Category Archives: Sprawl and Suburbia

Transportation is Destiny: Design for Happy People, Not Happy Cars

by Dom Nozzi

The following is a summary of a talk I was invited to give at a PLAN-Boulder County forum on Friday, January 24. As a town and transportation planner, I cautioned Boulder not to put too much emphasis on easing car traffic flows—particularly by such conventional methods as adding a second turn lane at intersections or requiring a developer to provide too much car parking. I described the ingredients of a healthy, vibrant city, summarized how a seemingly beneficial city objective of reducing traffic congestion can often undermine important Boulder objectives, and offered a number of strategies that would help Boulder both properly manage transportation and promote its long-range goals.

A great city is compact, human scaled, has a slow speed center, and promotes gatherings of citizens that catalyze “synergistic interaction” (brilliant ideas and innovations, as the sum becomes greater than its parts). Most importantly, a quality city does exceptionally well in promoting “exchanges” of goods, services, and ideas, which is the most important role of a city, and is best promoted by the interaction that occurs through compact community design.

About 100 years ago, automakers, home builders, and oil companies (“the Sprawl Lobby”) started realizing that they could make lots of money by creating what has since become a self-perpetuating vicious cycle in communities. If communities could be convinced to ease the flow of car traffic by building enormous highways and parking lots (and subsidizing car travel by having everyone—not just motorists—pay for such roads, parking, and gasoline), huge amounts of money could be made selling cars, homes and gasoline. The process eventually was feeding on itself in a growing, self-perpetuating way, because the highways, parking and subsidies were forcing and otherwise encouraging a growing number of Americans to buy more and more cars, use more and more gasoline, and buy sprawling homes that were further and further from the town center. Why? Because the subsidized highways and gasoline were powerfully promoting community dispersal, high speeds, isolation, and an insatiable demand for larger highways and parking lots. Each of these factors were toxic to a city, led to government and household financial difficulties, destroyed in-town quality of life (which added to the desire to live in sprawl locations), and made travel by transit, bicycle or walking increasingly difficult and unlikely (an added inducement to buy more cars).

The inevitable result of the Sprawl Lobby efforts has been that cities throughout America are dying from the “Gigantism” disease.

The “Gigantism” Disease

One of the most important problems we face is that cars consume enormous amounts of space. On average, a person in a parked car takes up about 17 times more space than a person in a chair. And when moving, a motorist can take up to 100 times as much space as a person in a chair. Cities are Untitledseverely diminished by this level of wasteful use of land by cars—particularly in town centers (where space is so dear), and especially in communities such as Boulder, where land is so expensive.

Overemphasis on car travel breeds and spreads the gigantism “infection,” and promotes ruinously higher travel speeds. What happens when we combine the gigantism and high speeds with the “travel time budget” (humans tend to have a budget of about 1.1 hours of round-trip commuting travel each day)?

People demand larger highways and parking lots. Gigantic highways, overpasses, and asphalt seas of parking are necessary to accommodate the space-hogging, high-speed needs of the growing number of cars. This process dramatically increases the “habitat” for cars, and because such places are so utterly inhospitable to people, substantially shrinks the habitat for people.

Because it is so dangerous, unpleasant, and infeasible to travel on these monster highways by bicycle, walking, or transit (what economists call “The Barrier Effect”), an endlessly growing army of motorists and sprawl residents is thereby created, which, of course, is a financial bonanza for the Sprawl Lobby.

It is surprising and disappointing that Boulder has, on numerous occasions, shown symptoms of the gigantism disease (surprising because citizens and city staff are relatively well-informed on transportation issues). A leading concern in Boulder is the many intersections that have been expanded by installing double left turn lanes. Installing a single left turn lane historically resulted in a fair improvement in traffic flow, but when a second left turn lane is installed, intersections typically suffer from severely diminished returns. There is only a tiny increase in traffic accommodated (and often, this increase is short-lived) and this small benefit is offset by a huge required increase in walk time for crosswalks that are now very lengthy to cross on foot (which necessitates a very long “walk” phase for the crosswalk). Indeed, some traffic engineers or elected officials are so intolerant of the time-consuming long walk phase that many double-left turn intersections actually PROHIBIT pedestrian crossings by law.

These monster double left turn intersections destroy human scale and sense of place. They create a place-less, car-only intersection where walking and bicycling (and, indirectly, transit) trips are so difficult and unpleasant that more trips in the community are now by car, and less by walking, bicycling and transit. And those newly-induced car trips, despite the conventional wisdom, actually INCREASE greenhouse gas emissions (due to the induced increase in car trips).

Double left turn lanes (like big parking lots and five- or seven-lane highways) disperse housing, jobs, and shops in the community, as the intersection—at least briefly—is able to accommodate more regional car trips. Because the intersection has become so inhospitable, placeless and lacking in human scale, the double left turn repels any residences, shops, or offices from being located anywhere near the intersection, and thereby effectively prevents the intersection from ever evolving into a more walkable, compact, village-like setting.

The following chart shows that, because of the enormous space consumption caused by higher-speed car travel, land consumption rate increases are far out-pacing growth in community populations. For chartexample, from 1950 to 1990, the St. Louis population grew by 35 percent. Yet land consumption in St. Louis grew by 354 percent during that same period.

Given all of this, a centerpiece objective of the Boulder Transportation Master Plan (no more than 20 percent of road mileage is allowed to be congested) may not only be counterproductive in achieving many Boulder objectives, but may actually result in Boulder joining hands with the Sprawl Lobby.

The congestion reduction objective has a number of unintended, undesirable consequences. The objective tells Boulder that the highly desirable tactic of “road diets” (where travel lanes are removed to create a safer, more human-scaled street that can now install bike lanes, on-street parking, and wider sidewalks) are actually undesirable because they can increase congestion. The objective provides justification for looking upon a wider road, a bigger intersection, or a bigger parking lot as desirable, despite the well-documented fact that such gigantic facilities promote sprawl, car emissions, financial difficulties, higher taxes, and lower quality of life, among other detriments.

The objective also tells us that smaller, more affordable infill housing is undesirable—again because such housing can increase congestion.

The Shocking Revolution

The growing awareness of the problems associated with easing car travel (via such things as a congestion reduction objective) is leading to a shocking revolution across the nation. Florida, for example, now realizes that if new development is only allowed if “adequate” road capacity is available for the new development (which is based on “concurrency” rules in Florida’s Growth Management law), the state is powerfully promoting sprawl. Why? Because the available road capacity tends to only be found in sprawl locations. In-town locations, where new development tends to be much more desirable, is strongly discouraged by this Florida concurrency rule because in-town locations tend to have no available road capacity (due to existing, more dense development in town).

As an aside, “concurrency” is a rule that says new development is not allowed if it will lower service level standards adopted by the community. For example, standards might state that there must be at least 10 acres of parkland provided for every 1,000 residents. While concurrency is clearly a good idea for such things as parks and water supply and schools, it is counterproductive for roads.

The shocking revolution in Florida, then, is that the state is now allowing local governments to create “exception areas” for road congestion. If the community can show that it is providing adequate bicycle, pedestrian and transit facilities, the state will grant the local government the ability to create road exceptions so that the road congestion avoidance strategy brought by Florida’s road concurrency rule does not significantly encourage new sprawl and discourage in-town, infill development.

Similarly, California is now acknowledging the unintended, undesirable effects of past efforts to ensure that roads are “free-flowing” for car traffic. “Free flowing” car traffic tends to be measured with “level of service” (LOS) measures. Road LOS is a measure of traffic delay. An intersection (or road) where a car must wait for, say, three cycles of a traffic signal to be able to proceed through the intersection might be given an LOS rating of “F.” An intersection where a car can proceed through an intersection without such delay is given an LOS rating of “A.”

California now realizes that too often, building wider highways or stopping new development as a way to maintain free-flowing car traffic (LOS “A”) is substantially counterproductive. The state now realizes that maintaining or requiring easy, free-flowing car traffic increases greenhouse gas emissions (shocking, since the opposite was formerly believed), increases the number of car trips, and decreases the number of walking, bicycling and transit trips. Free-flowing road “LOS” measures are therefore now being phased out in California.

The “congestion reduction” objective in Boulder’s transportation plan is, in effect, a “happy cars” objective that equates easy car travel with quality of life and sustainability. One important reason why this “happy cars” objective is counterproductive is that cars and people have dramatically different needs and desires—needs and desires that are significantly and frequently in conflict. For example, designing shopping for happy people means the creation of smaller, human-scaled settings where buildings rather than parking lots are placed next to the streetside sidewalk. Where streets are only two or three lanes wide and designed for slow-speed car travel. Where street trees hug the street.

