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Lousy Neighborhoods, Not Lax Zoning, Make Sunbelt Houses Cheaper

The middle class is getting priced out of liberal cities, while red-state urban areas remain affordable. Does that mean our cities should be less like tightly regulated San Francisco and more like permissive Houston? It’s a common argument – but it doesn’t fit the facts.

Modesto: It’s not quite San Francisco. (And it’s a whole lot cheaper.) Photo: Carl Skaggs/Wikipedia

To start with, Houston is hardly a paradise of deregulation. In practice, local experts explain, the city limits new building with a heavy hand. Zoning (thinly disguised as a special form of deed covenant) is in some ways even tighter than elsewhere — a subdivision can downzone itself by vote of its homeowners, even when a minority objects, and the elected city government has no power to override neighborhood decisions.

If the Houston housing market is no freer than San Francisco’s, what explains the lower prices in Texas? Supply and demand set house prices, and demand (the lack of which makes housing so affordable in Detroit) is strong in Houston.

These price comparisons have a buried conceptual flaw. They look at the average of all houses in the region, new and old. But the added supply that demand calls forth (what economists refer to as “at the margin”) consists of new houses alone. A shortage of supply should show up, most directly, in the price of new houses.

In American urban areas, most land is reserved for single-family houses. Close-in locations fill up first, so the marginal unit of supply is a newly built detached house on the exurban fringe.

How much does that new house cost? The table below shows the asking price (from Zillow) for a minimally featured new 3-bedroom, 1750-square-foot house on the outskirts of some major cities, along with the median sale price of single-family houses throughout the area. Affordability is measured by the ratio of house price to the metropolitan area’s median household income. The areas were selected to have around the same population, so that the commute (a painful one in all cases) would be a comparable deterrent to living at the fringe.

Metro area Median house price (000) Ratio to median income Fringe location New 1700 sq ft house price (000) Ratio to median income
Boston 398 7.5 Manchester NH 280 5.3
Houston 204 4.6 Cypress 185 4.1
Phoenix 199 4.4 Goodyear 169 3.8
San Francisco 770 12.2 Modesto 260 4.1
Washington 403 7.0 Charles Town WV 210 3.7

These figures will surprise many. The choice of fringe locations is certainly open to discussion, but there’s no question that the affordability of new single-family houses varies among cities far less than the average house price. If you insist on a brand-new house and don’t mind a long commute, San Francisco is as affordable as Houston.

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Streetsblog SF 73 Comments

Facebook Billionaire Sean Parker Bankrolls Free Parking Ballot Initiative in SF

Sean Parker spent $100,000 to support Mayor Ed Lee’s 2011 election bid, and $49,000 on a 2014 ballot initiative to maintain free parking and build new garages in SF.

Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook and a major contributor to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, has spent $49,000 of his personal fortune to propel a ballot initiative that seeks to enshrine free parking as city policy, according to the SF Chronicle. Parker gave $100,000 to Lee’s mayoral campaign in 2011.

The ballot initiative, which proponents frame as an attempt to “restore balance” to city transportation policy, first surfaced in April. While the measure would be non-binding, if it passes it could further slow much-needed policies to prioritize transit and street safety in San Francisco. One stated goal of the campaign is to kill Sunday parking meters for good. The SFMTA Board of Directors, which is appointed entirely by Mayor Lee, repealed Sunday metering in April, after Lee made unfounded claims about a popular revolt against the policy.

Mayor Ed Lee with Facebook-founding billionaire Sean Parker (right) and Ron Conway (center), both major campaign donors. Photo: The Bay Citizen/Center for Investigative Reporting

Several veteran opponents of transportation reform in San Francisco are aligned with the ballot initiative. And, in addition to the backing from Parker, another $10,000 for the measure reportedly came from the San Francisco Republican Party.

