Road Widening Worsens Conditions for Atlanta

By Brian Gist, Jim Grode

For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 11/03/06

 

Atlantans hardly need a group of researchers to tell them that traffic in the region is a mess. But a recently released study of transportation patterns shows just how bad it is.

Our average commute time is 31.2 minutes, five minutes longer than in 1990, the highest increase in the country. We have three of the worst bottlenecks in the country. Less than 4 percent of Atlantans take transit to work.

So, not only does Atlanta have some of the worst traffic in the country, but also our attempts to build our way out of congestion are failing.

Urban planners say traffic congestion can’t be eliminated simply by building roads. Atlanta’s decades-long love affair with more and bigger highways has proved them correct. Wider highways increase capacity, which encourages sprawl, generating more traffic, and pretty soon those wider highways are clogged with traffic.

The solution to traffic congestion in a modern urban center such as Atlanta lies in transportation alternatives, not more highways. We must focus on efforts that reduce the number of vehicles on Atlanta’s roads, increase access to and coverage of the mass transit network and make land-use decisions that allow people to live near transit, jobs and shopping. Building smarter rather than larger will also help relieve Atlanta’s air quality problems by reducing tailpipe pollution.

The study, Commuting in America III, by the Transportation Research Board comes as state and federal transportation agencies are considering a slate of major new projects intended to alleviate traffic congestion in metro Atlanta, such as expanding I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties. Several scenarios are proposed for the project, some of which include positive elements such as increased use of bus rapid transit and new transit stations to serve these buses.

But one serious failing in the expansion proposal is the lack of rail-based projects. The stability provided by rail infrastructure can fundamentally change metro Atlanta’s land-use patterns, allowing the region to proactively guide growth, rather than react to it. As long as Atlanta builds roads rather than rails, we will always be a step, or more, behind our transportation problems.

Even more troubling, however, is that the scenarios call for adding as many as eight lanes to I-75, creating 23-lane-wide portions of concrete — wider than the length of a football field.

These new lanes will do little or nothing to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. And in a twist that shows just how foolish our transportation planning has become, the new lanes will end at the junction of I-75 and I-285, one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the country, as the commuting study identified. All the vehicles in the new lanes will have to rejoin the existing lanes, making the bottleneck even worse. Further, the proposal also calls for between four and six new lanes elsewhere in the 75/575 project area. None of these additional lanes will solve the congestion problem. They will just relocate it, and probably make it worse.

Here’s another wrinkle: Georgia is facing a massive deficit in its transportation budget. According to the Statewide Transportation Plan, currently proposed projects will cost almost double what the state has to spend. The last thing we should be doing is spending our scarce transportation dollars on highway projects that will all too quickly worsen our traffic crisis and air quality.

The I-75/575 proposal, and all projects intended to avoid gridlock, must be given a hard look to ensure they will actually reduce congestion and not perpetuate the cycle of unnecessary highway construction that created Atlanta’s traffic crisis in the first place.

These projects frame the critical question that will determine Atlanta’s transportation future: Will we simply continue to build larger highways, or will we realize that Atlanta’s congestion problem can only be solved by building smarter?

The public will have a critical opportunity to weigh in on the I-75/ I-575 proposal when the draft environmental study is released this year.

Atlantans must demand that the transportation agencies charged with making these decisions stop building bigger and more highways, and start building a smarter transportation future. Let’s not find out 10 years from now in another study that we have added yet another five minutes or more to our commute.

> Brian Gist and Jim Grode are attorneys in the Atlanta office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Research: Trees Make Streets Safer, Not Deadlier

From the September 2006 issue of New Urban News

Courtesy of Eric Dumbaugh

 

Proposals for planting rows of trees along the roads – a traditional technique for shaping pleasing public spaces – are often opposed by transportation engineers, who contend that a wide travel corridor, free of obstacles, is needed to protect the lives of errant motorists.

Increasingly, however, the engineers’ beliefs about safety are being subjected to empirical study and are being found incorrect. Eric Dumbaugh, an assistant professor of transportation at Texas A&M, threw down the gauntlet with a long, carefully argued article, “Safe Streets, Livable Streets,” in the Summer 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association. A follow-up article by Dumbaugh, in the 2006 edition of Transportation Research Record, will present further evidence that safe urban roadsides are not what the traffic-engineering establishment thinks they are.

