Wealth-Destroying Streets

Dan Burden

Dan Burden, executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, looks like an aging hippie — long white hair, a broomstick of a moustache, a twinkle in his eye — and, for all I know, he is one. But his presentation Friday at the New Partners for Smarter Growth focused on wealth creation. No, he wasn’t touting stocks, gold or collateralized debt obligations. He was arguing that public investment in streets and roads can either destroy the value of nearby property or increase it. To his way of thinking, it makes more sense to build streets and roads that enhance property values.

“It’s amazing how many times we have butchered a city and spent millions of dollars to do that butchering,” said Burden, who conducts “walking audits” used to determine how pedestrian friendly a communities streets are. “We can no longer afford to make changes that subtract from the value of land. Our improvements must add value to land.”

The traffic engineers who design streets seem to determined to make them as wide and fast as they possibly can, all for the purpose of moving automobiles more efficiently. But roads that move cars efficiently at high speeds are not what homeowners want in front of their houses. As a rule, the faster the speed, the lower the property value. Said Burden: “Streets that reduce speed produce high property values.”

Bacon’s bottom line: In Virginia the major factor driving transportation investment is congestion mitigation. (Economic development is an important secondary factor but it is limited mainly to mega-projects.) Traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities cost the economy roughly three times as much as congestion yet safety-related investments are minimal. The impact of transportation investments on property values is not a factor at all.

Streetscapes that accommodate pedestrians and bicycles often are seen as a wasteful expenditure that could be put to better use by adding more lane-miles of road. But such reasoning does not take into account the impact of walkable, bikable street design on property values.

Virginia has no formal methodology for calculating the costs and benefits of different potential investments. It is entirely possible that investments in roads and streets are destroying millions of dollars in property values every year and we don’t even know it.

– JAB

2 Responses to Wealth-Destroying Streets

  1. This is vitally important point. Sidewalks and bike paths done right are engines of huge wealth. And so are roads when done right.

    Instead myopic focus on narrow, counter-productive, “engineering fixes” bleeds both wealth and opportunity out of land and its uses near and far. Not to mention the social costs, the pathologies, of no where places.

    The ways we throw away peoples benefits and destroy their wealth and opportunity while we incur enormous cost doing it boggles the mind.

  2. This concept makes sense to me. People don’t want vehicles traveling at high speed in front of their homes. They also hate cut-through commuter traffic. (Even when they do it themselves.)

    The problem is, IMO, caused in large part because excess development has rendered primary roads inadequate to handle commuter traffic. As with any network, traffic moves to routes that are not as congested. We need an adequate public facility law. We need to require VDOT to fund projects based on ROI in terms of increased safety and decreased traffic congestion. We need to make heavy trucks pay the full cost of the damage they render to roads & bridges. We need more transparency in the transportation funding process.

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