Designing shopping for happy cars, by strong contrast, requires huge car-scaled dimensions. Giant asphalt parking lots are placed between the now giant retail store and the street, which invites easy car parking (but loss of human scale, sense of place, and ease of walking). Streets become what Chuck Marohn calls “stroads”:  5- or 7-lane monster roads intended for dangerous, inhospitable high-speeds. They are roads where streets belong, but their big size and high speeds make them more like roads. Street trees are frequently incompatible with happy cars, as engineers fear cars might crash into them.

Again, this comparison shows that by promoting “happy cars,” Boulder’s congestion reduction objective is undermining its important quality of life and city-building objectives.

Indeed, Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Columbia, once stated that “a city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both.” Boulder’s congestion reduction objective is in conflict with this essential truth.

Fortunately, congestion regulates itself if we let it. Congestion will persuade some to drive at non-rush hour times, or take less congested routes, or travel by walking, bicycling, or transit. Congestion therefore does not inexorably lead to gridlock if we don’t widen a road or intersection, because some car trips (the “lower-value” trips) do not occur. Many of those discouraged trips are foregone because of the “time tax” imposed by the congestion.

But widening a road (or, in Boulder’s case, adding a second left-turn lane) short-circuits this self-regulation. A widened road or a double-left turn lane intersection induces new car trips because the road/intersection is now (briefly) less congested. The lower congestion encourages formerly discouraged car trips to now use the route during rush hour. Car trips that used different routes to avoid the congestion now converge back on the less congested route. And some get back in their cars after a period of walking, bicycling or using transit.

The process is very much like the infamous Soviet bread lines. The Soviets wanted to reduce the extremely long lines of people waiting for free bread. Their counterproductive “solution” was to make more free bread. But more free bread just induced more people to line up for bread. Likewise, the conventional American solution to traffic congestion is to make more free space for cars (widening the road or adding a second turn lane). The result is the same, as the bigger roads and intersections inevitably induce more car trips on those routes. The efficient and effective solution, as any first-year economics student will point out, is to NOT make more free bread or wider, free-to-use roads or second turn lanes. The solution is to price the bread and the car routes so that they are used more efficiently (and not wastefully by low-value bread consumers or car travelers). Or, to let a moderate level of congestion discourage low-value rush hour trips.

Given all of this, widening a road or adding a second left-turn lane to solve congestion is like loosening one’s belt to solve obesity. Similarly, despite conventional wisdom, car traffic does not behave like water flowing through a pipe (i.e., flowing easier if the pipe is expanded in size). Car traffic, instead, behaves like a gas. It expands to fill the available, increased volume provided.

Boulder’s Overriding Objectives

Boulder (and PLAN-Boulder County) has outlined key community objectives.

1. One is higher quality of life and more happiness. But counterproductively, happy cars lower quality of life due to clashing values and needs.

2. Another objective is for a more compact, walkable, vibrant city. Unfortunately, over-emphasizing cars means more sprawl.

3. An objective that is much talked about in the area is more affordability. By inducing more car dependence via easier car travel, the congestion reduction objective undermines the affordability objective by making Boulder less affordable (more on that later).

4. Given the growing concern for global warming, Boulder is placing more emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Easing traffic congestion, however, induces new car traffic, which increases car emissions.

5. Boulder and PLAN-Boulder County seek more travel (and lifestyle) choices. But the congestion reduction objective in Boulder’s plan is again undercutting other objectives because it leads to bigger car infrastructure (bigger roads and intersections), thereby reducing travel and lifestyle choices.

As shown above, then, Boulder’s congestion reduction objective undermines each of these five essential community objectives.

Oops.

Conventional methods of reducing congestion include wider roads, bigger parking lots, one-way streets, and huge intersections. These tactics are a “win-lose” proposition. While they can reduce congestion (briefly), they also cause a loss of human scale and charm; a loss of social gathering; sprawling dispersal; more car dependence and less bicycling, walking, transit; higher taxes; economic woes (for government, shops and households); a decline in public health; and more air pollution.

By striking contrast, other less commonly used but much more beneficial transportation tactics are “win-win” propositions. Some of these tactics include road diets, designing streets for slower speeds, and designing for travel and lifestyle choices. They can result in:

  • More parking spaces
  • More civic pride (induced by human scale)
  • More social gathering
  • A more compact and vibrant community
  • Less car dependence and more bicycling, walking, and transit
  • Lower taxes
  • Economic health (for both government and households)
  • Improvement in public health
  • Less air pollution

If we can’t get rid of congestion, what CAN we do? We can create alternatives so that those who are unwilling to tolerate the congestion can find ways to avoid it. Congestion can be better avoided if we create more housing near jobs, shops, and culture. Doing this allows more people to have better, more feasible ways to travel without a car. We can also create more travel routes, so that the congested routes are not the only routes to our destinations. Some of us can be given more flexible work schedules to shift our work hours away from rush hour. And some of us can be given increased opportunities to telecommute (work from home).

How Can We Design Transportation to Achieve a Better Destiny?

An important way to start Boulder on a better destiny for the city is to revisit the “No more than 20 percent congested road miles” objective in the Boulder transportation master plan. Some possibilities: adopt a “level of service standard” not for cars, but for bicycle, walking and transit travel; “Level of service” standards for cars is becoming outdated because it is being increasingly seen as counterproductive, as described earlier. Other alternatives to the “congestion” objective is to have a target of controlling or reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) community-wide; or set a goal of minimizing trip generation by individual new developments in the city.

Another option is to keep the congestion objective, but create “exception” areas where the congestion rule does not apply. Those exception areas would be places where Boulder seeks to encourage new development.

Boulder needs to ensure that the community land development and transportation design tactics are appropriately calibrated within each “transect zone” of the community. (The “transect” principle identifies a transition from urban to rural, whereby the town center is more compact, formal, low-speed, and walkable; the suburbs are more dispersed, informal, higher-speed, and drivable; and the rural areas most remote from the town center are more intended for a farming and conservation lifestyle. Development regulations and transportation designs are calibrated so that the differing lifestyle and travel objectives of each zone are best achieved.) However, the difficulty with the transect principle in places like Boulder is that the demand for compact, walkable lifestyles and travel choices is much higher than the supply of such places in Boulder. There is, in other words, a large mismatch. By contrast, the supply of suburban, drivable areas is quite high. To correct this imbalance, Boulder should strive to create a larger supply of compact, walkable places similar to Pearl Street Mall, the Boulder town center, and even the CU campus. Opportunities now being discussed are the creation of new, compact villages and town centers at places such as street intersections outside of the Boulder town center.

As an aside, the community transect concept informs us that in the town center, “more is better.” That is, the lifestyle being sought in the community center is one where more shops, more offices, and more housing enhances the lifestyle, as this more proximate, mixed, compact layout of land uses provides the thriving, sociable, convenient, vibrant, 24-hour ambience that many seeking the walkable lifestyle want more of.

By contrast, in the more drivable suburbs, “more is less.” That is, the drivable lifestyle is enhanced in quality when there is less density, less development, more dispersal, and more isolation of houses from shops and offices. The ambience generally desired is more quiet and private.

While town center housing is increasingly expensive compared to the suburbs—particularly in cities such as Boulder—such in-town housing provides significant cost savings for transportation. Because such a housing location provides so many travel choices beyond car travel, many households find they can own two cars instead of three or one car instead of two. And each car that a household can “shed” due to the richness of travel choices provides more household income that can be directed to housing expenses such as a mortgage or rent. Today, the average car costs about $9,000 per year to own and operate. In places that are compact and walkable, that $9,000 (or $18,000) per year can be devoted to housing, thereby improving affordability.

In addition to providing for the full range of housing and travel choices, Boulder can better achieve its objectives through road diets, where travel lanes are removed and more space is provided for such things as bike lanes or sidewalks or transit. Road diets are increasingly used throughout the nation—particularly converting roads from four lanes to three. Up to about 25,000 vehicle trips per day on the road, a road that is “dieted” to, say, three lanes carries about as much traffic as a four-lane road. This is mostly due to the fact that the inside lanes of a four-laner frequently must act as Untitledturn lanes for cars waiting to make a left turn. Four-lane roads are less desirable than three-lane streets because they induce more car trips and reduce bicycle, walking and transit trips. Compared to three-lane streets, four-lane roads result in more speeding traffic. As a result, four-laners create a higher crash rate than three-lane streets. Finally, because the three-lane street is more human-scaled, pleasant, lower-speed, and thereby place-making, a three-lane street is better than a four-lane street for shops. The three-lane street becomes a place to drive TO, rather than drive THROUGH (as is the case with a four-lane street).