Parker’s funding for the ballot initiative apparently helped pay petitioners to get out and collect the 17,500 signatures submitted last week to place the measure on the ballot. Two Streetsblog readers reported being approached in Safeway parking lots by petitioners who falsely claimed that the SFMTA had not repealed Sunday parking meters. A flyer distributed for the campaign [PDF] claims the measure calls for “restoring free parking at meters on Sundays, holidays and evenings.” Campaign proponent and previous Republican Assembly hopeful Jason Clark told SFist that the allegations were “hearsay,” but that the non-binding resolution would “ensure [SFMTA] can’t” bring back Sunday meters.

Parker has a reputation for selfish extravagance at the expense of the public realm. In February, he denied accusations that he had workers bulldoze snow from in front of his $20 million home in New York City’s Greenwich Village onto the street. The snow was reportedly cleared so a high-speed internet cable could be hooked up to the home. Last year, he was fined $2.5 million for damaging a Big Sur redwood grove that served as his wedding backdrop.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Helmet Hair

Did you wear your helmet when you biked to work this morning? Whether you did or you didn’t, it’s up to you. So why are there so many people shrieking about it? On one side, the 85-percenters, overstating the protection helmets offer against head injuries. On the other side, the 3-footers, claiming that it’s actually safer to go helmetless because drivers give you more space and a host of other reasons. Some recent hysteria around bike-share and head injuries fueled this fire. I’m not sure Jeff and I put that fire out with our discussion, but we at least tried to make some sense of it.

Speaking of fiery discussions, did you see the back-and-forth between Colin Dabkowski, a Buffalo News journalist, and walkability guru Jeff Speck after the most recent Congress for the New Urbanism? We clear up once and for all some misconceptions about how New Urbanism’s winners-and-losers strategy does and doesn’t address social equity.

And in between, we take a moment to celebrate a small victory in San Francisco, where a community pushed back against the fire department’s push to widen streets.

Subscribe to the Talking Headways Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher or by signing up for our RSS feed.

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The Street Ballet of a Bike Lane Behind a Transit Stop

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.

Why don’t more cities escape the curse of bus-bike leap-frogging by putting bike lanes between transit platforms and sidewalks?

Though “floating bus stops” and similar designs are being used in many cities, others have avoided doing so, sometimes out of concern that people will be injured in collisions with bikes while they walk between platform and sidewalk.

But is this actually a thing that happens? An intersection in San Francisco that uses a similar design seems to be working just fine.

The annotated video above shows one minute of the self-regulating sidewalk ballet.

Seleta Reyolds, the San Francisco Municipal Transportaiton Agency’s section leader for livable streets, calls the corner of Duboce Avenue and Church Street “a great example of how to design for transit-bike interaction.”

Though it’s only been open since June 2012 and hasn’t worked its way into the city’s official collision records yet, Reynolds said she couldn’t find any record of a complaint arising from the intersection.

A few details worth noting:

  • This block is unusual in that it’s closed to cars in the same direction, even on the other side of the transit stop. This removes any risk of right hooks due to limited visibility, an issue that other such designs must handle differently.
  • The relatively narrow bikeway here, with a curb on each side and a flat grade, prompts people to move at manageable speeds. This wouldn’t work as well on a slope.
  • There is no fence here between platform and bike lane. This gives people maximum visibility and maximum flexibility as they negotiate past each other.

A key lesson here is that what’s often true of car traffic — that the safest designs are the ones that avoid as many potential conflicts as possible — is not true for people on bikes and foot. In pedestrianized areas (a British study of 21 such spots turned up exactly one bicycle-related collision in 15 years) people are very good at negotiating around one another. Sometimes, we can all just get along.

Video shot by Charly Nelson. You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.

Streetsblog SF 97 Comments

“Closing” Lombard Street: The Language of Taking Cars For Granted

Crooked Lombard Street is being partially closed to cars, and mainly opened to people. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the headlines. Photo: SFMTA

A peculiar thing tends to happen when we talk about streets and transportation: We don’t talk about cars. Seriously — listen to conversations, read news headlines, and you’ll start to notice that even when cars are the main subject, people will, consciously or unconsciously, fail to explicitly mention them.

