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Why Aren’t American Bike-Share Systems Living Up to Their Potential?

This chart shows the performance of the world's bike sharing systems. U.S. systems, by en large, are lagging. Image: ?

U.S. bike-share systems, which tend not to have dense networks of stations, also tend to lag behind other bike-share systems on ridership. Graph: Institute for Transportation and Development Policy

As policy director at the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to June, 2014, Jon Orcutt shepherded the nation’s largest bike-share system through the earliest stages of planning, a wide-ranging public engagement process, and, last year, the rollout of hundreds of Citi Bike stations.

That makes Orcutt, formerly of Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a leading U.S. expert on bike-share. In a recent exchange about what some cities are passing off as bike-share, Orcutt told he has some concerns about how bike-share systems are being rolled out in cities around the U.S. Intrigued, I asked him to elaborate in an interview.

Here’s what he had to say about what separates a successful bike-share system from one that’s not meeting its potential:

So you’ve come to some conclusions about how certain bike-shares are functioning?

They’re not my conclusions. There’s a fair amount of research out there now and you can see pretty clearly what some of the variables are. There’s a huge variation across cities, especially in the United States.

Can you summarize the research?

The most useful metric is rides per bike per day. You can compare a system with 600 bikes to 6,000 bikes in different size cities pretty easily. You just see, how many rides is it getting?

I’d say the breaking point internationally is about three-and-a-half or four rides. High performing systems are seeing four rides per day on average or more, and then there’s everybody else. A lot of them in the United States are under two.

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How Liberating Is Your Transit System? An Interview With Jarrett Walker

I first became aware of Jarrett Walker’s work through his blog, Human Transit, a few years ago. Here was someone writing about transit in a completely refreshing way, framing questions not in terms of mode or technology but through the prism of values and desires. To call Walker’s site a transit blog doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s about what we want from our cities, and how transit can help us get there. His 2011 book, Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives, is a must-read if you’re interested in cities and want to understand what makes transit work well.

jarrett_walkerA transit planning consultant by trade whose clients literally span the globe, Walker will be in NYC next month to lead his two-day workshop in transit network design (as of press time, a few spaces are still available) and give a talk at the New School on the evening of February 6 (no registration required). When we first got in touch about doing an interview, he was about to leave for a gig in New Zealand for several weeks. A few days ago we caught up for a discussion that touched on transit on three continents, why simplicity matters in transit networks, and the legibility of New York City’s bus system.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us a bit about what you were working on in New Zealand?

I have been working in New Zealand on and off for five years now. The main project that brings me down there over and over is a complete redesign of the bus system in Auckland. Working with my New Zealand colleagues from a firm called MR Cagney, I led workshops with Auckland transit staff that completely redesigned the network, with the goal of much higher ridership and much higher levels of freedom for almost everyone. Aucklanders will see that network rolling out over the next few years. And since then I’ve been back there several times to help them work on the details. There are lots of interesting details around what the buses do downtown and how that interacts with various people’s ideas about what downtown ought to be.

Does the Auckland bus system consist of what we’d call conventional lines and rapid lines, specifically BRT lines?

They have one very nice busway, they have a couple of old commuter rail lines that they’re in the process of turning into rapid transit lines. They have an extension of the rail line through the downtown in the works. But most of the system is bus routes, and the system has grown incrementally, because New Zealand had gone through this period of Thatcherite madness where they had privatized the whole bus system and essentially given over to private companies the right to run buses in particular areas, and had pretty much hollowed out the government role in planning transit service. And so for quite a while you’d see routes being designed by various local bus operators without caring very much about how they fit together into a network.

Lots of people who are used to having a bus at 7:32 right where they need it at their favorite bus stop may find that the bus stop is a little further way, but that’s part of the process of building frequency. You have to reduce the complexity.

This is the first time the entire city has been looked at as a single unit without regard to the historic bus operator boundaries. This is a very common issue in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. And Australia and New Zealand in particular are swinging back toward asserting strong government control over transit planning. Quite a different set of issues than we have in the states.

Do they run up against the problem where the current system has its own constituency? That’s a pretty big overhaul.

Absolutely. Lots of people who are used to having a bus at 7:32 right where they need it at their favorite bus stop may find that the bus stop is a little further way, but that’s part of the process of building frequency. You have to reduce the complexity, and you have to eliminate the things that only had historical justifications but don’t really make sense and aren’t generating ridership or coverage.

