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Federal Housing Administration Still Tips the Scales Toward Sprawl

Federal subsidies for housing flow disproportionately to single-family homes. Image: Smart Growth America

The vast majority of federal subsidies for housing flow to single-family homes. Image: Smart Growth America

There’s a notion that remains very pervasive in certain quarters — *cough* Joel Kotkin *cough* — that the reason so many American cities are sprawling and suburban is the natural result of market forces. Essentially, Americans love driving and big yards and so that’s what we get.

But it’s a mistake to characterize American housing markets as anywhere close to perfectly market based. The federal government subsidizes housing to the tune of $450 billion a year. The vast majority of that money is reserved for sprawling, suburban housing.

Mary Newsom at Network blog The Naked City carried this update from Governing Magazine. Even after the housing market collapse, the Federal Housing Administration is still promoting sprawl at the expense of, well, anything else. Here’s how Governing’s Scott Beyer sums up the situation:

Since its 1934 inception, the FHA [Federal Housing Administration] has insured mortgages for more than 34 million properties, facilitating mass homeownership over several generations. But only 47,205 of these plans have been for multifamily projects. This is due to longtime provisions that make it harder for condos to get FHA certification. As late as 2012, 90 percent of a condo’s units had to be owner-occupied and only 25 percent of its space could be for businesses.

Newsom notes that “the FHA has eased that rule a bit in the past two years” — after persistent prodding, FHA relaxed restrictions against mixed-use buildings. The rules that remain, however, are still wildly unbalanced, Beyer says:

Read more…

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Talking Headways Podcast: I’m Not a Scientist

podcast icon logoDo you ever think about the ecology of the city you live in? Not just the parks and the smog. Scientists are starting to examine urban ecosystems more holistically: the trees and the concrete, natural gas lines and soil, water pipes and rivers. The natural and the synthetic feed off each other in surprising ways. We’re not scientists, but we found it interesting.

Then we move from the ecosystem to the highway system — specifically, the argument made by Evan Jenkins in The Week to abolish the National Highway System. Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns thinks it’s a good idea. Jeff and I aren’t so sure. Could rail really pick up the slack? Would states make better decisions? What funding source would replace the federal gas tax?

Enjoy this, our 42nd episode of Talking Headways. Find us on the Twitters already. And oh yeah, also on iTunesStitcher, and the RSS feed.

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The Idea That Families Don’t Belong in the City Is Antiquated and Harmful

The notion of cities as playgrounds for the young and unattached remains a pretty pervasive concept.

Why do so many people think city living has an expiration date? Photo: Wikipedia

Why do so many people think city living has an expiration date? Photo: Wikipedia

The blogger at Family Friendly Cities has encountered it plenty. A young parent, he says that in his circles, the social stigma against raising children in the city remains irrationally strong:

As a young couple we lived in a garden style apartment in a car dominated city with two automobiles in what is one of the most sprawling cities in the country. We wanted more. So after we married we moved to a more urban city, one that still gets a rather unfortunate rap for sprawl but has a thriving urban core. We also dropped one of our cars. We primarily relied on transit except for our grocery store trips. Our home was more urban, and so was our neighborhood. That was fine, we were still young and childless, and we were constantly reminded of it. “Good thing you are doing it now before you have children” was a common sentiment, as if our urban lifestyle had an expiration date. It was set to die the moment we added a new family member. So we did, and it didn’t. Despite the auto-centric place we lived we walked to the hospital to give birth, and to the horrified look on the nurses’ faces we walked our newborn home. Even when we proclaimed that you could probably see our home from any of the windows in the maternity ward they thought we were crazy. Crazy to choose to walk her home the equivalent of three city blocks, rather than drive. And so came more of the comments once she was home; advice, and questions: “Have you looked for a house outside the city,” “Once she gets older you are going to need more space,” “You will need a yard,” “Living in the city is fine while she is so young, but not when she gets older” and the always important “The schools are better in X County.” So we followed their advice. We packed up a yellow truck and moved: to the second most dense census tract in the city smack dab in the heart of downtown, across the country.