This phenomenon was particularly apparent to me this week, with media coverage of the SFMTA’s proposed (and subsequently approved) trial to restrict cars on world-famous crooked Lombard Street. The headlines started pouring out hours after I broke the story with this headline: “SFMTA considers restricting cars on crooked Lombard Street.”

Clearly, cars are the key subject of this proposal. It will restrict car access on two blocks, and nothing else. Non-”local” drivers will be banned for some hours on some days over a few weekends, but access for people not in cars — the vast majority of people on the crooked street — will actually be made safer and more enjoyable.

Yet from reading headlines found in other news sources around the country, you’d think the street is simply being closed to everyone. Cars are vaguely mentioned, if at all, while the whole “temporary trials on some afternoons” thing often gets washed over, with Lombard deemed simply and totally “closed.” Here are a few typical examples:

  • Washington Post: “San Francisco to close off iconic Lombard Street to tourists”
  • USA Today: “S.F. to temporarily close ‘world’s crookedest street’”
  • SF Chronicle: “Lombard Street to close on 4 busy weekends this summer”

Put simply, unfettered access by cars is equated with “access.” If one cannot drive there, one cannot go there. And as those important distinctions are blurred, we lose sight of what we deem important uses of our streets.

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Parking Madness: Portland vs. El Cerrito, California

The contenders in today’s Parking Madness competition prove parking craters can happen anywhere, even in progressive metro areas where the regional economy is booming and transit is a solid travel option.

This face-off to get one step closer to the Golden Crater pits Portland, Oregon, against El Cerrito, California.

First let’s take a look at bike-friendly Portland:

portland

Minus 50 points for proximity to a MAX light rail station.

Reader Byron Palmer submitted this photo, which shows where the Morrison Bridge — one of Portland’s most heavily used — empties into the city. The heavy traffic and highway-like design depress land values and lead to low-value uses like surface parking. Who would want to have lunch, or take a walk, in that area?

“Part of the problem,” adds Palmer, “is that for many owners it is cheaper to tear down the building and have parking than to pay taxes, and they are waiting for the economy to improve before selling.”

Our next contender is El Cerrito, California, a San Francisco suburb located north of Berkeley.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Hug This Streetcar

Jeff Wood of the Overhead Wire (now working with NRDC’s crack transportation team) and I talk to Randy Simes in this week’s podcast about the streetcar movement in Cincinnati — and how they finally grabbed the long-elusive gold ring.

Then Randy stayed with us to discuss the false choice between transit that’s useful and transit that’s fun and beautiful. And we analyze an architect’s proposal to expand BART’s capacity by building a second tube under the San Francisco Bay.

Image: ##http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/2nd-BART-tube-under-the-bay-would-serve-region-5236682.php##SF Gate##

This fantasy map is only tepidly endorsed by Jeff Wood, fantasy mapper extraordinaire. Image: SF Chronicle

You can subscribe to this podcast’s RSS feed or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes — and please give us a listener review while you’re at it.

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Four Reasons Cities Can’t Afford Not to Invest in Bike Infrastructure

Guadalupe Street in Austin. Image: ###http://www.peopleforbikes.org/blog/entry/these-15-stories-show-exactly-how-great-bikeways-help-local-economies## People for Bikes##

Guadalupe Street in Austin. Photo: People for Bikes

It isn’t window dressing. Or a “hip cities” thing. Bike infrastructure — not the watered-down stuff, but high-quality bikeways that get more people on bikes — is becoming a must-have for cities around the U.S.

That’s according to a new report from Bikes Belong and the Alliance for Biking and Walking. Researchers at these groups interviewed 15 business leaders from around the country about what impact bike facilities are having on their bottom line.

Here are the four main takeaways.

1. Bikeways make places more valuable

David Baker, founder and principal at David Baker + Partners Architects, is a huge proponent of the protected bike lane near his Second Street offices in San Francisco. It’s crucial for keeping his employees safe on the way to work, he said. He also admitted liking it for “selfish” reasons.

