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Posts from the Sprawl Category

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Will Cleveland Finally Get Serious About Confronting Sprawl?

Northeast Ohio has been sprawling outward without adding overall population. The result is vacancy in urban areas. Map: NEOSCC

Northeast Ohio has been sprawling outward without adding population. The result is vacancy in urban areas. Map: NEOSCC (Click to enlarge.)

The Cleveland region has been struggling with sprawl for a long time.

Since the 1970s, the regional population has shrunk while housing and jobs have spread outward — a combination that has devastated urban areas in particular.

Transportation policy is a big part of the problem. Northeast Ohio keeps widening highways, facilitating quick suburban commutes and fueling sprawl. This weakens the places that are already the most vulnerable. Cleveland recently topped a national list of “most distressed cities,” and its neighbor East Cleveland is on the verge of bankruptcy.

Most Ohio governors and state transportation chiefs are oblivious or worse, pursuing policies that promote job sprawl, undermine transit, and lavish resources on highways.

One agency that could change this dynamic is the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), the regional planning agency charged with dispensing federal transportation funds. Until very recently, however, NOACA was not up to the task.

Sparsely populated rural counties have disproportionate influence at NOACA compared to dense urban areas, and rivalries within the agency often pitted low-income urban communities against newer, wealthy suburbs. In lieu of actual economic growth, many of the outlying suburbs were happy to simply siphon off businesses and houses from close-in communities.

Rather than confront this dysfunction, for years NOACA’s leadership mostly shied away from it. Funding was awarded project-by-project to satisfy political demands, rather than to achieve specific policy goals like broad-based economic growth, better access to jobs, or environmental sustainability. In essence, the regional planning agency didn’t do any planning, local environmental leader David Beach has said.

But now NOACA is trying to correct that, says the agency’s new director, Grace Gallucci, who took the job in 2012 after working at Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority.

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Calgary Tackles the “Sprawl Subsidy”

As of last month, it costs more to buy a home on the sprawling edges of Canada’s third-largest city.

Build a house in sprawl in Calgary, pay a fee. Photo: Wikipedia

Build on a sprawling greenfield site in Calgary, pay a fee. Photo: Wikipedia

Under a new rule, Calgary assesses a higher water fee on developers building homes in greenfield locations than on new homes in developed areas, to reflect the higher cost of providing infrastructure in spread-out locations. Mayor Naheed Nenshi and the City Council approved the new fee structure unanimously earlier this year.

Between 2000 and 2010 Calgary’s regional population boomed, the Calgary Herald reports, incurring major costs to build water infrastructure for an expanding residential area. Now payments on $1.3 billion in borrowing for water infrastructure are coming due.

In response, Nenshi proposed issuing fees to new home developers that reflect the true cost of providing water. Todd Litman of the Victoria Policy Institute, which has produced reports about the cost of sprawl [PDF], said on Facebook that Calgary’s fee structure is right on the money.

The city began phasing in the higher fee for greenfield development February 1 and will gradually increase it until in 2018.

Initially, pushback from builders “was enormous,” according to the Herald. But by the time the new fee structure passed the City Council, developers begun to come to terms with it. “Our collective job is to make sure we’ve done the best we can at reducing those costs whenever we can,” Chris Ollenberger of commercial real estate association NAIOP told the Herald. “But there is a cost to growth and we need to be responsible about it.”

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Subsidizing Uber for the “Last Mile”? An Orlando Suburb Is Trying It

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The view from the Altamonte Springs SunRail station. Credit: Google Maps

In a January 2015 paper, the Yale Law professor David Schleicher and Yale Law student Daniel Rauch published a paper on how local governments might regulate “sharing economy” companies, such as Uber, in the future.

Among their more startling predictions, perhaps, was that the very cities that have been battling to regulate startups like Uber — which have been accused of ignoring laws requiring their competitors to, for example, license their drivers or ensure a certain proportion of their fleet is accessible to people with physical disabilities — would soon spend public money subsidizing Uber trips.

Why would they do such a thing?

Well, we might ask the Orlando suburb of Altamonte Springs, which this month became the first US city to fulfill Schleicher and Rauch’s predictions by announcing that it would begin subsidizing Uber trips within its borders. The city will cover 25 percent of the cost of trips that begin or end at the city’s SunRail commuter station, and 20 percent of other trips. The idea is to make help solve the “first/last mile problem” with the rail station, since there are few homes, jobs, or stores close enough to the station to make walking reasonable, and even the city admits that bus service is too spare to be relied on.

The Yale paper makes the case that there are good economic reasons for this kind of subsidy. In particular, they argue that low-cost Uber trips might create a “public goods” surplus by, among other things, allowing residents to make trips — and potentially buy more goods and services, or reach more jobs, or even just visit more people — that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, ultimately improving on the “agglomeration effects” that are the economic basis of city living to begin with. Subsidizing ride-hailing services might also have a decongesting effect, by allowing a smaller number of vehicles to be used more intensively, and reducing the need for each household to keep one or more cars sitting idle for 23 hours a day. That would also reduce the need for homes, stores, and offices to hold large amounts of land for peak-use parking capacity, which also sits idle outside of work hours, or on low-shopping days.

