March 07, 2006

Sprawl of Boise

Boise_animation_450x450 In NEW's seven-city study of Northwest cities and sprawl--part of our Cascadia Scorecard project--Boise ranked worst. What's heartening is that many Boise community leaders, members of the media, and advocates in Idaho are bent on doing something about it.

An Idaho Statesman editorial this weekend--which cited our energy and sprawl research extensively--laments the city's smart-growth record and notes the strong connection between Idaho's sprawl and energy habits. (Idaho also consumes the most energy per capita in the Northwest.)

"Our decisions about energy use — and the land-use policies that drive energy use — can prove costly. . . . And it's a critical message for a state that, for all its growth, still embraces a love of the highway and a general lack of interest in public transportation."

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February 22, 2006

Back From The Dead

Just as we suspected, Oregon's Measure 37 -- a law that requires state and local governments to compensate landowners for rules that reduce property values -- wasn't actually dead.  The state Supreme court just resuscitated it, after a lower court had struck it down last fall.

The Oregonian has more details and context.

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February 15, 2006

Timing is Everything

One benefit of living in a compact neighborhood rather than a sprawling suburb: you don't spend as much time in your car.  The following chart, derived from a national transportation survey, makes the point pretty clearly:


The bottom line:  if you live in a compact place, you don't drive as much.  Of course, the total amount of time that people spend getting from place to place doesn't vary much by neighborhood density.  What changes is how people travel.  If you live in a compact neighborhood, you're more likely to take a trip on foot or by transit.  If you live in a sprawling one, you take virtually all your trips inside a car, truck, minivan, or SUV.

Obviously, if you like spending time in your car -- and some people definitely seem to view driving as quality private time -- then this information probably won't affect you one way or another.  But if you don't really like driving, then this may give you a clue about how to cut your car time in half.

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February 08, 2006

One Less Car = One Less Parking Spot

At the risk of making this blog too Seattle-centric, I thought I'd point out this nifty article in today's Post-Intelligencer about the city's efforts to promote alternatives to the car -- everything from walking to biking to transit to ride sharing to van pools.  And there's ample reason to be concerned about rising car traffic, particularly downtown--not just on environmental grounds, but on financial ones.  Cars, you see, take up lots of space in a crowded city; and storing them all is expensive, and takes up real estate that could be put to far better uses.  From the article:

In the next 19 years, the city expects 22,000 new housing units and 50,000 new jobs.

Assuming the same percentage of people continued driving alone to work, the city estimates it would have to build 20 city blocks of 10-story parking garages downtown.

That's a lot of parking.

Also note the upside-down state of transportation finances. Funding for the bus system is nowhere near where it needs to be to accomodate all the new riders the city is hoping for.  And meanwhile, city officials still seem hell-bent on spending billions for roads, some of which will just make downtown's car problems worse. Obviously, the city deserves a lot of credit for its low-cost efforts to promote alternatives to the car; but in the bigger picture, you have to wonder if they've got their priorities straight.

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February 07, 2006

The True Cost of Home Ownership

Milhwyfwysprawl_cnu City housing is unaffordable. It's cheaper to buy a house in the suburbs, where you can get more for your money. Right?

Not so much, according to a new study from the Brookings Institute, "The Affordability Index," which challenges the conventional wisdom by arguing that the best way to assess affordability is with reference to the costs of both the home and the transportation necessitated by the home's location.

In an analysis of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan region, it turns out that the suburbs aren't nearly as affordable as they first appear; nor are city neighborhoods nearly as pricey. That's largely because suburban residents must spend more on cars ownership and use--they have, on average, 2.1 cars per household--while in-city residents can rely on cheaper forms of transport--they own only 1.2 cars per household. Even when in-city transit is factored in, a city resident spends less than half as much on transportation as a resident of far-flung suburb. That's real money--roughly $500 per month--that can make a big difference when it comes to affording a house.

But in deciding where to buy (or rent, for that matter), few of us assess the transportation-related costs, a factor which surely contributes to buyers choosing far flung developments. If planners can devise ways to apprise buyers (and renters) of the true costs of their housing choices, it would likely encourage residential density and mixed-use zoning. Because living near good transit service and within a short walk of services isn't just eco-groovy--it's smart financial planning.