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Q&A With Robert Grow: How Utah Decided to Embrace “Quality Growth”

Envision Utah didn’t tell Utahns they should build light rail, says Robert Grow. Utahns expressed their hopes and desires for the future, and plans for transit construction arose from those values. Photo: Visit Salt Lake/Eric Schramm

If you’ve ever wondered how a deep-red state like Utah has managed to build some of the most ambitious transit expansions in the country, the short answer is: Envision Utah.

Starting in the late nineties, the non-profit Envision Utah brought together an incredibly broad spectrum of interests, including plenty of people without a specific stake in the process, to explore how the 10-county region surrounding Salt Lake City, known as the Greater Wasatch Area, should cope with anticipated population growth. Organizers showed people what would happen if the region carried on with business-as-usual development, then outlined the ramifications of three other potential scenarios with scientific rigor. The extraordinarily thorough process involved hundreds of public meetings, leaving no one out and turning every participant into a problem-solver. Along the way, Envision Utah pioneered a new approach to regional planning, bringing together transportation and land use decisions in unprecedented fashion.

Robert Grow says he didn't tell Utahns what to do; they told him what their values were and they came up with a plan together, Photo: Envision Utah

Robert Grow. Photo: Envision Utah

It would be fair to say that after this effort, nearly the entire state was on board with the vision that came out of the process: nearly the entire state was on board with the vision that came out of the process: Quality growth with compact, mixed-use development, multi-modal transportation options, and untouched wild and agricultural spaces.

If you have some time, this history of Envision Utah will hold your attention like no other planning document. (If you have a little less time, you can get the basics in this PDF.)

Robert Grow was the founding chairman who guided Envision Utah through its formative stages. He returned to the helm last year as its president and CEO. In the interim, he helped bring lessons from the Envision Utah model to 80 regions around the country. After a recent swing through the East Coast where he shared the Envision Utah story at an event organized by Transit Center, I called up Grow to see what the rest of the country can learn from his home state.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Envision Utah gets a lot of attention for having done this process and instilled these values in a place where people wouldn’t have expected it. You don’t talk about “smart growth,” you talk about “quality growth.” I was curious where that phrase came from.

It came from the fact that this was Utahns deciding how Utahns wanted to grow, and therefore we gave it our own name: “quality growth.”

If you look at many of the goals — transportation choices, housing for everyone, spending infrastructure money smart, preserving water, making sure we have clean air — people across the country have differences, but also have common things they really want. They want to have personal time and opportunity; they don’t want to be stuck in traffic and waste their lives. They want to get home for dinner with their kids or spend time with their friends. The things we value actually drive that quality growth strategy in Utah.

So we did not, quote, “instill” those values. Those values are the ones Utahns already had. So the goal was to understand not how to manipulate or push people toward an outcome but to listen to them in a way that we understand what they really wanted. And then to show them, through the scenarios, the choices.

Envision Utah has absolutely no authority. So we just show people, if you choose this, this is the outcome, but if you choose this, that’s the outcome.

What other language changes or thematic adaptations did you have to make when taking on a quality growth mission in a place where people are deeply skeptical of government, deeply skeptical of planning, deeply skeptical of urbanism?

I’m not sure they’re skeptical of all those things. Their values are their values. When they see choices and they choose how to grow, those strategies may look like strategies other places but adopted by Utahns. We used the words that Utahns used.

This values study approach which we used is not a poll. It involved almost 100 multi-hour interviews, laddering people — and laddering is a term I could describe but essentially saying: What are the attributes of living here? How does that affect your life in a functional way? What is the emotional quotient of that — how does it make you feel? And how does that attach to your values?

By value laddering you learn what people want, but you also learn why they want it. And knowing why they want it and the words to describe it, when you present scenarios you can present them in Utah words. And so Utah is here to keep Utah “beautiful, prosperous, neighborly and healthy” for future generations. We added “healthy” a few years ago. Those were Utah’s words for a prosperous economy.

Those are Utahns’ words for things you might say in completely different words somewhere else. But we didn’t pick the words. Utahns picked those words.

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Alan Durning on Reasons to Be Optimistic About Parking Reform

We hope you enjoyed part one of our Q&A with Alan Durning. Durning is publishing a series of articles on his blog at the Sightline Institute — where he serves as executive director — about the ways that underpriced parking drives up rents, eats up space, and makes no sense.

A reader asked in the comments whether performance pricing could actually lead to more driving — a question that I also asked at the end of the interview. Durning responded in the comments, but his thinking on the subject is more fleshed out here — along with his thoughts on the political calculus of parking policy, how cruising drivers can be a menace to cyclists, and reasons to be optimistic about the future.