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Will Arlington Streetcar Foes Support BRT Instead?

Arlington, Virginia's streetcar plans are kaput. Photo: Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization

Arlington’s streetcar plans are kaput. Photo: Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization

News broke yesterday that Arlington, Virginia, is abandoning plans for a 7-mile streetcar along Columbia Pike.

Proponents had advanced the streetcar for more than a decade and had secured some $65 million in state support for the $333 million project. But this month’s election delivered a crushing blow, writes David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington. Going forward, he says, one major question is whether streetcar opponents who said they supported Bus Rapid Transit instead will now follow through on those statements:

Following John Vihstadt’s strong win in last week’s [County Board] election, a race that revolved largely around the Columbia Pike streetcar, Arlington officials have voted to stop work on planning or contracts for the project.

It’s not immediately clear if the door is open for some version of the project to move forward in the future. It’s also not clear whether Arlington can shift to any other transit project the $65 million that Virginia had committed to the streetcar.

Michael Perkins and Chris Slatt point out that we “reported” this in April 2013 as an April Fool’s joke. In the joke post, we said that Arlingtonians for Sensible Transportation leader Peter Rousselot and county board member Libby Garvey, all of whom have insisted they support high-quality Bus Rapid Transit, suddenly start criticizing bus plans as also “too expensive.”

If the county board now proposes spending money on bus transit on Columbia Pike, we might have the chance to see whether this comes true; hopefully, these folks are being genuine and will support other transit investments. It’s important to understand, as always, that the state of Virginia will still not allow a dedicated lane on Columbia Pike.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Strong Towns comments on an editorial calling for an end to the interstate highway system, and explains why maybe it’s not as far fetched as it seems. Bike Walk Lee reports that Florida DOT’s Bill Hattaway, the man charged with making the Sunshine State safe for walking and biking, has been named an “outstanding government official” by Governing Magazine. And Streets.mn says opposing bike/ped projects might not be a winning strategy for Minnesota Republicans.

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Why Is Obama Leaving Top Federal Transportation Posts Unfilled?

There are five open posts at leading federal transportation agencies. Photo: Bike Portland

There are five open posts at leading federal transportation agencies. Photo: Bike Portland

We’ve heard a lot of good policy points on transportation from President Obama during his six years in office, and we’ve seen some progress, too.

But transportation reform has never been a top priority for the president. Here’s an example from Network blog Systemic Failure: The Obama administration is leaving top federal transportation positions unfilled.

There are now 5 transportation agencies within the Federal government that are being run by acting administrators:

  • The FTA: Therese McMillan is acting administrator while her nomination is pending in the Senate.
  • NHTSA, where David Friedman has been acting administrator since the resignation of David Strickland (over the GM ignition switch scandal).
  • The FRA, which is losing Joe Szabo (thank God!).
  • NTSB: Deborah Hersman resigned as Chair earlier this year. Christopher Hart has been Acting Chair.
  • FHWA: Gregory Nadeau is acting Administrator.

Other than McMillan, the Obama Administration has yet to make a nomination for these agencies. It is one of those rare opportunities where the Obama Administration could dramatically support transit, bikes, and livability goals. Well, that is if the Administration were really interested in doing that.

Just imagine: an NTSB that focuses on road safety, instead of hot-air balloons and rocketships. An NHTSA that implements regulations for truck sideguards. An FRA that doesn’t regulate passenger trains out of existence. An FHWA that isn’t blindly promoting highway expansion.

What is the president waiting for?

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Political Environment explains how the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is fudging traffic projections to make the case for a $1.1 billion highway expansion in Milwaukee. Family Friendly Cities wonders what it would take to get suburban families with children to make the switch to urban living. And This Old City contemplates how to get Philadelphia City Council members, who really, really love to drive, to advocate for transit riders.

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There’s a Difference Between Bike Share and Bike Rental

Dallas is in the process of rolling out a “bike-share” system. According to the Dallas Morning News, the city installed the first two stations in a local park this week. The project got a boost from a $125,000 grant, and the plan is to expand the system piece by piece.