Below the fold, two maps of affordability in the Minneapolis area...

(Click for larger versions.)



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February 03, 2006

Polling Portland on Growth

A new poll of residents in Portland's metro region suggests that Oregon's contentious growth management policies are, on balance, acceptable to most folks.

Most Portland-area residents want to preserve farms and forests by squeezing into cities, use cars less than they do now and invest in the quality of water and air.

But Oregonians want their planning and their property rights, too. While more than three-quarters said land regulations protect quality of life and home values, nearly half also said rules hurt too many private property owners.

I don't have much to add here, but there's a bit more about the survey results in the full article by the Oregonian.

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January 30, 2006

Food vs. Shelter: The Planning Debate

In the debate over growth management, it's easy for the parties to forget that it’s never us against them, it's us against us. For just one example, planners must strike a balance between our needs for food (in the form of nearby farmland) and shelter (in the form of decent housing for a growing population). And promoting density, while important in many respects, is not the whole answer to problems of growth.

Oregon's land-use task force is beginning to study what the state’s citizens want, and The Oregonian is running a good series on planning that addresses the balance between desirable housing and fertile farmland. The articles offer some goods insights and they got me thinking.

Density done wrong does no one any good. Urban village development (and their traditional counterparts) must attract buyers, not be foisted on them. A subdivision crammed with more houses is not a real solution. It’s still auto-dependent and segregates homes from shops and services. It adheres to the letter of planning for density, but ignores the spirit—density ought to empower residents with choices, not just wedge people together. Intelligent planning is required to build attractive homes that also offer privacy and a sense of space, as well as easy access to amenities. The point of smart planning should not to force people into the city, but to create more good places there for those who want it.

Even with good density alternatives, some people may still want a house with a big yard. I think that it’s important to offer a mix of housing types, but these larger more distant lots come with all sorts of hidden costs to society: higher costs to supply public services like water, sewer, and emergency response farther out—not to mention negative externalities like air pollution, road-building, and possible watershed deterioration from the added impervious surface. And it’s also important, as The Oregonian article notes, that we preserve farmland and other green places.

And space is not the only reason people may want to move into rural areas: they also may want to be closer to nature. I think it's important to ask how best to connect people to the natural world without sacrificing the very nature they crave. I worry about getting caught in a vicious cycle as people move farther and farther out until there's scant rural land left and our cities are so sprawling that most people must rely exclusively on cars for transportation.

I favor setting aside space within cities for neighborhood parks, community gardens, and large semi-wild areas like Forest Park in Portland, Discovery Park in Seattle, and Stanley Park in Vancouver. Unlike fenced-off backyards, these areas let people connect both to nature and to their community.

But really, I see growth planning and development disputes as a symptom of a larger issue: population growth. Our grandparents could reasonably expect to build a house on a half acre lot outside the city because land was plentiful, but people weren’t. Sprawl and population growth have reversed that equation to the point where we need to change our housing expectations if we want our grandchildren to have access to nearby farms and local produce.

Just a few thoughts sparked by the Oregonian series. Take a read and see what you think.

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January 27, 2006

The Roads Ahead

A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money.

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A History of Selling the Suburbs

"Making Headway: A Little Logic Along Life's Journey." That's the helpful title of an advertising brochure--circa 1930 or so--promoting what was then ex-urban development in north Seattle. I thought the ad copy was so intriguing that I just had to share some excerpts...

No one who is normal can be content to remained imprisoned within the four walls of the modern stuffy apartment, with its lack of yard, grass plot, flower beds and garden for the kiddies' play and the family food.

Life to you must mean more than that. It must have freedom of both air and area to fully develop.

These, too, without the penalty of city taxes and with less expenditure of travel time than is experienced in many massed and narrowed neighborhoods.

Get your feet off the hard, distressing pavement of the city for at least the evening period of the day.

Leave behind the unattractive canyons of trade and turmoil. Rest your nerves and your soul for the next day's problems.

Do this midst your own fragrant flowers--on your own clover meadows, surrounded by the fruits of your own handiwork. THIS IS REAL LIVING.

All through life the worth-while man and woman yearns for just these things: an acre of rich, fragrant, deep meadow soil--surely a scarce commodity in Western Washington--that responds gladly to the vigorous and intelligent touch of ambitious and loving hands.

