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Posts from the Sprawl Category

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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 quality, rapid transit 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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Streetsblog USA
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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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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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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.

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It’s Smart to Be Dense

As the world’s population continues to urbanize, our cities have two options for growth: densify or sprawl. To accommodate a more populous and more prosperous world, the spread-out, car-dependent model of the 20th century must change. In this video, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and Streetfilms team up to bring you the most important reasons for building dense.

If you like this one, don’t miss our other productions with ITDP:

Streetsblog USA
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Sprawl Costs the Public More Than Twice as Much as Compact Development

This graphic compars the cost of servicing suburban development versus urban in Halifax, Canada (in Canadia dollars) Image: Sustainable Prosperity

Public services for suburban development cost more than double the services for urban areas in Halifax, Nova Scotia (figures are in Canadian dollars). Click to enlarge. Image: Sustainable Prosperity

How much more does it cost the public to build infrastructure and provide services for sprawling development compared to more compact neighborhoods? A lot more, according to this handy summary from the Canadian environmental think tank Sustainable Prosperity.

To create this graphic, the organization synthesized a study by the Halifax Regional Municipality [PDF] in Nova Scotia, and the research is worth a closer look.

Halifax found the cost of administering services varied directly in proportion to how far apart homes were spaced. On the rural end, each house sat on a 2.5 acre lot. On the very urban end, there were 92 people dwelling on each acre. Between those two extremes were several development patterns of varying density.

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The Suburbs Aren’t Dying — They’re Growing Differently

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group.

(data: 1990, 2000, 2010: Metropolitan Area Planning Council, 2013 Census estimates: UMass Donahue Institute)

In the Boston region, the fringes are still growing, but not like they used to. 1990, 2000, 2010 data: Metropolitan Area Planning Council; 2013 Census estimates: UMass Donahue Institute

Sommer Mathis said much of what needed to be said about the recent round of “the suburbs are back, baby!” stories on housing trends, including this analysis from Jed Kolko, housing economist at, and the related commentary from Matt Yglesias at Vox.

Mathis argues that the concept of a battle for supremacy between cities and suburbs is fundamentally silly, especially at a time in history when the terms “city” and “suburb” each represent a wide variety of built forms and socioeconomic conditions.

There is another problem, however, with these stories, which is that they play into the narrative — recently championed by the likes of Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin — that when it comes to housing trends, little meaningful (other than the recession) has really changed in the United States in recent years.

Kolko, for example, states that, after a brief period in which urban population growth outpaced that of the suburbs, “old patterns have returned,” while Yglesias states that “the trajectory of American housing growth is still all about the suburbs.”

But the “old patterns” have not returned. Far from it. The old pattern of development, which prevailed during the second half of the 20th century (and the first few years of the 21st), was one of rapid suburbanization characterized by the universal spread of a particular kind of segregated-use, automobile-oriented development known colloquially as “sprawl.”

As Kolko notes, suburbs today are adding population a wee bit faster than cities, a shift from earlier this decade when cities were growing a wee bit faster than suburbs. But for most of the 20th century, suburbs weren’t just beating cities by a nose in the hypothetical growth contest, they were trouncing them like Secretariat at the Belmont.

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


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.

Streetsblog USA
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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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