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The Most Dangerous Places to Walk in America

Pedestrians are especially at risk on wide, fast arterial roads like this. Photo: Smart Growth America/Cheryl Cort

Walking should be the healthiest, most natural activity in the world. It is, after all, one of the first things humans learn to do.

But in far too many places, walking can be fatal, thanks to roads designed for speeding cars.

In 2012, 4,743 pedestrians lost their lives in traffic collisions in the U.S., and over the last decade, nearly 50,000 people have been killed while walking — that’s 16 times more Americans than were killed by natural disasters. Another 670,000 pedestrian were injured over that period, one every eight minutes.

Not all streets are equally dangerous. In a new update of its Dangerous by Design report [PDF], released today, Smart Growth America catalogs the most perilous places in the U.S. to walk. By looking at the places that are especially hazardous, we can determine the factors that are putting people at risk and figure out how to fix them.

Here’s a look at what America’s most dangerous streets for walking tend to have in common.

They’re in the Sunbelt

Don’t let the sunshine lull you into a sense of security. Sunbelt cities have hazardous streets.

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Smart Growth America: Sprawl Shaves Years Off Your Life

Want to live a long, healthy, prosperous life? Don’t live in sprawlsville.

These cul-de-sacs will kill you! Photo: ##http://indiemusicfilter.com/tag/sprawl-ii##Indie Music Filter##

These cul-de-sacs can kill you! Photo: Indie Music Filter

Atlanta, I’m looking at you. Nashville, you too. Southern California’s Inland Empire: ouch. Meanwhile, break out the bubbly if you live in Atlantic City, Urbana/Champaign, or Santa Cruz — which all rank close to giants like New York and San Francisco as some of the most compact and connected metro areas in the U.S. That compact development brings a bounty of benefits you might not associate with those places.

That’s the lesson from Smart Growth America’s new report, “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” an update of their 2002 report, “Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact.”

A team of researchers gave a development index score to each of 221 metropolitan areas and 994 counties in the United States based on four main factors: residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs, and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network. These are the essential buildings blocks of smart growth.

Based on those factors, the most compact and connected metro areas are:

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

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State DOTs Let Roads Fall Apart While Splurging on Highway Expansion

States spend more than half their money on new construction. Image: Smart Growth America

States spend more than half their road money on adding lanes and new highways. Image: Smart Growth America

Even though 33 percent of its roads are in “poor” condition, West Virginia spends about 73 percent of its road budget building new roads and adding lanes. Mississippi spends 97 percent of its road money on expansion. Texas, 82 percent.

Smart Growth America reports that the 50 states and the District of Columbia, combined, devote 55 percent of their road spending — $20.4 billion a year — to expansions, according to data states provide to the Federal Highway Administration. Between 2009 and 2011, that investment added 8,822 lane miles to the nation’s highway system — meaning that more than half of states’ road dollars were dedicated to less than 1 percent of their roads.

Meanwhile, states spent $16.5 billion annually, or 45 percent of their total road budgets, maintaining and repairing the other 99 percent of the nation’s roads.

In total, 21 percent of America’s roads are in “poor” condition, based on an international index that measures ride quality and surface smoothness. And the condition of the nation’s roads is getting worse. The last time Smart Growth America checked in, in 2008, 41 percent were in “good” condition. By 2011, that figure was down to 37 percent.

“States are adding to a system they are failing to maintain,” said Steve Ellis of the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which co-funded the study, in a webinar hosted by SGA this morning. “Every new lane mile is a lane that will eventually have to be repaired.”

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A Post-Housing-Bust Prescription for Federal Real Estate Programs

The federal government subsidizes housing and real estate to the tune of about $450 billion a year. Roughly 50 uncoordinated programs influence the housing market, often in unintended and insidious ways.

Federal real estate subsidies help ensure that we get more of this than we otherwise would. Image: Walkable Suburb

The Federal Housing Administration’s Single-Family Loan Program, for instance, decreases the relative attractiveness of building multi-family housing — which is more energy efficient and in ever-greater demand since the housing bust. Meanwhile, the granddaddy of all housing subsidies, the mortgage interest deduction, rewards wealthy families who own two homes but does nothing for renters.

