Category Archives: Land use & development

Millennials Want a New Kind of Suburbia

Image credit: Demand Institute

Image credit: Demand Institute

by James A. Bacon

The Millennial Generation (18- to 29-years old) will be a predominantly suburban generation, contends a new study by the Demand Institute based on a survey of 1,000 Millennial households. Significant majorities of the younger generation aspire to owning a single-family home and consider automobiles a necessity, while a 48% plurality expresses a preference to live in the “suburbs” over an urban or rural environment.

These findings, the authors contend, contradict “myths” perpetuated by advocates of smart growth and urbanism that Millennials “all want to move to the city and rent; they don’t want to own things; they won’t need cars anyway — and there will be a massive slump in demand because they are all going to be living single in their parents’ basements for the foreseeable future.”

Phew! It’s hard to know where to start with this. The study does provide a useful benchmark for what Millennials are thinking and it reaches at least one very interesting conclusion. Unfortunately, the analysis totally clouds the debate by misstating what smart growthers and urbanists are actually saying and by what employing what our old friend Ed Risse terms “core confusing words.”

The Demand Institute does make some useful observations. While there are only 13.3 million households headed by Millennials today, young people will emerge from their parents’ basements. Their number will swell to 21.6 million households by 2018. Almost four in five expect their financial situation to improve within the next five years, and three out of four plan to move. The reasons they list for wanting to move: 71% for a better home or apartment, 59% for more privacy or space, 50% to establish a household, and 48% to own, not rent. While Millennials have delayed family formation, 30% are married today, 64% expect to be married within five years, and 55% expect to have children within five years.

Three out of four Millennials believe home ownership is important, and 60% plan to purchase a home within five years. When they do rent or buy a new home, 61% want more space. Sixty-two percent want to either rent or purchase a single-family dwelling for their next home.

Here’s where it gets interesting for those following the urban vs. suburban debate: Millennials’ locational preferences are:

48% suburban
38% urban
14% rural

Those who say it’s important for their next home to be within “a short drive” of grocery stores, restaurants and retail outnumber those who say it is important to be within walking distance by more than two to one. Meanwhile, 88% of Millennials own a car, down only one percentage point from 2001.

Among the study’s main conclusions: “The suburbs are going to remain important destinations for young families, but the ideal suburban location for Millennials may not be the same as it was for previous generations. Communities that can offer the best of urban living (e.g. convenience and walkability) with the best of suburban living (e.g. good schools and more space) will thrive in the coming decade.”

Very good. I believe that to be true. One of the great challenges of the next two or three decades will be urbanizing the suburbs, or, to be more precise, to replace the “suburban sprawl” pattern of development characterized by large lots, segregated land uses and autocentric streets with a more traditional “urban” pattern of small lots, some mixed-use and walkable streets.

The authors confuse the issue, however, by their indiscriminate use of the words “suburbs” and “suburban.” They do not differentiate between close-in suburbs where single-family dwellings have small lots and walkable streets and the far-flung “exurbs” on the metropolitan fringe where single-family dwells have large lots and rely exclusively upon automobiles. I would argue that while Millennials assuredly seek to live in communities with good schools and reasonable taxes, they are far less interested than previous generations in living in the “exurbs.” However, it is impossible to prove or disprove that argument with the way the authors constructed the survey.

As for dispelling the “myth” that all Millennials want to live in the city, rent an apartment and give up their cars, the authors have created a straw man. I don’t know of anyone who says “all” Millennials want those things. But the Demand Institute’s own data suggests that a significant number do. Thirty-six percent of Millennials say they expect to continue to rent multi-family housing over the next five years; 24% say they want the same amount of space, and 15% want less space. Thirty-eight percent say they prefer to live in an urban environment. As for transportation, 48% say they take mass transit at least once a week, 22% say they walk and 15% ride a bicycle. I would suggest those numbers represent a major shift from previous generations. It would be nice to compare those preferences with those of Generation Xers 20 years ago. The Demand Institute data would mean far more if we could put it in a generational context.

Bacon’s bottom line: In actuality, there is a big shift in Millennial preferences compared to those of previous generations. A big percentage of Millennials prefer urban lifestyles and a bigger percentage prefer a “best of both worlds” approach typical of the older, denser suburbs. There is little evidence here that Millennials are craving an “exurban” lifestyle of big houses on big lots in locations that make them dependent upon cars for long commutes. The study missed a chance to make that clear.