If Boulder seeks to be transformative with transportation—that is, if the city seeks to significantly shift car trips to walking, bicycling and transit trips (rather than the relatively modest shifts the city has achieved in the past)—it must recognize that it is NOT about providing more bike paths, sidewalks, or transit service. It is about taking away road and parking space from cars, and taking away subsidies for car travel.

Another transportation tactic Boulder should pursue to achieve a better destiny is to unbundle the price of parking from the price of housing. People who own less (or no) cars should have the choice of opting for more affordable housing—housing that does not include the very expensive cost of provided parking. Currently, little or no housing in Boulder provides the buyer or renter the option of having lower cost housing payments by choosing not to pay for parking. Particularly in a place like Boulder, where land values are so high, even housing intended to be relatively affordable is more costly than it needs to be because the land needed for parking adds a large cost to the housing price. Indeed, by requiring the home buyer or renter to pay more for parking, bundled parking price creates a financial incentive for owning and using more cars than would have otherwise been the case.

Boulder should also strive to provide parking more efficiently by pricing more parking. Too much parking in Boulder is both abundant and free. Less parking would be needed in the city (which would make the city more affordable, by the way) if it were efficiently priced.  Donald Shoup recommends, for example, that parking meters be priced to ensure that in general, 2 or 3 parking spaces will be vacant on each block.

Efficient parking methods that could be used more often in Boulder include allowing shops and offices and churches to share their parking. This opportunity is particularly available when different land uses (say churches and shops) don’t share the same hours of operation. Again, sharing more parking reduces the amount of parking needed in the city, which makes the city more compact, walkable, enjoyable and active.

Like shared parking, leased parking allows for a reduction in parking needed. If Boulder, for example, owns a parking garage, some of the spaces can be leased to nearby offices, shops, or housing so that those particular land uses do not need to create their own parking.

Finally, a relatively easy and quick way for Boulder to beneficially reform and make more efficient its parking is to revise its parking regulations so that “minimum parking” is converted to “MAXIMUM parking.” Minimum parking rules, required throughout Boulder, are the conventional and increasingly outmoded way to regulate parking. They tell the developer that at least “X” amount of parking spaces must be provided for every “Y” square feet of building. This rule almost always requires the developer to provide excessive, very expensive parking, in large part because it is based on “worst case scenario” parking “needs.” That is, sufficient parking must be provided so that there will be enough on the busiest single day of the year (often the weekend after Thanksgiving). Such a provision means that for the other 364 days of the year, a large number of parking spaces sit empty, a very costly proposition.

In contrast, maximum parking rules tell the developer that there is an upper limit to the number of spaces that can be provided. This works much better for the community and the business because the business is better able to choose how much parking it needs and can finance. Since financial institutions that provide financing for new developments typically require the developer to provide the conventional (read: excessive) amounts of parking as a condition for obtaining a development loan, the big danger for communities in nearly all cases is that TOO MUCH parking will be provided rather than too little. The result of setting “maximum” instead of “minimum” parking rules is that excessive, worst case scenario parking developments become much more rare.

The reform of parking is easy: simply convert the existing minimum parking specifications to maximum parking standards (“at least 3 spaces per 1,000 square feet” becomes “no more than 3 spaces per 1,000 square feet). An incremental approach to this conversion is to apply maximum parking rules in those places that are already rich in travel choices, such as the Boulder town center.

Again, what will Boulder’s destiny be? As the preceding discussion sought to demonstrate, much of that destiny will be shaped by transportation decisions.

Will destiny be shaped by striving for happy people and happy places for people? Or will it be shaped by opting for the conventional, downwardly-spiraling effort of seeking easy car travel (and thereby unpleasant places where only a car can be happy – such as huge highways or parking lots)?

Will Boulder, in other words, retain or otherwise promote place-less conventional shopping centers full of deadening parking, car-only travel, lack of human interaction, and isolation? Or will the city move away from car-happy objectives such as the congestion reduction policy, and instead move toward a people-friendly future rich in sociability, pride in community, travel choices, sustainability, place-making and human scale?

An example of these contrasting destinies is Pearl Street. West Pearl features the charm and human scale we built historically. West Pearl Street exemplifies a lovable, walkable, calm, safe and inviting ambience where car speeds are slower, the street is more narrow, and the shops—by being pulled up to the streetside sidewalk—help form a comfortable sense of enclosure that activates the street and feels comfortable to walk. The shops tend to be smaller—more neighborhood-scaled.

East Pearl Street near 28th Street is starkly different. There, the street is a “stroad,” because it is an overly wide road that should be a more narrow, lower-speed street. Shops are pulled back long distances from the street. The street here is fronted not by interesting shop fronts but enormous seas of asphalt parking. The layout is car-scaled. The setting is hostile, unpleasant, unsafe, stressful and uninviting. The shops tend to be “Big Box” retail, and serve a regional “consumershed.” There is “no there there.”

East Pearl Street was built more recently by professional planners and engineers who have advanced degrees that far exceed the professionalism and education of those who designed the more lovable West Pearl Street. Where has the charm gone? Why have our streets become less pleasant in more recent years (by better trained and better educated designers, I might add)? Is it perhaps related to our more expensive and sophisticated efforts to ease car traffic and reduce congestion?

There is an inverse relationship between congestion and such measures as vehicle miles traveled and gas consumption. At the community level—despite the conventional wisdom—as congestion increases, vehicle miles traveled, gas consumption, air emissions DECREASE. And as conventional efforts to reduce congestion intensify, quality of life and sustainability also decrease.

Again, is Boulder aligning itself with the Sprawl Lobby by maintaining an objective of easing traffic flow – by striving to reduce congestion?

On Controlling Size

David Mohney reminds us that the first task of the urban designer is to control size. This not only pertains to the essential need to keep streets, building setbacks, and community dispersal modest in size. It also pertains to the highly important need to insist on controlling the size of service and delivery trucks. Over-sized trucks in Boulder lead the city down a ruinous path, as street and intersection dimensions are typically driven by the “design vehicle.” When trucks are relatively large, excessive truck size becomes the “design vehicle” which ends up driving the dimensions of city streets. A healthy city should be designed for human scale and safety, not for the needs of huge trucks. Indeed, because motor vehicles consume so much space, a sign of a healthy, well-designed community is that drivers of vehicles should feel inconvenienced. If driving vehicles feels comfortable, it is a signal that we have over-designed streets and allocated such excessive spaces that we have lost human scale and safety.

A proposal for human-scaled streets: in Boulder’s town center, no street should be larger than three lanes in size. Outside the town center, no street should be larger than five lanes in size. Anything more exceeds the human scaling needed for a pleasant, safe, sustainable community.

It is time to return to the timeless tradition of designing to make people happy, not cars. Boulder needs to start by revisiting its congestion reduction objective, putting a number of its roads on a “road diet,” and taking steps to make the provision of parking more efficient and conducive to a healthy city.

________________________________________

 More about the author

 Mr. Nozzi was a senior planner for Gainesville FL for 20 years, and wrote that city’s long-range transportation plan. He also administered Boulder’s growth rate control law in the mid-90s. He is currently a member of the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board.

 Studies Demonstrating Induced Traffic and Car Emission Increases

Below is a sampling of references to studies describing how new car trips are induced by easier car travel, and how car emissions increase as a result.

http://www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/articles/hwyemis.asp

http://www.vtpi.org/gentraf.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Induced_demand

https://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/1993/04/18/does-free-flowing-car-traffic-reduce-fuel-consumption-and-air-pollution/

TØI (2009), Does Road Improvement Decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions?, Institute of Transport Economics (TØI), Norwegian Centre for Transport Research (www.toi.no); summary at www.toi.no/getfile.php/Publikasjoner/T%D8I%20rapporter/2009/1027-2009/Sum-1027-2009.pdf

Robert Noland and Mohammed A. Quddus (2006), “Flow Improvements and Vehicle Emissions:

Effects of Trip Generation and Emission Control Technology,” Transportation Research D, Vol. 11 (www.elsevier.com/locate/trd), pp. 1-14; also see

www.cts.cv.ic.ac.uk/documents/publications/iccts00249.pdf

Clark Williams-Derry (2007), Increases In Greenhouse-Gas Emissions From Highway-Widening Projects, Sightline Institute (www.sightline.org); at

www.sightline.org/research/energy/res_pubs/analysis-ghg-roads

TRB (1995), Expanding Metropolitan Highways: Implications for Air Quality and Energy Use,

Committee for Study of Impacts of Highway Capacity Improvements on Air Quality and Energy

Consumption, Transportation Research Board, Special Report #345 (www.trb.org)

D. Shefer & P. Rietvald (1997), “Congestion and Safety on Highways: Towards an Analytical Model,” Urban Studies, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 679-692.

