becomes your world, especially those which include a restaurant, market, gym and other amenities.” The same could be said of an apartment or house that includes exercise equipment (one’s surrogate gym) or a kitchen (one’s surrogate restaurant)—so perhaps we should outlaw indoor kitchens or exercise equipment.

To be sure, a neighborhood composed of nothing but high-rise apartments can be monotonous. But the culprit is not the scale of buildings, but their use. A neighborhood with high-rises standing on top of ground-floor retail (such as Broadway on New York’s Upper West Side) will typically be far more lively than a block of nothing but apartments (such as West End Avenue a block away).

A Radical Notion: Paying for Onstreet Parking in Cville

Image credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow

Image credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow

Irony time: Virginia soon may get a test in market-based parking in… the People’s Republic of Charlottesville. The city would start charging for 800 on-street parking spaces downtown, now free, and install a system of smart traffic meters under a proposal advanced by Mark Brown, new owner of the Charlottesville Parking Center (CPC).

The city reverted to a system of free parking two years ago, creating a severe misallocation of parking spaces. Downtown employees grab the free on-street spots, making it exceedingly difficult for visitors and shoppers to find convenient parking spots. The idea is to encourage downtown workers either to park in long-term structured parking, which would free on-street spaces, or to ride bicycles or use mass transit.

“The promotion of free parking on the street is at odds with the promotion of walking, cycling and mass transit,” said Mark Brown, the owner of Yellow Cab and the Main Street Arena who became the sole shareholder of the CPC last summer, reports Sean Tubbs for Charlottesville Tomorrow.

The proposal, very conceptual in nature and subject to revision, is to install about 60 kiosks where parkers would enter their license plate information to pay. There would be two zones, a core zone with more restrictive parking lengths and higher rates, and a peripheral zone, where people could park longer and pay less. On-street parking rates would encourage long-term parkers to use structured parking. A smartphone app would provide real-time information on parking availability and rates. A portion of the parking revenue would be dedicated to transportation alternatives such as a free trolley, park-and-ride-options and cheap monthly bus passes. The remainder would go to a Business Improvement District. Continue reading

Potomac Yard Metro: a Financing Model for Mass Transit

Image credit: North Potomac Yard Small Area Plan

Image credit: North Potomac Yard Small Area Plan. (Click for larger image)

by James A. Bacon

The Commonwealth of Virginia will help finance a new Metro station in Alexandria through a $50 million loan from the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board earlier this week. The loan is a key piece of financing for the station, which is expected to cost between $209 million and $268  million to build. In turn, the Metro station is a key piece of infrastructure to advance development of between 9.2 million and 13.1 million square feet of residential, office, retail and hotel space in the Potomac Yard.

While the Metro project doesn’t pass the Bacon litmus test for 100% user-pays financing, it does better than most  mass transit projects Virginia has underwritten, and it would open up 300 acres for high-density, high-value development only five miles from the core of Washington, D.C.

The Potomac Yard, to be built on an old CSX railroad marshaling yard south of Ronald Reagan National Airport, could be Northern Virginia’s most important urban infill project of the early 21st century. Plans call for the creation of between 4,300 and 7,100 residential units, 3.2 million and 4.2 million square feet of office space, nearly 800,000 square feet of retail and 740 hotel rooms. We’re not talking about development that might happen… some day. There is a strong, demonstrated demand for the kind of walkable urbanism planned at Potomac Yard. Continue reading

Do Tall Buildings Attract Rich Foreigners?

I was discussing Washington, D.C.’s height limits with some acquaintances on Twitter; one of them suggested that allowing taller buildings might turn Washington into a “global city”, which in turn would cause foreigners to surge into Washington and drive up real estate prices (as has arguably been the case in parts of Vancouver and New York).

This argument seems to be to be based on two assumptions that are at best unprovable:

1.  Washington is just attractive enough to attract foreign demand if height limits are lifted. Since I don’t know of any evidence of a surge in foreign investment in the Washington suburbs (which lack height limits) this seems hard to believe.

It could be argued that the blocks near Congress or the White House are so prestigious that they have an attraction that the District of Columbia’s more urban suburbs lack. Even if this was true, it seems to me that (a) this is not true of most of the District, and (b) if it was true, the District’s townhouses and existing stock of mid-rise buildings would be just as attractive to the rich foreigners as high-rises.

