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.