Skip to content

Posts from the "Sprawl" Category

37 Comments

What Drives the Google Bus?

Forget measuring carbon emissions and counting blocked Muni buses. The real meaning of the Google bus is the deeper illness it reveals – a co-dependent relationship in which sprawl and gentrification reinforce each other.

The Google campus in sprawling Mountain View. Photo: Austin McKinley/Wikipedia

Tech companies don’t run buses just to please their city-loving engineers. Silicon Valley land use makes them do it.

The Valley’s upscale towns welcome prestigious firms like Google and Apple. Their offices yield ample tax revenue, and residents like the short commute. But housing those who work there is another matter. Zoning keeps apartments out – they would dent the exclusivity of single-family suburbs – and new hires are forced into long commutes.

This building pattern creates a transportation problem. In sprawling suburbs transit attracts few riders on its own; it’s rarely as convenient as the automobile. But the roads couldn’t handle all the traffic if everyone drove long distances to the big office complexes. Local governments insist that companies must make active efforts to entice their employees out of cars.

Thus the Google bus. But the bus can’t go just anywhere. Sending it to Los Altos Hills or Atherton would be a wasted effort, because houses there are too far apart for riders to gather at a stop. Mass transit needs masses, and the bus travels to the densely packed neighborhoods of San Francisco.

There’s no conspiracy here. Younger software engineers, like lots of people their age, enjoy urban living, and they’re moving to the city on their own.

What the bus does is let Silicon Valley keep this trend at bay. The Valley preserves the suburban look of its towns by building offices without housing their occupants. The workforce, unable to find the walkable neighborhoods they want near their jobs, flocks to the ones in San Francisco.

The influx drives city rents up, turning run-down districts into islands of affluence. City-dwellers, attacking the symptom of the disease rather than the cause, limit new building and send housing prices even higher. An exclusionary arms race ensues, and a growing population is pushed into the farthest reaches of the metropolis

Gentrification enables sprawl, and sprawl begets more rapid gentrification. Neither can be controlled without breaking the cycle. City and suburb alike should embrace the urbanism that is in such great demand and in such short supply by creating walkable neighborhoods for everyone who wants to live in one.

Ben Ross is the author of the new book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. He will speak at a SPUR lunchtime forum about his book on May 1.

No Comments

Paul Krugman Links Sprawl to Persistent Social Inequality

Is sprawl holding back social mobility in America? Paul Krugman didn’t mince words yesterday in a follow-up to a post he wrote soon after the Detroit bankruptcy was announced. In that initial blog post, he compared Detroit to Pittsburgh and concluded that it wasn’t just the loss of manufacturing jobs that hurt Detroit — it was also the dispersement of jobs away from the city core. Yesterday, in a column titled “Stranded by Sprawl,” he took the argument further, arguing, “Sprawl may be killing Horatio Alger.”

Researchers have linked the lack of social mobility in places like Atlanta to the spatial segregation of different classes. Photo: NewsOne

Take Atlanta, says Krugman. Though its population is on the rise, a study released last week shows that Atlanta is one of the worst places in the country for social mobility: The chances that a kid born in the bottom fifth of the income ladder could move to the top fifth are one in 25.

Krugman writes that researchers have found “a significant negative correlation between residential segregation — different social classes living far apart — and the ability of the poor to rise.” He elaborates:

And in Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.

They may not be insolvent, but when it comes to the lack of social mobility, Atlanta and other sprawling metros are already following the same pattern as Detroit.

No Comments

The Strain of Job Sprawl on Two-Income Households

When Mark Lampert was a kid, his mom stayed home with him and his brothers. His dad was out the door by 4:30 every morning, driving to the commuter lot in their distant Houston suburb to take the bus in to the city for work. He had friends whose parents both worked, and when those friends came home from school they had the house to themselves – “which is why we went over there to build pipe bombs,” Mark said. At Mark’s house, dinner was ready and everyone was home by 6:00 every night.

Young people don't want to work in corporate campuses like this. And with more and more two-income households, it's just not practical. Photo: Indiana County

These days, Mark is living very differently. He lives in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC with his wife, April. She works long days as a journalist, biking or riding the metro a short 10 to 15 minutes to her downtown office. His dream job as a video game sound designer has him commuting far beyond the reaches of the metro red line, over an hour each way. They often don’t manage to sit down to dinner until 9:00.

He normally takes the train, but things get complicated during his months-long crunch times at work, when he’s up against a video game release deadline. The Ride-On bus he takes from the metro doesn’t run late, so he has to drive during those times — and lengthen an already painfully long day, circling around endlessly when he gets home to find a parking spot. It gets even hairier when they think about having a family, which they’d like to do soon. It’s hard to imagine a child care situation where they could equitably split drop-offs and pick-ups.

