November 06, 2012
Election Day and Land Use: The Future of Houston Transit
It's Election Day, and we all know what's the most important thing on the ballot: local land use issues. Through the initiative and referendum process, as well as in races for local government office, land use ballot issues often have an importance to our communities far beyond the relative amount of publicity they receive . . . especially in a presidential election year.
In Houston, voters are going to the polls today to answer a number of local government ballot questions, including amendments to the City Charter, a number of bond issues for parks and schools, and perhaps most importantly, a referendum that is colloquially referred to as "METRO."
In the late 1970s, Houston joined about 15 other local government bodies (including the County, the school district, and a number of smaller suburban municipalities) to create the METRO transit authority. METRO was responsible for regional buses and transit, and in the early 2000s it built the first Houston light rail line. METRO has ambitious plans to expand the light rail into a regional transit system, but it has always been controversial. METRO is supposed to be funded by a sales tax, but since its inception, the City has always diverted one-quarter of those revenues toward road improvements. So the ballot question is whether we should *continue* diverting that portion of the transit tax for another decade.
We discussed it in land use class yesterday. Here are some competing op-eds: METRO Board member Dwight Jefferson says that "Yes" on the METRO referendum will expand bus system, continue road building and reduce debt. In opposition, Houston Tomorrow president David Crossley says More light rail for Houston? If you’re pro-transit, vote "No" on METRO ballot issue. Mayor Annise Parker (D) and most politicians are in favor of the measure. As you can see in Crossley's op-ed and at the opposition website http://supporthoustontransit.org/2012/, the smart growth/pro-transit crowd is passionately opposed.
So--depending on who you ask--the future of transit in the nation's fourth-largest city is on the line; or, its capability to deal with critical mobility issues.
The unfortunate thing is that very few people even understand the ballot language, let alone the stakes. Here is the language of the ballot question that is referred to as the "METRO ballot" issue:
THE CONTINUED DEDICATION OF UP TO 25% OF METRO'S SALES AND USE TAX REVENUES FOR STREET IMPROVEMENTS AND RELATED PROJECTS FOR THE PERIOD OCTOBER 1, 2014 THROUGH DECEMBER 31, 2025 AS AUTHORIZED BY LAW AND WITH NO INCREASE IN THE CURRENT RATE OF METRO'S SALES AND USE TAX.
Last year I wrote a screed complaining about ballot language for state constitutional referenda. Ken Stahl penned a typically thoughtful response with a partial defense of the initiative process for land use issues (and of course he has the leading recent scholarly piece on Ballot Box Zoning). But this METRO referendum language seems to me to be a perfect example of how screwy the process is. Basically, if you are in favor of more transit generally and light rail expansion in particular, you are supposed to vote "NO" on the ballot referendum that everyone is referring to as "METRO." If you want that tax revenue to contiue to be diverted away from transit and toward roads, then you are supposed to vote "Yes on METRO."
We discussed this in Land Use class yesterday and it confirmed to me how confusing this is. My students are way above the average voter in land-use sophistication, but they still had a hard time figuring this out. I suspect that most voters, motivated into the booth primarily by their choice for the presidential election, will only have the vaguest idea that if you are pro-transit you are supposed to vote "no" on "METRO." That's counterintuitive, and I'm afraid that whatever the result is, it won't be a very good democratic indicator. And that's just for the people who vote on it; the proposal is one of the last items on the ginormous sample ballot that I photographed above. Many people will vote "straight party ticket" (that's an option in Texas) and walk out of the booth, without even seeing the referendum questions.
So we'll have to see how this land use question is resolved by the people, and, after that, what actually happens to the transit system and whether the political predicitons on either side come to fruition. In the meantime, remember that while the national horse race gets all the attention, there are critically important land use issues being decided in communities across America tonight.
UPDATE: "METRO" passed by a large margin: 79-21. The presidential vote in Houston was a statistical tie. All of the other ballot referenda (mostly to approve debt for capital projects) passed as well. I honestly have no idea whether the METRO vote represents anything at all with respect to public opinion on the future of transit.
July 26, 2012
The London Olympics & Land Use--The Atlantic Cities' Coverage
As Jessie noted in her post on the Olympic Villages, there are many land use issues involved when a city hosts the Olympic Games. For a fantastic overview of these issues, with numerous in-depth stories, there's no better place to start than The Atlantic Cities' "Special Report" Olympics 2012: London Gets Ready for the Summer Games. Feargus O'Sullivan has been reporting from London for months, and in the past couple of weeks many of their other writers have contributed excellent stories on a slew of land-use-related Olympic issues. Here are just a few examples of the wide range of topics they've addressed:
Whether hosting the Olypmic "boondoggle" is good or bad for your city; homelessness and tourism; security issues; public attitudes--politicians telling "whingers" to "put a sock in it"; transportation concerns; architecture; planning for post-Games facilities use; affordable housing; the always-controversial of building new stadiums (stadia?); and many, many other important issues that come up when a big city offers to play host to the world.
