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Will Montgomery County Botch the Streets in a Model Suburban Retrofit?

Old Georgetown Road in White Flint today. Photo: Dan Reed/flickr via ##http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/24343/how-a-road-in-white-flint-is-like-a-ski-area/##GGW##

Old Georgetown Road in White Flint today. Montgomery County doesn’t want to add safety improvements for biking and walking until people change their travel habits. Photo: Dan Reed/Flickr via GGW

Four years ago, White Flint, a neighborhood of North Bethesda, Maryland, most known for its shopping mall, caught the attention of urbanists around the nation with a proposal to reimagine car-oriented suburban streets as a walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhood. Montgomery County adopted a plan for the town that would narrow its wide arterial roadways and make them safe and accommodating for transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians. It was hailed as a model for other suburbs around the nation looking to become less sprawling and more walkable.

But now, the county is quietly trying to undo much of the good work in the 2010 plan — namely, the street designs. The most recent design shared by the Montgomery County DOT showed a reversal of previous promises. Rather than bring Old Georgetown Road down from six car lanes to four, adding curbside bike lanes on each side as well as a bike/pedestrian path that fits into a larger trail loop, the new plan would actually make the road wider by adding turn lanes for motor vehicles. The bike lanes or shared-use path are scuttled as well.

Ramona Bell-Pearson, assistant chief administrative officer with the Montgomery County Executive, assured Streetsblog, “Everything that’s required in the master plan for Old Georgetown Road is what’s being designed.” But the plan specifies that that segment of the street will be four lanes wide and have bike lanes and a shared-use path. Bell-Pearson wouldn’t confirm that those elements will be in the final plan.

The county insists that the master plan is still under development and that the street design recently shared with stakeholders is far from final. Meanwhile, county and state officials say that the land use changes have to precede any overhaul of the streets. State Highway Administration studies say the wider configuration is still needed to avoid “Christmas-time traffic backup.”

Andy Scott, director of the Maryland DOT’s Office of Real Estate, grew up in nearby Rockville. He says a lot of White Flint still looks like it did in the eighties, when he was in high school, working at an Erol’s video store in a strip mall on Old Georgetown Road. To grab a bite across the street, he had to traverse “acres of asphalt parking lot and cross a busy highway.” He tried it on foot one time, and it was so unnatural he never did it again. The redevelopment will change all that.

Scott says the concern about Old Georgetown Road is just a “hiccup,” a miscommunication in what’s otherwise a visionary project. The streets will change, he says, but in a certain sequence. ”There’s a balance in building out the transportation infrastructure and the development that’s going to shift people to walking, biking, transit ridership — but it doesn’t happen overnight,” Scott said. “It was carefully phased both on the development side and the transportation infrastructure side.”

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Survey: Freedom From Car Dependence Appeals Across Generations

When it comes to what Millennials and Baby Boomers look for in a community, the generation gap may be overstated.

Source: APA

Source: APA

According to a recent survey from the American Planning Association, young adults and their parents both want better transportation options. APA surveyed 1,040 adults ages 21 to 65 with at least two years of college. Of the respondents, 416 were between 21 and 34 years old (Millennials), and 416 were between 50 and 65 (Boomers).

Here are some of the key findings:

Both groups are pessimistic about the national economy and stressed about their personal finances.

Three in four Millennials and 65 percent of Boomers reported believing the national economy was “fundamentally flawed.” Furthermore, neither group displayed much optimism that it would improve in the next five years. Both groups, however, were more optimistic about their local economies and personal prospects.

Both groups think community investment is more important than “traditional business recruitment strategies.”

Instead of luring employers with tax breaks, 65 percent of respondents told APA they would prefer public investment in schools, transportation amenities, and other quality-of-life improvements. This was particularly true of Millennials — three-quarters of whom responded this way.

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Suburbs Are Out, Cities Are In — Now What?

American public policy massively subsidizes a way of life that appeals to a shrinking number of Americans. Photo: @fineplanner/Twitter

Today’s Times devotes two pieces to the “suburbs are out, cities are in” phenomenon that has taken root in much of the country over the past few decades — the great inversion, urbanologist Alan Ehrenhalt has dubbed this reversal of the suburbanization wave that swept through the U.S. in the last century. Though both pieces will pretty much be old hat to Streetsblog readers, they’re interesting nonetheless, both as signposts and for what they leave out.

Suburbs Try to Prevent Exodus as Young Adults Move to Cities and Stay,” by Times Westchester beat reporter Joseph Berger, has some startling figures on the dwindling population of young adults in iconic Northeast suburbs. Between 2000 and 2011, Berger reports, Rye had a 63 percent drop in 25- to 34-year-olds, and 16 percent fewer 35- to 44-year-olds. Outside Washington, DC, the number of 25- to 34-year-olds fell 34 percent in Chevy Chase, 19 percent in Bethesda, and 27 percent in Potomac. The same pattern holds in suburbs ringing Chicago and Boston.