Tobacco Commission Needs Huge Makeover

tobacco leafBy Peter Galuszka

One more glaring example of mass corruption in Virginia is the grandly named Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission formed 14 years ago to dole out Virginia’s share of a $206 billion settlement among 45 other states with cigarette makers.

I’ve been writing for years about how millions of dollars are doled out with little oversight to economic development projects supposedly helpful to the former tobacco-growing parts of the state from the bright leaf belt around Dinwiddie out west to the burley leaf land of the mountains.

There have been no-strings giveaways to absentee tobacco quota holders, a board member sent to prison for siphoning off grant money and the shenanigans of the extended Kilgore family which is very politically powerful in those parts. The commission even figured in the McDonnell corruption trial starring the former and now convicted governor and back-slapping witnesses for the prosecution, entrepreneur and tobacco-believer Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

I revisit the issue in Sunday’s Washington Post and I ask the obvious question of why no one seems to watching the commission. I raise broader ones, too, such as why the commission  serves only people in the tobacco belt. That doesn’t seem fair since the Attorney General’s office represented all of the state in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement against four major tobacco firms. People in Hampton Roads, Arlington, Onancock and Winchester should be benefit but get nothing from the settlement. They didn’t  because tobacco road legislators pulled a fast one back in 1999 when they set things up.

There needs to be a thorough disassembling of the commission’s current governance structure with many more people far from Tobacco Road included. There’s far too much family and friend back-scratching as it is. It is like watching a vintage episode of the Andy Griffith show but it really isn’t funny.

(Hat tip to James A. Bacon Jr. who spotted the commission as a great story back in the year 2000 when he was publisher of Virginia Business).

So, please read on.

The Huge Controversy Over Gas Pipelines

atlantic coast pipeline demonstratorsBy Peter Galuszka

Just a few years ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe seemed to be a reasonable advocate of a healthy mix of energy sources. He boosted renewables and opposed offshore oil and gas drilling. He was suspicious of dangerous, dirty coal.

Then he started to change. During the campaign last year, he suddenly found offshore drilling OK, which got the green community worried. But there’s no doubt about his shifts with his wholehearted approval of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, along with Richmond-based Dominion, one of McAuliffe’s biggest campaign donors.

The $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of a new phenomenon – bringing natural gas from the booming Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia towards busy utility markets in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and parts ones even farther south. Utilities like gas because it is cheap, easy to use, releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal, which is notorious for labor fatalities, disease, injuries and global warming.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate at Clarksburg, W.Va. (one of my home towns) and shoot southeast over the Appalachians, reaching heights of 4,000 feet among rare mountain plants in the George Washington National Forest, and then scoot through Nelson, Buckingham Nottoway Counties to North Carolina. At the border, one leg would move east to Portsmouth and the Tidewater port complex perhaps for export (although no one has mentioned that yet). The main line would then jog into Carolina roughly following the path of Interstate 95.

It’s not the only pipeline McAuliffe likes. An even newer proposal is the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would originate in southern West Virginia and move south of Roanoke to Chatham County. It also faces strong local opposition.

atlantic_coast_pipeline mapThe proposals have blindsided many in the environmental community who have shifted some of their efforts from opposing coal and mountaintop removal to going after hydraulic fracking which uses chemicals under high pressure and horizontal drilling to get previously inaccessible gas from shale formations. The Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, the birthplace of the American oil and gas industry, has been a treasure trove of new gas.

The fracked gas boom has been a huge benefit to the U.S. economy. It is making the country energy independent and has jump started older industries in steel, pipe making and the like. By replacing coal, it is making coal’s contribution to the national energy mix drop from about 50 percent to less than 40 percent and is cutting carbon dioxide emissions that help make for climate change.

That at least, is what the industry proponents will tell you and much of it is accurate. But there are big problems with natural gas (I’ll get to the pipelines later). Here’s Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and nationally known environmentalist writing in Mother Jones:

Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it’s even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it’s no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America’s substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.

Howarth’s (He is a biogeochemist) question, then, was: How much methane does escape? ‘It’s a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point,’ he says. ‘Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I’ve done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it’s just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town’s water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that’s true of most towns. That’s because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin.

Continue reading

BRT to Nowhere?