The British media, of course, have lots of excellent coverage. But for a more specific focus on land use, local government, and urban planning issues, I highly recommend starting with The Atlantic Cities' Olympics 2012 page. They're posting several new stories each day.
In the meantime, I hope you all enjoy watching that important land use event known as the Olympic Games!
July 26, 2012 in Affordable Housing, Architecture, Comparative Land Use, History, Housing, Local Government, Planning, Politics, Redevelopment, Transportation, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
May 29, 2012
The biking bug
Coming this July, New York City will launch a bike share program with 10,000 bikes at 600 stations across lower Manhattan (below 59th Street) and the hipster enclaves of west Brooklyn.
David Byrne, former-Talking Heads front man turned biking proselytizer (maybe you've read his Bicycle Diaries about biking in cities around the world), has a great piece about biking in the Big Apple in last Sunday's New York Times. In the article, he focuses on the practical aspects of the bicycle program for daily activities, like getting some groceries or going across town to a meeting.
Byrne notes that some 200 cities around the world have bike-share programs. I've never used a bike-share program, but not for want of trying. When we were in London last summer, my wife and I were trying to find a rack in that city's bike-share program with two bikes for the both of us, and in London's Soho, we had no such luck. The good news is that the program was obviously immensely popular in London, and I have no doubt it will be in New York. (In particular, I predict Ess-a-Bagel on 1st Avenue will see an even longer line as its bagels become just a short bike-ride away for that many more people).
As a matter of policy, however, I wonder whether the best use of bikes is really the freedom it offers for complete trips, or whether biking's long-term value for large cities isn't the ability for people to use bikes to access other forms of public transportation, such as trains. For several years in San Francisco, I rode my bike, rain or shine, from Potrero Hill to the 24th Street BART station, and then took the train in to work. There were a lot of others doing the same. That requires a different biking infrastructure than bike share programs. Instead of the rental bike stands, it requires secure places to park bikes at train stations and safe pathways through more distant parts of the city. The value, of course, is making public transportation options, such as trains, more readily available to more people. Imagine such a program in the far reaches of Brooklyn or Queens linking to the city's established subway system.
Biking programs can take a long time to develop. For instance, San Francisco's bike plan went through litigation and was required to conduct an extensive environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act. As such, thinking through the variety of ways that bikes can assist getting around a city, should be conducted and evaluated up front. Bike shares and bike-to-transit, I'd suggest, are both important parts of the project.
For those cities contemplating such bike-friendly options, I have two free ideas I'm offering to you. First, a bike commuter greenbelt. This is not new, by any means, but this year I've discovered the joys of bike commuting along Boise's Greenbelt, and it is such a remarkable daily experience down by the cool river. For any city that has the option of making this a reality, just do it. Second, parking squids. That's right, parking squids. Parking squids are being deployed by Seattle as a means of creating bike parking within existing parking spaces. The parking squids each park eight bikes and fit within a traditional car parking space. The squids provide utility and whimsy in the same fixture. Could there be anything better in ending a work commute than locking a bike up to a squid before heading to office?
Stephen R. Miller
May 06, 2012
Mulvaney on Road Diets
No, that's not what Prof. Tim Mulvaney eats while traveling. It's a land use concept that he discusses in a very interesting post on the Environmental Law Prof Blog. An excerpt:
The neighborhood associations of Mistletoe Heights and Berkeley Place, both part of a historic preservation district in the city of Fort Worth, Texas, recently passed measures encouraging the city to consider a “road diet” for the four-lane road that transects these neighborhoods. Planners Dan Burden and Peter Lagerway coined the phrase “road diet” in the 1990s to refer to the transportation planning technique of reallocating existing roadway space that is providing excessive carrying capacity in a manner that results in a reduction in the number of vehicle lanes. For example, a road diet might involve the conversion of a four-lane, undivided road to a three lane road, whereby the land previously used for the fourth lane can be employed for other purposes, such as the creation of a two-way left turn lane and either defined bicycle lanes (image A below), wider sidewalks and landscaping (image B), or angled/parallel parking (image C), or some combination thereof.
Check out the full post to see the illustrative diagrams and additional pictures and anaylsis. I hadn't heard the term before, but the concept makes sense.
March 14, 2012
The Greatest Grid: New Exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York
While visiting New York City recently for the Association of American Geographers' annual meeting, I took in a great exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York entitled The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011. The exhibit coincides with the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the famous street grid for the island of Manhattan. It is a fascinating exploration of one of the most significant urban planning endeavors in American history. You can see an overview of the exhibit here, and the New York Times Review of the exhibit here. My thoughts on the exhibit, with pictures, are below:
The major goal of the grid system was to enable the construction of cheap housing in a growing city. In 1811, most of the settlement in Manhattan was limited to the island's southern tip. North of that the land was broken up into large, irregularly shaped estates, such as this one:
The plan's architects believed that breaking up large parcels of land into smaller, more regularized and accessible parcels would encourage the development of smaller, mass-produced, and, hence, cheaper, housing.