Though engineers generally assert that wide clear areas safeguard motorists who run off the roads, Dumbaugh looked at accident records and found that, on the contrary, wide-open corridors encourage motorists to speed, bringing on more crashes. By contrast, tree-lined roadways cause motorists to slow down and drive more carefully, Dumbaugh says.

Dumbaugh examined crash statistics and found that tree-lined streets experience fewer accidents than do “forgiving roadsides” – those that have been kept free of large, inflexible objects. He points to “a growing body of evidence suggesting that the inclusion of trees and other streetscape features in the roadside environment may actually reduce crashes and injuries on urban roadways.”

Among the cases cited in his JAPA article are these:

• A study of five arterial roadways in downtown Toronto found that mid-block car crashes declined between 5 and 20 percent in areas where there were elements such as trees or concrete planters along the road.

• Urban “village” areas in New Hampshire containing “on-street parking and pedestrian-friendly roadside treatments” were “two times less likely to experience a crash” than the purportedly safer roadways preferred by most transportation engineers.

• A study of two-lane roadways found that although wide shoulders “were associated with reductions in single-vehicle, fixed-object crashes, they were also associated with a statistically significant increase in total crashes.” A rise in multiple-vehicle crashes offset the decline in fixed-object crashes.

• An examination of Colonial Drive (State Route 50), which connects the north end of downtown Orlando to the suburbs, found fewer serious mid-block crashes on the “livable” section than on a comparison conventional roadway. According to Dumbaugh, the conventional roadway also was associated with more injuries to pedestrians and bicyclists.

DRIVERS ADJUST

In his explanation of why “livable streets” enhance safety, Dumbaugh says “drivers are ‘reading’ the potential hazards of the road environment and adjusting their behavior in response.” Dan Burden, senior urban designer for Glatting Jackson and Walkable Communities Inc. in Orlando, notes that there is research showing that “motorists need and benefit from tall vertical roadside features such as trees or buildings in order to properly gauge their speed.”

What Dumbaugh advocates appears to be consistent with, though not as radical as, the work that traffic engineer Hans Monderman has been doing in small towns in Holland. Monderman has introduced trees, paving, stones, fountains, and other features, while eliminating conventional safety devices such as traffic lights, speed-limit signs, and pavement markings. Monderman discovered that, at least in small Dutch towns, drivers therefore slow down and become alert to clues about how to behave.

JAPA accompanied Dumbaugh’s article with a counterpoint from J.L. Gattis of the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, who argued that the studies cited are not conclusive. More context-sensitive research is needed, Gattis said.

Since then, Dumbaugh has written the forthcoming Transportation Research Record article, which reports on what Dumbaugh found when he examined safety on three routes – State Routes 15 and 44 in DeLand, Florida, and State Route 40 in Ocala, Florida – that have pedestrian-friendly designs along parts of their length and conventional designs along other sections. Dumbaugh discovered that the pedestrian-friendly segments experience 40 percent fewer crashes than comparison roadways.

Burden told New Urban News that “many traffic engineers work out of a pseudo-science when it comes to trees and crash causation, and many others are not well tuned in to urban crash causation.” Research like Dumbaugh’s may help overcome that failing.

Burden has incorporated some of Dumbaugh’s findings into a new article, “22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees.” Among the benefits Burden attributes to street trees are the abilities of tree canopies to reduce temperatures at pedestrian level, absorb some tailpipe exhaust, make drivers calmer, and extend the life of asphalt paving by 40 to 60 percent. The JAPA articles by Dumbaugh and Gattis can be found at: http://www.planning.org/japa/pdf/JAPADumbaugh05.pdf.

As a general principle, Burden urges that engineers, planners, architects, and landscape architects work closely with one another to come up with functional, safe, complete, and successful urban spaces. Meanwhile, he says, city councils and other community leaders need to exercise more control over “important decisions about things like urban street trees” instead of leaving such matters solely to transportation engineers

 

Solving the Downtown Parking Problem

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

Everyone agrees that most of our downtowns have a parking “problem.” Mostly, we complain that there is too little parking available. Are there any workable strategies to improve the parking situation?

For downtown parking, we should work with the following premises.

1. Downtown Needs a Reasonable Amount of Parking. I am not a utopian. Clearly, in the world we live in, a quality downtown needs auto parking.