Alison Cassady, Tony Dutzik and Emily Figdor (2004). More Highways, More Pollution: Road Building and Air Pollution in America’s Cities, U.S. PIRG Education Fund (www.uspirg.org).

http://www.opr.ca.gov/docs/PreliminaryEvaluationTransportationMetrics.pdf

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Working Families Pay More for Transportation Than They Save on Affordable Housing

Detailed Data for 28 Major Metropolitan Areas Nationwide Finds That Moving Further From Work to Afford Housing May Not Mean More Money in Your Pocketbook

Washington, DC (October 11, 2006) – Low- to moderate-income working families are finding that as they move further from work to afford housing they end up spending as much, or more, on transportation costs than they are saving on housing, according to a new study of 28 major Metropolitan areas nationwide entitled A Heavy Load: The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families (http://www.nhc.org/pdf/pub_heavy_load_10_06.pdf).

Conducted by the Center for Housing Policy, the research affiliate of the National Housing Conference (NHC), the study also found that the combined burden of transportation and housing costs for working families was remarkably constant across all the Metropolitan areas studied at an average of 57 percent of annual income. This comprehensive study was conducted with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and was released today in coordination with NHC’s 75th Anniversary Policy Summit in Chicago, IL.

“Working families are increasingly moving further from their jobs to find affordable housing. Yet, we found that many of these families end up spending more on transportation costs than they save on housing,” said Jeffrey Lubell, executive director of the Center for Housing Policy.

“Ultimately, these findings emphasize the importance of coordinating the development of housing and transportation policy, as well as expanding the supply of affordable housing close to both central city and suburban job centers, improving public transit in areas with lower housing costs and reducing the costs of commuting by car for working families.”

Housing and Transportation Tradeoffs

In 17 of the 28 Metropolitan areas studied, the average transportation expenses for working families with annual incomes ranging from $20,000 to $50,000 are actually higher than their housing costs. Overall, across all 28 Metro areas, working families spend an average of 28 percent, or $9,700, of their incomes on housing and nearly 30 percent, or $10,400, on transportation. Transportation costs are based on auto ownership, auto use and public transit use and take into account the cost of commuting, as well as traveling for school, errands and other daily routines.

While the share of income that working families devote to housing and transportation differed from Metro area to Metro area, the combined burden of the two expenses was remarkably similar across all areas. These combined costs range from a low of 54 percent in Pittsburgh to a high of 63 percent in San Francisco, with 25 of the 28 Metro areas within three percentage points of the average combined burden of 57 percent.

Among all American households and income levels, and not just working families, housing and transportation are also the two largest expenses, but consume a smaller share of income at a total of 48 percent.

How Working Families Get to Work

The vast majority of low- to moderate-income working family commuters – more than 85 percent – in the 28 Metro areas studied drive to work in private vehicles. Commuters in some Metro areas take advantage of public transit alternatives such as extensive rail systems and buses. By far, public transit serves the greatest share of working families in the New York Metro area at 31 percent, followed by Chicago, IL at 14 percent and Washington, DC at 13 percent. The Metro areas of Boston, MA, Honolulu, HI, Philadelphia, PA and San Francisco, CA all have an average of 12 percent of commuters taking public transit.

Housing and Transportation Policy Recommendations

Numerous policy recommendations have emerged as a result of these findings.

Specifically, it is essential for regions to coordinate their housing and transportation policies to ensure they fully reflect the needs of working families – one example includes building more affordable housing near existing and planned transit hubs. Additional recommendations include redevelopment of inner city and older suburban neighborhoods near job centers and targeting job development in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods in central cities and inner-ring suburbs. Policies to encourage car sharing and make car ownership more accessible and affordable could also help reduce the transportation cost burdens of working families who must commute by car.

 

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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Sprawl and Suburbia

Around DC, a Cheaper House May Cost You

Longer Commutes Outweigh Savings of Living in Outer Suburbs, Study Shows

By Eric M. Weiss

Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, October 12, 2006

One of the lures of the outer suburbs is more house — maybe even one with a big yard — for less money. But a new study shows that the savings are illusory: The costs of longer commutes are so high that they can outweigh the cheaper mortgage payments.

A study of Washington and 27 other metropolitan areas by the Center for Housing Policy found that the costs of one-way commutes of as little as 12 to 15 miles — roughly the distance between Gaithersburg and Bethesda — cancel any savings on lower-priced outer-suburban homes.

“If you save $40,000 to $50,000 by not buying that house in Montgomery County but expand your commute by an extra 30 miles a day, you can certainly see how that new house could not end up being the deal you thought it was, especially if gas is at $3 a gallon,” said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “But because of the exorbitant cost of housing closer in to [the District], they don’t have a choice if they want to live with their families in a home they can afford.”

Barbara J. Lipman, an author of the study, said that people tend to focus on all the zeroes that differentiate the price of a closer-in house from one in the outer suburbs, but they don’t realize how much they’re spending on commuting costs, such as gas, tires and insurance.

“Even if you save a couple of hundred dollars a month on your mortgage, it doesn’t nearly outweigh the costs of the cars you are driving,” she said.

The average cost of owning a 2006 Toyota Camry and driving it 15,000 miles a year with gas at $2.40 a gallon works out to $7,967 a year, according to AAA.

Higher gas prices put such a strain on Hannah and David Lynch’s budget that they decided to carpool instead of driving separately to their jobs from their Sterling home, even though she works in the District and he works in Baileys Crossroads.

Moving closer to their jobs is out, Hannah said, because “there is no way we could move into an equivalent three-bedroom house for the same amount,” she said. “We don’t want to downsize and give up a yard, for instance.”

Still, the frustrations of her 90-minute one-way commute can sometimes rankle, she said, “especially when there’s a stupidity delay on the [Dulles] Toll Road. It’s a trade-off.”

The study also found that a lack of affordable housing near job centers in the Washington area and elsewhere forces low- to moderate-income families to live in outer suburbs where transportation options are few and costs are high.

Families in the Washington area that earn $20,000 to $50,000 a year spend nearly a third of their income on housing, a figure exceeded only in the San Francisco area, the study says.

“We do have central-city job growth, but in Washington and other places, jobs are growing faster in the suburbs, and the population generally is suburbanizing farther and farther out,” said Lipman, who works for the Center for Housing Policy, which is a research arm of the National Housing Conference, a District-based, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for affordable housing.

Of the 20 fastest-growing counties in the United States, 15 are located 30 miles or more from urban centers, including Loudoun and Stafford counties, Lipman said.

Lipman said many communities have identified a lack of affordable housing, traffic-clogged roads and longer commutes as critical issues but have not linked them. “One thing this study shows is the need to have regional solutions about both housing and transportation,” she said.

The study found that most people in the outer suburbs pay so much for transportation not just because of long commutes but also because they have to use their cars for nearly every errand and trip.

Lipman also said many of the trends will accelerate. The study noted that 62.1 percent of the U.S. metropolitan population lived in the suburbs in 1996, up from 55.1 percent in 1970.

And although the median national household income has risen 10.3 percent from 2000 to 2005, it has been outpaced by housing costs that have gone up 15.4 percent and transportation costs that have risen 13.4 percent over the same period. Gas prices, for instance, have been rising steadily over the past four years, more than doubling from $1.42 a gallon in June 2002 to $2.86 a gallon this past June.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the data highlight a disconnect between where people live and work. Those with the highest commuting costs generally live on the eastern side of Washington, while many of the jobs are on the northern and western sides.

“A three-car family puts a lot of money into depreciating assets, instead of into mortgages and college educations,” he said.