Although Berger noted last month, in his trenchant article about the toll squeeze facing the new Tappan Zee Bridge, that “young Americans are not as enamored of the automobile as their parents’ generation, and are less likely to have drivers’ licenses or own a car,” his piece today largely skirts the car issue. What ails the suburbs, he suggests, are expensive housing, insufficient diversity, a lack of well-paying jobs, and not enough urban “pizzazz.” All true, as is the observation by one of his sources, Christopher Niedt at Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies, that “younger adults are becoming more drawn to denser, more compact urban environments that offer a number of amenities within walking distance of where they live.” Yet the article makes no mention of the high cost to own and operate an auto (or two) in car-dependent suburbs, the boredom of driving in a landscape of strip malls, the time lost to traffic jams.

Berger cites efforts under way in Long Beach — my home town, in Nassau County — to attract young people by “refreshing its downtown near the train station” and adding “apartments, job-rich office buildings, restaurants and attractions” like the replacement boardwalk built after Hurricane Sandy. And indeed, Long Beach’s rectangular street grid, small lot sizes, and main street shopping give it a creditable Walk Score of 64, which doubtless helps residents live affordably with 25 percent fewer cars per household than the county average (1.41 vs. 1.90, according to my calculations based on the Selected Housing Characteristics dataset in the 2012 American Community Survey).

Nevertheless, when it comes to the contest for young people’s allegiance between revived central cities and their suburbs, there are deeper forces at play than even livable streets and freedom from the auto monkey. Here’s how a recent article in Tech Crunch about the Bay Area’s housing crisis put it:

San Francisco’s younger workers derive their job security not from any single employer but instead from a large network of weak ties that lasts from one company to the next. The density of cities favors this job-hopping behavior more than the relative isolation of suburbia.

In short, as lifetime employment at the suburban office park disappears, urban connectivity isn’t just an amenity, it’s a necessity.

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How to “Build a Better Burb”: Advice From Author June Williamson

The suburbs are changing. As cities grow in population and the poverty once associated with urban areas becomes more widely dispersed, even the meaning of “the suburbs” is evolving in the popular consciousness.

June Williamson is a leading expert in suburban design solutions. Photo: OWA

Architect June Williamson has studied suburban evolution and adaptation for more than a decade now. She was co-author, with Ellen Dunham-Jones, of “Retrofitting Suburbia.” Her new book, “Designing Suburban Futures, New Models From Build a Better Burb,” draws on her experience leading the “Build a Better Burb” design competition, which engaged top urban thinkers and designers in strategizing to revitalize greyfield spaces around Long Island.

We caught Williamson by phone recently to ask her what she learned about successful 21st century suburbs through the competition and the process of writing her new book.

Angie Schmitt: What are some of the factors that are compelling change right now in American suburbs?

June Williamson: The need to combat climate change and high carbon footprints that are more typical of suburbanites than urban or downtown dwellers. Increased acknowledgement of the eventual approach of peak oil conditions. The need to not only reduce demand for energy, but also find more renewable resources. A third might be the demographic change in suburbia that is happening because of longer lifespans and the aging of the baby boomers, which is leading to a decreased percentage of the population comprised of households with children. You have a large supply of detached houses and a shrinking supply of households with children to inhabit them. There’s also the proliferation of immigrant suburbs or ethnoburbs combined with the recent rise in suburban poverty.

And I think these are all things that are contributing to change happening, whether people desire it or not. And then there’s the aging of the physical fabric of, especially, the post-war suburbs. The areas that were all built out 50 or 60 years ago. And a lot of them, especially the commercial structures, were relatively cheaply built. They weren’t built to be durable. That is also creating conditions for change but also opportunities for physical transformation.

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Crawlable Urbanism: Cities Are for Kids, Too

All of a sudden, I feel like all anyone is talking about is whether it’s a good idea to raise kids in the city. I’m raising a kid in the city. I feel great about it when she has a blast on the back of the bike, or makes friends on the bus, or gets excited about pressing the beg button at the corner. I feel a little less certain when we toddle down the sidewalk and come upon guys peeing on the dumpster or passed out on the stoop. When I look at the test scores for our neighborhood schools, I get a knot in my stomach.

You knew I was going to post a picture of my kid in this story, didn't you? There's Luna at the fountain in Columbia Heights.