Judged on these terms, the plan worked brilliantly. The exhibit illustrates this with a fascinating discussion of the estate of Clement Clarke Moore, known as the author of “Twas the Night before Christmas." Mr. Moore was the owner of a very large estate on Manhattan's west side called Chelsea (now a fashionable neighborhood of the same name). Moore initially opposed the division of his estate into small rectangular parcels, but he eventually accepted the inevitability of the grid and began subdividing and selling off small lots for housing, just as the authors of the grid plan anticipated. Moore's subdivision map for Chelea is below, and property nerds will note that Moore included restrictive covenants on all the lots, as indicated by the barely-readable text on the lower right-hand side prohibiting "nuisances of any kind" and the like:
As this map shows, the grid system encouraged (although it did not mandate) lots about 100 feet deep (1/2 block in length) and 20 feet wide for a regular dwelling. This way every unit would have access to sunlight from one side. Larger facilities would have wider lots at the same depth, and seminaries occupied an entire block. Similarly, the grid encourages a pattern in which buildings within a block are connected to each other to create a uniform street wall with a single vista leading out to the horizon.
In this way, although the grid was not aimed at affecting design, it had a powerful aesthetic impact, effectively encouraging a uniformity of design much as the later 1916 zoning resolution did.
Although the grid system provided a windfall for landowners like Moore, many landowners were very hostile to the grid scheme, seeing it as part of a land grab. The surveyors who came north to lay down markers for future intersections were often met with jeers or worse, and landowners were known to sabotage the markers. Eventually, the city began to use huge, heavy markers that were imbedded deeply into the ground so they could not easily be uprooted by angry landowners.
It's not hard to see why many landowners opposed the grid system. Manhattan was very hilly terrain, but the roads were laid out at a low, flat grade. As a result, many homes, especially those located at new intersections, were left lurching on a precipice, as here:
As you can see, although Manhattanites and the rest of us have accepted the grid as a matter of course, perhaps as an inevitable product of modernity, it was a massive disruption of daily life (and property rights) at the time and required some pretty heavy-handed government intervention to accomplish. I'll have more thoughts on the exhibit later.
January 25, 2012
CNU Booklet on Sustainable Street Network Principles
The Congress for the New Urbanism has published a booklet called Sustainable Street Network Principles. From the press release:
The Congress for the New Urbanism has long recognized that the street network is a fundamental part of human civilization because it serves as the setting for both commerce and culture. For the first time, the CNU has compiled a set of principles and key characteristics of the sustainable street network into a document that is practical, inspirational, and beautifully illustrated.
The CNU Sustainable Street Network Principles, a product of the CNU Project for Transportation Reform, is being released to coincide with the Transportation Research Board’s annual event in Washington D.C. on January 22, 2011. The Principles have been crafted through nearly a decade of CNU member discussion, research, and involvement. The Principles are a must-have for every traffic engineer, urban designer, urban planner, and engaged urban citizen. They outline not only why sustainable street networks are essential to a vibrant and healthy society, but also what makes a street network sustainable in the first place.
January 17, 2012
Olympics, Marathons, and Parades
Last year I posted about the Houston Marathon, and my observations about how the route did a good job of taking the runners through a diverse set of neighborhoods, from older to newer, urban to suburban, residential to business. This year I am even more impressed with another land use angle: the incredible amount of planning it must have taken to pull off the events in town this past weekend--
First, on Saturday Houston hosted the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. The race route was designed to simulate the Marathon route planned for London, including a gratuitous hairpin turn. Congrats to Meb and Flanagan!
On Sunday was the regular Marathon--on a different course--for the other 26,000 of us who didn't qualify for the Trials, plus over 250,000 volunteers and spectators.
And between Saturday and Monday, there were five separate Martin Luther King Day parades.
Planning for the street closures alone must have been an enormous task (check out the 11-page spreadsheet), let alone the interagency and public-private cooperation that's necessary for a weekend like this. It requires organization, community involvement, and a great deal of technical planning expertise. These things have huge impacts on traffic, transit, facilities, sanitation, sustainability, policing, budgets, and a great array of other local planning issues.
We often take having "big events" for granted in a big city, but as a former logistician I'm always impressed by all the behind-the-scenes work that it takes to pull these things off. And as land use lawyers we should appreciate the very hard work and the professionalism that our colleagues in city planning, local government, and community organizations bring to improve civic life.
So, good job everyone, and please pass the ibuprofen.
