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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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Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn: Why Suburban Growth Is a Ponzi Scheme

Chuck Marohn cofounded the non-profit Strong Towns in 2009. Since then he has steadily built an audience for his message about the financial folly of car-centric planning and growth. The suburban development pattern that has prevailed since the end of World War II has resulted in what Marohn calls “the growth Ponzi scheme” – a system that isn’t viable in the long run because it cannot bring in enough revenue to cover its costs.

Last year, interest in the Strong Towns message surged and Marohn, in high demand, traveled to towns and cities all over the country delivering “curbside chats” about the need to build places differently. In this Streetfilm we provide an overview of his thinking about street design, land use, and transportation funding. For more Chuck Marohn, visit the Strong Towns blog and check out their podcast.

One of my favorite pieces of commentary from Chuck is this video walk-through of a “diverging diamond” interchange in Springfield, Missouri. As usual he pulls no punches, and he delivers the critique with a biting sense of humor.

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T4A: One in Nine American Bridges Structurally Deficient

There’s a new report out on the state of America’s bridges, and with it a new raft of disturbing statistics. Nearly one in nine, or 11 percent, are structurally deficient — meaning a bridge inspector has rated a major component of the structure to be in poor condition. The average age of a bridge in the United States is 43 years; the average design life, 50 years.

Despite the poor structural condition of America's bridges, states continue to spend on road expansion while neglecting maintenance. Image: Transportation for America

While state DOTs and other transportation agencies have been spending the bulk of their money expanding highways and promoting sprawl, there are 66,405 structurally deficient bridges in the United States. As Transportation for America points out in “The Fix We’re In For,” if you were to string together these aging bridges, they would stretch from Washington, DC, to Denver. A smaller number of these bridges are also “fracture-critical” — in danger of collapse if a major structural element fails.

James Corless, director of Transportation for America, said in a conference call today there is a backlog of bridge repair coming due and federal policy isn’t addressing the problem. MAP-21, the current transportation bill, eliminated dedicated funding for bridge repair, making it more tempting for states to spend on road expansion instead of maintenance. The largest federal pot of money available for repairs — the National Highway Performance Program — is open only to the highest class of highways, which encompasses only 10 percent of bridges.

The problem isn’t going away. While the proportion of structurally deficient bridges has decreased slightly since T4A’s last bridge report in 2011 (from 11.5 percent to 11 percent, thanks in part to the stimulus bill), the pace of repair is slowing. In 10 years’ time, nearly one in four bridges will be 65 years old, the average age of a structurally deficient bridge.

Lynn Peterson, secretary of the Washington Department of Transportation, commented on the findings during a T4A conference call today. She said even though her state rates well overall on bridge maintenance (Washington is the sixth-best in the country with less than 5 percent of its bridges rated structurally deficient), the collapse of the I-5 bridge of the Skagit River last month has refocused her agency on repair. A temporary replacement bridge opened today, less than four weeks after the collapse, which was caused by a truck collision. The bridge was not structurally deficient, but newer bridges are required to have built-in redundancy intended to prevent such a collapse.

“It’s always cheaper to do the maintenance of our bridges up front, rather than having to deal with an emergency such as this,” said Peterson.

In order to get a handle on the problem, T4A recommends prioritizing repair projects over expansions and removing funding restrictions on bridge repair.

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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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Streetfacts: Roads Are a Money Losing Proposition

The majority of the roads and highways built in America are simply bad investments. Continuing this pattern will only ensure that wasteful projects consume larger chunks of our federal, state, and local budgets, without addressing the real need for transportation options.

This Streetfacts chapter has a bit more math than usual, but we think we’ve made an entertaining and accessible profile of how government agencies routinely justify unnecessary road projects. The example we’ve chosen to illustrate the problem is a federally-funded “diamond-diverter” interchange in Colorado. The project as proposed may look like a pretty good deal for taxpayers at first, but after crunching the numbers, you’ll see that’s not the case at all.

Much of the inspiration for this piece comes from the outstanding work of Strong Towns, an organization that emphasizes obtaining a higher return on infrastructure investments. Strong Towns Executive Director Charles Marohn, Jr. has been getting his message out through what he calls curbside chats, and we’ll soon be debuting a Streetfilm that features his work.

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Study: Homes Near Transit Were Insulated From the Housing Crash

Percent change in average residential sales prices relative to the region, 2006-11. Image: APTA and NAR

If you live close to a transit station, chances are you’ve weathered the recession better than your friends who don’t.

Your transportation costs are probably lower, since you can take transit instead of driving. Transit-served areas are usually more walkable and bikeable too, multiplying your options. And while home values plummeted during a recession that was triggered by a massive housing bubble, your home probably held its value relatively well – if you live near transit.

The National Association of Realtors and the American Public Transportation Association commissioned the Center for Neighborhood Technology to study the impact of transit access on home values during the recession. For the report, “The New Real Estate Mantra: Location Near Public Transportation” [PDF], CNT looked at five metro regions — Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, and San Francisco.

While nearly everyone in hard-hit cities experienced some setback from tanking housing prices, transit-served areas were largely insulated from the worst of it, CNT found:

Across the study regions, the transit shed outperformed the region as a whole by 41.6 percent. In all of the regions the drop in average residential sales prices within the transit shed was smaller than in the region as a whole or the non-transit area. Boston station areas outperformed the region the most (129 percent), followed by Minneapolis-St. Paul (48 percent), San Francisco and Phoenix (37 percent), and Chicago (30 percent).

This is consistent with a study released last year by the Center for Housing Policy showing that access to rail transit created a “transit premium” for nearby home values of between six and 50 percent. That study, like CNT’s, looked at Minneapolis and Chicago, as well as Portland. The Center for Transit Oriented Development has also looked at this phenomenon and found transit premiums as high as 150 percent.

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Sprawl Madness: Two Houses Share Backyard, Separated by 7 Miles of Roads

It would take you more than two hours to walk between these two suburban Orlando houses with adjoining backyards, thanks to the windy, disconnected road system. Image: Google Maps

Just how absurd have American development patterns become over the past few decades?

Behold: Two houses with adjoining backyards in suburban Orlando. If you want to travel the streets from point A on Anna Catherine Drive to point B on Summer Rain Drive, which are only 50 feet apart, you’ll have to go a minimum of seven miles. The trip would take almost twenty minutes in a car, according to Google Maps.

Windy street patterns, full of cul-de-sacs and circles, have become such a ubiquitous feature of the suburbs that they mostly escape remark. But disconnected streets have many insidious consequences for the environment, public health, and social equity.

For one, the lack of a functional street grid funnels traffic onto wide arterial roads — which tend to be the most dangerous places for pedestrians. Furthermore, disconnected streets discourage trips by foot or bike. People who can drive have no incentive to walk or bike anywhere because the trips would be too long and dangerous, while people who can’t drive are effectively trapped in their own homes, or are highly dependent on caretakers.

The Congress for the New Urbanism’s Sustainable Street Network Principles guide outlines seven principles for walkable, safe streets. The number one principle is to “create a street network that supports communities and places.”

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