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Posts from the "Sprawl" Category

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Confirmed: Sprawl and Bad Transit Increase Unemployment

Since the 1960s and the earliest days of job sprawl, the theory of “spatial mismatch” — that low-income communities experience higher unemployment because they are isolated from employment centers – has shaped the way people think about urban form and social equity.

But it’s also been challenged. The research that supporting spatial mismatch has suffered from some nagging flaws. For example, many studies focused on job access within a single metropolitan area, so it wasn’t clear if the findings were universal. Other studies looked only at linear distance between jobs and low-income residents, not actual commute times. In addition, researchers including Harvard economist Ed Glaeser have argued that it’s difficult to determine whether neighborhood inaccessibility causes higher unemployment, or whether disconnected areas attract more people who have trouble finding work.

A new study [PDF] from researchers at the U.S. Census Bureau, the Comptroller of the Currency, and Harvard University, however, addresses those shortcomings and confirms the original theory of spatial mismatch: Geographic barriers to employment — sprawl, suburban zoning, poor transit – do indeed depress employment levels.

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Wowza: Scale Maps of Barcelona and Atlanta Show the Waste of Sprawl

diagram-barcelona

This graphic was created by Alain Bertaud, a senior researcher at NYU’s Stern Urbanization Project. He was formerly principal urban planner for the World Bank. Part of his work has focused on comparing densities of world cities.

In this stunning comparison of metro Atlanta and Barcelona, you can see that the two regions have almost the same population. Barcelona is actually a little bit bigger in that respect. They also have a roughly similar total length of rail transit: Barcelona has 99 miles of rail lines to Atlanta’s 74. But the living patterns couldn’t be more different. Atlantans are just way, way more spread out. In fact, the urbanized area of Atlanta is 26.5 times that of Barcelona. That has an enormous impact on the usefulness of the transit systems, Bertaud explains:

Urban densities are not trivial, they severely limit the transport mode choice and change only very slowly. Because of the large differences in densities between Atlanta and Barcelona about the same length of metro line is accessible to 60% of the population in Barcelona but only 4% in Atlanta. The low density of Atlanta render this city improper for rail transit.

Bertaud counts “accessible” as within one-third of a mile of a rail transit station.

Bertaud’s comparison focuses mainly on how low-density development affects one aspect of city life: the efficiency of transit. But there are many, many other ways Atlanta’s spread out nature produces waste, inefficiency, and high costs. Atlanta’s sprawling scale means it needs roads, utilities, and public services that cover 26.5 times as great an area as Barcelona’s public infrastructure and services do. And it means individual people must travel farther — at great personal and environmental expense — as they go about their daily lives.

h/t @joesarling and @m_clem.

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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 looking at 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.

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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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How Two Regions Reined in Job Piracy — And Two Others Failed

They call it “intra-regional job piracy” — when one town uses tax breaks to lure employers from neighboring towns.

Job poaching in the Kansas City region has been called a "border war." Photo: Wikipedia

Job poaching in the Kansas City region has been called a “border war.” Photo: Wikipedia

Job piracy is very common in regions across the United States. And it almost always results in employers moving farther from the central city. As the D.C.-based think tank Good Jobs First has shown [PDF], this job sprawl generates traffic, reduces the effectiveness of transit, inflates infrastructure costs, and impedes access to opportunity for low-income people.

Many metro areas have also grappled with how to solve this problem, and some are performing better than others. A new report from Good Jobs First [PDF] highlights how some regions have wrestled this problem under control, while others continue to let it run rampant.

Here’s a look at the best and worst approaches examined by Good Jobs First, starting with the success stories.

Denver

Greater Denver is a model of regional cooperation, and it’s paying off for the economy, Good Jobs First reports.

Business recruitment in greater Denver is handled by a regional economic development corporation representing 70 cities, counties, and economic development groups dedicated to promoting the region as a “single economic entity.” All members of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation sign an ethics agreement, stressing the principles of transparency, cooperation, and respect. The ethics guide is designed to ensure member entities are promoting the wellbeing of the region first, ahead of their own self-interest.

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Earth Day Resolution: Stop Building Projects Like the Zoo Interchange

zoo

Leading up to Earth Day, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Time Is Running Out,” lamenting the lack of urgency in the United States to prevent a very urgent problem: catastrophic climate change. Today, Brad Plumer at Vox explained why it may be too late to keep average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the threshold that climate scientists have been warning about.

There are many steps we’ll have to take to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But one of them is most definitely this: America has to stop spending billions on projects like Wisconsin’s Zoo Interchange and start getting serious about building places where people can get around by walking, biking, and taking transit.

The Zoo Interchange embodies America’s broken transportation spending system, which former US DOT official Beth Osborne described on Atlantic Cities today as “an entitlement for state departments of transportation to allocate for their own priorities.”

This single highway interchange, aimed at reducing delays for suburban car commuters in the nation’s 30th largest city, costs more than total federal spending on walking and biking annually.

The Zoo Interchange carries 300,000 cars per day. It is “Wisconsin’s oldest and busiest interchange,” according to the state. A big part of Wisconsin DOT’s justification for the Milwaukee interchange is “safety.” According to WisDOT, there were an average of 2.5 collisions a day on the interchange between 2000 and 2005 and nine were fatal.

By comparison, according to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, Americans make about 112 million walking trips daily. About 4,000 pedestrians are killed annually on American roads.

And yet, Wisconsin will spend more on this one sprawl-inducing highway project than the feds spend each year on all walking and biking projects combined.

Clearly, our priorities are out of whack — way out of whack.