Smart Growth America and Locus, a nationwide coalition of developers focused on walkable growth, those programs are in need of retooling as Americans’ needs change. The two groups have reviewed all the federal housing programs and found them to lack a cohesive vision. Together, these programs often serve to undermine public preferences and create all kinds of distorted, less-than-optimal outcomes.

“People increasingly want to live in walkable urban places,” said Chris Leinberger today in a conference call with real estate leaders, but current federal housing policy undermines those kinds of communities. “Today’s programs significantly favor single family homes above all other types. Today’s programs are failing to support existing neighborhoods.”

In response, Locus and SGA have developed seven recommendations that could help ensure private and public investment is spent in the most productive ways, with the best outcomes for middle-income Americans. By the way, these reductions would result in some $33 billion in overall savings.

“Better strategies can make entire regions more competitive,” said Smart Growth America’s Ilana Preuss. “It’s time for our federal programs to reflect that.”

Here are some of the highlights:

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Placemaking to Make Friends: The Case of Cleveland’s East 4th Street

Cleveland's East 4th Street today: no longer a den of drugs and prostitution. Photo: East 4th

Ari Maron had no friends.

When he moved back to Cleveland after college, all his friends had moved away. “They’d all gone to New York and Chicago and San Francisco,” he said. “And none of them lived in cul-de-sacs. None of them drove SUVs. They all lived in mixed-use buildings, they were all connected to transit, they were all in walkable communities.” If only they could figure out how to build communities like that in Cleveland, Maron thought, “perhaps I’d have some friends.”

That, he said, was the motivating factor for him to abandon his ambitions of being a concert violinist and join the family construction business.

Maron is part of the LOCUS network of smart-growth-oriented real estate developers, which operates under the aegis of Smart Growth America. LOCUS shows that walkable communities aren’t just pretty and good for the environment — they generate wealth. Not all developers are in it to make friends, after all — they want to turn a profit. The good news is, they can do both.

Maron told his story to a LOCUS conference yesterday in Washington, DC. He said his family firm, MRN Ltd., bought 15 historic buildings in the downtown core, focusing on East 4th Street. The ground floor were all drug fronts, and the street was a center of prostitution. The upper floors were all vacant. There were 250 property owners to deal with, and the big developers just weren’t willing to bother. But Maron and his family bought them out.

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William Fulton on Why Smart Growth Pays and Sprawl Decays

Downtown Ventura, California. Photo: Sargent Town Planning

Earlier this week, Smart Growth America released an important study that illustrates how walkable development results in huge savings and significantly better returns for municipalities compared to car-centric development.

The analysis of 17 case studies found that walkable, mixed-use development produces 10 times more local tax revenue per acre than sprawl. In addition, SGA found that smart growth reduces infrastructure costs by more than a third, on average, and cuts operating costs like police and trash service by almost 10 percent.

William Fulton, vice president of Smart Growth America and former mayor of Ventura, California. Image: SGA

Streetsblog got in touch with the study’s lead author, William Fulton, Smart Growth America’s vice president for policy development and implementation and the former mayor of Ventura, California, to further discuss the implications for local communities.

Here’s what he had to say.

Angie Schmitt: What is the takeaway for communities that are maybe a little more suburban in nature at this point?

William Fulton: Smart growth is not beneficial just for big, urban cities. A community of any size — even communities that are mostly suburban in nature — can benefit fiscally from smart growth. Smart growth patterns even in small and mid-sized cities can have a tremendous influence on the budget. For example, the study from Champaign, Illinois, we cite in our report suggested that a smart growth approach to future expansion in that mid-sized Illinois city could turn a $19 million deficit into a $33 million surplus.

Even taxpayers who live in single-family homes stand to benefit from smart growth. If their communities approve conventional suburban development that generates a deficit, they will be faced with pressure for increased taxes. Smart growth can alleviate that pressure so that even people who live in single-family homes will be able to keep their taxes low.

Sooner or later if you’re a local government… you have to have the next hit from the next suburban development. Eventually you’re like a crack addict.

AS: Despite the public savings associated with smart growth, many communities offer tax incentives to big box stores and that type of development. What does this study say about that?

WF: All kinds of developments see some type of public investments. Conventional suburban developments depend on highway interchanges and other very, very expensive infrastructure.

These retail projects are attractive to local governments because you put money into it, and you see this immediate sales tax “pop.” But there’s no guarantee you’re not cannibalizing your other retail.