Finally, they point out that there is a strong redistributive angle to this: Uber as a sort of public transportation. While the Altamonte Springs policy is not explicitly aimed at redistribution, it might conceivably be disproportionately used by lower-income people with limited car access. Other cities might attempt to target their subsidies more carefully, either by directly subsidizing trips for people below a certain income threshold — think of the reduced-fare transit cards that many agencies provide for low-income riders — or by simply requiring that ride-hailing companies provide a certain amount of reduced-fare rides in exchange for permission to operate. Think of it as inclusionary Uber.

But if this is going to become a broader trend, there are still a lot of questions to resolve.

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Study: Upward Mobility Much Higher in Regions With Less Sprawl

Living in a sprawling area, like Atlanta, or a compact one, like Boston, doesn’t just affect how you get around. A new study published in the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning suggests it may also have a significant impact on your chances to escape poverty.

Children in a sprawling area like Atlanta are less likely to escape poverty than children living in compact regions, according to a new study. Image: ATL Urbanist

Children in a sprawling area like Atlanta are less likely to escape poverty than children living in compact regions, according to a new study. Image: ATL Urbanist

The study by Reid Ewing at the University of Utah compared upward mobility across 122 U.S. metro areas ranked from the most sprawling to the most compact. The researchers found a “strong, directional relationship” between compact built environments and upward mobility.

The study used previous research that measured the chances a child born in the bottom fifth of the national income distribution will reach the top fifth by age 30. There are huge differences between metro areas. For example, in Memphis Tennessee, the upward mobility rate was just 2.4 percent while in Provo, Utah, it was 14 percent.

The research team found that as compactness doubles, the chances of a child going from the bottom fifth to the top fifth increase 41 percent.

Ewing looked at how sprawl may affect children’s life chances by influencing factors like racial segregation, which previous research has shown to be negatively correlated to upward mobility, and income growth, which is positively correlated. The direct effect of sprawl itself, the authors found, was stronger than these indirect effects. They attribute the connection between compactness and upward mobility to “better job accessibility in more compact commuting zones.”

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Real Estate Giant: Suburban Office Parks Increasingly Obsolete

What tenants want in an office building is changing, and the old model of the isolated suburban office park is going the way of the fax machine. That’s according to a new report from Newmark, Grubb, Knight and Frank [PDF], one of the largest commercial real estate firms in the world.

Suburban office parks are losing their luster, industry analysts say. Photo: Wikipedia

Suburban office parks are losing their luster, industry analysts say. Photo: Wikipedia

The old-school office park does “not offer the experience most of today’s tenants are seeking,” according to NGKF. As a result, the suburban office market is confronting “obsolescence” on a “massive scale.” More than 1,150 U.S. office properties — or 95 million square feet — may no longer pencil out, the authors estimate, though a number of those can be salvaged with some changes.

“Walkability and activated environments are at the top of many tenants’ list of must haves,” the report states. Office parks in isolated pockets without a mix of uses around them must have “in-building amenities” — including a conference center, a fitness center, and food service — to remain competitive, according to NGKF: “If tenants are not going to be able to walk to nearby retail or a nearby office property to get lunch, they had better be able to get it at their own building.”

The study took a close look at suburban office submarkets in and around Denver, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. In the “southeast suburban” Denver office district, for example, office buildings within a quarter-mile of the new light rail line had a 1.7 percent vacancy rate. For those outside a quarter-mile, vacancy rates were nine percentage points higher.

NGKF’s findings don’t mean that office tenant preferences are in perfect alignment with walkability, however.

Parking was also important to the marketability of buildings in suburban Denver. The report notes that a lot of older management personnel prefer to drive, while younger workers want transit access. So buildings that offered both were in the highest demand.

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Study: Sprawling Areas Require 3 Times as Much Pavement Per Person

How much pavement area is required to service the population of an area is pretty closely related to population density, a Smart Growth America study found.

How much pavement area is required to service the population of an area is pretty closely related to population density, a Smart Growth America study found.

One of the big downsides to sprawl is the public cost of maintaining infrastructure that is extended over wide areas. A new study of New Jersey by Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future [PDF] attempts to quantify this relationship by looking at the amount of space devoted to roads in communities of varying densities.

Turns out there’s a very strong correlation: The most sprawling parts of the Garden State require more than three times the road space per resident and employee than the most urban areas.

The study divided New Jersey into 100-acre “cells” of a uniform size, then compared the number of people that live and work in each cell — “activity density” — to the ratio of land devoted to roads.

In the state’s most densely populated areas, with about 50 people per acre — places like Hoboken and Jersey City — about 130 square feet of pavement was allocated for each employee and resident. However, in some of the more sprawling areas — places with five residents per acre — the amount of pavement per person was more than three times higher: 423 square feet.

The two groups stress that the relationship was not linear. As municipalities became increasingly urban, the efficiency benefits from increasing density became less and less dramatic. The biggest efficiency gains were found when comparing sprawling areas to other sprawling areas that were slightly more dense, the study found.