January 09, 2012
Outka on the Energy-Land Use Nexus
Uma Outka (Kansas) has posted an essay called The Energy-Land Use Nexus, forthcoming in the Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law, 2012. The abstract:
This Symposium Essay explores the contours of the “energy-land use nexus” – the rich set of interrelationships between land use and energy production and consumption. This underexplored nexus encapsulates barriers and opportunities as the trajectory of U.S. energy policy tilts away from fossil fuels. The Essay argues that the energy-land use nexus provides a useful frame for approaching policy to minimize points of conflict between energy goals on the one hand and land conservation on the other.
December 31, 2011
ULI Report on What's Next in Urban Land Use
As we head into the New Year, The Urban Land Institute has also been looking ahead at the future of land use. ULI recently issued its report What's Next? Real Estate in the New Economy. From the press release:
A new economy is unfolding over the course of this decade, driven by an extraordinary convergence of demographic, financial, technological and environmental trends. Taken together, these trends will dramatically change urban planning, design and development through 2020, according to a new report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI).
What’s Next? Real Estate in the New Economy outlines how every aspect of living, working and connecting will change in major ways, driven in large part by the values, preferences and work ethic of Generation Y, the largest generation in American history. . . .
Among the report’s findings:
- Technology will reshape work places. Office tenants will decrease space per employee, and new office environments will need to promote interaction and dialogue. Offices will be transforming into meeting places more than work places, with an emphasis on conference rooms, break areas and open configurations. Developers will craft attractive environments to attract young, talented workers.
- Major companies will value space that enables innovation. They will continue to pay more for space in a global gateway served by a major international airport, or in 24-hour urban centers. Hard-to-reach suburban work places will be less in demand.
- The influx of Generation Y, now in their teens through early thirties, will change housing demand. They are comfortable with smaller homes and will happily trade living space for an easier commute and better lifestyle. They will drive up the number of single households and prompt a surge in demand for rentals, causing rents to escalate.
- For most people, finances will still be constrained, leading to more shared housing and multi-generational households. Immigration will support that trend, as many immigrants come from places where it is common for extended families to share housing. This may be the one group that continues to drive demand for large, suburban homes.
- The senior population will grow fastest, but financial constraints could limit demand for adult housing developments. Many will age in place or move in with relatives to conserve money. Developers may want to recast retirement communities into amenity-laden “age friendly” residences. Homes near hospitals and medical offices will be popular, especially if integrated into mixed-use neighborhoods with shops, restaurants and services.
- Energy and infrastructure take on greater importance. Businesses cannot afford to have their network connections down, and more will consider self-generated power or onsite generator capacity. Developers, owners and investors are realizing that the slightly higher costs of energy- and water-saving technologies can pay for themselves quickly, creating more marketable and valuable assets. Ignoring sustainability issues speeds property obsolescence.
You can download the full report here.
December 31, 2011 in Architecture, Clean Energy, Density, Development, Downtown, Environmentalism, Finance, Green Building, Housing, Planning, Property, Real Estate Transactions, Redevelopment, Scholarship, Smart Growth, Suburbs, Sustainability, Transportation, Urbanism, Water | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
December 15, 2011
John Norquist hearts (good) congestion
John Norquist, CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, has a thoughtful essay on the always-excellent Cities blog from The Atlantic called The Case for Congestion:
Yogi Berra once said, "nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded."
It’s certainly true that people complain about congestion. Yet it’s just as true that popular destinations tend to be crowded. Fifth Avenue in New York, Market Street in San Francisco, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills are all congested, but people keep coming back to shop or hang out.
Congestion, in the urban context, is often a symptom of success.
If people enjoy crowded places, it seems a bit strange that federal and state governments continue to wage a war against traffic congestion. Despite many hundreds of billions dollars spent increasing road capacity, they've not yet won; thank God. . . .
After all, congestion is a bit like cholesterol - if you don’t have any, you die. And like cholesterol, there’s a good kind and a bad kind. Congestion measurements should be divided between through-traffic and traffic that includes local origins or destinations, the latter being the "good kind." Travelers who bring commerce to a city add more value than someone just driving through, and any thorough assessment of congestion needs to be balanced with other factors such as retail sales, real estate value and pedestrian volume.
This is an important point, that not all "congestion" is the same. And even with "bad" congestion, adding road capacity doesn't always help.
December 08, 2011
Slate on the Death of High Speed Rail
Will Oremus writes in Slate on a Requiem for a Train: High Speed Rail is Dead in America; Should we Mourn it? From the article:
Well, you can stop imagining it now. High-speed rail isn’t happening in America. Not anytime soon. Probably not ever. The questions now are (1) what killed it, and (2) should we mourn its passing? . . .