A few days ago I visited my friends’ new home in Potomac, a wealthy, second-ring suburb with enviable schools. Their new house sits on two acres with a pool and a basketball court. After a few hours sipping beer in their landscaped yard and watching our children frolic in the pool, I had to do some mental gymnastics to remind myself why I didn’t pick this path for myself.

This City? Childless?

But the fact is, despite its obvious allure, that path is being chosen by fewer and fewer people. Even among families with kids, many who could afford 5,000 square feet with a pool are increasingly opting for a smaller house, a pool club membership, a shorter commute, and transit access.

In the current issue of City Journal, Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres pretty much erased this reality — my reality, mind you — with their silly article, “The Childless City”:

Even the partial rebirth of American cities since [the 1960s] hasn’t been enough to lure families [with kids] back. The much-ballyhooed and self-celebrating “creative class” — a demographic group that includes not only single professionals but also well-heeled childless couples, empty nesters, and college students — occupies much of the urban space once filled by families. Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history.

Joel Kotkin's idea of city life. Woo-hoo! Photo: Splash News/Corbis via City Journal

“The Childless City” is illustrated with a picture — I’m not kidding you — of “the casts of The Real World and Jersey Shore party[ing] it up at a New York nightclub.” That, to them, illustrates the modern city.

I’d like to take Joel Kotkin on a child’s-eye tour of Washington, DC, a city emptied out a few decades ago by crack and riots and mayhem. Talk about a rebirth.

I’d bring him along to the bilingual story hour at the local library, which is walking distance even for my toddler. I’d show him parents taking the bus with their kids down to the National Mall to see dinosaur skeletons and war planes in our world-class museums. I’d encourage him to play in the fountain in the plaza of the transit-oriented neighborhood of Columbia Heights along with scores of wet, shrieking children of all colors and incomes. And after getting his soak, I’d even buy him frozen yogurt, Chilean empanadas, vegan cupcakes, or Central American fried chicken from the establishments lining the plaza.

All of these child-friendly urban amenities are invisible to Kotkin. “We have embarked on an experiment to rid our cities of children,” he declares. The rent is too high, the yards are too small, the schools are too bad, the neighbors are too sketchy.

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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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The Next Generation DOT

Cross-posted from the Strong Towns blog

Charles Marohn is a planner and engineer in Minnesota and the executive director of Strong Towns. 

We’ve been looking at the instincts of today’s transportation agencies. While on an individual level it is clear that these organizations are filled with people who are professional, competent and want to do the right thing, the institutional inertia is carrying them in wayward directions.

Lesson for state DOTs: Don't build anything new until you're sure you can maintain what you already have. Image: Public Domain Photos

When confronted with a persistently dangerous intersection, there is no push or conversation to close it. That is not in the play book because the policies of transportation agencies are deeply rooted in misunderstandings about economic growth and development. What is in the play book is the will to make large expenditures on modest improvements in the hopes that the problem will be alleviated. This from agencies that are fatally short of funding. At least we tried.

Unfortunately, those misunderstandings we have about growth and development correlate highway spending with increased prosperity. In reality, this is an illusion brought about by quick and easy development leveraged off these massive investments. The lack of productivity in this approach means that, over the long term, the costs far outweigh the gains. It is the Ponzi scheme of the Suburban Experiment. We’re in the unwinding phase.

Nobody should understand that more clearly than our nation’s DOTs. They are simultaneously over committed and under funded. While they obsess about the latter, it is the former that they will ultimately be forced to reconcile. Many in these agencies — especially the second tier of leaders that are a little more removed from our highway building heydays and a little further from retirement than the first tier – understand this clearly, but they lack an acceptable alternative approach. They are trapped by the inertia of their organization.

It is to those people that I offer my thoughts on the principles and understandings that a Next Generation DOT should embody when making that inevitable course correction.

1. Transportation spending is not economic development.

Speaking of transportation in terms of economic development has been a convenient way to secure additional funding streams. Unfortunately, the meme has become part of the wider culture, even though we know that good transportation systems serve productive growth, not create it. Transportation systems move goods and people. They are not catalysts for productive growth. We know how much that interchange costs so we need to stop pretending that the quiki mart, pet stop and strip mall somehow justify the investment just because it makes the locals happy.

2. Transportation spending is not job creation.
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Will Cities Hold on to Younger Residents as They Have Children?

Many American cities are proving to be more resilient than suburban areas thanks in part to the shifting preferences of today’s young people. But as USA Today reported in a talked-about article earlier this week, the cohort that has flocked to cities is now reaching a stage of life which, historically, has been more closely associated with suburbia.

Photo: Giggle Gab

The oldest “millennials” — a generation that is larger than the Baby Boomers and many degrees more urban — are turning 30 this year. Many will begin settling down and having children — and their priorities will inevitably change.