April and Mark used to live out in the suburbs, closer to his work, but they ached to get back into the city. “We knew it would be a lot harder for him time-wise,” April said, “but there’s so much vibrancy about living in the city.”

Their situation is shaped by three coinciding trends: the rise of the dual-income household, the increased desire for urban living, and the spread of job sprawl.

In the 1950s, 57 percent of residents and 70 percent of jobs were located in central cities; in 1990, they were about 37 and 45.

When Mark’s parents were graduating from high school, 35 percent of married women worked outside the home. By the time Mark graduated from high school in the late 1990s, it was 61 percent, which is about where it is now. That means that rather than locating a household to be convenient to one person’s job, families are now struggling to find the sweet spot where two people will have a reasonable commute to two different workplaces.

Sometimes they choose to live between the two. Anecdotally, I see more people making the choice April and Mark made: living where one can have an easy, car-free commute, and the other has a much longer haul. The lack of parking in their inner-city neighborhood is no problem for her, but it causes him no end of headaches.

Couples like April and Mark have a harder time finding that sweet spot because of job sprawl, or the decentralization of employment outside of central cities.

Read more…

No Comments

The Incredible Shrinking Megastore: Retailers Think Outside the Big Box

They lord over empty parking lots in Hazard, Kentucky; Twinsburg, Ohio; and Lewiston, Washington like the ruins of a lost civilization. Vacant Walmart stores are slowly decomposing in more and more American towns these days. More than 100 of them have been memorialized as part of the group Flickr pool known smugly as “They Sold for Less.”

Another one bites the dust. A vacant Walmart in Lewiston, Washington. Photo: Flickr/Happy Vampire

These empty husks — yet to be filled by any other retail tenant — are part of the detritus left behind by a paradigm shift in the real estate industry. Signs of the changing times, they tell us what kind of society we were before the bubble burst.

Now, as the commercial real estate industry regroups, evidence is mounting that Walmart and other mega-retailers will take a much different form than they have in the past. The new American shopping experience, according to many industry observers, will be less “suburban big-box” and more “urban destination.”

The demise of several mega-retail chains during the recession, including Circuit City and Linens ‘n Things, helped produce a vast oversupply of retail space, particularly that of the giant, boxy, just-off-the-interstate variety. Last summer, the research arm of giant commercial real estate firm Colliers International reported that there was nearly 300 million square feet of vacant big box retail space on the market — 34 percent of total retail vacancy left behind by a recession that walloped commercial real estate almost as hard as housing.

Since 2008 alone, 120 million square feet of big box retail space has become available. To put such numbers in perspective, that is the equivalent of the total shopping center space in Cincinnati, Kansas City and Baltimore combined, Colliers reported.

This period of retrenchment has humbled even the once-mightiest of retail forces. CNN reported last month that Walmart stores suffered their ninth-straight quarterly drop in sales. Another sign of the times: Walmart is no longer enough of a bargain for U.S. consumers, it appears. The mega-retailer has been losing market share to dollar stores.

The situation has apparently reached the point where the retail monolith is rethinking its whole carbon-gulping model. Walmart is joining other retailers in thinking smaller and more urban, says Ed McMahon, a fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

“What the recession has made completely clear is that we have way too much retail,” McMahon said. “We are going from the era of the big box to the era of the small box.”

Enter the “Walmart Express.”

Read more…

No Comments

Meet the Obscure Unelected Agencies Strangling Many U.S. Cities

Transit investment lagged in regions where MPO boards did not give equal representation to city populations, Detroit (SE Michigan) being an especially bad example. In more democratic metros, investment was much more balanced. Image: Nelson, 2003

Do you know the name of your local Metropolitan Planning Organization or Council of Government? Most Americans don’t. In fact, most people probably have no idea these agencies even exist, let alone what they do. Yet they are surprisingly powerful and play a substantial role in shaping the places where we live and work.

Led by unelected boards, MPOs and COGs, as they’re known, are a special breed among government agencies. They lack the authority to issue taxes or impose laws. As such, they go largely unmentioned in the media and are mostly unknown to local residents, outside of the most wonkish circles. But the low profile of MPOs and COGs belies their considerable power.

Despite their limitations, they represent the strongest form of regional governance we’ve got in the United States, crossing city and county lines. More importantly, they disperse hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars annually. MPOs and COGs are powerful forces shaping metro regions. While these agencies often distribute transportation funds more fairly than state DOTs, many of them are structured in a way that favors sprawl and works against cities.