Though Republicans’ outright rejection of high-speed rail is short-sighted, so were many of the plans themselves. Rather than focus on the few corridors that need high-speed rail lines the most, the Obama administration doled out half a billion here and half a billion there, a strategy better-suited to currying political support than to addressing real infrastructure problems. Spread across 10 corridors, each between 100 and 600 miles long, Obama’s rail system would have been, at best, a disjointed patchwork. The nation’s most gridlocked corridor, along the East Coast between Washington, D.C. and Boston, was left out of the plans entirely. Worse, much of the money was allocated to projects that weren’t high-speed rail at all.
Lots of mistakes were made in the roll-out of the HSR plan, but one of the main problems was that it was fantasized in a lot of places where it isn't really necessary, and ignored in the places where it could be great.
December 05, 2011
Upcoming Oral Argument in PPL Montana, Inc. v. Montana
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear one of the only cases that touches on property rights scheduled for this Term, PPL Montana, Inc., v. Montana. Professor Thomas Merrill has posted an excellent preview of the case on SCOTUS blog:
On December 7, the Court will hear argument in PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana. The case is one for history buffs. The question is whether the state of Montana holds title to portions of three riverbeds in the state. The parties agree that the relevant legal test is historical: were the river segments in question part of a waterway that was “navigable in fact” when Montana became a state in 1889? Prominent among the many bits of historical evidence cited are the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who explored the rivers in 1805 on their famous expedition.
That's enough to get me excited (seriously). Go read the rest of Prof. Merrill's informative analysis. (h/t to our friends at Property Prof Blog for the link).
And don't forget that we had our own pre-preview here at the Land Use Prof Blog, back on the day after the Court granted cert. From guest-blogger Tim Mulvaney's take on SCOTUS cert grant for PPL Montana v. Montana:
In finding that all three rivers at issue met this “navigability for title” test when Montana entered statehood in 1889, the Montana Supreme Court cited to a litany of historical evidence, including the centuries-old journals of Lewis and Clark. As today’s brief AP story notes, PPL Montana disagreed, pointing “to accounts of the [Lewis and Clark] expedition’s arduous portages of canoes and supplies around waterfalls to argue that the contested stretches of water were not navigable.” The Montana Supreme Court’s opinion also drew PPL Montana’s ire by considering what the company alleges are flawed contemporary studies, as well as recent recreational uses of certain stretches of the rivers, to support the finding that the rivers are held in total by the state in trust for present and future generations.
One of the foremost experts in natural resources and water law, Professor Rick Frank, notes on Legal Planet that the U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed navigability in the context of state public trust claims for several decades. How the Supreme Court interprets its time-honored test and identifies what evidence is relevant in its application could have major ramifications for thousands of miles of inland lakes and waterways nationwide.
Should be very interesting. Stay tuned.
December 5, 2011 in Caselaw, Constitutional Law, Federal Government, History, Property Rights, Scholarship, State Government, Supreme Court, Takings, Transportation, Water | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
October 15, 2011
HOT Lanes Catch Heat in Hotlanta
Wednesday I drove into Atlanta to hear a talk by Rob Teilhet, the new executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters. Rob had some great things to say about finding common ground on environmental policy in this fractious political environment.
On the way home, though, I saw the new HOT (high-occupancy-toll) lanes in Gwinett and DeKalb counties. HOT lanes are Atlanta's new version of HOV (high-occupancy-vehicle) lanes. Previously one could only use HOV lanes with two or more passengers. HOT lanes can be used by vehicles with three or more passengers, or with two or fewer passengers who have a "Peach Pass" (an electronic window sticker that records tolls to be paid from an account the driver establishes with the State Road and Tollway Authority). The tolls depend on the distance traveled, and vary by time of day (a version of congestion pricing).
This week is the first week of operation for the HOT lanes, and so far everyone's confused and nobody's happy. Despite the fact that it was rush hour, I saw absolutely no vehicles in the HOT lane (not even cars or motorcycles, which still travel free). There were a couple of police cars in the median watching for violators, but otherwise the lane just seemed like an extra big shoulder. Drivers have been extremely critical, and the Governor's office is lowering tolls to attract drivers and alleviate congestion.
HOT lanes have been touted by conservative commentators a better alternative to HOV lanes. Philisophically I love the idea of carpooling, but in reality (and since there are no reasonable public transportation options between Athens and Atlanta) I'm often the only occupant of my vehicle, so I'm vaguely considering getting a Peach Pass. We'll see how things work once (or if) they get the kinks worked out.
Jamie Baker Roskie
October 11, 2011
Ostrow on Land Law Federalism
Ashira Ostrow (Hofstra) has posted Land Law Federalism, 61 Emory L.J. ___ (forthcoming 2012). A must-read, this foundational work explores the theoretical framework for appropriate federal intervention in the state/local-dominated area of land use regulation. Here's the abstract:
In modern society, capital, information and resources pass seamlessly across increasingly porous jurisdictional boundaries; land does not. Perhaps because of its immobility, the dominant descriptive and normative account of land use law is premised upon local control. Yet, land exhibits a unique duality. Each parcel is at once absolutely fixed in location but inextricably linked to a complex array of interconnected systems, natural and man-made. Ecosystems spanning vast geographic areas sustain human life; interstate highways, railways and airports physically connect remote areas; networks of buildings, homes, offices and factories, create communities and provide the physical context in which most human interaction takes place.