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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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HUD and U.S. DOT Embrace Housing + Transportation Metric for Affordability

philly_housing

Looking only at housing costs (top map), much more far-flung parts of the Philadelphia region look affordable (the yellow areas) than if you look at housing and transportation costs together (bottom map). Maps: CNT

A few years ago, the Center for Neighborhood Technology gave a wonderful gift to urbanists and planners: the Housing + Transportation Index. This simple calculation clarified and popularized a key concept: that transportation costs must be taken into account in any measurement of “affordability.”

Without that, potential homebuyers and renters make the mistake of “saving” money by buying a home far outside the city, only to see those savings vanish when they end up driving multiple cars hundreds of miles per week, racking up fuel and maintenance expenses. The H+T index is a simple tool for making better decisions — for families, for planners, and for the federal government.

Today, U.S. DOT and HUD announced that they’re launching a new version of H+T. They’re calling it the Location Affordability Index, and CNT helped develop it. LAI differs from H+T in some key ways (here’s an infographic detailing those differences) but at its root, it gets at the same important question: Where is the best place to live without breaking the bank?

CNT answers that question by showing the huge variations between two maps: one that shows places where the median household pays 30 percent or more of their income on housing, and one that shows places where those households pay 45 percent or more of their income on housing and transportation combined.

The maps show how intimately linked transportation and housing are when determining cost of living, as HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan told reporters today. “For any housing community to succeed, its residents need to be able to get to work, its young people need to be able to get to school, and its families need to be able to access critical resources and services they need,” Donovan said.

philly_ht

Areas farther from the city center no longer appear affordable when transportation costs are factored in.

Donovan noted that for most families, transportation is their second-highest monthly expense, after housing, but said transportation costs aren’t always so easily tabulated. You don’t get one transportation bill in the mail, the way you get your mortgage or rent bill. Transportation costs are paid in dribs and drabs — a tank of gas here, a bus fare there, a parking ticket, a taxi ride, an oil change. The LAI index helps quantify how those costs add up, and see if the transportation requirements of a particular geographic area render it unaffordable.

“It can sometimes be tricky to weigh the pros and cons of all of these options,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Does it make more sense to live in a community where you have to drive to work every day? Or might it be a better bargain to live where you can walk, bike or ride public transportation? That’s where the Location Affordability Portal comes in.”

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Paul Krugman Links Sprawl to Persistent Social Inequality

Is sprawl holding back social mobility in America? Paul Krugman didn’t mince words yesterday in a follow-up to a post he wrote soon after the Detroit bankruptcy was announced. In that initial blog post, he compared Detroit to Pittsburgh and concluded that it wasn’t just the loss of manufacturing jobs that hurt Detroit — it was also the dispersement of jobs away from the city core. Yesterday, in a column titled “Stranded by Sprawl,” he took the argument further, arguing, “Sprawl may be killing Horatio Alger.”

Researchers have linked the lack of social mobility in places like Atlanta to the spatial segregation of different classes. Photo: NewsOne

Take Atlanta, says Krugman. Though its population is on the rise, a study released last week shows that Atlanta is one of the worst places in the country for social mobility: The chances that a kid born in the bottom fifth of the income ladder could move to the top fifth are one in 25.

Krugman writes that researchers have found “a significant negative correlation between residential segregation — different social classes living far apart — and the ability of the poor to rise.” He elaborates:

And in Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.

They may not be insolvent, but when it comes to the lack of social mobility, Atlanta and other sprawling metros are already following the same pattern as Detroit.

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How Sprawl Got Detroit Into This Mess

It wasn’t de-industrialization that bankrupted Detroit, wrote Paul Krugman in a New York Times column yesterday. If that was all there is to it, then how do you explain the fact that Pittsburgh, once so dependent on the steel industry, is now recovering? No, what brought Detroit to this low point, more than the loss of factory jobs, was decades of unsustainable development patterns.

The expanding footprint of metro Detroit. Top: 1900; Middle: 1950; Bottom: 2000. Image: NRDC Switchboard

A generation ago, Pittsburgh and Detroit were in similar straits, but Pittsburgh managed to keep its central city relatively strong, while the Detroit region saw a full-scale exodus from the city core. That allowed Pittsburgh “to adapt to changing circumstances,” wrote Krugman:

Detroit’s disaster isn’t just about industrial decline; it’s about urban decline, which isn’t the same thing. Sprawl killed Detroit.

And he’s right. There are many factors that distinguish Detroit from Pittsburgh, but the sprawl factor can’t be ignored. Very simply, Detroit’s assets can no longer keep up with its liabilities. Plenty of cities have pension obligations, but what Detroit lacks, more and more, is a tax base. And that is directly tied to the way the region developed over the last few decades — namely, further and further from Detroit.

A study released by the Brookings Institution this year found that Detroit has the worst job sprawl in the country. Now, many regions are sprawling, but Detroit is unusual, because it sprawled while the region wasn’t growing. The Detroit metro region, including its suburbs, has shrunk in population by 1.2 percent since 1970.

When the Detroit region sprawled, it wasn’t adding new people, the way Houston sprawled. It was drawing existing residents from the center to the periphery. Homes in the central city were abandoned — and the tax revenues that came from those households evaporated. Detroit, unlike some of its wealthy suburbs in Oakland County, only saw one side of this migration — the losing side. And it was poorly equipped to deal with the fallout.

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that in just the last five years, Detroit’s property tax collections declined 20 percent and its income tax revenues fell by a third. How does a city prepare for that? The answer is, it can’t, no matter how savvy the management may be.

The really discouraging part is, an emergency manager stripping people of their pensions won’t fix the long-term revenue drain at the heart of Detroit’s fiscal problems. On top of that, metro Detroit still does not seem to have mustered the political will to change what needs to be changed — its sprawling development patterns.

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