 

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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Sprawl and Suburbia, Traffic Congestion

Local Government Opposition to Smart Growth

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

Smart growth (according to Wikipedia) is a concept and term used by those who seek to identify a set of policies governing transportation and land use planning policy for urban areas that benefits communities and preserves the natural environment. Smart growth advocates land use patterns that are compact, transit-oriented, walkable, bicycle-friendly, and include mixed-use development with a range of housing choices. This philosophy keeps density concentrated in the center of a town or city, combating suburban sprawl.

Proponents of smart growth advocate comprehensive planning to guide, design, develop, revitalize and build communities that: have a unique sense of community and place; preserve and enhance natural and cultural resources; equitably distribute the costs and benefits of development; expand the range of transportation, employment and housing choices; value long-range, regional considerations of sustainability over a short-term focus; and promote public health and healthy communities.

Are Local Governments the Champions of Smart Growth?

The conventional wisdom holds that developers in the private sector, left to their own devices, will resist or be otherwise unaware of the smart growth objectives of a community. That local government and its land development regulations are necessary to ensure that developers engage in developments that deliver smart growth.

It is expected that democratically-elected local governments would champion smart growth, as opinion polls consistently show large majorities who are opposed to suburban sprawl, and one would expect that local government representatives would “carry out the will of the people.”

However, while majorities pay lip service to opposing sprawl, surveys also show that nearly all of the tactics necessary to effectively slow sprawl are also opposed. More and more, “not in my backyard” (NIMBYs) neighborhood activists attend public meetings to fight against smart growth tactics.

How can this be?

Simply put, a number of factors in our world have come together to create an environment in which we have become our own worst enemies – unintentionally working against our own interests.

For example, the emergence of the car, as a form of travel, has been coupled over the past century with exceptionally low-cost oil necessary to power this form of travel. This enabled a population flight from the pollution and crime of the city into the suburbs. Home mortgages and enormous road widening campaigns further promoted an escape from the city. Free and abundant auto parking was not only provided but required for new developments as a way to accommodate a population that was now traveling by car.

Unfortunately, the car carries with it some tragic consequences.

First, creating a world that provides for car travel inevitably results in a growing inability to travel by foot, by bicycle or by transit. Economists call this the “barrier effect.”

Because the barrier effect continuously recruits new motorists who were formerly walking, bicycling or using transit, a growing percentage of the population travels by car.

The distorted market (subsidized gas, roads and parking) combines with a growing number of motorists (many of which have been created by the barrier effect) to create an enormous and ever-growing number of vocal, aggressive advocates for community design which promotes car travel.

This state of affairs could perhaps be tolerable except for one simple fact: The interests, needs and values of people are nearly the opposite of the needs of cars. Cars work best when roads are wide and high-speed. When parking lots are endless in size and easy to find. When building setbacks are large. When there are only a tiny number of other cars on the road. People, on the other hand, largely seek the reverse. The human habitat is most desirable when roads are narrow in size and slow in speed. When parking lots are small and hidden away. When building setbacks are modest. And as a gregarious species by nature, humans enjoy the sociability of congregations of people in our travels.

The tragic dilemma, then, is that as people are increasingly finding themselves compelled to travel by car, they increasingly find themselves obligated, unintentionally, to request community design that works against their own quality of life.

In the end, the decline in civic pride and sociability that comes from car travel advocacy leads to a “cocooning” tendency in which people increasingly turn inward. People turn away from the public realm. Houses and commercial buildings pull themselves away from hostile, raceway roads and turn their backs to it. The public realm declines in quality as it is increasingly neglected and held at arms length.

Instead, quality of life is to be achieved by creating a luxurious private realm. The insides of our SUVs, the insides of our commercial buildings, and the insides of our suburban homes become palatial. Outside, our streets, sidewalks and squares become ignored, unkempt “no man’s lands” where only a tiny number (of those without the money to own a car) are found.

What follows is a list of common regulatory strategies that most communities use to block smart growth efforts proposed by developers and promote car travel.

 

1. FAR (floor area ratio) limits in areas intended to be walkable. The higher the percentage of floor area for a given parcel of land, the more compact and walkable the design can be. Therefore, setting FAR limits tends to inhibit walkability.

2. Maximum residential densities in areas intended to be walkable. Higher densities promote walking, discourage excessive car travel, reduce energy consumption, improve the health of small- and neighborhood-based shops, increase citizen surveillance, promote independence of travel for seniors and children, promote affordable housing. Therefore, setting density limits in areas intended to be walkable tends to inhibit walkability.

3. Environmental regulations that are not relaxed in-town. Strict in-town environmental regulations (where the environment tends to be relatively degraded anyway) add another layer of discouraging costs for in-town development and redevelopment. Such infill is already disadvantaged by enormous public subsidies promoting sprawl (mostly road and parking). In addition, the habitat for wildlife tends to be incompatible with the habitat for humans (spaces tend to be too large to walk, nuisances such as insects, unkempt vegetation and water tend to be extreme, etc.).

4. Mixed use limits (and overall employment of use-based instead of form-based coding, the latter of which increases predictability and therefore infill investment). Mixed-use promotes transportation choice, affordable housing, sidewalk vibrancy, citizen surveillance, reduction in excessive car travel, improved business climate (less need for costly rezonings). Most communities prohibit residences in commercial areas and commercial in residential areas.

5. Minimum parking requirements. Such requirements create an excessive amount of free, unwalkable, unpleasant, unsafe seas of asphalt. Such car storage areas deaden the financial and social vibrancy of an area. They encourage excessive car use and discourages transportation choice. They enable long-distance travel by car. They increase the cost of goods and services (because parking is not free for businesses which must provide it). They make housing less affordable.

6. Minimum lot size. Such a regulation makes housing less affordable. It creates a less compact, less walkable design. It therefore tends to reduce transportation choice.

7. Minimum lot width. Like minimum lot size, such a regulation makes housing less affordable. It creates a less compact, less walkable design. It therefore tends to reduce transportation choice. It also tends to reduce sidewalk vibrancy.

8. Large and required building setbacks. Such a regulation makes development less walkable, thereby reducing transportation choice. It reduces housing affordability. The public realm is degraded as a human-scaled sense of enclosure (through the creation of “outdoor rooms”) is extinguished.

9. Minimum public school playing field size. This requirement chases a large number of neighborhood-based, walkable public schools from in-town, walkable neighborhoods, since such neighborhoods tend not to have the space to accommodate such large school sites. Such a requirement also discourages the retrofitting of walkable, neighborhood-based schools into existing neighborhoods.

10. Large stormwater basin requirements (and allowing basins at street). This requirement frequently creates unwalkable site development design. The public realm is degraded as a human-scaled sense of enclosure is less possible.

11. Allowing parking lots in front of buildings and at intersections. This requirement frequently creates unwalkable site development design. The public realm is degraded as a human-scaled sense of enclosure is less possible. (This issue pertains to a lack of a regulation.)

12. Prohibition on awnings, canopies, colonnades, cafes in ROW. This makes the character-rich, romantic, walkable, weather-sheltering traditional design of storefronts illegal.

13. Large vision triangle and huge turning radius. Tends to increase the turning speed of motor vehicles and reduces the attentiveness of drivers. Tends to increase crossing distance exposure of pedestrians across street intersections. Tends to reduce the likelihood of a human-scaled sense of enclosure.

14. ADUs often not allowed. Accessory Dwelling Units (often called “granny flats”) are an easy way to create affordable housing and higher neighborhood densities, as well as improving household and neighborhood security.

15. Property tax based on building value rather than based only on land value. This tax system, used in nearly all American communities, financially penalizes development, redevelopment, infill and intensification of in-town properties, which promotes sprawl, reduces in-town vibrancy and retail health, reduces local government tax revenue, and strongly incentivizes the speculative holding of property in low-value uses such as surface parking.

16. Limiting the number of “families” (particularly in single-family residential zoning). This regulation is designed to indirectly control problems associated with too many cars (spillover parking, etc.). By limiting the number of families, we inhibit smart density increases and make affordable housing less likely.

17. Applying “One Size Fits All” Building Codes to Downtown. Nearly all communities have a building code that applies citywide. Often, as a result, property owners find that it is not cost-feasible to rehabilitate older, dilapidated buildings downtown because it is too costly to meet code requirements that would require, for example, hallways or doors to be widened for fire safety. Therefore, to incentivize the re-use of existing buildings, the State of New Jersey has adopted a “Rehabilitation Code.” The code resulted in a substantial increase in the amount of rehabilitation work in New Jersey urban areas during the first year the code was in place The code relaxes certain requirements without compromising safety. Overall, the argument could be made that because of the successful rehabilitation of New Jersey urban buildings, public safety has improved. (Healthier downtowns means less suburban motor vehicle travel, and the rehabbed buildings are often or always safer than in their previous state-even if they are not built to the statewide code for new buildings.)