2. There is Usually an Overabundance of Parking Downtown. I realize that this is a shock to most people (myself included), but looking closely at the problem and reading about it has drawn me to this astonishing conclusion. For example, an inventory of parking in the typical downtown typically uncovers that there is a vast number of parking spaces consuming a vast amount of downtown real estate. Indeed, in one city I looked at, were there is a constant complaint that there is too little parking downtown, the downtown contains approximately 80 percent of the parking found at the regional shopping mall in the suburbs of that city, and those spaces consume over 20 percent of the downtown acreage. It turns out that it is not so much that there is too little parking, but that there is too little parking within a few feet of the front door of the building a person is going to.

3. The Provision of Parking is Very Expensive for Downtown Businesses. For a small business, purchasing more land for off-street parking than what is needed for the building footprint is extremely expensive – particularly in cities where the land cost is sky high. Typically, land for parking is significantly larger than the land needed for the building. This chases away not only small businesses (which are the lifeblood of a healthy downtown), but also harms the overall downtown economic health.

4. Cities Typically Lack Sufficient Funding for Adequate Downtown Capital Improvements. Not only are most all cities unable to pay for all of the essential downtown capital improvements it needs (more street furniture, new curbs, new landscaping, bulb-outs, etc.), but they are also critically short on the funding needing for operation and maintenance of downtown public facilities and services.

5. Excessive Surface Parking Downtown is Deadly. Most all downtowns provide too much surface parking, thinking that such parking is essential for the survival of downtown. Yet ironically, a significant impediment to the competitive leverage that downtown needs if it is to compete with suburban retail and office clusters is excessive surface parking. That leverage is compact walkability, and surface parking seriously degrades that objective. The loss of compact walkability degrades the health of downtown transit, because healthy transit depends on compact walkability. The downtown residential lifestyle also requires high-quality, compact walkability. Downtown economic health is much stronger when compact walkability is established. Excessive surface parking deadens a downtown, detracts from downtown appearance, character and ambience, and significantly reduces downtown vibrancy. Place-making is nearly impossible when surface parking becomes prominent.

6. Downtown Parking Garages Tend to be Underutilized. One sign of a downtown with excessive parking is a downtown parking garage that tends not to be anywhere near capacity. Many downtowns experience the paradox of a perception that there is “too little parking” in a downtown with empty parking garages.

7. On-Street Parking Downtown Tends to be Un-Priced or Under-Priced. A common mistake made by a downtown is to conclude that an essential way to attract suburban motorists to downtown is to provide free or under-priced on-street parking. But as Donald Shoup points out, this strategy simply leads to the perception that there is no parking available, because under-priced on-street parking typically leaves no on-street parking vacancy. The lack of on-street parking vacancy creates the impression that there is NO parking vacancy anywhere in the downtown, since the off-street parking vacancy tends to be less visible. As a result, underpriced on-street parking is actually more of a future deterrent to suburban motorists than properly priced on-street parking (priced so that there is always some availability of on-street parking). Put another way, free but unavailable parking is less attractive than available, priced parking

What Is To Be Done?

Given the above, it seems reasonable that the following parking program is called for in downtowns with a parking “problem”:

1. Create City-Operated Off-Street and Multi-Story Garage Parking. To the extent possible, downtown parking should only be provided by the city in city-owned, maintained and operated garages and lots. That provision would be in the form of municipal parking garages and lots that all downtown businesses and residences can lease spaces within.

2. Charge a Parking Fee In-Lieu or Parking Impact Fee. Downtown businesses and residences would be obligated to pay a parking in-lieu fee (or a parking impact fee if the downtown does not require parking). Revenue from that fee would go toward capital and Operation & Maintenance (O&M) for municipal parking garages and lots. Downtown businesses would also be able to lease needed spaces within the garages or lots. The expense of the impact fees and the leasing is generally much lower than the cost of land that the business would otherwise need to buy and maintain for their own off-street parking. These fees also tends to be significantly lower than the opportunity cost of foregoing floor area that could otherwise be available for a larger building. In-lieu or impact fees for parking range from $2,000 to $20,000 per space in the cities that use it (EPA, Parking Spaces/Community Places, 2006).

3. Increase the Amount of Metered, On-Street Parking. Create significantly more metered, on-street parking (if there is existing street space) and price the meters to create approximately 15 percent vacancy on an on-going basis, as recommended by Donald Shoup (The High Cost of Free Parking, 2005).

