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Are There Any Affordable Cities Left in America?

When you factor in both housing and transportation costs (H+T) as a percent of income, the car-dependent cities in the right column expensive. But are DC, SF, and NYC that much more affordable, even if you count the benefits of transit? Source: Citizens Budget Commission

When you factor in both housing and transportation costs (H+T) as a percent of income, the car-dependent cities in the right column are especially expensive. But are DC, SF, and NYC that much more affordable, even if you count the benefits of transit? Source: Citizens Budget Commission

Are Washington, San Francisco, and New York the most affordable American cities? A new report from the New York-based Citizen’s Budget Commission [PDF], which made the rounds at the Washington Post and CityLab, argues that if you consider the combined costs of housing and transportation, the answer is yes.

But a closer look at the data casts some doubt on that conclusion. Between the high cost of transportation in sprawling regions and the high demand for housing in compact cities with good transit, very few places in America are looking genuinely affordable these days.

The CBC report uses a better measure of affordability than housing costs alone. Transportation is the second biggest household expense for the average American family, and looking at what people spend on housing plus transportation (H+T) can upend common assumptions about which places are affordable and which are not. Regions with cheap housing but few alternatives to car commuting don’t end up scoring so well.

There are some problems with the CBC’s methodology, however. While abundant transit is absolutely essential to keeping household transportation costs down, and it provides a lifeline to low-income residents of major coastal cities, the report still tends to exaggerate overall affordability in these areas.

According to the report, for example, New York City ranks third in affordability among 22 large cities. A “typical household” in New York City, the CBC finds, spends 32 percent of its income on housing and transportation combined. Part of the reason New York comes out looking good, though, is that CBC used a regional measure of income but looked at typical rents only in the city itself. Because the region’s median income is higher than the median income in the city ($62,063 vs. $51,865, respectively, according to 2008-2012 Census data), NYC appears more affordable than it really is.

Another issue, flagged by Michael Lewyn at his CNU blog, is that by looking at average rents, which in some cities include many rent-stabilized units, the calculation doesn’t necessarily capture what someone searching for shelter is likely to pay. If you’re trying to find an apartment in New York now, getting a place for the average rent would probably be extremely difficult.

What really stands out in the CBC report isn’t that New York, San Francisco, and DC are affordable — it’s that car-dependent areas that may have cheap housing turn out to be so expensive once you factor in transportation.

Read more…

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Downtown Houston Will Get Its First Protected Bike Lane

Houston's protected bike lane should look a lot like this one from Seattle. Photo: Seattle DOT, via Flickr

Houston’s protected bike lane should look a lot like this one in Seattle. Photo: Seattle DOT/Flickr

A piece of top-notch bike infrastructure is coming to the largest city in Texas.

That’s the word today from Kevin McNally at Houston Tomorrow, who relays the news that a two-way protected bike lane is on tap for downtown:

The City of Houston will install the City’s first on-street protected bike lane along Lamar Street in Downtown, possibly as early as October, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Mike Morris. The two-way protected bike lane will help to connect Downtown to both the Buffalo Bayou trails and the Columbia Tap Trail.

The bike lane will be three-quarters of a mile long and will be painted green, the Houston Chronicle reports. It will be separated from car traffic by “armadillos,” or hard, low-lying plastic bumps. McNally says:

Based on the description from the article, the bike lane should look similar to the above photo of a two-way protected bike lane in Seattle, with the exception being that the white plastic bollards will be replaced by plastic “armadillos” or “zebras” (see examples of those here).

Bike Houston Executive Director Michael Payne said the objective is to make “people feel comfortable” about biking and getting “out of their cars.”

Elsewhere on the Network today: Washington Bikes shares a poll showing overwhelming support for Safe Routes to School among the state’s residents. And Bike Portland reports that advocates in that region are trying to ensure that every school district has a Safe Routes to School program.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Sen. Carper Pushes for Long-Term Transpo Bill (The Hill)
  • GOP Senate Candidate Proposes Slashing Gas Tax, Giving States Control (Detroit News)
  • Did San Antonio’s Streetcar Plan Die When Julian Castro Left? (Texas Observer)
  • Audit Uncovers Sweetheart Deals, Other Problems With Utah Transit Authority (Salt Lake Trib)
  • Latin America Leads the Way on BRT (Guardian)
  • Twin Cities’ Green Line Could Use More Parks (Star Trib)
  • Sen. Schumer Calls on Feds to Fund Penn Station Annex (NYT)
  • Arlington Looks South to Norfolk’s Debate Over Light Rail Fares (Inside Nova)
  • Houston Gets its First Dedicated Bike Lane Downtown (Houston Chron)
  • Saying Goodbye to Your Car Can Be Easier Said Than Done (CityLab)
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Expanding the Mission of “Safe Routes to School” as Kids Return to Class

It’s hard to believe summer is almost over. In many places, the weather was so mild it seems like it never quite started. But kids are already going back to school.