MPOs and COGs can be profoundly undemocratic. They are governed by boards of public officeholders, but there is no requirement that they be in any way representative of the region’s population. In fact, the general rule that governs the composition of MPO boards is “one place, one vote,” rather than the more traditional “one person, one vote.” This often produces decisions dramatically skewed toward suburban and rural interests.

For example, greater Milwaukee’s MPO, known by the unwieldy acronym SEWRPC, is governed by a board of 21 members, three from each of the counties that make up the planning region. That means that the city of Milwaukee — population nearly 600,000 — has zero representatives on the commission that distributes millions of dollars for transportation throughout the region. It is not guaranteed any votes. The city’s only voting power comes from the three seats given to Milwaukee County — and those must be spread between the central city and many suburbs. Meanwhile, rural Walworth County — population 100,000 — is guaranteed three votes.

Milwaukee is an especially egregious case. But unfortunately, this general pattern is more the norm than the exception. A 1999 Brookings Institution study [PDF] found that central cities were under-represented in as many as 92 percent of MPOs and COGs.

That bias can have a strong impact on policy, further research has shown. A 2003 study by researchers at Virginia Tech found that for each additional suburban member on an MPO board, there was a 1 to 9 percent decrease in funding for transit — with highways being the favored alternative.

Read more…

No Comments

Third Houston Outerbelt Would Turn Prairies Into Texas Toast

There’s a place just outside Houston where the vinyl siding and attached garages thin out and recede into grasslands.

The Katy Prairie, one of the country's last remaining natural grasslands and an important bird habitat, may be replaced with a highway and sprawl. Image: Houston Tomorrow

In this place — one of the country’s few remaining tall-grass prairies — something amazing happens each fall. First hundreds, then thousands, then millions of birds arrive here at Katy Prairie, an international wintering grounds for migratory birds, especially waterfowl.

Over the decades, this 1,000 square mile sanctuary has largely survived the encroachment of farmers and relentless development pressure from neighboring Houston, thanks in no small part to its dedicated supporters.

But the Katy Prairie has never faced a opponent like the Grand Parkway before. Piece by piece, the Houston area has been building a third — yes, third — bypass for the region. And much to the horror of local environmentalists, the next segment is planned to directly bisect this extraordinary habitat.

Development of this pristine land isn’t just collateral damage — it’s the point of the project. Project sponsors make no bones about it: The 15.2-mile Grand Parkway segment through Katy Prairie is a $462 million development project as much as it is a transportation project. Known as “Segment E,” it would be the third phase in a 180-mile “scenic bypass” for Houston. Each of the 11 segments is considered a separate and “independently justifiable project.”

Billy Burge of the Grand Parkway Association says right now there isn’t much need for Segment E, in terms of traffic. Burge and his colleagues don’t shy away from the fact that the project will generate more car trips and sprawl. In fact, they have what you might call a “build it and they will come” philosophy about road-building and traffic.

“There’s real demand in 15 to 17 years to have this,” said Burge, who chairs the association overseeing the project for the state and the region. “Once that link is completed, you’ll have a steady stream of traffic.”

Read more…

2 Comments

Bay Area Governments Begin Developing Regional Smart Growth Plan

Image: OneBayArea

Local governments in the Bay Area have begun a coordinated regional effort to shift toward more sustainable urban planning mandated by the state’s landmark anti-sprawl bill, SB 375, which set ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and called for better integration of land use and transportation planning.

Last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) released its Initial Vision Scenario, which lays out preliminary strategies to accommodate population growth in the region over the next 25 years while achieving a 15 percent GHG reduction.

“The Initial Vision Scenario is a tool to advance dialogue among the Bay Area’s regional agencies,” said Ezra Rapport, executive director of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). “Through this collaborative planning effort to strengthen the character and qualities of our neighborhoods and communities, we can tackle the region’s population growth with a mix of housing, while preserving open spaces, protecting our economy, and getting residents where they need to go.”

The overview marks the first stepping stone in developing a Sustainable Communities Strategy, also known as Plan Bay Area, aimed at mitigating the impacts of a potential regional increase of 2 million residents. By directing new housing and job development into walkable, transit-accessible areas, the Initial Vision Scenario projects 97 percent of development could be absorbed within the current urban footprint but would still fall 3 percent short of the mandated 15 percent target.

Read more…

No Comments

A Metro Detroit Business Owner on the Talent-Repelling Effect of Sprawl

The owner of a patent law firm in recession-battered metro Detroit may have to leave Michigan, and it’s not because of the taxes, says Andrew Basile, Jr. His firm, which employs 40 people in the city of Troy, spends “more on copiers and toner than we do on state taxes.” The problem, Basile says, is that the firm can’t attract talent to Michigan because of the “poor quality of place” and “car culture” that prevails in the region.

