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Posts from the "Land Use" Category

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For Children New to Obamacare, Transportation May Be a Barrier

As more provisions of the Affordable Care Act take effect, children across America whose access to health care has been limited by lack of insurance stand to benefit. But transportation to medical appointments could be a major obstacle that will reduce the impact of Obamacare, according to a letter from children’s health experts printed this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association this month.

Four medical professionals from the Children’s Health Fund write:

Nationally, regardless of insurance status, 4 percent of children (approximately 3 million) missed a health care appointment each year because transportation was unavailable; this includes 9 percent of children in families with incomes less than $50,000. Thirty-one percent later used a hospital emergency department of the health condition associated with that missed appointment.

The authors say rural areas are most affected, and they take a close look at the issue in Mississippi. The team wrote that 66 percent of Mississippi’s counties were at high risk for transportation-related barriers to health care. Of those counties, 13 percent have no access to public transportation and another 87 percent had “limited access.”

But the authors also determine that even in these very rural areas, the distances to be overcome aren’t that overwhelming. Most population centers, they say, are within six miles of a clinic and even “outlying” population centers were generally within 14 miles. That led them to suggest that non-emergency medical transportation provided by hospitals might be warranted if it leads to better health outcomes and reduced emergency room visits. Previous research has found those types of transportation services to be cost effective.

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Supreme Court Weakens Local Governments’ Ability to Shape Development

It certainly won’t be the most talked about Supreme Court decision handed down this week, but “Koontz v. St Johns River Water Management District” [PDF] will have a long-term impact on the ability of local governments to shape new development.

A Supreme Court decision this week will make it harder for local governments to shape development. Image: Wikipedia

Tuesday, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a Florida water management district violated private property rights when it asked a local developer to help pay for the environmental mitigation of building on wetlands in return for a construction permit. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said the ruling has the potential to “work a revolution in land-use law.”

The developer, Coy Koontz, wanted to fill more than three acres of Florida wetlands to build a shopping center. The water management district indicated it would grant Mr. Koontz a permit if he reduced the size of his development and agreed to spend some money on wetlands-restoration programs. Mr. Koontz refused, and successfully argued at the trial and appellate levels that the water district’s actions violated his private property rights. The Florida Supreme Court disagreed, but now the highest court in the land has ruled in favor of Koontz.

Vermont Law School Professor John Echeverria wrote this week in the New York Times that the ruling could have a chilling effect on land use planning:

Cities and towns across America routinely attach fees and other payment obligations to permits, for example, to support wetlands mitigation banks, to finance roads, to pay for new schools or to build affordable housing. The ruling creates a perverse incentive for municipal governments to reject applications from developers rather than attempt to negotiate project designs that might advance both public and private goals.

Koontz received legal support from groups like the Cato Institute and the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit legal group that seeks to roll back government’s ability to influence land use. Both groups are funded by the Koch Family Foundation, the giving arm of infamous fossil fuel billionaires and far-right wing benefactors Charles and David Koch.

Alex Dodds, a spokesperson for Smart Growth America, said the decision is a setback for public involvement in the planning process.

“The biggest potential casualty are the opinions of residents: It’ll be much, much tougher now to incorporate community feedback into the formal approval process,” she said.

But she said communities can avoid problems by being prepared.

“The silver lining, hopefully, is that towns and cities will take this as an opportunity to clarify their zoning laws and better define what types of development they do want to see,” Dodds said.
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Salt Lake City: How a Remote Red-State City Became a Transit Leader

Salt Lake City's transit system is the envy of cities five times its size, and it's all because planners listened to what the public wanted. Image: Smart Growth America

It’s number one in the nation in per-capita transit spending. The only city in the country building light rail, bus rapid transit, streetcars and commuter rail at the same time. And that city — Salt Lake City — is a town of just over 180,000 in a remote setting in a red state.