Now is the logical time to acquire that "DREAM PLACE." Values have never been so reasonable, and with real soil as the basis, your investment is sure to increase in value.

In a very few years any productive soil ten miles from the busy center will be considered choice and in great demand. VALUES WILL INCREASE considerably.

Hard surfaced highways and automobiles have brought the outer fringes of the city close enough in to suit particular people.

These tracts are but a mile beyond the city limits... YOU ARE NOT TAXED TO THE BONE.

How often have you felt that craving for the larger opportunity, the greater area for expansion, the garden of your dreams, where the wife and kiddies could relax without that dress-parade attitude, secure from public gaze?

This is hardly possible when confined to a midget city lot, and certainly impossible in a stuffy, noisy flat.

Love, health, freedom of action; an environment of lawns, blossoming trees, trailing berry vines, roses, and the succulent vegetable bed--all are a part of that dream, that yearning for better and bigger things. THEY ARE YOURS TO COMMAND.

TWENTY MINUTES in your own car from Pike and Fourth, or not more than a half-hour by comfortable auto bus, over the paved Bothell Highway, will land you at A REAL HOME.

Whether a merchant, manufacturer or salaried worker, you can live, laugh, and "be one with nature" in these fields of growing things, while less than a half-hour away by auto to the busy marts... the "maddening throng" of the stuff and noisy city will have no evening charms for you.

I'm not intending to cast aspersions. One of my favorite things about my new house, is the small backyard. The allure of outdoor space and a connection to nature, however mediated by civilization, is a strong one for home buyers. Still, it's interesting to see how the new developments were sold with promises of restorative nature; while the certainty that those green places would disappear was used to sell the homes' future appreciation. Something of an irony, I think.

(Credit for finding the brochure to Todd Burley, outreach coordinator at Homewaters Project--and former NEW intern extraordinaire. He leads walks through the now fully urbanized Thornton Creek watershed where these homes were built.)

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

January 25, 2006

Survey Says...Huh?

Some snippets from an opinion survey of Puget Sound residents, conducted last year by Washington's transportation department, yield a bit of a conundrum: 

  • When asked whether there's "enough", "not enough", or "too much" money going into the state's general -purpose roads and highways, 51 percent of respondents say "not enough," and only 9 percent say "too much."  That is, the majority of respondents want to spend more money on roads.
  • When asked the same question about transit, 45 percent say "not enough" and 16 percent say "too much." 

Comparing transit and roads, the figures are fairly close -- but still, it seems that survey respondents think that road spending deserves a boost more than transit does.

But...the very next question in the survey asks respondents to choose between two statements:

  • "We’ve got enough roads and highways. We need to expand our transit system with more buses, light rail, and other transportation choices to give commuters choices for their commute."
  • "We’ve got plenty of transit. We need to maintain the roads we have, expand existing roads and highways, and build new roads to make faster connections for people in our region."

The result -- 51 percent of survey respondents in the Puget Sound agreed with the former statement; 38 percent with the latter.  That is, survey respondents support new transit over new roads, and by a fairly wide margin.

What gives?  How can public opinion tilt towards more funding for roads, when a majority believe we already have enough?

Rather than simply saying that the public is confused on the matter, a deeper dive into the survey results sheds some light.  When asked about specific funding priorities, respondents preferred to devote more money to maintaining and fixing the existing roads than on building new ones.  So the apparent preference for road spending, in all likelihood, largely reflects an overall desire for smoother and safer roads, not more of them.  Which makes sense: new roads almost always go at the urban fringe, since most other places already have a road network -- which means that only a few residents see much actual benefit from shiny new highways.

What's less clear to me is how survey respondents would have thought about road widening projects.  Does, say, adding lanes to I-405 on the east side of the Puget Sound region count as new highway spending (because it adds to capacity)? Highway maintenance (because it's not creating a whole new road, just widening an existing one)?  Or transit (because if current plans go forward, buses will be one of the big beneficiaries of the new lanes)?  It's not clear -- and how people think about any given road project likely depends in no small measure on how its proponents talk about it.

But what is pretty clear is this:  when asked what share of tax money should go to roads vs. transit, the split is 53 percent for roads, 47 percent for transit.  Let's see if the legislature concurs.

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