Tanya Snyder: Free and abundant parking gives drivers an incredible incentive to drive, because they can just put their vehicle wherever they want and they won’t have to pay for it. But even with all the ways parking policies incentivize driving, it’s still not enough to fill all the spaces developers are building. You are still counting all these empty spaces. Considering the cost that goes into building those spaces, why is it taking so long for cities and developers to say, “Oh, we’re doing this completely wrong; we’re losing tons of money.” You’d think the bottom line would have translated a long time ago into a correction of this. Why has that not happened?

Alan Durning: I’ve thought about that a lot and that’s why I started the series with “Who Parked in My Spot?!” to describe the intensity of territoriality that residents feel about free on-street parking. Business owners feel a similar protectiveness of free on-street parking for their customers. So you look around city, and there’s no neighborhood where there isn’t intense, visceral political pressure for lots of free parking.

The ultimate gamble is that the benefits of urbanism beat the benefits of sprawl. And we’re winning it. Even though parking rules and transportation spending patterns are against us.

So that’s the political fuel that perpetuates the whole system. Local elected officials are not passionate about parking. No one goes into politics or runs for elected office because they want to change parking policy.

Developers hate parking requirements, but because all the developers in the city have to obey the same rules, they can usually pass the cost on to the tenants or to the buyers. So the loser in this is always the person who’s moving into a building. Those people don’t have a say. All the actors in this process are responding rationally to the incentives that they face.

TS: And it’s the people who are losing the most that have no way to respond.

AD: Right. So [parking requirements are] the perfect political solution to the problem. That’s why it hasn’t been fixed — because from a political perspective, it’s not a problem. It’s a solution.

But [if a city implements Donald Shoup’s recommendation to charge for street parking and rebate some of the meter revenue to the neighborhood] some residents in the neighborhood will switch sides. And now you have a situation where politicians have to choose, have to lead. And it doesn’t take that many people switching sides until the political dynamic is all scrambled and new things become possible.

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Alan Durning on the “Ruinous, Vicious Circle” of Underpriced Parking

Many people have been inspired by UCLA Professor Donald Shoup’s epic takedown of American parking policy, but few have turned that newfound passion into the kind of scholarship Alan Durning has produced on the issue. The executive director of the Pacific Northwest’s sustainability think tank, Sightline Institute, has now published 12 installments in a series called “Parking? Lots!” — and there’s more coming.

Sightline Institute's Alan Durning has discovered more reasons to eliminate parking minimums than even you knew existed. Photo: Olympic Photo Group/Flickr

Each installment examines the parking beast from a different angle — the territorial rage people feel when others park in front of their house, the conviction of some drivers that they have special parking “karma” that lets them find the best spaces — and the profound damage that overabundant parking wreaks on cities.

Durning wanted to make Shoup’s writing more accessible to a mainstream audience, capture some aspects that Shoup’s book left out, and tailor the message to a Cascadia audience. He especially hoped to capture the attention of urban planners and council members in small and mid-sized cities where the latest innovations in transportation policy might not already be implemented or even understood.

We’ve re-printed one of our favorites from the series, Apartment Blockers, an in-depth exploration of what parking minimum have to do with the fact that The Rent Is Too Damn High.

Durning and I spoke at length last week. Here are some of the many highlights of our conversation. We’ll run some more tomorrow.

Tanya Snyder: Where are the places that are really getting parking right?

Alan Durning: The city of Seattle and the city of Portland are both pretty darn good. Both have eliminated off-street minimums for multi-family buildings in much of the cities, though Portland has now back-tracked a little bit and created a very small parking minimum again. Seattle is doing a low-tech, crude version of performance pricing, which is where you vary the price of meters in order to ensure that there’s always one or two spaces on each block, and that’s supposed to eliminate cruising for parking. And that starts to approximate market pricing for parking. So, in the Northwest, those are the two leaders.

The places Donald Shoup talks about as having put it all together are part of Pasadena, California, of all places, and some places in San Diego. Some other cities are starting to do the whole package: 1) charging the right price for street parking, 2) rebating some of the meter revenue to the local neighborhoods — which is important because it creates political pressure to extend charging for parking — and 3) reducing off-street parking requirements. Redwood City, California; Austin, Texas — Mexico City is just getting started. Washington, DC, is doing some things.
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The Livable Streets Leader You’ve Never Heard Of: Leicester, England

In Leicester, England, the city redesigned an intersection and DeMontfort University built a more pedestrian-friendly building, improving access to a Medieval fortress structure and bringing pedestrian crossings to the surface. Photos courtesy Andy Salkeld.

