Monday, November 23, 2009

Demand, Choice, and New Urbanism

I was surfing about in the transit blogosphere last night when I came upon "Living Car-Free in Big D", a blog written by a car-free resident of Dallas, TX. As excellent as his blog is, I notice he feels pretty superior about pulling off a car-free life in a city like Dallas. Dude, at least you have light rail. But I digress.

Anyway, on trying to find the blog again this morning, I stumbled upon an article from a Dallas News blog about "Car-free in Big D", and I looked at the comments on the post. Here's a couple of choice ones.

Posted by Hannibal Lecter @ 6:41 PM Mon, Nov 02, 2009

The problem with CFiBD is that he can't comprehend that not everyone wants to live exactly the same way he does. It's a kind of narcissism that seems to be endemic to bloggers. :-)

Too many of the "new urban" types just don't understand that people live in cities like Dallas specifically because they don't want to live in places like NYC. What they call "sprawl" is what many more people call "The American Dream".

Density: What everyone wants for the other guy's neighborhood.

Posted by MB999 @ 12:44 PM Tue, Nov 03, 2009

I don't understand why people continually whine "sprawl" as if we're running out of land in Texas.

Where do these socialistic liberals expect all these newcomers to the Metroplex to live? They want to force the average person into soviet 50 story government housing projects downtown or build some bleak crowded Bronx style urban ghetto type development and dependent on DART while the people whining about sprawl probably live in a place like Soutlake or Frisco.

DART is an inefficient and corrupt money pit. It takes three times as long to get to your destination using them vs driving. Most people prefer single family homes to apartment living.

Obama Socialists can't stand the freedom of movement that the automobile offers nor can they stand the idea of people living single family homes. They make up schemes and lies about "global warming", "running out of farmland", "sprawl" and want to herd people into places THEY want you to live and dependent on transit that THEY control.

These comments are posted in full and unabridged, lest I be accused of quote-mining. Blogs have theoretically infinite column-space, and I shall use it. Also, for context, Frisco, TX and Southlake, TX are Eastvale-style exurbs in the Dallas area. The commenter is not referring to South Lake, Seattle, WA or San Francisco, CA. CFiBD lives in Downtown Dallas, as anyone reading his blog will be made immediately aware.

These comments are pretty common reactions to anyone espousing the philosophy of New Urbanism, and I do consider myself a New Urbanist. We are accused of forcing people out of their cars,n of imposing our choice of transport on others, of making the inefficient transit systems of today the only option for transport. There are a number of misconceptions inherent in these criticisms, and I want to tackle them here.

First- New Urbanists do not seek to impose their transport or living arrangement choices on others, by and large. I think it would be nice if all private automobiles in the world were to suddenly be replaced by frequent transit service in livable communities, but I would never impose that on my fellow man. I don't want to see cars banned, though I may joke about it from time to time. (I also think this song is catchy.) What I want to see is people given the choice. I want to see communities where people can choose to live in dense, transit-oriented developments, or choose not to. I want to see local politicians and planners realise that density and diversity in housing is not a death knell for a community, that segregated-use zoning simply puts barriers between people and the things they want to buy and do in life, and that the structure of our built environment over the last 50 years is not something natural, but a consequence of policy and subsidy. I don't want to make you ride the bus, walk or cycle, but I want to be able to walk to the grocery store on safe sidewalks, cycle without being shouted at and run off the roadway, and ride transit without having to quintuple my travel time. And I am not alone, which leads me to the second point I want to make...

Demand. There is latent demand for vibrant, walkable and transit-served neighbourhoods. Some estimates I've seen (but, for the life of me, can't find to cite) say that around 30-40% of people would like to live in a dense, transit-rich neighbourhood, but only 15% of current housing stock actually qualifies as such. An analysis by CEOs for Cities found that every increase in WalkScore translated into an increase in home value between $700 and $3000 after controlling for other factors, with stronger effects for larger urban areas. This shows that people like to live in places where everything they need is in walking distance, and that they will pay accordingly. This shows that walkable (and therefore transit-friendly, in most cases) housing is in high demand, which (if you remember high school economics) indicates a low supply. I will note that this analysis did not hold in two of the 15 CSA's they studied, but that this rate of error was similar to that for the relationships between number of bedrooms and bathrooms and home price. For those who doubt the statistical validity of the results, as somebody who deals with regression analysis every single day at work, this looks very good.

Lastly, we come to the issue of how we propose paying for all of these improvements to transit and housing. First of all, even many conservative figures acknowledge that transit and dense communities are more fiscally sound. Cities get more property tax returns from dense development, as more value is concentrated in less land. And public transit projects facilitate substantial job creation, even more than road projects- 19% more according to USDOT. The California Transit Association estimates that, for every dollar spent on transit projects, three more dollars pass through local economies- and the Buy American policies that many local transit agencies have keeps that economic benefit here, rather than sending it to Toyota or Kia. Not to mention that transit customers, pedestrians and cyclists cost far less in terms of road maintenance. Transit-oriented development is not a heavily-subsidized social service, but a fiscally responsible policy that every community should examine.
There is, however, one thing that the car-dependent are correct about. Many New Urbanists expect drivers to bear the costs of providing transit service and encouraging TOD. I most certainly do. This is not because we wish to punish drivers, but rather because driving is presently heavily subsidized. The economic incentives are screwed up. Drivers pay less than 4% of the cost of the local roadways on which they drive, according the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute. This analysis doesn't even factor in the social costs of auto-dependence, such as pollution, loss of wild lands to sprawl, cost of hospital and ambulance services for car crash victims, lost years of life and human potential due to car crashes, war costs related to securing our oil supplies, war dead in conflicts to secure our oil supplies, the constraints imposed on our foreign policy because of the need for oil imports, the atrocities committed by oil companies enabled by state-side profits, and the list goes on. If these costs were factored in to the analysis, I doubt that drivers would come up with even 1 or 2% of the costs of their transportation.
As a transit user, my fares cover upwards of 18% of the costs of my transport. As a cyclist, I not only cover the cost of roadways through my sales taxes, but I subsidize the costs of other road users as well. If drivers were simply charged closer to the true costs of their transportation, many would choose other forms of transport simply for economic reasons, and states and municipalities would have more than enough money to run extensive transit services.
Of course, the costs of driving are getting worse, and they are going to keep doing so. As oil becomes ever-scarcer in our world (and have no doubt, it is), the cost of it is going to continue to increase. $15 a gallon is coming. I'm certain that many will change their preference for sprawling housing when that happens. We can either be prepared for this shift, with a robust transit system and zoning that permits dense, mixed-use development, or we can be caught clinging to the status quo, and people will be left with no choice but to spend $500 to fill their SUV's. I'd prefer the former.

Car people- please understand. We New Urbanists are not trying to force you into our way of life. We are trying to enjoy our way of life. We are trying to stop subsidizing things we don't agree with. We are only asking that you pay some of your fair share. If you paid the 20% towards roads that transit riders pay towards transit, our transit system would be in much better shape- and your roads would inevitably be emptier! We are not asking for conformity, only choice.

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