Given the traditional commitment to localism, scholars and policymakers often reflexively dismiss the potential for an increased federal role in land use law. Yet, modern land use law already involves a significant federal dimension resulting, in part, from the enactment of federal statutes that have varying degrees of preemptive effect on local authority. Moreover, this Article maintains that federal intervention in land use law is warranted where the cumulative impact of local land use decisions interferes with national regulatory objectives (such as developing nationwide energy or telecommunications infrastructure).
Finally, this Article advances an interjurisdictional framework for federal land law that harnesses (a) the capacity of the federal government, with its distance from local politics and economic pressures, to coordinate land use on a national scale and (b) the capacity of local officials, who have detailed knowledge of the land and are politically accountable to the local community, to implement land use policies.
October 11, 2011 in Climate, Development, Environmental Law, Environmentalism, Federal Government, Globalism, Green Building, Inclusionary Zoning, Local Government, NIMBY, Planning, Scholarship, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Subdivision Regulations, Sustainability, Transportation, Wetlands, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
September 27, 2011
Congestion data, part 3: density and congestion
One common argument for anti-density regulation is that dense population leads to traffic congestion caused by packing lots of cars into a small area. A common counter-argument is that if population is compact enough, people will walk and take transit more and drive less. Does the TTI congestion data support either side?
To test the proposition in a fairly primitive way, I examine the central city* density of the 15 largest urbanized areas, and compare the congestion levels of these cities. In particular, I divide urbanized areas into three categories:
1.High-density regions where central cities have over 10,000 people per square mile- Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Miami. In all but one of these cities (Miami), over 20% of commuters use public transit to get to work.
2. Medium-density regions where central cities have 5000-10,000 persons per square mile- Washington, Seattle, Los Angeles, Detroit. These regions have varying levels of transit ridership. Washington has almost 10,000 persons per square mile and its ridership is comparable to that of the cities in category 1. In the other cities, between 7 and 20% of commuters use transit.
3. Lower-density regions where even central cities have less than 5000 people per square mile- Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, San Diego, Phoenix. In all but one (Atlanta) of these regions, even in the central city less than 5% of commuters used transit.
What do we find? In the high-density regions, hours lost to congestion as of 2010 were as follows: New York (54), Chicago (71), Philadelphia (42), Boston (47), San Francisco (50), Miami (38).
In the medium-density regions, hours lost to traffic were as follows: Washington (74), Los Angeles (64), Seattle (44), Detroit (33).
In the low-density regions, hours lost to traffic were as follows: Atlanta (43), San Diego (38), Phoenix (35), Dallas (45), Houston (57).
The average low-density region lost fewer hours to traffic (43.6) than the medium (53.8) or high (52) density regions.
It nevertheless seems to me that there is no clear pattern here. Although the low-density regions, on the average, suffered from traffic congestion less than regions with compact cities, residents of Houston lost more hours to traffic than residents of New York, Philadelphia or Boston. Moreover, there was no real gap between medium- and high-density cities.
*I use central city density because I think central city density is a better predictor of transit use and automobile dependency than overall regional density. For example, Los Angeles has a fairly high level of regional density but a medium level of central city density, because its population is spread more evenly throughout the metropolitan area than that of other cities. Its transit ridership tends to be on the low side, as compared with New York City which has a very compact central city and very low-density suburbs.
Congestion, part 2
The Texas Transportation Institute has issued its 2011 report on traffic congestion. Although TTI changed its methodology somewhat, the results seem to be pretty similar to those of its last report (which I discussed in a post last week). The recent report, like last year's report, showed that over the past decade, congestion decreased in five of the nation's largest metropolitan areas: Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Detroit). And as I discussed in last week's post, these metro areas have a wide variety of approaches to transportation policy: in San Francisco and Detroit, highway lane-miles per person increased, but in the other three, lane-miles actually increased more slowly than population.
It might be argued that congestion decreased in these cities because economic distress reduced the number of commuters. But in fact, the number of commuters actually increased faster than population in most cities. For example, in San Francisco, population increased by only 2% (from 3.93 million to 4 million) between 2000 and 2009, while the number of commuters increased by over 10% (from 1.71 million to 1.87 million)- more than the increase in the number of lane-miles during this period (from 2335 to 2510, or about 7%). When TTI averaged figures for the fifteen largest urban areas, it came up with a similar result: the average big-region population increased by about 10% (from 5.5 million to 6 million) while the number of commuters increased by about 17% (from 2.34 million to 2.73 million). So if you measure transportation demand by the number of commuters rather than the number of humans, it is even clearer that these regions reduced per-capita highway space.