4. Dedicate Downtown Parking Meter Revenue to Downtown. Shoup points out that tactically, it is critical to dedicate revenue from downtown parking meters to capital improvements and O&M that benefit downtown. Not only does that provide a meaningful amount of revenue for a dramatic amount of downtown improvements (which attracts people to downtown), but it builds a vocal political constituency of downtown business owners who come to accept and defend the meters because they can see that the meter revenue is providing substantial downtown improvements.

5. Allow Downtown Businesses to Expand. Once the program described above makes off-street parking less necessary for each downtown business to provide, allow downtown businesses to construct building additions that start consuming off-street parking areas associated with their property. That is, property now used by the business on their site for parking could be put to more productive, revenue-generating, vibrancy-inducing use. Be sure that regulatory obstacles are removed in order to make this business expansion legal. Floor area ratios should be significantly increased (or better yet, removed). Exempt downtown businesses from most or all landscaping requirements. Allow buildings to abut the public right-of-way.

6. Encourage or Require Businesses to Share Parking. Many businesses have different hours of operation. Churches tend to need parking on Sundays. Offices on weekdays. Nightclubs at night. Shared parking and municipal-owned parking allows for a reduction in needed downtown parking, reduces costs for businesses, and promotes “park once” travel. Parking is therefore used and provided more efficiently.

7. Reform Taxation by Establishing a Land-Value Tax. Land value taxation (LVT) is the policy of raising tax revenues by charging each landholder a portion of the value of a site or parcel of land that would exist even if that site had no improvements. It is different from a property tax, which includes the value of buildings and other improvements on the land. The common use of the property tax therefore discourages building improvements or expansions, and encourages the speculative retention or under-use of downtown property (typically by creating a surface parking lot), because development of the property or building improvement of the property financially penalizes the property owner by increasing taxes. While not a pure LVT system, Harrisburg PA has substantially reduced the vacant land found downtown by taxing land at a rate six times higher than improvements on the land. The development of vacant land in Harrisburg has been far in excess of similar cities using conventional property taxation.

Conclusion

Each of these strategies promote an improved urban design, promote a more continuous urban fabric (instead of a downtown pock-marked with gaptooths), promote better economic health, promote a livelier downtown, promote a downtown that is more friendly to residences, promote a safer downtown, promote a downtown with more funds for improvements, and promote an overall more walkable downtown.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

2 Studies: SubUrban Sprawl Adds Pounds, Pollution

by Eric Pryne

Seattle Times

January 26, 2006

 

 

Residents of King County’s less-walkable neighborhoods – can you say sprawl? – are more likely to be overweight, a recently completed study concludes.

Another related study has found, perhaps not surprisingly, that people who live and work in those neighborhoods generate more auto-related air pollution, another potential threat to health.

The two studies’ findings are summarized in the winter edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Planning Association. The authors, who collaborated in their research, say their work constitutes the most comprehensive look yet at the link between urban-development patterns and human health in a single metropolitan area.

Earlier research has raised the possibility of a connection between sprawl, obesity and other health problems. The King County results suggest “current laws and regulations are producing negative health outcomes,” the authors warn.

“None of this is saying suburbia is bad,” said Lawrence Frank, an urban-planning professor at the University of British Columbia and co-author of both studies. “It just says these are the relationships you get … and they should be taken into account.”

A top aide to King County Executive Ron Sims said the county already has adopted some changes as a result of the studies and is planning more.

The research isn’t likely to end the debate over sprawl and health.

“If you’re listing things that impact obesity, neighborhood design would be maybe 10th on my list,” said Tim Attebury, King County manager for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. “I would put McDonald’s and too much TV way in front of neighborhood design.”

But Frank and co-author James Sallis, a health psychologist at San Diego State University, said the two new studies go beyond previous work in showing that development patterns can have a significant impact on health even when taking into account other variables such as age, income, education and ethnicity.

The walkability factor

For both studies, researchers ranked neighborhoods using a “walkability index” that included such factors as residential density, the number of street connections, and the mix of homes, stores, parks and schools. All are believed to influence how much people walk.

In one study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers surveyed and monitored about 75 adults in each of 16 King County neighborhoods. Eight neighborhoods, including Upper Queen Anne and White Center, scored high on the walkability index; the other eight, including Kent’s East Hill and part of Sammamish, scored low.

Each group of eight included four wealthier and four lower-income neighborhoods.

On average, researchers found, the Body Mass Index – a measure of height and weight – of residents of the more walkable neighborhoods was lower, and they were more likely to get the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise.