“I own the office. I know that if we have protected bike lanes out there, it will improve my property value,” Baker told researchers.

There’s data to back up this claim. A 2006 study found that in Minneapolis, median home values rose $510 for every quarter-mile they were located closer to an off-street bikeways. In Washington, D.C., 85 percent of nearby residents say the 15th Street bike lane is a valuable community asset.

2. Bikeways help companies attract talent

Founders of the Portland-based advertising start-up Pollinate used the firm’s location in central Portland, and the nearby bikeways, to attract and build its team. About two-thirds of the company’s employees bike commute at least occasionally.

Bike infrastructure “used to be a perk,” said Ben Waldron, co-founder. “Now it seems like it’s a right.”

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Talking Headways Podcast: Get Off My Lawn

Jeff Wood and I talk about the news of the week that most tickled us or burned us — the BBC’s exposé of anti-social urban design features intended to repel people, San Francisco’s social tensions over the Google bus, and the decision by Cincinnati’s new mayor and City Council to “pause” construction of the streetcar. (Update: The streetcar might be salvaged!)

Meanwhile, I wax nostalgic for public space in Havana and Jeff laments slow progress on San Francisco’s Geary Boulevard BRT.

You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes. And participate in the conversation by commenting here.

This will be our last podcast of 2013. Have a Happy New Year and we’ll see you in January!

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In California Cities, Drivers Want More Bike Lanes. Here’s Why.

Whenever street space is allocated for bicycling, someone will inevitably level the accusation that the city is waging a “war on cars.” But it turns out the people in those cars want separate space for bicycles too, according to surveys conducted in two major California metropolitan areas. Bike lanes make everyone feel safer — even drivers.

Far from constituting a war on cars, protected bike lanes are a big relief for drivers. Streetsblog SF

Rebecca Sanders is a doctoral candidate in transportation planning and urban design at the University of California-Berkeley. She’s spent a lot of time asking people — drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians — what kinds of street treatments would make them feel safer, giving them a list of safety improvements to choose from. Most drivers said their top priority was bike lanes. (In the Los Angeles area, the top choice was for improved pedestrian crossings, but bike lanes were a close second.)

Sanders began this research with Jill Cooper of Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center, under the sponsorship of the state department of transportation (Caltrans). They interviewed drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists on major corridors in and around San Francisco and Los Angeles, asking drivers why they picked the mode they did, and asking everyone how they perceived safety issues, especially for biking. Then they asked what kinds of street treatments would make the street safer for them.

“What was interesting about that study was that in the San Francisco Bay Area, the most requested item, across the board, was a bicycle lane on the corridor,” Sanders told Streetsblog. “It was the most requested item by drivers, it was the most requested item by pedestrians, and it was the most requested item by bicyclists. That was quite surprising to us.”

It’s no shock that cyclists asked for dedicated street space in overwhelming numbers, and it stands to reason that pedestrians want bicycles off the sidewalk. Perhaps it should be just as obvious that drivers would welcome dedicated bike infrastructure, too. They find that bike lanes help them be aware of cyclists and make cyclists’ behavior more predictable, according to Sanders’ research. In general, there’s less potential for conflict between drivers and cyclists when they each have their own space.

“We have not done a good job of recognizing and validating the concerns of drivers about predictability,” Sanders said. “For a long time, cyclists have been defensive; they’ve been fighting for space, and legitimately so. But in the process, some areas where we could really work together, I think, have fallen to the wayside. Everybody wants predictability on the roadway. Nobody wants to feel like they’re going to get hit or hit someone else and it’s going to be beyond their control.”

The results of Sanders’ San Francisco-area research are due to be published soon in the Transportation Research Record and are available now on the Berkeley website. Meanwhile, Sanders has continued to look into drivers’ attitudes toward bike lanes, making it the topic of her (as yet unpublished) dissertation. She has conducted focus groups and internet surveys to shed light on what drivers and cyclists need to feel safe.

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