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

by James A. Bacon

There’s a whole lot of fuzzy thinking going on. People in the Richmond area are so enamored with the prospect of building a Bus Rapid Transit route through the city that they are saying the most astonishing things.

Bus Rapid Transit can be a great idea if done correctly. But it must be done correctly, or it will create a long-term drain on public resources in the City of Richmond and, to a lesser extent, in Henrico County that neither locality can afford.

In the company of Governor Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and other local luminaries, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Saturday that Uncle Sam will provide a $24.9 million grant toward the cost of the $54 million project, which would run along Broad Street from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. (See the Times-Dispatch story here.) Virginia, flush with transportation tax revenue from former Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase, will kick in $16.8 million toward the project, while Richmond and Henrico will contribute a total of $8 million. (If that adds up to $49.7 million on your calculator like it does on mine, that leaves more than $4 million unaccounted for.)

Local officials touted BRT as a jobs project. “We’re going to make jobs available to people,” said Jones. The bus would shave a quarter hour travel time along the 7.6-mile route, said Foxx. For a person in poverty or without a car, that could mean “the difference between getting a job or not.” Then came this from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd: “BRT will allow thousands of people in the East End of Richmond to apply for jobs in the West End they wouldn’t even think about applying for before.”

Really? At the eastern terminus, the BRT system will be anchored in Rocketts Landing, an upscale, New Urbanist development along the James River — across the railroad tracks from Fulton Hill, home to thousands of poor and working-class African-Americans. Is this some kind of cruel joke? The lawyers, investment bankers and advertising executives living in Rocketts Landing are not the ones who need access to minimum-wage retail jobs in the Broad Street corridor west of town. For the people who need the jobs, it will be a long, long walk to the BRT station.

Moving west along the proposed route, there aren’t many poor people living in Shockoe Bottom, a commercial area lined by the upscale Tobacco Row condos and apartments on the one side and yuppified apartments for the creative class on the other. As the bus route proceeds through downtown, it does pass through the traditional African-American Jackson Ward neighborhood, but that is rapidly gentrifying as more affluent Richmonders seek proximity to the jobs and amenities of downtown. Further west, the route passes through VCU, but college students hardly constitute a downtrodden class (until they have to start paying back their student loans).

West of downtown, the BRT route skirts past the Carver neighborhood with a couple thousand African-Americans. BRT could provide them better access. But the route then passes Scott’s Addition, an old industrial park that traditionally has had little residential, although it is gentrifying now with the addition of apartments and condos designed for middle-class tastes. Near the western terminus at Willow Lawn, the neighborhoods are middle-class.

For the most part, the only working poor of Richmond’s East End whom the BRT will benefit are those who take a local bus downtown and then change routes. That shaving 15 minutes off their travel time makes the difference between those people having jobs and not having jobs, however, is not a proposition that BRT backers have proved.

The other question that no one seems willing to address — at least not in public speeches — is what happens when the poor East Enders get off the bus on the West side of town. On the plus side, they can walk to their destination on sidewalks — yes, there are sidewalks on this part of Broad Street, unlike farther west. On the downside, the sidewalks are not the kind that actually invite people to walk on them, as can be see in the Google Street View atop this post. The Broad Street stroad is designed for cars, not walking. The sidewalks abut right up to streets with cars traveling 35 miles per hour or faster. Crossing the street can be challenging. Visually, the landscape is barren and inhospitable.

Even more grievous is the fact that Richmond and Henrico need to zone for higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development along the corridor. Zoning for greater density is the easy part. The hard part is coaxing property owners not to build a new generation of the same old low-rise schlock that aligns the corridor. Another issue that neither jurisdiction has answered — not in public statements, at least — how much it will cost to build “complete street” streetscapes that accommodate people and bicycles as well as cars and BRT buses.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t escape the feeling that the state, the feds and the localities have gotten ahead of themselves. They’ve got the money, so they’re going to build the project, regardless of whether they have put other elements of a corridor-revitalization plan in place. Current estimates say the BRT will cost $2.7 million a year in ongoing subsidies to operate. That could be a modest price to pay if the project stimulates a transformation of the Broad Street Corridor along the lines of Cleveland’s Healthline Bus Rapid Transit system, which has been cited as an example of what Richmond can accomplish. But that transformation will not occur in a vacuum. The job does not end with construction of the BRT line. It will take decades of follow-up to the community that arises along it.