2.   Rich foreigners will only invest in urban high-rise condos (as opposed to other types of buildings). This argument could be true in theory, but I don’t see any evidence that this is the case. In fact, at least some low-rise areas are attractive to foreign buyers; for example, 41 percent of searches in Los Angeles’s suburban Bel Air district come from foreigners, as opposed to 13 percent of searches in Los Angeles generally. Thus, it seems to me that if a well-off area lacks foreign demand absent high-rises, high-rises will not create such demand.

(Cross-posted from

From the Department of Worst Practices: Two-Lane Stroads

One phrase that has become common in transportation planning circles is “stroad”- a street that is oriented towards cars (like a major road) but is full of intersections (like a traditional, more pedestrian-oriented street) and thus doesn’t function well as either a street or a road. When I think of a stroad, I think of six-to-eight lane streets like San Jose Boulevard in Jacksonville, or Queens Boulevard in Queens.

But under the wrong conditions, even a two-lane street can function almost as badly as a stroad. My parents in Atlanta live near Mt. Paran Road, a two-lane street that attracts 40-45 mph traffic for three reasons.  First, the absence of sidewalks scares off pedestrians- especially since many residences are surrounded by woods or bushes rather than by more walkable lawns, which means pedestrians have no alternative to walking in the street.  Second, despite its curves, the street is just straight enough and wide enough to accommodate fast traffic. Third, this part of the city lacks a grid of east-west streets, so Mt. Paran and two or three similar streets have become the easiest way to get from the western edge of the city’s affluent northside to north-south streets further east. As a result, Mt. Paran combines speed and congestion, much like a true stroad.  And when it is congested, a driver feels tremendous peer pressure to drive as fast as possible, because he or she is part of a long line of cars that cannot switch into another lane.

What can be done about two-lane stroads?  I’m not sure.  Sidewalks would be a major improvement; given the difficulty of getting anywhere nearby without driving on Mount Paran, I’m not sure traffic calming would be politically feasible.  But planners of future neighborhoods can certainly learn something from the difficulties of streets like Mount Paran: the best way to avoid turning residential streets into de facto regional arterials is to build a grid of streets that accommodate both drivers and pedestrians more effectively.

(Cross-posted from, with minor modifications)

Henrico Still Building Schlock


Artist’s rendering of West Broad Marketplace

by James A. Bacon

The developer of the West Broad Marketplace, which will bring a Wegmans grocery store and outdoor gear retailer Cabela’s to western Henrico County, promises Richmonders a shopping treat that “I don’t think you’ve experienced before.” That may be true. Unfortunately, Jack Waghorn, president of Vienna-based NVRetail, will replicate the experience of driving through traffic-clogged thoroughfares and parking in vast, open-air parking lots that Richmonders will find all too familiar.

The Henrico Wegman’s is scheduled to open in mid-2016, with a counterpart in Chesterfield County opening around the same time. Henrico County officials were on hand for a ground-breaking yesterday. No doubt county leaders are pleased that Henrico citizens will have access to the popular, high-end grocery store, not to mention the tax revenues generated by the store and the 550 to 600 full- and part-time jobs created.

As can be seen in the artist’s rendering above, however, West Broad Marketplace will perpetuate the dysfunctional low-density land use patterns of post World War II sprawl that has already made the Short Pump area a congested hell hole. I avoid going there if at all possible, and others do, too, although sometimes they have no choice because that’s where the region’s upscale stores are concentrated. Driving in and around Short Pump is always a dismal experience. When I visited one time last month to do some Christmas shopping, traffic was so gridlocked that cars were backed up onto I-64, causing a slowdown on the Interstate. That may sound banal to Northern Virginians but it’s unprecedented for the Richmond region.

The traffic congestion in Short Pump is the foreseeable consequence of zoning for mile after mile of single-use shopping-center development around the intersection of Interstates 64 and 295. Planners allowed for no other connectivity: shopping centers don’t connect with each other, much less with nearby residential neighborhoods. There are no side streets to divert traffic. All cars pile onto West Broad Street. The area is utterly unwalkable — visitors have no choice but to drive their cars from destination to destination, adding to the congestion — and there is no mass transit.

The county will never have enough money to build its way out of this mess. Indeed, the problem is so bad that congestion is radiating out from the Short Pump area to places, like the Innsbrook commercial park, where traffic conditions once were tolerable. At some point, I predict, conditions will become so atrocious that — Wegmans or no Wegmans — affluent households, corporate offices and high-end retailers will seek somewhere else in the Richmond region to locate. When the 30-year amortization of all those commercial buildings expires, retailers will pack up and follow. Once the newness wears off, there’s nothing to keep anyone there.

(Cross posted from Bacon’s Rebellion.)