Dallas' new "bike share" system won't function like this one pictured in Denver. Photo: Wikipedia

Dallas’s new “bike-share” system won’t function like this one pictured in Denver. Photo: Wikipedia

But due to its pricing scheme and location, this type of bike share shouldn’t be confused with large-scale systems in DC and New York, or even in Cincinnati. Patrick Kennedy writes in his column for D Magazine that Dallas’s new system is more like bike rental.

The fundamental [requirements] of bike share to be a success:  1) It’s in places of need — where people live and where they work 2) It gets people out of cars — meaning a healthier, energy and spatial efficient way to travel and 3) it is membership based. Making money is rarely a concern because the positive externalities are worth it. It is seen as an investment in transportation (for a decimal point for what the Trinity Toll Road is to cost) and increasingly it is seen as a necessary investment to attract college grads (at which Dallas is struggling).

The Dallas bike share system doesn’t do any of that. It’s for visitors to Fair Park to ride around a bit. And for that, it’s a great asset, but as Paul Sims pointed out on Twitter that is bike rental. Not bike share. It is not transportation, but recreation. So we should call it that. The ambiguity could hurt the effort to scale the system up citywide.

What hurts the potential expansion of the system more is its pricing structure, which is rental-based rather than sharing-based. The Dallas system prices the first half hour the most, at $5 for 30 minutes. Then $2.50 each additional 30, punishing ridership while encouraging longer usage of the bike.

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How Sprawl Hits Atlanta Residents Right in the Wallet

Atlanta's so sprawling, most people have no choice but to spend a lot of their hard-earned money and precious time driving. Image via ATL Urbanist

Atlanta’s so sprawling, most people have no choice but to spend a lot of their hard-earned money and precious time driving. Image via ATL Urbanist

There’s no shortage of good reasons to drive less, but maybe the most compelling personal incentive is that it can save you a ton of money.

Unfortunately, in a lot of places, making major changes to your travel habits is not that simple. Darin at ATL Urbanist says that in his city, most people are essentially trapped in a system that undermines their financial well being:

$9,253 — that’s the average annual savings for someone in Metro Atlanta who, according to this new APTA report, gives up a car and switches to public transit. The savings is based on the assumption that a person in a two-person household lives with one less car.

Here’s a BIG asterisk for that dollar amount: the Atlanta region is so heavily dominated by car-centric sprawl that there are many here who might like to save this money and make the switch to transit, but can’t.

As I’ve written before, the transit agencies in this region struggle to provide efficient service to people because of the way the built environment sprawls out. The homes, stores, offices, schools, recreation — it’s all laid out in a fashion that is navigable primarily by personal cars.

So if you’re looking for yet another reason to urge leaders and governments in the Atlanta region to stop the sprawling and focus new developments in a more compact, walkable format, here it is: people here could save thousands of dollars a year if we didn’t have to own cars to get around for every trip.

Elsewhere on the Network today: This Old City explains the problems with Philadelphia’s reliance on “spot zoning” to make way for big new developments. And The City Fix reports that Brasilia has a new policy that allows women to chose exactly where they will get off the bus at night.

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Portland Gearing Up for Vision Zero. Will Oregon DOT Cooperate?

A group of Portland leaders are headed to New York City this week for the Vision Zero for Cities Symposium. As Tanya reported earlier this week, the city is formulating its own Vision Zero strategy, seeking to entirely eliminate traffic fatalities.

Rob Sadowsky, head of Portland's Bicycle Transportation Alliance, is a big supporter of Vision Zero. Photo: Bike Portland

Rob Sadowsky, head of Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance, is heading to New York for the Vision Zero for Cities Symposium. Photo: Bike Portland

Within city government there seems to be a lot of support for setting street safety goals high. Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland says installing speed cameras will be a key part of the city’s strategy, but he wonders whether the state is on board:

The big elephant in the room here in Oregon is our state Department of Transportation. ODOT has not fully embraced the concept of Vision Zero and it remains to be seen whether the BTA’s legwork will finally help them see the light.