The Simple, Lovable Sidewalk

sidewalk By Peter Galuszka

Forever humble, the simple sidewalk is becoming an issue in land planning and transportation.

In densely-populated populated urban areas, sidewalks have been a staple of living since the time of the Ancient Greeks. They were classics in the familiar grid plans that marked most American towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It all changed after World War II when thousands of veterans came home with access to cars and cheap mortgages and builders started constructing car-centric neighborhoods. The cookie-cutter plan included big subdivisions with only one or two access points, lots of cul de sacs and long streets and wound around until they emptied into the few access roads.

You couldn’t walk anywhere. The feeling was, with the complicity of such car-centric bodies as the Virginia Department of Transportation, that you didn’t need sidewalks because the kids could play in the cul de sacs and anyone could drive.

This started to change a decade or so ago as pe0ple wanted to walk more to the library, the store or to visit a neighbor. Suburban planners are taking this into consideration and are “encouraging” developers to put in sidewalks.

A couple problems here:

First, although the Tim Kaine administration changed VDOT policy to advocate more intersecting streets in new developments along with sidewalks, the policy has been watered down under pressure from the development industry.

The other problem is that while it is a simple matter to put sidewalks in new projects, retrofitting them in older ones is tough. It is expensive, there are rights of way issues and sometimes the terrain doesn’t lend itself to them. And, when sidewalks are put in, they merely connect with gigantic feeder roads where one might have to walk a half a mile to a stoplight just cross safely, as is the case in one instance in Chesterfield County.

For more, read my recent pieces in the Chesterfield Monthly and Henrico Monthly.

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

LinkedIn office building in Sunnyvale, Calif. --insulated from the street by a parking lot and a landscaping berm.

A LinkedIn office building in Sunnyvale, Calif. — insulated from the street by a parking lot and landscaping berm — hews to traditional “sprawl” design. The rest of the campus does better but still misses an opportunity to connect with the surrounding community.

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60’s-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It’s making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

by James A. Bacon

LinkedIn Corp. has built a wildly successful business model around connecting business people through cyberspace. Ironically, the fast-growing Silicon Valley corporation gives short shrift to connecting people in the physical world. Its new corporate campus in Sunnyvale, Calif., located in an emerging “innovation district,” misses an opportunity to foster creativity by encouraging employees to interact with others outside the organization.

In some ways, the LinkedIn campus represents an improvement on the traditional sprawling settlement pattern of Silicon Valley. The facility is higher density than neighboring office and industrial buildings in Peery Park, one of the valley’s oldest office parks. The company conserves acreage by replacing open parking lots with a five-level deck. The buildings have interesting architectural features and the landscaping is attractive.

Erik_Calloway

Erik Calloway

But the LinkedIn complex falls short of what it could have been, Erik Calloway told me when I visited the San Francisco Bay area this spring. An urban designer with Freedman Tung & Sasaki, the firm engaged to help the City of Sunnyvale develop Peery Park as an innovation district, Calloway had ridden his motorcycle from San Francisco to show me how urban design can stimulate — or dampen — economic innovation. If only LinkedIn had tweaked the layout, he says, it could have opened the campus to the outside world, contributing to the vitality of the district and perhaps to its own enterprise. Says Calloway: “They weren’t focused on connections to the district.”

For much of American history, major corporations located major facilities in downtown business districts in order to avail themselves of the wealth of professional services, particularly bankers and lawyers, located nearby. Then in the post-World War II era, many corporations fled decaying cities to the suburbs, setting up self-contained campuses or office parks that were seen as serene, tranquil, far from the madding crowd. Now the movement is reversing, as corporations seek to gain competitive advantage by building innovation ecosystems in which they engage in intense interaction with collaborators outside the organization.

Many cities are evolving “innovation districts,” a concept popularized earlier this year by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner with the Brookings Institution. Innovation districts, they write in “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America,” are where “leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators.” Typically, these areas are physically compact, walkable, bikeable and transit-accessible, and sport a rich variety of amenities from restaurants to apartments.

Innovation districts are found mainly in cities built in the pre-automobile era because those districts possess the attributes — research universities, walkable streets, higher densities, mixed uses and an inventory of affordable older buildings — required to stimulate enterprise formation. Sunnyvale is notable for its effort to carve an innovation district out of mid-20th century, autocentric suburbia. If the Sunnyvale experiment is successful, it could provide a new economic-development template for suburbia.