18. Use-Based vs. Form-Based Codes. Most land development codes are focused on separating uses, ensuring that “sufficient” car parking is provided, and specifying what is not allowed. Very few, if any, of the regulations indicate what should be built. In addition, the quality of the public realm tends to be ignored (unless it is to provide a nice view for the passing motorist).

19. Wide travel lanes for roads. Tends to increase the speed of motor vehicles and reduces the attentiveness of drivers. Tends to increase crossing distance exposure of pedestrians across street intersections.

20. Resistance to “spot” zoning. Nearly all community planners and elected officials have a policy that dates back to the beginning of zoning regulations from the early part of the 20th century. Known as “spot” zoning, this strongly discouraged change in the use of land constitutes, usually, a proposal to change the zoning designation from residential use to commercial use on a piece of property that is surrounded by other properties zoned for residential. In the anachronistic interest of “segregating” dissimilar uses of land from each other, the underlying premise is that a rezoning is not appropriate when the proposed new zoning is unlike any zoning for adjacent property. Again, the idea harkens back a century ago when it was deemed important to separate noxious industrial activities from residential properties. Today, most of the opposition to “spot” zoning is based on a desire to minimize the nuisance of excessive car trips drawn by an isolated office or shop to surrounding residences – an important concern in an auto-dependent society. Ironically, resistance to “spot” zoning (often specifically prohibited in the community long-range plan) leads to a growth in per capita car travel, since such efforts squelch changes that would introduce neighborhood-based shops and offices that could be walked or bicycled to.

21. Road concurrency (and exceptions without meaningful design requirements). This rule strongly promotes suburban sprawl and suboptimizes the needs of cars over the needs of people and community. Most communities require that new development in urban areas not “degrade” free-flowing traffic conditions on nearby roads or otherwise create congested conditions. Because cars consume so much space, striving for free-flow results in the requirement that either enormous, unsafe and unwalkable roads be built, that density or intensity be kept as low as possible, or both. (Only a tiny number of people are necessary to congest a road, given the large size of cars. Striving for “tiny number” densities deadens an area and makes lively urbanism impossible.)

For nearly every planner, every elected official, and every citizen, when a new development is proposed, the overwhelming question (and often the only important one) is this: “Can the roads serving this new development handle the car trips that will be generated by the new development.” Regularly, the answer is “no.” Two “solutions” are generally suggested, both of which are deadly for city-building: (1) require the roads to be widened, at great expense to the developer, the local government, or both; or if this is not feasible, (2) deny the development permission to build. The first “solution” takes precious dollars away from much-needed community services and facilities. It also degrades the community quality of life because wider roads inevitably harms the human habitat. Cars become faster, louder, more dangerous and more necessary. The second “solution” takes away from the health of the city, as healthy cities require agglomeration economies. That is, a city is stronger and more fit as it adds more people and activities within a compact, diverse space. And denying projects on the basis of “insufficient” road capacity works at cross-purposes with the essential need of a city to strive for agglomeration. Life-giving energy and vitality are denied when a development is stopped due to insufficient road capacity. Conversely, over-sized roads diverts energy and vitality to outlying areas. In effect, then, contemporary local government planners are single-mindedly and ironically obsessed with a quest to strangle the life-blood out of a community.

Some communities in Florida grant exceptions to the statewide requirement that new development maintain free-flow conditions, but such communities generally do not require meaningful urbanism in exchange for the exception.

Each of these 20 items share at least one characteristic in common: they all profoundly and systematically degrade the public realm – the streets, the sidewalks, the public square, and other spaces where citizens have an opportunity to interact, and where the character and vibrancy of a community is perceived.

An overriding desire in an auto-dependent society is that new development should minimize the number of cars that would congest our roads and take up our parking spaces. That largely means that new development must either be stopped, or its density minimized (to reduce the number of cars that will hog our roads and parking lots). And unlike in the past, when this opposition came mostly from environmentalists, this form of anti-city advocacy now comes from all groups: Not just “Greens,” but also Republicans, Democrats, business owners, liberals, conservatives, the Chamber of Commerce, and even libertarians.

Increasingly, it is the private developer who most often leads the way in proposing smart growth developments, and must frequently face a barrage of time-consuming, costly and often fatal obstacles, such as those above. Rather than “evil” developers, all too often the most serious barrier to smart growth are obstacles, such as those listed above, put in place by local governments still trapped in the auto age.

 

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Location-Efficient Mortgages

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

Mortgage lending typically does not consider the financial burden of commuting and other transportation costs for a family living in a remote, single-use (i.e., only residential land use) suburban area.

By living in a house that is remote from jobs, schools, shopping, and recreation/culture means that the household must spend more for transportation — usually by owning a relatively large number of cars. Research by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has shown that a typical family living in a more central location in Oakland drives only half as much as a similar family in a more remote location. The savings were measured at about $750 per month. Others report savings of $300 to $600 per month.

Higher overall payments (travel and mortgage) make the more remote home more risky to the lender than a comparable loan in a more central location.

The hope of groups supporting what are called “location-efficient” mortgages is that the lending formula can be changed so that a dollar a month saved on transportation can be applied to a dollar a month higher loan payment. As a result, families wanting to purchase a home in a more “location efficient” area could qualify for a higher mortgage than a family purchasing a remote, less location-efficient home.

Location-efficient mortgages create a way for banks and mortgage lenders to recognize the transportation savings that an “access rich” central location is able to benefit from. A portion of these savings can be used by such institutions to “stretch” their standard income-to-expenses ratios that are part of the mortgage application process.

Of course, this concept is a powerful affordable housing tool as well. With this approach, like the Energy Star mortgage program (commonly called “energy-efficient mortgages”), a lower income household could qualify for housing that would otherwise be “unaffordable” under conventional lending rules.

Location-efficient mortgages acknowledge that families save money when they “live locally.” Those who shop, work, go to school, and enjoy parks or culture locally don’t need to travel as much because their more compact and populated (location-efficient) area is pedestrian-friendly and amenity-accessible.

In the neighborhood which has good accessibility, residents can walk to the grocery store, ride the bus to work, pick up the laundry on the way home from work, walk to the park on weekends, and bike to the shopping center for weekend errands. Households are more likely to own one car, instead of two or more, and drive less than 900 miles per month.

By contrast, neighborhoods that provide good mobility are ones where residents live in a more sparsely settled area with one-acre lots on cul-de-sacs and other disconnected roads without sidewalks. Households often must depend on two or more cars to provide the mobility tasks that members of the household must deal with — tasks that the “access-rich” households often perform by walking, bicycling, or using the bus. Such households must devote an enormous amount of time to travel by car, which means, among other things, loss of free time, emission of relatively large amounts of air pollution, and consumption of relatively large amounts of gasoline.

Patrick Hare claims he came up with the idea originally. He called it “Near Transit (one car) Mortgages.” His point was that if a household was in a location-efficient area, it would be better able to shed the second household car. By doing so, about $3,000 per year could be saved — which translates into being able to make mortgage payments for a mortgage of about $34,000 with this money saved.

“Location Efficiency” is emphasizes how accessible things like jobs and parks and shopping are, rather than how mobile one must be to find such needed goods and services. A strong correlation has been found between a location-efficient house and how many miles are driven each year and the number of cars owned by a household. The key correlative factors for location efficiency are:

Relatively high residential density

Good access to public transit

Good access to shopping, services, cultural amenities, and schools

Good pedestrian “friendliness” of sidewalks, bikeways, benches, lighting, and plantings

The author of the study that found these correlations states that it is possible to project auto ownership and usage, and thus average travel costs, with good reliability.

The Internet now has something called “Location-Efficient Mortgage Advisor” software that a lender could use to determine mortgage qualification. It contains an area map which shows the location of the property that the hypothetical buyer is considering buying, and any bus stops, train stations, and principal cultural features near the property. It would also indicate walking distances. This information is merged by the software, which then calculates a “Location Efficient Value” (LEV), and enters a predetermined portion of the LEV into the mortgage formula calculation. (For those of you who enjoy playing with mortgage calculations, the Web page I cite below goes into detail that I won’t bore you with about how the “location-efficient mortgage” would work.)

To summarize, the benefits of the location-efficient mortgage are:

Creates affordable housing. Encourages home ownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income households.