A smart growth development that has a lot of well-connected housing and retail will be a far more reliable source of revenue. Generating property tax is a much more stable source of revenue for local governments.

Some hot new retailer comes in and 10 years later they’re out of business. Depending on sales tax is a very risky proposition compared to the very reliable revenue that will come out of a smart growth development.

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Taxes Too High? Try Building Walkable, Mixed-Use Development

Walkable, mixed-use development provides far more return for Raleigh than Walmart, on a per acre basis. Image: Smart Growth America

Smart growth could increase Fresno’s tax revenue by 45 percent per acre. In Champaign, Illinois, it could save 23 percent per year on city services. Study after study has demonstrated: Walkable, mixed-use development is a much better deal for municipalities than car-oriented suburban development.

Smart Growth America recently conducted an analysis of research examining the impact of efficient development patterns on municipal bottom lines. The authors looked at 17 case studies, from California to Maryland, and, taken together, they say the findings clearly illustrate how walkable development leads to healthier city budgets than drivable sprawl.

For starters, smart growth is cheaper to build. On average, municipalities save about 38 percent on infrastructure costs like roads and sewers when serving compact development instead of large-lot subdivisions. Furthermore, SGA researchers say, “this figure is conservative, and many communities could save even more.” In the case studies, these upfront cost savings ranged from 20 percent to 50 percent.

The public savings don’t stop once projects get built. Mixed-use projects also reduce ongoing costs to municipalities for services like police, fire and trash. Smart Growth America estimates the average savings at almost 10 percent.

“Many services — fire, police, school buses, snow plowing — all require vehicles,” said William Fulton, vice president of policy development and implementation at Smart Growth America. “The fewer miles those vehicles have to travel, the lower the costs will be. If you apply smart growth across the board, you can also reduce the amount of cars and trucks that you need.”

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Study: Walkable Infill Development a Goldmine for City Governments

A study out of Nashville by Smart Growth America provides more evidence that building walkable development in existing communities is best for a city’s bottom line.

Nashville's "The Gulch" -- a mixed-use development downtown -- generates a much greater public return than more suburban developments in the same city. Image: Cumberland Region Tomorrow

SGA recently examined three different developments in the Music City. One was a large-lot, traditional suburban-style development called Bradford Hills built on greenfield site. Another was a “new urban”-style, mixed-use, walkable development also built on a greenfield, called Lennox Village. The third — known as The Gulch — was a mixed-use, compact housing and office development with retail and dining, built on a brownfield between Nashville’s Music Row and downtown.

The study compared the costs of local services to each new development with the revenues returned. Overall, the urban, infill development was far and away the best value for municipalities.

The Gulch — a 76-acre project, including 4,500 housing units and 6 million square feet of office space — yielded the highest returns in the form of “property taxes, sales taxes, and other recurring revenues,” according to SGA. Per unit, the development produced a total of $3,370 in public revenue annually, while costing the local government about $1,400 per year in infrastructure maintenance, policing, fire response, and other general fund obligations. In comparison, the traditional suburban development Bradford Hills generated only half the revenue — $1,620 per year — and cost more to service — $1,600 — making it basically a wash for local taxpayers.

Per unit, the performance of new-urbanist Lennox Village barely beat out the large-lot suburban development, generating $1,340 for the municipality annually while costing about $1,300.

When you factor in density, the differences between the three models really crystallize. The Gulch, filled with condo towers, generated $115,720 in net revenue per acre annually. That’s an astounding 1,150 times greater than Bradford Hills, which generated a total of just $100 per acre. The downtown development also performed 148 times better for the local government’s bottom line than new urbanist development Lennox Village, which yielded $780 per acre.

Developers often shy away from urban brownfield sites, fearing the cost of cleaning them up. Given the incredible benefits to the city of that kind of development, there should be better incentives for developers to look to infill, rather than greenfields, for their next project.

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The Smart Land Use Program Both Democrats and Republicans Love

The Linen Building in Boise, Idaho, is the kind of local success story that makes the EPA’s Brownfields program so popular.