It’s a remarkable story that began in the 1990s, when an organization called Envision Utah facilitated a regional visioning process and created a plan that has been recognized as one of the most promising smart growth models in the nation.

There’s a lesson here for other cities. In 1997, leaders in a 10-county region centered on Salt Lake County set out to see what people valued about where they lived. They designed a plan around those values, with a communications campaign to support it. At that time, the state was expected to grow by a million people by 2020. Rather than cede that growth to meandering sprawl, the region chose something more orderly and compact.

“At that point, to many Utahns, ‘smart growth’ was not a popular word,” said Robert Grow, Envision Utah’s president and CEO. “We made people some promises. We’d save a lot of time, money, lower emissions, improve air quality, develop more housing choices, and build a transportation system with greater efficiency.”

The organization interviewed 150 key stakeholders — elected officials, activists, heads of major institutions. And they surveyed some 20,000 Utahns about their hopes and wishes. Leaders even engaged in an effort at “value mapping,” to get a sense for local priorities and deeply held beliefs as they related to land use and transportation.

Project leaders discovered Utahns liked the idea of transit more than they expected. The Envision Utah effort began shortly after the first light rail track was laid in the city, which had been controversial. But polling showed 88 percent of residents favored expanding the system.

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Study: Shorter Blocks May Be the Key to Cutting Traffic in Small Cities

It’s well-established that density and mixed-use development reduce driving. Right? But strategies like those don’t work the same way everywhere, according to new research published in the Journal of Transport and Land Use. While in major cities, denser development is linked to lower rates of driving, researchers found that in smaller cities it might not have much effect at all. The research suggests that for smaller cities, a focus on reducing block sizes and improving street connectivity may be the most effective way to cut down on driving, though the authors caution that more research is needed to draw universal conclusions.

According to new research, block sizes help explain why some people drive less than others in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Joey Sheely, Wikimedia

The research team, sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration, sought to drill down and identify how urban characteristics affect driving levels in different types of places. They looked at four different case studies: Seattle, WA; Richmond-Petersburg and Norfolk-Virginia Beach, VA (grouped together as one case study); Baltimore, MD; and Washington, DC. Using travel surveys and land use information, they modeled the impact on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) of five factors: residential density, employment density, mixed-use development, average block size (which they use as a stand-in for “measuring transit/walking friendliness”), and infill development (or distance to city center).

While the authors knew from previous research that these five factors all contributed to reducing VMT, they found that the Virginia regions didn’t follow the same patterns as the other three. In the smaller urban areas of Richmond-Petersburg and Norfolk-Virginia Beach, they found, mixed-use development did not have a significant impact on reducing driving.

“This is probably because in smaller urban areas, even those living in neighborhoods with well mixed land development may still need to travel far to reach work and non-work destinations,” the researchers write. “In other words, mixed development areas are less likely to be self-sufficient in smaller urban areas.” Mixing uses proved to be a good way to reduce driving in the larger metros.

These findings would seem to show a major weakness of New Urbanist-style “town centers” developed in otherwise suburban areas. A small walkable area isn’t enough to actually spark a real shift in transportation habits – the urban area has to be big enough that most people’s needs can be satisfied without a car. But lead researcher Lei Zhang said the findings don’t warrant that conclusion. “The paper has a small sample size,” Zhang said. “I wouldn’t want to generalize the results to other places.”

Zhang and his team are working on another paper that broadens the scope of their analysis to 20 urban areas. They hope this bigger data set will help planners evaluate land-use plans and how those decisions affect driving rates in different types of places.

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What Do Anti-Density NIMBYs and Road-Wideners Have in Common?

Matt Yglesias made an excellent point about NIMBYs over at Slate yesterday. Writing about opposition to multifamily residential construction in the tony neighborhood near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, Yglesias wondered how much value residents really place on keeping the area a “single-family residential community.”