Stimulates home purchases in low- and moderate-income urban neighborhoods.

Increases transit ridership.

Promotes infill and establishes a financial disincentive for sprawl

Supports local consumer services and cultural amenities.

Cuts energy consumption

Improves regional and local air quality.

Is all this a pipe dream that is too good to be true? Not at all. It is starting to happen. The Federal National Mortgage Company (“Fannie Mae”) was slated to do a market test of location-efficient mortgages in Chicago in February 1998.

The project is expected to help Fannie Mae achieve its “One Trillion Dollar Commitment” to expanded home ownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income households.

Some of the organizations that are supporting the location-efficient mortgage initiative are:

The Center for Neighborhood Technology

National Resources Defense Council

US Dept of Energy

US Dept of Transportation

Environmental Protection Agency

Surface Transportation Policy Project

Federal Transit Administration

The Chicago Public School System

The Chicago Board of Realtors

Sources for the above info:

Earthword, Issue #4

Center for Neighborhood Technology WWW Page

Contacts:

James “Kim” Hoeveler. 312-278-4800 email: hoeveler@cnt.org

Location-Efficient Mortgage Home Page: http://www.cnt.org/lem/

Patrick Hare 202-269-9334

David Goldstein 415-495-5996

 

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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Sprawl and Suburbia

Model Urban Design Strategies

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

In general, we don’t tend to find model cities that have good urban design standards embedded throughout their land development code. Mostly what one finds are cities and towns that adopt a very impressive urban design ordinance that are added as an appendage (or overlay) to a portion of the land development code.

In nearly every community, what we find is that the “conventional” land development code contains an overwhelming number of regulations/ordinances that actually work against what is known as “smart growth” or what I would consider to be quality urban design.

In other words, much of the reform that is needed in almost every community is to get the adopted regulations out of the way of those seeking to build desirable developments. To expand the options that the development community has in providing for the full range of housing and commercial choices, instead of just being forced to limit themselves to conventional suburban, car-oriented development.

Sometimes, the marketplace actually seeks smart growth design. That is increasingly true today, as baby boomers, empty nesters and seniors, in growing numbers, are seeking walkable, denser, mixed-use, more vibrant, in-town living arrangements. Yet too often, developers find that the local government, astonishingly, has quite a few regulations that make such smart growth development illegal.

The approach that the more forward-thinking communities are starting to take is to establish a “transect-based” code. Instead of using the conventional approach of only having regulations to provide for a suburban lifestyle, progressive communities with visionary leaders are creating codes that are “context-sensitive.” In other words, the code has 3 to 6 lifestyle zones ranging from walkable urban to farm- and preservation-oriented rural. Each zone contains its own set of appropriate, customized regulations. That is, regulations designed to maximize the quality of the lifestyle intended for that zone.

These communities are moving away from the idea that “one size fits all.”

Note, too, that conventional, one-size-fits-all suburban land development codes (zoning regulations) use a reactive, negative approach to regulating development. The regulations have no vision for what the community seeks. They generally only state what is NOT allowed.

An important problem with the conventional approach is that it provides very little predictability for the community. Neighbors of a project are unable to know what to expect of a nearby development project. This unpredictability is also economically harmful, as businesses, developers and lending institutions are more healthy and comfortable with investing and developing when there is more predictability. Investing and developing is more risky when one cannot predict what a neighbor might develop in the future.

Conventional codes also tend to be “use-based;” striving to segregate land uses from each other, and focused on preventing “too much” residential density (after all, zoning regulations were born in an age when it was very important to separate “dirty” industries from houses, and to prevent overcrowding conditions). Today, such concerns have become rather anachronistic and counter-productive. Segregating land uses and restricting residential densities promotes auto dependence and discourages transit, bicycling and walking. These sorts of regulations also hurt small businesses and promote larger, corporate retailers.

Furthermore, conventional codes are meticulously designed to ensure that each development provides vast quantities of off-street parking. As Donald Shoup points out, such regulations are not at all based on objective, scientific studies about how much parking should be provided. They are adopted because “that is the requirement in other communities” (instead of being based on local studies).

In general, such regulations are a self-fulfilling prophesy because they assume everyone will drive a car to the development. By making that assumption, vast seas of parking are provided, which reduces the ability to travel without a car, which promotes additional car travel. And so on, ad infinitum. (free parking is also an enormous subsidy that strongly encourages travel by car)

Such parking requirements end up striving to provide sufficient parking for the “worst” day of the year (usually a week before Christmas).

Which means that most parking lots are nearly empty for 99% of the year.

“Worst case scenario” planning tends to be extremely costly, disastrous, and wasteful.

Shoup shows how the off-street parking regulations worsen traffic congestion, promote suburban sprawl, encourage car use for nearly every trip, increase air pollution and fuel consumption, reduce the ability to use transit (or walk or bicycle), significantly discourage small businesses which are unable to afford the high cost of providing such parking, and significantly increase the cost of housing (affordable housing is nearly impossible when off-street parking is required).

A newly-emerging example of smart growth regulations that seek to reform these problematic, conventional codes is known as a “form-based” code. A form-based code is ideally embedded within a transect-based land development code. The essential difference between a form-based code and a conventional use-based code is that a form-based code takes the position that the design of buildings is much more important and long-lasting for the community quality of life than the conventional focus on what uses are allowed in the building.

Instead, a form-based code has regulations that explicitly and positively state the community vision for the full range of lifestyles found in the community: urban, suburban and rural. The imperative becomes place-making, community-building, self-sufficiency, sustainability. Cities with well-designed buildings in neighborhoods containing the full range of daily needs — buildings that are integrated with other buildings to form comfortable spaces and energize the public realm, instead of being stand-alone, “look at me,” “object” buildings that deaden and turn their backs to the public realm. Use segregation, residential density maximums, and off-street parking are de-emphasized in a form-based code.

Form-based codes also return us to the tradition of emphasizing the quality and vibrancy of the public realm — the streets, the sidewalks and the buildings.

Given the above, examples of communities that have taken the lead on urban design are:

Sarasota FL

Miami FL

Madison WI

Austin TX

Belmont NC

West Palm Beach FL

Davidson NC

Nashville TN

Boulder CO

Ft Collins CO

Hercules CA

Hillsborough County FL

Huntersville NC

Orlando FL

These cities have not necessarily reformed their entire zoning/land development code. Some may simply have adopted a form-based code that they have appended to their land development code and applied it to a discreet location within the community.

Almost always, progress in urban design regulations is extremely incremental. It usually starts off by establishing “overlay” zoning districts which are overlaid onto the existing, underlying land development regulations. Overlays are a step in the direction of creating a form-based, transect-oriented land development code, but by themselves tend to be rather ad hoc “patches” (particularly when there is a proliferation of them in the underlying Code). Overlays tend to create code inconsistencies, and confusion for both planning staff, developers, and citizens. There is no unifying vision in this form of eclecticism.

Another note: Given the scarcity of communities which have reformed their entire land development code to promote smart growth, nearly all of the impressive urban design occurring in America is being driven not by local government regulations. Instead, smart growth is being created mostly by private sector developers who are building quality urban design (usually large infill projects in a downtown, or a new, traditional neighborhood).

 

An article pertinent to the above comments:

 

Working Toward a New Understanding of Zoning

By Roger K. Lewis Saturday, March 4, 2006; F05. The Washington Post

 

Urban design thinking and practice have greatly advanced over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, conventional zoning, the crude but all-powerful regulatory tool shaping cities, has changed little. Given the need to transform land-use planning and development, why is it so difficult to transform conventional zoning?

Impediments to zoning reform are predominantly political, social and economic, usually having little to do with design. Holistically amending a jurisdiction’s zoning statutes and regulations requires both executive leadership and legislative action. Because strong political sentiment always arises in opposition to proposed changes in land development, most elected officials and their constituents are reluctant to contemplate and push for such changes.

Zoning is potent because once zones are mapped and categories of land use, land-use intensity and building criteria are prescribed, the future character of the physical environment, along with its potential economic value, is substantially determined.

Land zoned for only single-family detached houses, with lots no smaller than 10,000 square feet, is likely to be less valuable than land zoned for attached homes or apartment buildings. If that same land is zoned for commercial use, its value becomes even greater.

Zoning creates vested land-use rights and potential wealth for property owners. In fixing boundaries, uses, densities and building form, zoning also presumably creates stability and predictability.