At the same conference last month where PBOT Director Treat called for a “culture change” to put safety “above [auto] access, [Level of Service] LOS, above everything,” ODOT’s Traffic Safety Division Manager Troy Costales put a new spin on Vision Zero.

“We don’t use that moniker,” he said, “Our goal is a little different. Our goal is to increase the number of zero fatality days.” Costales added that he wants to “Turn this conversation of talking positively about a negative situation and start talking positively about a positive situation.”

ODOT’s goal is to achieve 175 fatality free days in one year. Last year they had 170.

Definitely sounds like the state DOT is setting the bar low.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Urban Cincy is excited about a new version of the Cincinnati bike map. West North writes about how hyperlocal public planning processes can actually subvert the broader public interest on transportation projects. And The Urbanist ruminates on the physical and functional evolution of streets throughout history.

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A Big Hidden Subsidy for Highways That Everyone Forgets

Subsidies for driving in America are so numerous and layered, it can be hard to sort them out. We have general funds paying for roads, tax breaks for big oil companies, free parking nearly everywhere.

Exempting gasoline from state sales tax is a major subsidy for driving. Photo: Wikimedia

Exempting gasoline from state sales tax is a major subsidy for driving. Photo: Wikimedia

David Levinson at the Transportationist picks out another one that’s a lot more obscure, but still substantial:

The hidden subsidy is in states which have general sales taxes, but don’t apply them to gasoline. Thus, in Minnesota, I pay a sales tax on prepared food, but not gasoline (or clothing, or random other things). Thus relatively, spending is encouraged in those untaxed areas, which are 6.875% less taxed than other goods. This lack of a tax is not a subsidy in a state which doesn’t tax sales, and instead taxes income or property. But where sales are taxed, but gasoline is exempted, other goods are implicitly taxed more so gasoline can be explicitly taxed less.

In short, the general principal is that gasoline cannot be simultaneously be taxed with the funds dedicated to highways (thus acting as a user fee) and exempted from sales taxes without there being a subsidy that at least partially offsets the user fee.

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Louisville Plans 100 Miles of Bike Boulevards

What would it take to make Louisville a bike-friendly city?

This map shows planned bike lanes as solid lines and bike boulevards dotted. Image: Bike Louisville via Broken Sidewalk

Louisville’s existing bike lanes are shown here as solid lines, and the planned bike boulevard network as dotted lines. Map: Bike Louisville via Broken Sidewalk

Bike Louisville, a city agency, is proposing a network of traffic-calmed, low-stress streets to fill gaps in the current bike network and increase safety.

Network blog Broken Sidewalk describes the plan for roughly 100 miles of “bike boulevards” that prioritize active transportation:

Bike Louisville is finishing the first phase of its Neighborways plan, which consists of painting “sharrow” markings on many neighborhood streets to guide cyclists to use those streets and remind motorists to share the road with cyclists. And already, sharrows are starting to show up all around town. When complete, there will be 100 miles of Neighborways marked with sharrows throughout the city.

Phase II was recently approved by Metro Council, and will begin soon with a focus on creating wayfinding signage so system users can find their way through the network and connect to important “nodes” or destinations along the way. This signage could take the form of signs like the ones above that indicate a destination and the distance to bike there.

Eisinger elaborated that there is also a plan to build “bump outs” on some streets — either intersection “neckdowns” or mid-block “chicanes” — to create a serpentine path of travel that forces motorists to reduce their speed. According to Bike Louisville, “As funds become available, routes show increased use, and local neighborhood support builds, the Neighborways could evolve to incorporate higher design details such as signage, traffic calming, and traffic reduction.” More ambitious future phases could also combine these traffic calming measures with green infrastructure that adds landscaping along the routes while diverting stormwater from Louisville’s combined sewer system.

Elsewhere on the Network today: NextSTL reports on a new hurdle for a proposed loop trolley in downtown St. Louis: Bids have come in $11 million higher than expected. ATL Urbanist tells the story of his personal journey from car commuter to transit commuter in Atlanta. And Urban Milwaukee explains why Wisconsin has such weak drunken driving laws.