The Alaskan Way Viaduct will cost 20 times more than drivers themselves will pay. So everyone else will pay instead.Image: WSDOT

Just because there’s value in something doesn’t mean people are willing to pay for it. Yglesias likens it to his third-generation iPad. “There would undeniably be a value in upgrading it to a fourth-generation iPad,” he says, but “it’s not worth what it would cost.”

So how much do the residents of Lake Calhoun value keeping their neighborhood single-family? Enough to let the entire rest of the city pay for it. But enough to pay for it themselves? Not a chance. Yglesias lays it out:

One thing [the] neighborhood group could do is look at the land they don’t want to see developed and buy it, thus leaving them free to do what they want with it. But they don’t want to do that, presumably because even though there’s “a value” in getting their way it’s less than the value of using the land for higher-density construction. What they want to do instead is get the city government to block the high-density construction, because that way the cost is spread across the entire population of Minneapolis in the form of foregone tax revenue.

The Minneapolis housing example reminds me of debates around the value of congestion-free roads. When roads are congested, many commuters jump to the “let’s build a wider road” approach, meaning all the taxpayers should pick up the tab to make their morning drive to work faster. But would these same commuters pay directly to speed their commute?

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Massachusetts’ Smart Plan to Promote Housing That Works for Young People

Eschewing the faddish steps local governments sometimes take to retain and attract young professionals, Massachusetts has cut to the chase with a common-sense plan. Governor Deval Patrick is catalyzing walkable residential development as an official state policy in hopes of retaining young people by appealing to their needs and preferences.

Massachusetts is hoping to jumpstart walkable, transit-accessible residential development with a new set of incentives. Photo: Boston.com

Yesterday, Patrick announced a program called Compact Neighborhoods, which will provide incentives for the development of multi-family housing near transit centers. The Boston Globe reported that state officials hope the program will spur the creation of 10,000 new housing units annually. To be eligible for the incentive, developers will need to plan on at least eight units per acre for multi-family homes and four units per acre for single-family homes.

The announcement came after researchers and housing experts publicly made the case for a shift in housing to reflect changing demographic realities.

Barry Bluestone, director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, told the Globe that over the next eight years housing demand will be dominated by young families with significant debt and older people looking to downsize.

The new program is a step forward but may be just the beginning of what Massachusetts needs to meet demand for walkable neighborhoods. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, an urbanist, said that he doubted 10,000 homes a year would be enough to meet demand.

“I think it is going to take stronger medicine,’’ he told the Globe.

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Faster Roads Gobble Up More Real Estate


It’s a pretty striking contrast, isn’t it? On the left, Florence, Italy, birthplace of the Renaissance. On the right, Atlanta, Georgia, home of the 23-lane freeway.

This was the central illustration in an illuminating discussion of how roads designed for high-speed car travel devour our landscapes and devastate their value. Steve Mouzon, principal at Miami’s Mouzon Design and author of The Original Green blog, argues in Better Cities and Towns that our fondness for wide, high-speed roads simply takes up too much space.

He compares Seaside, Florida, a community with a more traditional street pattern, with the landscape surrounding an interchange in Miami. In the former, 80.5 percent of the land is available for development; in the latter only 62 percent — an astonishing 34 percent of the land is consumed by roads.

Fast, highway-like roads hog land in four primary ways, Mouzon explains:

Curves — Increasing speed a little bit requires a big increase in the size of curves. At 20 miles per hour, any car can handle a curve with a 15-foot radius, so you’d think that tripling the speed would triple the radius, right? Wrong. At 60 miles per hour, curve radii are usually a few hundred feet, not the 45 feet you might guess.

Lane width — Faster roads need wider lanes. An eight-foot lane can handle 20 mile per hour traffic, but at highway speeds, you need 12 foot lanes [to give fast-moving drivers a wider berth].

Medians and shoulders — High-speed roads need wide medians and shoulders because a car can roll hundreds of feet beyond the point of collision or loss of control when it is traveling at highway speeds.

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