In sum, it appears that a region can reduce congestion without materially increasing highway capacity.
What happened in the regions that most clearly failed to address congestion? In Chicago, New York, Houston and Philadelphia, hours lost to congestion increased by over 20 percent. In three of these four cities, increases in freeway lane-miles actually outpaced increases in population between 2000 and 2009. In Chicago, population increased by 6% and lane-miles by 13%. In Philadelphia, population increased by 6% and lane-miles by 17% (even more than the i14% ncrease in the number of commuters); in Houston, population increased by 11% and lane-miles by 19% (even more than the 17% increase in commuters). In New York lane-miles increased by slightly less than population. While population increased by 10%, lane-miles increased from 6600 to 7220 (just under 10%).
In sum, the regions that reduced congestion generally did not bother to let road capacity catch up with population growth (let alone the usually higher growth in the number of commuters). By contrast, another group of cities that built roads more rapidly experienced rapid congestion growth instead. This data supports the view that the "road lobby" strategy of widening and building limited-access highways does not relieve congestion.
September 25, 2011
At our house we just finished reading Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne (Penguin Group 2009). Byrne, who most know as the lead singer for the rock band Talking Heads, is also an author, conceptual artist, and bike rack designer. Here's the fly-leaf copy for the book:
Since the early 1980s, David has been riding a bike as his principal means of transportation in New York City. Two decades ago, he discovered folding bikes and started taking them with him when travelling around the world. DB's choice was initially made out of convenience rather than political motivation, but the more cities he saw from his bicycle, the more he became hooked on this mode of transport and the sense of liberation, exhilaration, and connection it provided. This point of view, from his bike seat, became his panoramic window on urban life, a magical way of opening one’s eyes to the inner workings and rhythms of a city’s geography and population.
Bicycle Diaries chronicles David’s observations and insights — what he is seeing, whom he is meeting, what he is thinking about — as he pedals through and engages with some of the world’s major cities. In places like Buenos Aires, Istanbul, San Francisco, and London, the focus is more on the musicians and artists he encounters. Politics comes to the fore in cities like Berlin and Manila, while chapters on New York City, and on the landscaped suburban industrial parks and contemporary ruins of such spots as Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Columbus are more concerned with history in the urban landscape. Along the way, DB has thoughts to share about fashion, architecture, cultural isolation, globalization, and the radical new ways that some cities, like his home town, are becoming more bike-friendly — all conveyed with a highly personal mix of humor, curiosity, and humanity.
Byrne seems remarkable well versed in urban planning - he's a big fan of Jane Jacobs, for example - and he provides many unique insights into transportation policy and city life. I'm thinking of adding this book to my students' optional reading list.
Jamie Baker Roskie
PS Yes, I realize this is my second rock-band-related post in a row. Maybe we need a new subject category?
September 22, 2011
Both land use and transportation policy are often driven by the fear of traffic congestion. If you're interested in congestion comparisons, the most widely cited resource is the Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility Report.
TTI’s most recent report revealed a startling development: congestion actually decreased in a lot of places. Out of the 15 largest urbanized areas, five (Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Detroit) had decreases in congestion between 1999 and 2009, measured by yearly hours lost to congestion per driver. Most major metropolitan areas had 10-20% increases in congestion, and a few had much greater increases: in Chicago, Dallas, and Philadelphia, hours lost to congestion went up by 20-30%, and in Houston yearly hours lost increased by 38% (from 42 to 58).
What separates the winners from the losers? I’m not prepared to answer that question. But what I am prepared to do is address (and debunk) a couple of possible scapegoats. One possible argument might be that if it weren’t for those pesky environmentalists and fiscal conservatives fighting new roads, we could just build our way out of congestion. If this was true, we would find that the congestion “winners” had higher levels of road- building than the congestion “losers”- that is, the congestion-beating regions would increase freeway lane-miles at a rate higher than population growth. We would also find that the four regions that experienced the greatest growth in congestion built new lane-miles at a lower rate.
Neither proposition was consistently true. To be sure, two of the five congestion-reducing regions increased lane-mileage per person (San Francisco and Detroit). But three others failed to do so. In Atlanta, the number of lane-miles increased by 7 percent between 1999 and 2009 (from 2350 to 2520) while population increased from 3.7 million to 4.2 million (about a 13 percent increase). Yet hours lost to congestion decreased slightly (from 49 miles per year to 44). In Seattle, a 20 percent increase in population (from 2.65 million to 3.18 million) was not matched by road growth: freeway mileage increased from 1690 to 1855 miles, only a 9 percent increase. Yet congestion decreased from 52 hours to 44. In Los Angeles, freeway mileage and population were almost evenly matched: regional population increased from 12.3 million to 13 million (about a 6 percent increase) while freeway miles increased from 5400 miles to 5610 (about a 4 percent increase). But in Los Angeles, congestion plummeted more rapidly than elsewhere, from 76 miles to 63. Bottom line: the regions that beat congestion didn’t need to build more roads to do it.