As someone who combines the academic viewpoint of Katz and Wagner with a hands-on practice of an urban planner actually working to create and implement an innovation district, Calloway provides a valuable perspective.

Cities are changing from the scattered, low-density pattern derisively known as “suburban sprawl” to more compact forms, he says. Unlike some critics he doesn’t castigate sprawl as a disaster. Citing research he has done for an upcoming book on the subject, he asserts that sprawl arose after World War II in response to social and economic forces such as mass production, the spread of automobile ownership and construction of freeways. Developing cheap land by applying assembly-line principles to urban planning provided affordable middle-class housing to millions of Americans. “It worked well at the time. It provided a lot of wealth and prosperity.”

Silicon Valley was developed along that model: low-density suburbs served by streets designed with automobility foremost in mind. But sprawl created problems, Calloway says. In Silicon Valley traffic congestion and pricey housing were accentuated by sharp growth limits and surging demand created by the extraordinary success of the region’s high-tech industry. Unlike nearby San Francisco, which evolved to greater densities over the decades, the Valley has not. With some of the highest real estate prices in the world, it has largely displaced the poor and working class.

On a more global level, the nature of work has changed as the economy has evolved from a hierarchical, assembly-line model to a digital economy. Selling more stuff cheaper is no longer the primary path to prosperity, Calloway argues. Access to raw materials, transportation and abundant labor are secondary considerations. Now the mantra is innovation. Take shoes, for example, a product that humans have been fabricating for centuries. The challenge for a company like Nike isn’t to keep costs down so it can sell shoes cheaper than anyone else — although cost is a consideration — it’s applying technology to create shoes that have features that shoes never had before, such as, perhaps, the ability of buyers to customize their shoes online.

The question, then, is how to organize companies and their employees to maximize creativity and innovation. Continue reading

The Emerging Exurban Dead Zone

Hope Plantation, Bertie County, N.C., circa 1800. The McMansion of its day.

Hope Plantation, Bertie County, N.C., circa 1800. The McMansion of its day.

by James A. Bacon

The Northern Virginia exurbs, like exurbs across the country, are cruising for a bruising. EM Risse would never express himself so inelegantly or imprecisely but that’s the thrust, in colloquial terms, of a new essay, “The Great Submergence,” he has posted on his website.

The United States economy, argues Risse, a former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor, is in the midst of a profound shift — what he calls the U Turn — away from the scattered, low-density pattern of growth widely referred to as “suburban sprawl” (a label he avoids as a “core confusing word”) toward infill and re-development of the nation’s urban cores. This trend, which is taking place for reasons amply documented on this blog, has profound implications for homeowners and political jurisdictions on the metropolitan edge where landowners, developers and speculators valued land with the expectation that it would be developed some day into shopping centers, office parks and residential subdivisions.

Given the cost of providing transportation, utilities and municipal services, the logical limit for development in the Washington metropolitan region is about 20 to 35 miles from the metropolitan center in Washington, D.C., Risse writes. Land beyond that limit, he contends, is experiencing collapsing demand as people seek to live closer to the metropolitan core, closer to jobs and amenities in walkable communities with more transportation options. That collapse he calls “the Great Submergence.”

Some clusters of development may adapt and survive but others will be economically unsustainable and wilt away. Another phrase for “wilt away” would be “dry up and blow away,” just like western mining towns when the claims ran dry, just like Great Plains farming towns during the Dust Bowl and Depression. Risse’s home town of Warrenton, he warns, is the “bulls eye of the danger zone.”

As demand evaporates for single-family dwellings on large lots in remote locations, land and housing prices will fall. Every new single-family dwelling built in Greater Warrenton-Fauquier (and other communities situated more 25 to 30 miles from the metropolitan center) will serve to drive down the value of existing properties. Writes Risse:

The downward trend will be exacerbated by the fact that there are dwellings selling BELOW their replacement cost. Further, there will be many scattered Units that have not been maintained, which will further deflate the market via assessment / appraisal “comparables.”