Thus many oppose zoning changes because they see it as a threat to their neighborhood and property. In many areas, zoning effectively excludes less affluent people from property ownership by generating land scarcity and unaffordable land costs through constraints on use.

Although many have benefited economically from zoning, it has become increasingly ineffective as an instrument of urban design. Zoning’s fundamental flaw is that it operates primarily by setting limits, spelling out what cannot be done, while remaining relatively mute as to what should be done.

Zoning laws often were written by lawyers, not by planners and designers. Regulations adopted decades ago under radically different circumstances are still on the books. Among the most obstructive regulations are these limiting types of use and mixing of uses.

People once believed that proper planning required clearly separated, single-use zones. A further belief was that, within a zone, buildings should be similar in bulk, height and character.

Today, urban designers advocate mixing uses and building types, blurring lines of demarcation between urban and suburban neighborhoods. They strive for connectivity rather than separation, heterogeneity rather than homogeneity. Density is another concern. Over time, new technologies, new architectural design strategies, new transportation modes and new patterns of human behavior make previous assumptions about density obsolete. Allowable densities stipulated 40 or 50 years ago for a city may make little sense today in the face of dramatic changes in demographics, infrastructure, building types and land development costs.

But by far, zoning’s most significant deficiency is its failure to mobilize regulatory power in determining the quality of the public realm — the design of streets, civic spaces and public parks.

Typically, jurisdictions address the public realm, if at all, in broad-brush master plans, but often vaguely and without the kind of exacting constraints imposed by zoning. Rarely do zoning ordinances and master plans set forth adequate design standards for street cross sections, planting, furniture, lighting, sidewalk dimensions and finishes, building porosity at sidewalk level, or graphics. Rarely are plaza geometries or landscaping spelled out. Instead, most jurisdictions fabricate a patchwork quilt of uncoordinated ordinances that deal separately with transportation, public works, utilities, building and public safety codes, and parks and recreation.

Ideally, a new set of principles and rules for urban design and development, superseding zoning, would explicitly and comprehensively address all of these issues: patterns of land use, densities, infrastructure, building form and, equally important, cityscape and landscape. And to be effective, its mapping and design criteria would be fine-grained, ranging in scale from districts and neighborhoods to specific sites.

A new code still would need to prescribe limits where appropriate, but its aim would be higher: to achieve desired aesthetic quality and functionality within the public realm.

Of course, debates about desired aesthetic quality won’t go away. Urban designers share many goals, but competing aesthetic philosophies persist, just as in other design fields, such as architecture, furniture and fashion design.

Boiled down, the debate is between those embracing historical continuity and those advocating innovation. The former generally want to be more prescriptive about both cityscape and architecture, while the latter, fearful that freedom of artistic expression could be stifled, seek to promote design flexibility.

But each community must engage in this debate, a necessary part of the process required to transcend conventional zoning. No matter which aesthetic philosophy a community chooses, residents must remember that cities are at once permanent and organic, durable yet mutable. While laws regulating urban development should not be changed solely in response to rapidly shifting trends in taste, they nevertheless must change from time to time. For zoning, this is one of those times.

 

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

 

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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Sprawl and Suburbia, Visioning

Highway Builders on a Roll

By ARIEL HART

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 03/12/06

 

 

It’s not a bad time to be a highway developer in Georgia.

In the past three months:

•Work started on what is probably the biggest road contract in state history, a $147 million remake of the Ga. 316 and I-85 interchange.

•The state formally entered negotiations on a $1.8 billion job that could expand I-75 to as many as 23 lanes across and implemented for the first time a law that lets private companies propose and build toll road projects.

•And four state agencies adopted the Congestion Mitigation Task Force recommendations, mathematical calculations to rank what transportation projects are most pressing.

For the moment, it looks like those will be roads, the bigger the better.

We don’t have a choice, say state officials.

“Everything that we are doing is addressing immediate needs,” said Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl of the state Department of Transportation. He said while other needs would stay on the to-do list, what the state is planning to work on right now “does address the greatest need for today, the bang for the buck.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue concurred after leading a meeting Wednesday in which the task force recommendations got final approval. He said the notion that those guidelines favor big roads is a wrongheaded assessment, that they simply plan to prioritize bottlenecks – “worst first.”

“What it’s going to favor is getting people moving,” he said. “We’ve tried a shotgun solution in the past, everything everywhere, and it’s not been effective.”

Transit advocates say that’s short-term thinking.

“Clearly something is going on here,” said David Goldberg, a spokesman for Smart Growth America, a Washington-based environmental and planning group. “Without a whole lot of really public discussion and input, the state apparently has made a very far-reaching and long- lasting and fundamental change in how we’re addressing our future growth. The question that I have to ask, is, where does it end? How many lanes can we add? How many decks can we add to the freeway?”

One of the big long-term questions is what the task force recommendations will mean. They were adopted without thorough computer modeling, but the Atlanta Regional Commission’s cursory analysis showed a few big highway and arterial road projects beat out smaller projects and rail. For example, rapid-transit buses that will run on highways, like those proposed on I-75, might fare well.

But the $106 million commuter rail to Lovejoy, for which the federal government has committed $87 million, might not because it doesn’t offer much immediate relief to road congestion, according to John Orr at the ARC. ARC leaders insist their members can still set their own priorities by having final say over the project list.

Need outpaces money

The one thing everybody agrees on is there’s not enough money to go around. Populations across the country are exploding – Atlanta expects a population increase of 2.3 million by 2030 – all of them driving, riding, biking and walking. Funding to keep them moving isn’t keeping pace.

But big roads have found a friend in private investment. Georgia’s “public-private initiative” law finalized last year allows road contractors to propose megaprojects to be partially funded by their own investment and tolls. In December, the state Transportation Board voted to negotiate multimillion-dollar initial planning contracts with a private consortium on the I-75 public-private job, the first time a project has gotten that far.

Probably the biggest public-private project idea is the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, 4,000 miles of toll roads and transit that would be built across that state over 50 years. Under some versions of the plan, parts of the corridor take up land nearly a quarter-mile wide. Not every city can do that, said Ed Ellis, regional vice president with Kimley-Horn and Associates, an engineering consulting firm.

“A New York didn’t have automobiles in the 1800s” when its road system was being laid out, Ellis said. Older, dense cities developed a lot more smaller arteries closer together for walkers and horsemen.

Now they’ve got more roads, plus so much development on the land around them that land prices make road expansion too expensive.

That was less the case in places like Long Island, N.Y., and is still less the case in a state like Georgia or Texas.

Texas has just entered a contract for some preliminary planning work on one piece of the Corridor. Other states are crowding conferences dedicated to public-private projects, and the federal government is on board.

“What’s becoming self-evident is that the resources available for maintaining, let alone improving, what we have just aren’t there,”

said Neil Gray, director of government affairs at the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, a national booster of tolls and public-private projects. “We’ve just had a new federal highway bill, which tried its best to provide all that it could, but no one wants to touch fuel tax increases, the traditional way of making it work.”

A green light to sprawl?

The shortage of road dollars may be having one salutary effect. With congestion worsening in Atlanta, a study released last year found Atlantans driving shorter distances on average. The study couldn’t say why, but those who have tried to check sprawl and push people to live closer to work and play hoped it meant that their efforts, combined with unbearable traffic jams, were paying off. Green- lighting record-breaking roads, they fear, will just free up people to sprawl again.

Furthermore, they argue, if you free a road, it will quickly fill up with drivers who wouldn’t have driven otherwise, creating more traffic.

Gray disagreed. “The old adage is you can’t build your way out of congestion,” he said. “Well, that’s not 100 percent true. There are logical ways,” including lanes like the truck-only toll lanes and HOV lanes where single drivers can ride, for a price.

Such lanes are a big part of the I-75/I-575 public-private project in Cobb and Cherokee counties, which would dwarf all previous Georgia road contracts if the negotiations pan out. If it is done, I-285 also would have to be expanded to handle the transfer traffic. In fact, planners acknowledge, what they’re hoping for is a whole system of added truck lanes to handle Atlanta’s place as the hub of the Southeast’s interstate freight network.

As news spread this week about the huge number of lanes proposed for I-75, Atlantans’ jaws dropped.

“Holy cow,” said Goldberg.

The ajc.com Web site flooded with comment. A writer named “Edge” said that “Considering the truck traffic, I can see the need for it.”

“Yeah more lanes will work,” countered “Justin.” “Just like it worked on 85…oh wait…just like it worked on 75…oh wait.”

“Let’s just pave over the entire metro,” he concluded.

 

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