Leicester is a city of about 330,000 in England’s East Midlands region. Like many other cities, it developed big mid-century plans to drive highways through its city center and paved over much of its historic core. In some cases, it even paved over its history: the bones of King Richard III, killed in battle nearby, were recently discovered beneath a parking lot. In the past decade, however, Leicester has unearthed more than just a king; it’s also reclaimed space from the automobile and become a model for other cities looking to create more livable communities.

On Monday, Leicester’s bicycle coordinator, Andy Salekeld, spoke at a fundraiser for Recycle-A-Bicycle and discussed the changes underway in his city.

In order to start shaping a new future for cities, Salkeld said, we have to start thinking of automobile dominance as an era in history. “We need to start talking about it as the past,” he said, showing a slide of a mid-century gas station in Leicester that’s received historic designation. “I take people on bike rides to see this,” he said.

Beginning in 2008, Leicester pedestrianized some of its busiest downtown shopping streets. Salkeld said the city has seen a net increase in the number of people coming to the area, boosting the fortunes of merchants during an economic downturn. The city has had to work closely with advocates for the disabled, who are often worried that their needs will not be met in a “shared space” street, Salkeld said. The pedestrian streets program is expanding, using trials to test a concept before etching it in stone — a tactic that Salkeld says they’ve learned from New York.

Another intervention that Leicester is borrowing from other cities is protected bicycle lanes. The Connecting Leicester project includes £7 million for new protected lanes on three major roads leading to the city center, in a bid to help bridge the divide created by the inner ring road, a tangle of flyover ramps and traffic lanes. That road itself is being shrunk, piece by piece, to make the city safer and more attractive for bicycling and walking.

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How Better Traffic Models Can Lead to More Mixed-Use Development

Here’s another obscure but significant obstacle to building walkable places in America: the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ shoddy traffic generation models for mixed-use development.

The model used by traffic engineers around the country to measure “trip generation” at new developments consistently overestimates the amount of motor vehicle traffic produced by mixed-use projects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This often increases the cost of building mixed-use projects, because the developers are asked to take steps to compensate for the added traffic. To address this problem, the EPA worked with transportation researchers around the United States to develop a better traffic prediction model.

Current traffic modeling overestimates the traffic caused by mixed-use development by about 35 percent, on average. Image: Kyle Gradinger on Twitter

Reid Ewing, a transportation engineering professor at the University of Utah, helped develop the new model to forecast the traffic generation of walkable development. I caught up with him at the Congress for New Urbanism conference last week in Salt Lake City.

Angie Schmitt: Can you explain the new method?

Reid Ewing: There’s a current methodology, which is the Institute of Transportation Engineers’, and it overestimates the number of external vehicle trips generated by a development if the development has mixed uses. If it’s got residential, retail, and office, those uses interact and a lot of trips stay within the development. And if it’s a development downtown, a lot of those trips that leave the development are walk and transit trips. ITE doesn’t account for that, it doesn’t account for the full number of trips that will stay within a development or the use of alternative modes for those that leave the development. So we developed a methodology.

AS: How many trips are reduced by mixed-use development?

RE: It varies from almost zero to over 50 percent. In a master planned community, it’s huge — a lot of the trips are going to stay within the community. If you have a stand-alone, freeway-oriented community that happens to have mixed-used, a much smaller percentage will stay within the community. But on average, about 35 percent. So the ITE method seems to overestimate by, on average, about 35 percent.

AS: So, how does the ITE method cause problems?

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Attacking the Language Bias in Transportation Engineering

“Improvement.” “Upgrade.” “Level of Service.” The traffic engineering profession is full of buzzwords laden with meaning — and, for the most part, the embedded meaning is something to the effect of “cars are king.”

Ian Lockwood is also a prolific cartoonist. Image: How We Drive

Ian Lockwood, P.E., has been working in the engineering profession for 30 years. He served as the chief transportation official for the city of West Palm Beach, Florida, before joining the engineering firm AECOM as a consultant and completing a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard.

Lockwood is on a mission to reform the way his profession uses language. I got a chance to sit down with him last week at the Congress for New Urbanism conference in Salt Lake City. Here’s what he had to say:

Angie Schmitt: Are there any words in particular you are targeting?