In a letter to nonprofit Michigan Future, Inc., Basile vents his frustration with a leadership climate that has gone “berserk on suburbia.” (Basile is also the brains behind the Woodward Project, an initiative aimed at developing a vibrant livable center for Detroit.)

This instructive letter, sent by email under the subject line “Why our growing firm may have to leave Michigan,” explains how places like Detroit pay an economic price for lagging behind other regions on livability. Reprinted with permission of the author:

All…

Our recruiters are very blunt. They say it is almost impossible to recruit to Michigan without paying big premiums above competitive salaries on the coasts.

People – particularly affluent and educated people – just don’t want to live here. For example, below are charts of migration patterns based on IRS data. Black is inbound, red is outbound. Even though the CA economy is in very bad shape, there is still a mass migration to San Francisco vs. mass outbound migration from Oakland County (most notably to cities like SF, LA, Dallas, Atlanta, NY, DC, Boston, and Philly). San Fran only seems to be losing people to Portland, a place with even more open space and higher quality urban environments.

Net migration to San Francisco: The black lines represent inward migration and the red lines outward migration.

The situation for Michigan is even worse than it seems because those lines are net migration…

Read more…

Streetsblog NYC 11 Comments

Report: Want to Ease Commuter Pain? Highways and Sprawl Won’t Help

A reanalysis of traffic data shows that despite previous reports, the longest commutes are in sprawling Southeastern cities. For a larger version of this infographic, click here. Image: CEOs for Cities.

An analysis by CEOs For Cities shows that contrary to previous reports, the longest commutes are in sprawling Southeastern cities. View a larger version of this infographic. Image: CEOs for Cities

Imagine two drivers leaving downtown to head home. Each of them sits in traffic for the first ten miles of the commute but at that point, their paths diverge. The first one has reached home. The second has another twenty miles to drive, though luckily for her, the roads are clear and congestion doesn’t slow her down. Who’s got a better commute?

Shockingly, the standard method for measuring traffic congestion implies that the second driver has it better. The Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report (UMR) only studies how congestion slows down drivers from hypothetical maximum speeds, completely ignoring how long it takes to actually get where you’re going. The result is an incessant call for more highway lanes from newspapers across the country.

An important new report from CEOs for Cities, though, has laid out major problems with the UMR. It shows how commuters in compact regions, whose daily trips look hellish based on the UMR, actually spend far less time in the car than residents of sprawling metro areas.

The misleading metrics in the UMR are a convenient bludgeon for the highway lobby. According to report author Joe Cortright, the UMR serves as “a drumbeat saying we need to spend a lot more on expanding capacity. It gets used in political speeches, it’s used in lobbying.”

The key flaw is a measurement called the Travel Time Index. That’s the ratio of average travel times at peak hours to the average time if roads were freely flowing. In other words, the TTI measures how fast a given trip goes; it doesn’t measure whether that trip is long or short to begin with.

Relying on the TTI suggests that more sprawl and more highways solve congestion, when in fact it just makes commutes longer. Instead, suggests CEOs for Cities, more compact development is often the more effective — and more affordable — solution.

Read more…

6 Comments

In Historic Vote, CARB Adopts Targets Under Landmark Anti-Sprawl Bill

In a historic and unanimous vote yesterday, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 2035, a move that will compel the state’s metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to better integrate land use and transportation planning.

“These targets are ambitious, achievable and very good news for California communities. Improved planning means cleaner air in our cities, less time stuck in your car, and healthier, more sustainable communities,” said Mary Nichols, the CARB Chair. “Cities that choose to develop sustainable communities plans that meet these targets have an advantage when it comes to attracting the kinds of vibrant, healthy development that people want.”

Although a number of representatives from powerful construction, development and oil industry interests lined up to oppose the targets, arguing passage would lead to fewer jobs and hurt the economy, sustainable transportation advocates said CARB was able to see through the rhetoric. They felt the vote was a watershed moment, a signal that business-as-usual transportation and land use models will no longer work.

“A growing body of research and our own data shows that smart growth is not just an aesthetic issue, it’s a real public health concern,” said Jane Warner, the president and CEO of the American Lung Association in California. “By moving to more sustainable growth patterns that offer healthier transportation options, CARB’s vote can help California avoid $1.66 billion in public health costs, more than 100,000 asthma attacks and other respiratory symptoms and 140 premature deaths each year.”

Read more…