Academic research often seems disconnected and irrelevant to modern life. Not so the recent ivory tower interest in what makes cities, neighborhoods, and transit work. Sustainable shelter patterns may be the most important public policy issue of our time, and progressive leaders know it. The mayor of Portland, Ore., for example, just announced that he wants to see more "20-minute neighborhoods," where residents don’t need cars to get around. Other municipalities from Los Angeles to Boston have been slammed with sky-high infrastructure costs. They’re finding it too expensive to maintain the sprawling road, water, and sewer networks made possible by the cheap oil and lax environmental standards of the past.
Ironically, the more we learn about the problems with our current transportation systems, the more we find ourselves looking backward for solutions, to turn-of-the-century communities where the automobile was a novelty. Architects such as Peter Calthorpe
and Andres Duany
have been ahead of this curve for years, with their innovative (and continuing) work with new urbanism and walkable neighborhoods. But Duany acknowledges that some of the early planned communities—such as Seaside and Celebration—didn’t work out quite as planned. Instead of becoming models for more mainstream resurgence of mixed-income, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, they became victims of their own success—demographic niche communities affordable only to an elite few.
The principles of new urbanism, however, have now percolated into the consciousness of city planners. In all but the most stubborn of U.S. cities, planners are rethinking the auto-centric model of suburban sprawl. New master plans in many cities now consider the rights of pedestrians and bicyclists along with cars. In a few, from Portland, Ore., and Portland, Maine, the hierarchy of "right of way" has been challenged. But there’s still a long way to go.
For five years running, the Urban Land Institute www.uli.org has published "Emerging Trends in Real Estate." Every year, transit- oriented development has been ranked as a "best bet" for future development sites.
But the fact that housing near transit is smart, necessary, and highly desirable doesn’t mean it will automatically happen. The obstacles to private developers are huge. For example, the Center for Transit-Oriented Development notes that:
- Land prices around stations are high or increase because of speculation when a new transit line is planned.
- Affordable housing developers don’t have the capital to acquire land before the prices go up and hold it until it’s ready to be developed.
- Funding for affordable housing is limited.
- Mixed-income and mixed-use projects require complex financing structures.
- Sites often require land assembly and rezoning, leading to lengthy acquisition and permitting processes that increase costs.
- Community opposition to density and affordable housing can be challenging.
- Community outreach and education up front can be very helpful, but also time-consuming and costly.
- Existing single-use zoning and suburban style parking minimums can reduce the development potential and make construction of affordable units financially infeasible. Often there aren’t many development sites to begin with because neighborhoods around stations are already built up. Available parcels may be small and fragmented and require assemblage.
The next question is why? Why bother, if it’s so much hassle? Because demographics, economics (driven by energy changes) politics, and environmental regulation are all pointing in the same direction. Build close to transit and existing infrastructure or don’t build at all. The days of the small lot developments of 20 or 30 homes on the outer ring of a city are coming to an end. Cities won’t be fooled into providing sewer lines, school bus service, snow plowing, utility maintenance, or trash pickup to remote households any more.
Can Gridlock Be Good?
The closer researchers look at shelter patterns, the better an integrated transit system that connects with nearby metropolitan area looks. Typically, master plan developments take years to permit and get under way, but they aim for more affluent buyers and promise an ongoing payoff: hundreds of units to sell in phases over several years. And unlike infill development, they can often sidestep antiquated regulations and infrastructure, and build on a larger scale.
But what if these plans don’t include provisions for alternative forms of transit? Residents (especially low-income residents) can find themselves trapped in a community that’s totally car dependent, an expense that can eclipse every other household burden. But there’s no excuse for overlooking transportation when designing a new neighborhood. The research is decisive.
For example, a just-released study on neighborhood transportation patterns by the Center for Transit Oriented Development (CTOD)
found that cities with the highest density of intersections tended to have the highest frequency of "clean" mobility—walking and biking. In other words, gridlock—not the kind that involves sitting in traffic, but the kind where streets intersect in somewhat random and tight patterns—has a positive effect on livability.
They note that according to one 2010 study, "neighborhood type accounted for 61% of the observed effect of the built environment on utilitarian walking frequency and 86% of the total effect on recreational walking frequency." They add that another study in Raleigh, N.C., last year found that "environmental influences" had a direct effect on up to 98% of the choices people make about whether to drive or use other travel means.