Smart cities are doing what they can to prevent these folks from moving “upward and outward” like the generations that came before, USA Today’s Haya El Nasser reports. According to the sources USA Today consulted, this transitioning generation will be looking for good schools and recreational opportunities, but they’ll still want strong transit and walkability — a key advantage of city life over the suburbs.

Places like Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Oklahoma City are looking at ways to help young families stay. Denver been mapping “day care centers, preschools, grocery stores and jobs” to see how well-served they are by transit. Cities like Charlotte, Anaheim, and Dallas are looking at ways to provide larger, more family-friendly housing choices within smaller urban lots. The school reform movement and the push to improve the quality of public education is another major piece of the puzzle.

There’s a lot at stake for all the residents of these cities, El Nasser points out: “Hanging on to residents as they age, make more money and have kids is a plus for cities because it strengthens and stabilizes the tax base while creating an involved constituency.”

Richard Florida told El Nasser that he expects 60 or 70 percent of millennials to move to the suburbs when they start families, compared to about 95 percent of their predecessors.

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Study Predicts “Resilient Walkable” Places Will Lead the Housing Recovery

This morning, a Minnesota Public Radio host asked me if the exurbs, whose growth rate flattened when the recession hit, are going to come back. Lots of people from far-distant suburbs like Blaine and Farmington called in, saying they like the way of life out there – they like having acres of trees buffering them from their nearest neighbor — and people won’t want to stop living in communities like that.

The data suggests otherwise, though. Earlier this week, the Demand Institute (a think tank created by the Conference Board — “a global, independent business membership and research association” — and Nielsen — yeah, the TV ratings people) released a report on the housing recovery. They say the worst of the housing crash is over and glimmers of recovery are on the horizon. But hope isn’t spread out uniformly across these United States. Those exurbs like Blaine and Farmington, Minnesota? They’re not coming back so fast.

Urban areas didn’t lose as much value during the recession. Home prices didn’t crash so hard. Not so many people found themselves under water, owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. And urban areas are bouncing back faster. The Demand Institute calls these places “Resilient Walkables.” Only 15 percent of the U.S. population lives there.

The report bases its prognosis for recovery on seven factors: population size, walkability, severity of the crash, current affordability, unemployment, foreclosure inventory, and foreclosure policy. The Institute found what Angie noted earlier: Walk Score is positively correlated with strong housing prices. The Institute’s analysis of almost 1,700 U.S. cities showed that walkable cities had more positive price growth.

And it found that these “Resilient Walkables” were resilient indeed, with house prices projected to rise three percent next year and five percent a year for the four years after that.

Compare that to the places the Institute calls “Slow and Steady” – where more than a third of Americans live and where double-digit housing declines destabilized the market. Economic indicators are gloomy for these areas, but the authors find the planning solid, so the future is relatively bright. These are places like Charlotte, NC, Dallas and semi-urban D.C. suburbs like Gaithersburg, MD, and the study forecasts three percent growth starting in two years.

Then there are the “Damaged But Hopeful” areas – a category that encompasses big but depressed cities like Chicago and smaller ones like Stamford, CT. Thirty percent of Americans live in these places, too many of them fighting foreclosure. It will take them a little longer to get to three percent growth but from 2017 onward, the Demand Institute predicts that they’ll beat the national average.

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Brookings: Suburban-Style Zoning Linked to Educational Inequality

Metro areas in the Northeast were found to have the highest "test-score gaps," a measure of educational inequality. Brookings found this was linked to economic segregation reinforced by large lot zoning in suburban jurisdictions. Image: Brookings

What do laws that mandate large yards and prevent walkable development have to do with educational opportunity? Turns out, there’s an important connection.

The Brookings Institution recently examined educational inequality across the U.S. by race and income. One of the key findings was that large-lot zoning requirements effectively restrict access to quality education for low-income children, hindering their long-term economic prospects.

Restrictive zoning laws are widespread. Brookings reports that 84 percent of municipalities impose some minimum lot size, the average being 0.4 acres. The authors note that this is larger than the average lot size of a single-family home in America — 0.26 acres. In other words, in most places it’s illegal just to build a home of typical size.

The authors report that these laws “effectively block low-income students and their families from living near or attending” public schools where students perform well on state exams. In areas with large lot laws, it is significantly more expensive to live near good public schools than it is in areas without restrictive zoning, according to the study.

This in turn has a significant effect on educational attainment and economic opportunity. Low-income students who attend top schools score two percent higher than state averages, according to Brookings. Low-income students attending low-performing schools score 18.5 percent below average.

The authors believe their research points to the inadequacy of education reforms like school vouchers or merit pay for teachers:

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