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Posts from the Sprawl Category


Sprawl Is a Global Problem


Even in the places with the best transit systems, there’s a steep drop in transit access once you venture outside the central city. Graphic: ITDP

Sprawl isn’t just a problem in car-centric America. Even cities with the world’s best transit systems are surrounded by suburbs with poor transit access, according to a new report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. As billions of people migrate from rural to metropolitan areas in the next few decades, these growth patterns threaten to maroon people without good access to employment while overwhelming the climate with increased greenhouse gas emissions.

For 26 global cities, ITDP looked at the share of residents with access to frequent, high-capacity rail or bus service within 1 kilometer of their homes, or roughly a 10- to 15-minute walk. Then ITDP looked at the same ratio for the region as a whole. The results suggest that coordinating transit and development will be a major challenge in the fight against global warming.

In Paris, for instance, fully 100 percent of residents have access to good transit. But the city of Paris is home to only 2 million people in a region of 12 million. And looking at the region as a whole, only 50 percent of residents live within walking distance of good transit. That still manages to beat most other regions ITDP examined.

In New York, the highest-ranked American city, 77 percent of residents live within reach of high-quality transit, but region-wide only 35 percent of residents do.

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What the Equality of Opportunity Project Actually Says About Commuting

With their powerful results, the studies coming out of the Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, have become an important touchstone for journalists and transportation policy advisers. In their 2014 [PDF] and 2015 [PDF] studies, Chetty and Hendren show that place matters for low-income families. When low-income families have the opportunity to raise their children in better environments, their children do better as adults. And with their use of “big data,” Chetty and Hendren can show that these better environments are not just correlated with improved incomes, but actually cause them.

The Equality of Opportunity Project did not set out to be a study of transportation policy. Only one of the 40 variables that they tested speaks directly to transportation. This variable could have easily disappeared, like most of the other tested variables that did not make the final model.

Instead, transportation turned out to be extremely important. References to the Equality of Opportunity Project’s findings have found their way into numerous newspaper articles, policy reports, grant applications, and prominent public discussions of transportation policy that continue to this day.

The project’s transportation variable involves commutes. I say “involves commutes” because in an unfortunate bit of nomenclature, Chetty and Hendren call this variable “commute time.” This mis-naming has led to continuing confusion among journalists and policy advisers, who make the intuitive, but inaccurate, leap to describing what happens to families when a parent spends a long time commuting.

Instead of measuring “time” in the conventional sense of “minutes,” Chetty and Hendren do something quite different. Their commute variable is defined by the percent of commuting workers who can get to their job in less than 15 minutes. It’s a measure of people, not time.

Moreover, it’s a measure of the relative size of a very select group of people: workers with really short commutes. Nationally, this group is a shrinking minority. In 2000, 29.4 percent of commuters got to work in less than 15 minutes. In 2015, this percentage had fallen to 26.2 percent.

Chetty and Hendren find that for counties and multi-county commute zones, the higher the percentage of workers with really short commutes, the better it is for the children of low-income families.

To humanize what I am rechristening the “short commutes” variable, a journalist or policy adviser could talk about the probability of a parent in a low-income family having a really short commute. The short commutes variable, however, says very little about the impact of lengthy commutes. Nor does it say much of anything about the importance of transit service: Only 3.5 percent of workers who commute by bus or rail enjoy a trip of less than 15 minutes.

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McMansions Fading Away?

Just a few months ago we were being tolderroneously, in our view–that the McMansion was making a big comeback. Then, last week, there were a wave of stories lamenting the declining value of McMansions. Bloomberg published: “McMansions define ugly in a new way: They’re a bad investment –Shoddy construction, ostentatious design—and low resale values.”  The Chicago Tribune chimed in “The McMansion’s day has come and gone.” Whither are these monster homes headed?

Even “Downton Abbey” is past its heyday (Highclere Castle)

Even “Downton Abbey” is past its heyday (Highclere Castle)

First, as we’ve noted, its problematic to draw conclusions about the state of the McMansion business by looking at the share of newly built homes 4,000 feet or larger (one of the standard definitions of a McMansion). The problem is that in weak housing markets (such as what we’ve been experiencing for the better part of a decade in the wake of the collapse of the housing bubble) the demand for small homes falls far more than the demand for large, expensive ones. So the share of big homes increases (as does the measured median size of new homes). And indeed, that’s exactly what happened post–2007: the number of new smaller homes fell by 60 percent, while the number of new McMansions fell by only 43 percent, so the big homes were a bigger share (of a much smaller housing market).  Several otherwise quite numerate reports gullibly treated this increased market share as evidence of a rebound in the McMansion market; it isn’t.

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Sprawl and the Cost of Living

Cross-posted from City Observatory

Over the past three weeks, we’ve introduced the “sprawl tax”—showing how much more Americans pay in time and money because of sprawling urban development patterns. We’ve also shown how much higher the sprawl tax is in the US than in other economically prosperous countries, and how sprawl and long commutes impose a psychological, as well as an economic burden. Today, we’ll take a close look at how ignoring the sprawl tax distorts our view of the cost of living in different regions and neighborhoods.

As one old saying goes, an economist is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. It’s often claimed that some places, often sprawling Sunbelt cities, have a lower cost of living, based usually on observations about lower housing prices. And judged solely from the sticker price of new homes, the argument has some merit.

Phoenix. Credit: Al_HikesAZ, Flickr

Phoenix. Credit: Al_HikesAZ, Flickr

But as our aphorism about economists implies, there is a lot more to this question than just one set of prices. If you’ve followed our series on the sprawl tax, you know that living in some cities—those with cheap average housing costs, like Houston or Dallas or Birmingham—also carries with it a heavy, and largely ignored cost in the form of the “sprawl tax”: much higher transportation costs. In short, we tend to fixate on the price of something we can easily measure (housing) and simply leave out the value of something that is much less obvious (sprawl and longer commutes).

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Introducing the Sprawl Tax

Crossposted from City Observatory

If you read the news, you’ve probably seen reports about “congestion costs”: how much American commuters pay, in money and time, when they’re stuck in traffic. It’s fair to say that we’ve got some issues with many of these reports—but they’re popular nonetheless, perhaps because they help quantify a frustration that so many people can relate to.

That got us thinking: What if we could quantify some of these same issues from a city-friendly angle—measuring not the cost of congestion, which suggests that the solution is to build highways until every car is free on its own field of asphalt (a solution, by the way, that we know doesn’t work), but the cost of sprawl: of patterns of building that make people travel longer because their home, work, and other destinations are so physically far from each other?

So this week, we present the “Sprawl Tax”: what it is, how much it costs us, and what we can do about it. We found that the in time and money, American commuters have to pay a sprawl tax of over $107 billion dollars a year in the 50 largest metropolitan areas—nearly $1,400 for the average commuter. That includes the costs of the 3.9 billion additional hours American commuters spend traveling to and from work per year, or about 50 hours per worker.

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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.”


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.