What about regions that most obviously failed to beat congestion? In three of the four regions where congestion increased by over 20 percent, freeway mileage increased fastesr than population (all but Dallas). Score one for the environmentalists.
If roads failed to reduce congestion, was public transit more successful? Here the picture is equally mixed. If increased public transit ridership had a major effect upon congestion, we would find that the five successful regions would have experienced public transit ridership that increased faster than population. This was certainly the case in two such regions, Seattle and Los Angeles. According to TTI, metro Seattle’s public transit ridership increased from 142 million in 1999 to 188 million in 2009. Similarly, in Los Angeles, transit ridership increased from 562 million to 671 million. But on the other hand, transit ridership actually dipped slightly in both Detroit and Atlanta during the 2000s, and went up only slightly (from 420 million trips to 425 million, a 1 percent increase) in San Francisco. Yet congestion declined in those cities as well.
Our bottom line seems to be that the link between infrastructure and congestion is weaker than one might think.
September 19, 2011
Cul-de-sacs may be unsafe
This month's Atlantic has an interesting article about the work of two University of Connecticut engineering professors, Norman Garrick and Wesley Marshall, on the relationship between street design and traffic safety. (Garrick is an engineering professor at the University of Connecticut). The article notes that cul-de-sacs are in part a result of government pressure rather than the free market, and goes on to discuss Garrick's empirical work on traffic safety.
Garrick examined crash data from 24 medium-sized California cities, and discovered that:
the safest cities had an element in common: They were all incorporated before 1930. Something about the way they were designed made them safer. The key wasn’t necessarily that large numbers of bikers produced safer cities, but that the design elements of cities that encouraged people to bike in places like Davis were the same ones that were yielding fewer traffic fatalities.
These cities were built the old way: along those monotonous grids. In general, they didn’t have fewer accidents overall, but they had far fewer deadly ones. Marshall and Garrick figured that cars (and cars with bikes) must be colliding at lower speeds on these types of street networks. At first glance such tightly interconnected communities might appear more dangerous, with cars traveling from all directions and constantly intersecting with each other. But what if such patterns actually force people to drive slower and pay more attention?
“A lot of people feel that they want to live in a cul-de-sac, they feel like it’s a safer place to be,” Marshall says. “The reality is yes, you’re safer – if you never leave your cul-de-sac. But if you actually move around town like a normal person, your town as a whole is much more dangerous.”
In other words, a cul-de-sac alone is safer than a gridded street alone. But cities dominated by cul-de-sacs force more traffic onto a few big commercial streets- and because those commercial streets tend to be wider and accommodate faster traffic, accidents on those streets are more likely to lead to death or serious.
September 15, 2011
Why planning is overrated
It is conventional wisdom in some circles that “comprehensive planning” and sprawl are polar opposites- that planning is the enemy of sprawl.
But in fact, a comprehensive plan is almost as likely as a zoning code to be pro-sprawl. Many of the land use policies that make suburbs automobile-dependent: wide roads, long blocks, low density, single-use zoning, etc. can just as easily be found in a comprehensive plan.
For example, Alpharetta, Georgia is an outer suburb of Atlanta. Its plan’s future land use map , like the city's zoning code, lists a variety of single use zones. Most of these zones are quite low in density; the highest density, for apartments, is only 10 units per acre, barely enough to support minimal bus service. At these densities, not too many people live within walking distance of public transit, so there is not enough demand to support buses running more often than every half an hour or so, let alone rail service.
The plan also provides for numerous zones that are clearly incapable of supporting public transit, such as a “residential estate” area of 3-acre lots and a “very low density” area of half-acre lots. The plan provides that only 4% of the city’s land is to be used for apartments, as opposed to 54% for low-density residential.
Moreover, the land use map reveals that what passes for compact development in Alpharetta is not intermingled with the city’s offices; instead, high-density residential is a buffer zone between the city’s large stock of offices (near the Georgia 400 highway) and the city’s even larger stock of single-family homes. As a result, most of Alpharetta’s renters will not be able to walk to work even if they work in Alpharetta.
The transportation elements of suburban land use plans may also support car-oriented sprawl. For example, Jacksonville, Fla.'s comprehensive plan calls for 150-foot rights of way on major streets, thus effectively mandating streets with eight or ten lanes. Such streets are a bit too wide for most sane pedestrians.
In sum, comprehensive plans will typically reincorporate the status quo. So if a municipality's zoning code favors sprawling, low-density development, so will the comprehensive plan.
P.S. A more comprehensive discussion of these plans and their deficiencies is in a more extensive blog post at www.planetizen.com.