Ian Lockwood: What I’m really targeting are the values that are behind the words. The words were coined during the golden age of the automobile, the 1930s through the 60s, by the transportation experts. Those folks memorialized those words in our books and technical manuals, like the Highway Capacity Manual. And the intention was to express the values of the profession in those words. The values, of course, were very automobile-oriented.

And we still use those words today, even though our value sets have shifted dramatically. What the words do is perpetuate the bias of the time. So if we want to reform and change things, it’s much more difficult if the automobile biases and culture are literally hard-wired into the language.

Ian Lockwood, PE, is on a mission to reform the "biased language" in transportation engineering. Image: Harvard Graduate School of Design

I compare it to the women’s movement somewhat. In the 1970s, women were trying to become more equal to men. They changed the language from gender-biased words like fireman, chairman, man hours, man-powered to firefighter, police officers… and it leveled the playing field. What I’m hoping is that we can substitute out the biased language. I just want a level playing field so we can have rational discussions without the value-coded language skewing things all the time.

AS: Can you give us some examples of biased words?

IL: Probably the one we hear the most is “improvement.” When a conventional traffic engineer talks about an improvement, often it might mean a widening. It’s hard to argue against an “improvement,” because it’s a subjectively labeled word and it implies it’s getting better, even though it might not be getting better for all the user groups. It contains a bias for the automobile user over and above the other folks.

AS: Does that word have a really technical definition?

IL: No, it’s just the habit. But it’s used in definitions, like the “Transportation Improvement Plan.” Quite frequently those transportation improvement plans are mostly widening plans. And transportation improvement sounds like an inherently good thing to a layperson or a politician, but if they knew it was just a set of widenings, perhaps they would think differently.

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Q&A with Elly Blue, Feminist Bike Activist and Independent Media Titan

Elly Blue’s latest publication, “Bikes in Space,” is a feminist sci-fi zine about her favorite mode of transportation. “I realized that because I work for myself, I can do anything I want,” she says by way of explanation. The amazing truth is that she makes a living writing whatever strikes her fancy about the intersection between bicycling and feminism.

Elly Blue is currently on tour, feeding people a delicious vegan meal and talking about how biking will save the economy. What could be better? Photo: Momentum

Elly is such a fixture of the Portland biking (and blogging) scene that I always figured that she moved there specifically to be part of it. Actually, she moved there for college and didn’t really start riding much until her senior year (at the age of 27 — she started late). In 2004, when President George W. Bush got re-elected, her friends all started threatening to move to Canada and she said, “Not me! I’m going to stay right here and be a bike activist.” She hadn’t really meant to say that, but then she realized it made sense. That drunken pledge has become her life’s work.

Aside from her quarterly zines, Blue published her first book, “Everyday Bicycling,” in December, 2012 and is eagerly awaiting the release of her second book, “Bikenomics: How Bicycling Will Save the Economy.” We caught up at her Dinner & Bikes event in DC this week, part of a month-long, 27-city tour through the Northeast and Midwest.

Tanya Snyder: This is the third year you’re doing this tour. What’s the mission of the tour; what are you hoping to accomplish aside from having an awesome trip?

Elly Blue: Aside from having an awesome trip, the goal of the Dinner & Bikes tour is to feed people a really inspiring meal and bring together people in the community who are passionate about bicycling, often in very different ways from each other, often who don’t know each other. I want to create an atmosphere where people can learn and talk and meet each other and feel inspired and feel like they have the power to make big changes and pursue whatever their vision is for bikes.

TS: You said this is the first time tour has come to the east coast. Have you sampled our bike infrastructure and bike culture?

There’s suddenly this culture rising up around women and cycling that’s bringing something new and fresh and not even engaging in old, stale debates like whether we should have bike lanes or not.

EB: We don’t get to sample bike culture as much as we’d like to, in part we don’t have bikes and in part we’re on the move all day, every day. But I’m from the east coast. I’m from New Haven. We were just back there a few days ago; we did an event there.

I started riding a bike in New Haven when I was 20, and for a couple of years I rode pretty much everywhere I went, and I rode on the sidewalk. I remember having really funny encounters with police where I’d say, “Am I doing something wrong?” and they were like, “We don’t care.”

Then, once, I rode with Critical Mass. They happened to be riding on my commute path. There were nine of us, and it was a completely transformative experience. Being able to ride in the street and feel safe meant so much to me, because it hadn’t even occurred to me to do that. And then it didn’t really occur to me to do that again until I moved to Portland.

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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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