In the second study, funded by the Federal Transit Administration, King County and other local governments, researchers estimated the auto-related pollution generated by about 6,000 King County residents who kept detailed records of their travel for two days in 1999 as part of another study.

Again, people who lived and worked in more walkable neighborhoods produced fewer pollutants associated with smog, the study found.

Surprising finding

After subjecting the data to statistical analysis, Frank said, researchers were surprised to learn that even small changes in neighborhood design can make a difference.

A 5 percent increase in a neighborhood’s walkability index, for instance, was associated with a 0.23-point drop in Body Mass Index. For someone 6 feet tall, that’s a difference of less than 2 pounds, but Frank said bigger changes in a neighborhood’s walkability would be expected to produce greater differences in weight.

The presence or absence of stores, parks, schools and other destinations within a quarter- to a half-mile of home appears to be the most important factor in how much people walk, he said.

Karen Wolf, a senior policy analyst in Sims’ office, said that as a result of the studies, the county already has amended the policies that guide its planning to make health a priority.

County officials also are working on a checklist to rate development projects’ impact on health, she said.

In White Center, one of three neighborhoods that Frank and other researchers studied in detail, Wolf said the county has rezoned property to encourage “mixed-use” development that allows both housing and shops, and is seeking a grant to develop an inviting walkway between a redeveloped housing project and the community’s business district.

“The whole idea is to make walking something you don’t even think about,” she said. “It’s part of your everyday life.”

 

Elevated Skywalks Start Coming Down

1/11/06

By Lisa Cornwell the associated press

CINCINNATI – Sunlight is replacing shadows where elevated walkways spanning streets around Cincinnati’s downtown square have been torn down. Similar open spaces are appearing in other cities where planners once hoped skywalks would energize their downtowns. “More cities are realizing that skywalks are not what they were cut out to be,” said Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that helps communities create and sustain public places. “Instead of drawing additional people and retail to a second level, skywalks have left streets lifeless, presenting a cold and alienating environment.” While skywalks remain popular in some cold-weather cities such as Des Moines, Iowa, an increasing number of cities have started tearing down some of their walkways or would like to remove them. Planners and others in cities such as Cincinnati, Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Hartford, Conn., and Kansas City, Mo., now believe increasing street-level pedestrian traffic will lead to more downtown homes, shops and entertainment. “Having people on the streets sends the message that downtown is a safe and fun place to be,” said Marya Morris, senior research associate with the American Planning Association. “It’s difficult to create the type of energy that attracts housing and other activity when there is no one on the streets after 5 p.m.” Skywalks vary from enclosed, climate-controlled corridors with windows to open bridges with and without roofs. The pedestrian walkways connect second stories of buildings and often are part of large networks that wind through downtown, with shops and services located in sections that pass through buildings. Planners estimate that between 20 and 30 cities across the United States at one time embraced the design concept. The mostly glass-and-steel skywalks that were constructed beginning in the 1960s and ’70s were intended to insulate pedestrians from weather and street crime and compete with suburban malls.

But tourists often have trouble navigating skywalks, where access is often inside hotels and office buildings. Workers now make up most skywalk users, but with offices also fleeing downtowns, even that traffic has dwindled. Cincinnati City Architect Michael Moore said the difference is striking around Fountain Square since two of the city’s original 22 skywalk bridges were removed as part of a renovation to make the square a more welcoming, downtown center. “Even though the square still resembles a war zone with the ongoing reconstruction, it looks so much larger and brighter,” he said. Other skywalks link office buildings and are popular with workers. “I think they are neat, and I hate to see some of them coming down,” said Cincinnati office worker Cheryl Borkowski, 45, of Florence, Ky. “On cold and rainy days, you can take the skywalk everywhere you need to go. For me, it’s a matter of time and convenience.” Baltimore has pulled down two of its nine skywalks and more may come down as the city directs development efforts toward the ground level, especially around the Inner Harbor district, said Jim Hall, a city planner. The ring of shops, hotels, restaurants, parks and other attractions around the city’s harbor has become a major downtown tourist destination. “All of the excitement now is at the base of buildings where people can stroll through attractive public spaces and walk along promenades,” Hall said. “I don’t see us constructing any more skywalks.” Many skywalks were built with public and private money, making it difficult to get rid of the sections that run through office buildings where executives and workers want to keep them for convenience. Cost also is a factor. In Cincinnati, it cost about $100,000 to tear down a section that was not enclosed and did not have heat or air conditioning, Moore said.