Top: American Linen Supply, Boise, Idaho in 1950. Middle: In 2004, it was a blighted, environmentally contaminated site that scared developers away. Top: The redeveloped Linen Building houses a hotel, coffee shop, and restaurant. The site also hosts weddings, concerts and art shows. Images: Idaho Department of Environmental Quality

In the late 1990s, this former commercial laundry had become a blight on the city — a large vacant building in a prime, walkable downtown location. Developers admired it, but they knew that the former occupant — American Linen — had kept tanks of diesel fuel and industrial cleaning solvents in underground tanks. The threat of contamination was enough to scare off developers like David Hale of Hale Development.

“The unknown risk associated with potential contamination in the groundwater flowing on to and off of the site has caused the majority of possible buyers to seek other options,” Hale said.

Today Hale himself has transformed the site into a local gem. The Linen Building hosts art shows, concerts and weddings, in addition to regular tenants, including a restaurant, a coffee shop and a hotel with 41 rooms. Later this month this building will host the Treefort Music Festival, a four-day indie rock festival, that will draw some 3,000 people each day.

With an EPA Brownfields grant, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality conducted a groundwater analysis back in the early 2000s that determined the site was not the source of groundwater contamination. And that was enough to convince Hale to move forward with his plans to “lure people and businesses associated with the creative class.”

What made this project possible was environmental analysis through the EPA’s Brownfield Utilization program, which assists communities that want to bring contaminated property back into productive use.

There are an estimated 450,000 such sites around the country. These parcels average 6.5 acres each, together amounting to some 4,570 square miles of contaminated land, Smart Growth America estimates. Virtually every community in the country has one of these sites, which further the impression among developers that it’s too complicated and costly to develop infill locations in the urban core. Instead they bring their development to greenfield locations on the fringes, draining revenues out of cities and perpetuating disinvestment.

But there’s good news for these communities this week. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have come together to support the reauthorization of the EPA’s program. The Brownfields Utilization, Investment and Local Development (BUILD) Act was introduced late last week by a bipartisan coalition, sponsored by some of the most conservative members of of the Senate, including James Inhofe (R-OK) and Michael Crapo (R-UT) as well as Democrats Frank Lautenberg (NJ) and Tom Udall (NM). The new legislation not only proposes renewing the program but also expanding some funding and increasing flexibility. The bill would allow nonprofits to seek funding for site remediation and raises the limits on those remediation grants from $200,000 to $500,000.

Geoff Anderson, SGA’s CEO and president, says what’s made this program a bipartisan priority in such polarizing times is the sheer need and its track record for success.

“This bill is a lifeline to communities that are struggling to overcome blight and contamination at abandoned industrial sites,” he said. “And it will work in every community — big or small, urban or rural — re-positioning vacant properties to create new engines of economic growth.”

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Hawaii: Say “Aloha” To Transit-Oriented Development

Craig Chester is a fellow at Smart Growth America.

Not all transportation in Honolulu, Hawaii is a walk on the beach.

Honolulu, one of the most congested cities in the country, could benefit from more transit-oriented development. Photo: ShowBus

Known for its breathtaking natural beauty and warm temperatures, Honolulu is also plagued by heavy traffic congestion and delays. High energy costs and a lack of transportation choices compound the challenges of getting around Hawaii’s state capital and most populous city.

To put it in perspective, Honolulu recently surpassed Los Angeles to become the city with the worst traffic in the nation. And on average, households in the City and County of Honolulu spent a whopping $13,598 each year on transportation alone, wasting an average of 58 hours in traffic during that time.

The good news, though, is that things don’t have to stay this way. Hawaii can and should put a renewed emphasis on expanding access to residents’ transportation options. Business owners and visitors would benefit almost immediately, as new economic development happens and older communities attract reinvestment.

That’s the verdict of a new collaborative report, “Leveraging State Agency Involvement in Transit-Oriented Development to Strengthen Hawaii’s Economy,” from Hawaii’s Office of Planning and Smart Growth America. Right now, Hawaii and its congested cities have a prime opportunity to implement plans for TOD, drive economic development, and restore the quality of life many expect from island living.

Best of all, Governor Neil Abercrombie has already set the wheels in motion, with the 2010 announcement of the New Day Plan, which envisions “livable communities that encourage walking, bicycling, carpooling, and using mass transit.” TOD can be key to meeting the plan’s economic, social and environmental goals.

Well-executed TOD reduces dependence on fossil fuels, protects open space and cultural resources through sustainable land use, helps advance education by better connecting students to educational facilities, and can allow retirees and elders to remain in their communities and “age in place.”

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