In other words, community design is the major tool for changing transportation patterns—and reducing a site’s ongoing carbon footprint. A neighborhood designed for people will encourage much higher levels of walking and biking. The study notes, however, that getting people out of their cars also requires "destination accessibility." In other words, they have to live close enough to where they want to go to make it worth the walk.
Research on automobile commuting shows that travel to and from work constitutes only a quarter of all trips by car. Many more trips are made for personal errands, shopping, and entertainment. The formula is simple. Put housing close to these resources, and you need less parking and less road repair and you cause less climate-altering pollution.
Of course, it’s not that easy. The CTOD study found that the best communities are mixed, diverse populations situated close to transit. But affordable housing without municipal subsidies and fast-tracked permitting has kept most private developers and builders focused on making an easier buck on single-family homes outside city limits. But as that market shrinks, they will be squeezed into other markets, and that means refocusing on retrofit, acquiring a new set of business skills for urban development, and/or spending long months—even years— planning and executing a master planned community.
Can Master Plans Create Real Neighborhoods?
Creating a community from scratch that is relatively self sustaining—not just a brick and mortar version of an upscale bedroom community, is no cake walk.
One of the roadblocks to self-sustaining communities has been reducing auto dependency. But that’s not just a matter of adding alleys, trails, and narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets. It’s a question of commerce. Why do people drive? To get to work, yes, but also to shop, visit with friends and family, or attend cultural and entertainment events. A "neighborhood" lacking in any of these urban amenities may fall short of goals to reduce auto commuting.
Developers must walk a fine line. Many Americans have an ill-informed view of density. They associate denser living with crime and squalor, unfair prejudices carried over from the days of federal housing projects of the 1960s. They need to be educated about the financial benefits of local commerce.
The cost of certain goods on the surface may be somewhat less in a chain store a short drive away. But transportation should be added to the bottom line, along with other hidden energy and environmental costs. For example, a study in Austin, Texas, by a local business alliance found that "for every $100 spent at a chain, $13 remained in the community while $45 remained when spent with home town businesses."
Many local retail shops in new master planned towns have trouble attracting enough sales volume to survive. To address that shortfall, most master plans call for a commercial center on the outer perimeter of the community that taps a heavy traffic corridor to pull in revenue from transient visitors. This raises questions about the true environmental impacts of even the best planned new urbanist developments. Will the final balance sheet result in a reduced carbon footprint and less intensive travel, or will the community’s retail fringe become a commercial destination that gets more people in the region into their cars? Nothing’s simple.
For those with the staying power (and financial clout) to plan and execute brand-new “sustainable” neighborhoods, many more resources are available than were 10 years ago. For example, Duany Plater-Zyberk’s Light Imprint handbook
offers an organizing set of principles for creating a green neighborhood.
Which Transit Modes Work Best?
Current housing trends tend to serve one of the smallest (and rapidly shrinking) niches—married families with children. But all indicators point to far more diverse households dominating most future markets for housing. There’s much greater need for housing close to work centers, multifamily units, rentals, and affordable housing. One critical aspect to the success of these types of housing, however, is low-cost transportation. But as urban planners try to minimize automobile use, what’s the best replacement? Bikes? Buses? Trains? Walking trails? The answer, not surprisingly, is “all of the above.”
A study by the Urban Land Institute titled “Moving Cooler” (part of the “Land Use & Driving” report) tested nearly 50 transportation strategies and six different “strategy bundles,” or combinations of strategies in various regions of the United States. The researchers conclude that “there’s no silver bullet. No one strategy alone reduces greenhouse gas emissions enough to approach reduction targets.”
Rather, they note that “when strategies coalesce, greenhouse gas reductions become significant. The study projects possible national annual greenhouse gas emission reductions of up to 24% below baseline levels in 2050 when a mix of strategies, including land use, is employed at aggressive levels.”
The takeaway from these types of studies is that efforts to reduce the energy footprint of the automobile will need to be multi-disciplinary. Assuming that a major downsizing in consumer desires and behavior is not yet part of the equation, the next best thing is a combined carrot and stick approach that encourages more efficient transit without major inconvenience, with the added benefit of saving them money.