Crosswalks and adult supervision are two ingredients in keeping kids safe from both traffic and violence. ##https://www.dot.ny.gov/safe-routes-to-school##NY DOT##

Crosswalks and adult supervision are two ingredients in keeping kids safe from both traffic and violence. NY DOT

While the weather has been cool, temperatures have reached a boiling point on many of our nation’s streets. In many communities, violence is very much on people’s minds as kids return to school, following incidents like the rash of shootings in Chicago over the July 4th weekend and the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Last week, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership teamed up with Generation Progress, The League of Young Voters Education Fund, the Million Hoodies Movement, and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans to hold a Twitter town hall with the hashtag #Back2SaferSchools. Generation Progress kicked things off with this sobering thought:

Q1: In 2015, gun violence will be leading cause of death for Millennials. What can communities do to ensure students go #Back2SaferSchools?

— Generation Progress (@genprogress) August 20, 2014

There are many ways to address this problem. But as Keith Benjamin of the SRTS National Partnership says, “Place-making plays a pivotal role in combating violence.”

Late last year, the Partnership released “Using Safe Routes to School to Combat the Threat of Violence” [PDF]. It weaves together in-school conflict resolution programs and anti-bullying work with the group’s regular program of walking school buses and infrastructure improvements.

“In some communities, the danger of violence and crime discourages children from walking to school and keeps people off the street, limiting physical activity and restricting errands and trips,” the report begins.

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New Parking in Seattle Comes With a Side of Mixed-Use Development

This new mixed-use development on a light rail line in Seattle will have 505 units, 523 parking spaces. Image: The Urbanist

This new mixed-use development by a light rail station in Seattle will have 505 housing units and 523 parking spaces. Image: The Urbanist

Part of the promise of Seattle’s Link light rail was its potential to create walkable places in the sprawling Rainier Valley. And that’s starting to happen, locals report, but developers are getting some important things wrong.

The proposed mixed-use development at MLK Way and Othello Street, for example, calls for way more parking than appropriate for an urban location near light rail. Will Green at The Urbanist explains:

The Seattle Housing Authority has found a developer for its 3.2 acre site at the corner of MLK Way and Othello Street, right next to Sound Transit’s Othello Link Station. The plans are impressive: 505 market-rate apartments spread over three buildings, 17,800 sq. ft. of retail space, and a 10,000 sq. ft. of public plaza intended to provide space for a farmer’s market and community events. But the developer, Everett’s Path America, has fallen into the same trap many have when planning TOD by forgetting the “Transit” and focusing on the parking. Instead, Path America is proposing a whopping 523 surface and underground parking stalls for those 505 apartments.

It’s a serious and well known problem: A recent report from the Sightline Institute found that 21 of the 23 recent multifamily developments studied had more occupied units than occupied parking stalls, with an average overnight parking vacancy rate of 37%. Those empty stalls do more than waste space; they cost developers a lot of money, costs that ultimately get passed on to tenants.

One study cited by Green estimated that parking costs add about $246 to monthly apartment rents in Seattle. Green continues:

It’s exciting to see development in the Rainier Valley take off. Seattle needs more affordable housing, and converting low-density (or vacant) land uses to medium- and high-density housing is a great way to meet that need. Likewise, taking advantage of major regional investments in transit is critical for ensuring affordability by freeing tenants from the burdensome cost of owning and maintaining car. Considering such realities, it boggles the mind that a major developer is planning to put more parking stalls than actual apartment units next to three frequent transit lines (Central Link Light Rail and King County Metro Transit Routes 8 and 36) in one of the poorest parts of Seattle. Not only is it a wasted opportunity, but it denies affordable housing in an area that desperately needs it.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Architect’s Newspaper reports that Michigan is getting its first bus rapid transit route, Grand Rapid’s Silver Line. And Urban Milwaukee explains Wisconsin’s history with the “wheel tax” — a local tax on vehicle registration that’s being explored as a way to boost funds for road maintenance.

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Today’s Headlines

  • How Does Transit Affect a City’s Affordability? (City Lab, NRDC Switchboard)
  • Grand Rapids Waits for Economic Boon From New BRT (Grand Rapids Press)
  • Cleveland Has Seen $5.5B+ in Transit-Oriented Development in Two Years (Progressive Railroading)
  • Will GOP’s Uber Support Attract Young Voters? (The Hill)
  • Dallas Eyes BRT Instead of Rail for Cotton Belt (Dallas News)
  • D.C.’s Silver Line Could Create “New Kind of City” With Tysons (Vox)
  • Ohio Looks to Private Sponsorships to Fund Infrastructure (Ideastream)
  • Twin Cities to Host “Railvolution” Next Month (Pioneer Press)
  • Why Does One Blocked Bike Lane Matter? (Philly Daily News)
  • China’s Deja Vu Designs Replicate America’s Mistakes (Curbed)
  • Need for Sidewalks Grows in Nashville (Tennessean)
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Seattle DOT Hits the Street to Tell People About a New Bike Lane Proposal

Much nicer than the church basement, at least during a Seattle summer – and better attended, too. Photos courtesy SDOT.

pfb-logo-100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

One part public outreach and one part PARK(ing) Day, Seattle DOT held a three-hour open house last Wednesday for a half-mile protected bike lane on Dexter Avenue. The outreach session took place on green plastic mats spread out to cover an empty parking space.