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Braves Stadium Relocation Shaping Up to Be a Disaster

When the Braves announced they were leaving Atlanta for suburban Cobb County in 2013, logistically it seemed to make some sense. After all, the new stadium site is more centrally located in relation to the highest concentration of fans who attend games.

How will Cobb County fund the "magic bridge?" Image: AJC

Cobb County needs to build a foot bridge over a highway so people can reach the new Braves stadium, but it won’t be ready by opening day. Image: AJC

But it turns out that relocating a sports stadium to a sprawling, car-dependent area is really tough — because of the enormous infrastructure outlays necessary to transport thousands of people to the same place by car.

After putting $400 million in public money into attracting the Braves, Cobb County officials are having an embarrassingly hard time getting the site ready for opening day.

The location for the new field is right by the nexus of two enormous highways, I-75 and I-285, and it is bound to the southwest by the Cobb Parkway — another giant, high-speed road.

Somehow, “neither the Braves nor the county has released any information about its plans for traffic control, pedestrian safety, or parking,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports.

Problem is, there’s not enough room for everyone to park right near the stadium. There are, however, about 2,000 parking spaces and a bus hub just across I-285.

Walking can’t be completely eliminated from the stadium planning — all those people still have to cross the highway on foot. So Cobb County will construct a foot bridge over I-285 for $9 million.

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Marohn vs. O’Toole: Sizing Up The Great Debate

Last week, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns went head to head with “antiplanner” Randall O’Toole in Lafayette, Louisiana. The debate was billed as an event to help the city with its regional planning process and was broadcast over local radio.

Watching O’Toole make up arguments out of whole cloth, however, you have to wonder if giving him a platform to spew nonsense is ever helpful, even if someone like Marohn is there to counter him with reason and facts. O’Toole’s presentation was all about scaring people into thinking that any sort of planning that’s not all about cars and single-family housing is a misbegotten conspiracy to impoverish them.

Marohn, for his part, really starts to hit his stride about an hour in, arguing that local people can come together and develop consensus about how to solve community problems — like how to get more public value out of infrastructure investments.

Marohn said in a blog post following the debate that he came away disappointed and didn’t think the discussion was very productive for the people of Lafayette. He said of O’Toole:

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Calculating the Big Impact of Sprawl on Cities’ Bottom Line

A Smart Growth America fiscal impact analysis found that high-density development produced way better returns for local political jurisdictions.

The fiscal impact of different development scenarios for a 1,400-acre parcel in Madison, Wisconsin, on government’s bottom line. The sprawliest scenarios provide the smallest public returns. Chart: Smart Growth America

When someone builds a new home, does it make the city stronger and more fiscally sound? Or does it drain public resources? The answer depends a lot on where it’s sited and, more specifically, where it lies in relation to other homes and businesses.

Smart Growth America has developed a fiscal impact model that helps predict how developments will help or hurt the municipal bottom line. The tool they developed [PDF] takes into account how density affects the cost of delivering city services, from streets and sewers to fire protection, school busing, and garbage collection.

SGA applied its model to a proposed 1,400-acre development in Madison, Wisconsin, called Pioneer Square. Researchers varied the density and number of units across five development scenarios, ranging from “low density” (about two housing units per acre) to “Compact Plus 50” (about 7 units per acre).

According to SGA’s model, the higher density development scenarios would have a far better effect on the city’s budget [PDF]. Compared to the “low density” scenario, “Compact Plus 50” would generate 233 percent more revenue per acre for the city.

SGA says the results are actually conservative because the tool assumes higher-density properties will have lower taxable value, due to smaller lot sizes.

Unfortunately, most cities don’t use very sophisticated methods to estimate the impacts of new housing developments. Instead, reports SGA, they assume each new home in the city will impose the same costs as the average home. That ignores all the variability in types of housing — and could leave cities with big financial liabilities down the road.

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Study: Annual Cost of Sprawl in America Adds Up to $4,500 Per Person

Those living in sprawling areas require more road infrastructure, helping account for the increased total costs. Image: New Climate Economy.

Those living in sprawling areas require more road infrastructure, which is just one aspect of the cost of sprawl. Graph: New Climate Economy

A new study confirms what we already know too well: Sprawl is expensive. The New Climate Economy’s latest report [PDF] attempts to put a figure on it and it’s pretty staggering: more than $1 trillion a year nationwide.

That figure accounts for higher costs to individuals and communities associated with sprawling development patterns, including transportation infrastructure, less efficient city services, increased pollution, greater vehicle expenses, more traffic collisions, and reduced health outcomes.

In order to arrive at those figures, researchers separated U.S. communities into five groups, based on how relatively sprawling they were. At one end of the spectrum, where development was most dense, there were about 9.5 residents per acre. The third quintile represented average U.S. housing density, while the fifth was the most sprawling, at less than two residents per acre.

Researchers compared the costs borne by those in the most sprawling communities to those in the least sprawling. Existing studies estimating the increased costs of sprawl were used as the basis for the economic comparisons. For example, they found that infrastructure costs per capita were $502 in the smart growth quintile but $750 per capita in the most sprawling. The report also estimates that those living in the most sprawling areas spend an additional $5,000 per year on vehicle costs compared to those in the most compact.

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