Project manager Kyle Rowe explained that a different, state-led project on Dexter had him on a tight deadline. What’s more, because Dexter is a necessary link between downtown and the heart of Seattle’s bike culture in Fremont and Ballard, the number of affected households was huge.

“That is kind of like a funnel for roughly two-thirds of north Seattle,” Rowe said. “To capture all the people that use Dexter in a traditional open-house style, which would be 7 to 8 or 9 p.m., would mean flyering or sending a mailer out to most of North Seattle, and that didn’t make sense. I also wanted to accelerate this to meet the deadline of the state’s restoration work.”

So Rowe used a trick he said he’d seen on “Streetblog or CityLab” and held his public meeting on the side of the street from 7 to 10 a.m. on a weekday. He brought eight easels, two tables, a few temporary bike racks, a comment box, sticky notes, a sign-in sheet and a bunch of hot coffee.

That last item was important.

Read more…

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Ta-Nehisi Coates on Race, Sprawl, and Car Culture

Atlantic Senior Editor Ta-Nehisi Coates was in Cleveland last week talking about his acclaimed long-form article, “The Case for Reparations,” which reviews the history of economic and social oppression of African Americans.

I got to attend the talk, and late in his speech Coates made a few points that touch on the subjects we cover at Streetsblog, drawing a direct connection between racism, sprawl, global warming, and the array of social problems faced by cities like Cleveland. You can watch that part in the clip above, and here’s the whole speech.

Below is a look at how wealth is dispersed in the Cleveland area — essentially the farther from the central city you go, the richer residents are. Why does that pattern persist, even as other cities have seen a reversal? What are the outcomes for Cleveland’s large African American population, concentrated in the central and east-central parts of the region? Why isn’t the relationship between sprawl and segregation discussed more often, with more frankness?

The light portion in the center of this map is Cleveland. Image: census.gov

The light portion in the center of this map is Cleveland. Image: census.gov

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It’s Time to Rethink Old Stereotypes About Renters

Is the growth in renting in Philadelphia a cause for concern or celebration? Image: Pew via Plan Philly

Homeownership rates in Philadelphia aren’t as high as they used to be, and that’s not a bad thing. Map: Pew via Plan Philly. Click to enlarge

For a long time, renters have been thought of as a destabilizing force in urban areas. Federal housing policy encourages people to make the jump to homeownership in part because officials believe it will give people a larger stake in their neighborhoods and reduce crime. By subsidizing home purchases, these policies encourage people to “buy more house” and promote sprawl.

Now the spectacular housing market crash and crushing debt burdens carried by younger people are helping to upend these assumptions. Kellie Patrick Gates at Plan Philly reports on a recent survey of Philadelphia renters that flies in the face of some of the oldest stereotypes. For one, the survey found that in many neighborhoods, most renters are, in fact, engaged in their communities:

In Center City, 43 percent of surveyed renters said they knew their neighbors and 29 percent were involved in neighborhood maintenance or upkeep activities, Howell said. Outside the city center, 56 percent knew their neighbors and 51 percent were involved with efforts to keep the community looking good…

Howell said that she and some other city planners had a hunch that renters are more active in their communities than they generally get credit for, but even so, “the percentages were surprising.”

Plan Philly interviewed city officials who said they think it’s a positive sign that homeownership is declining and the share of renters is increasing. “People are coming from outside to see what’s going on here,” said Philadelphia City Planning Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger, who noted that some of the world’s most desirable cities, like New York, London, and Tokyo, have high shares of renters.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Biking Toronto shows the city’s solution for cyclists during construction on an important bridge –everyone is thrilled about it. Car Free Austin analyzes the city’s proposal for a $1.4 billion new rail line. And Exit133 reports that Tacoma is trying to work out a set of regulations that will help level the playing field between traditional taxi companies and firms like Uber and Lyft.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Real Estate Deals Need to Accelerate for California High-Speed Rail (Fresno Bee)
  • Grand Rapids Launches $40M BRT (M Live)
  • Brokering Peace Between Cyclists and Drivers Involves John Kerry on a Pink Bike (Boston Globe)
  • Feds Give OK to Start Designing Minneapolis’s Fourth Light Rail (KSTP)
  • Seven U.S. Bike Projects Built on Existing Footprints (Next City)
  • In Connecticut, Downtowns Get Lively,  BRT Takes Shape (Hartford Courant, West Hartford News)
  • Florida’s Coastal Link Rail Would Run from West Palm Beach to Miami (Sun Sentinel)
  • The Difference Between “Walkability” and “Ability to Walk” (Colorado Springs Independent)
  • Houston Chron: Don’t Rule Out Rail for the Future
  • In Tampa, Study Emphasizes Buses Before Rail, Bike-Share to Start Next Month (Tampa Bay Times)
  • Baton Rouge Bike Group Takes Up Complete Streets Cause (Times-Picayune)