Declining land and improvement values, he says, will have a devastating impact on municipal tax bases in this exurban dead zone as well as household net worth, much of which is composed of housing equity.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m in 95% agreement with Risse. The reason I hesitate to say 100% is that there are powerful forces at work to sustain “sprawl,” the most important of which is the slow pace, due to zoning restrictions, at which urbanized jurisdictions close to the Washington metropolitan core can free more land for more compact, higher-density development. If demand for housing exceeds supply in Washington’s urban core, growth will default to exurban communities (beyond the 25-mile radius) planned and approved in the 2000s simply because there is nowhere else to build.

With that caveat aside, I share Risse’s larger concern. A dozen or more exurban counties on the metropolitan fringe of Washington, Richmond and Hampton Roads are likely to experience deflating land values, shrinking real estate property revenues and chronic fiscal stress. Their scattered, low-density settlement patterns have high embedded costs and local governments will be hard-pressed to maintain the supporting services and infrastructure. Once the newness wears off and depreciation sets in, these places will become worn, shabby and dilapidated.

Driving back from vacation on the North Carolina coast a couple of weeks ago, I passed through a dozen hamlets and crossroads in farming communities. I was shocked to see so many boarded up and tumble-down buildings that property owners had simply abandoned. The knowledge economy has passed these inland communities by. Sure, the real estate is cheap but no one wants to live there anymore. The houses don’t even have for-sale signs on them. The price of better houses is so low that it’s not even worth patching up the decaying ones. Virginia’s exurbs have not reached that stage yet. But give them time. Let the shiny newness wear off. In 20 years, we could see the same thing.

Those who miss Risse’s writing on Bacon’s Rebellion should check out the “Current Perspectives” on his website.

Update: Ed Risse has responded to Larry Gross’ comments on this post in the form of an essay, “Blogging, Geographical Illiteracy and the Great Submergence.”

Surprise — People Who Live in the Burbs Like Living There

Suburban living -- people seem to like it.

Suburban living — people seem to like it.

Americans living in the suburbs are more satisfied with their communities overall than their counterparts in urban or rural areas, finds the new Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll. Eighty-four percent of suburban residents rated their communities excellent or good, compared to 75% of urban dwellers and 78% of rural residents.

That finding seems all the more significant given the strong pro-urban bias of Atlantic Media, which publishes the Atlantic CityLab. A major theme of CityLab is how city centers and downtowns are undergoing a renaissance, reflecting a profound shift in American preferences for urban living over suburban living. It cannot have been easy for CityLab to conclude, “When it comes to overall community satisfaction, the suburbs are still king.”

But a closer examination of the data shows that conclusion to be almost meaningless — and that’s before considering the methodological issues related to divvying up the country into “urban,” “suburban” and “rural.” (CityLab acknowledges that some “suburban” areas are hard to distinguish from “urban” and others hard to distinguish from “rural.”) The poll results released yesterday don’t tell us what it is about “suburban” versus “urban” that people like or dislike.

Urbanism advocates generally argue that the preference for the urban way of life resides in its human settlement patterns — more compact development, walkable streets, transportation options and availability of amenities not found elsewhere. I would argue that those urban advantages were overwhelmed by unrelated issues such as inner-city poverty, crime, troubled schools and higher taxes, which drove whites and middle-class blacks into the suburbs. Any analysis needs to distinguish between the human environment and the built environment.

According to the Atlantic Media/Siemens data, white people, college-educated people, homeowners, older people, people with higher incomes — all categories with a high degree of overlap — tend to be happier with their communities than non-whites, less-than-college educated, younger, lower-income Americans. What a surprise. People with greater financial resources gravitate to the more desirable neighborhoods and are happier as a result. Who would have thunk it?

In coming weeks, CityLab will explore its findings relating to crime and policing, transportation, education, housing, energy and infrastructure. I expect those findings will be more revealing.

– JAB

Overruns, Subsidies and Pollution

Tide Light Rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo credit: Hamptonroads.com

Tide Light Rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo credit: Hamptonroads.com

by James A. Bacon

Randal O’Toole, the Cato Institute’s transportation scholar, has penned a devastating take-down of Norfolk’s light rail system, the Tide. The rail line, which opened in 2011 60% over budget and 16 months late, ran operating losses of $12.5 million in 2012, about double projections. Farebox revenues covered about 5% of operating costs. Hoped-for redevelopment around the Tide’s eleven stations has yet to materialize. (The post is supposed to appear on O’Toole’s blog, The Antiplanner, but I could not find it there. I am relying upon an email version.)

Now, says O’Toole, the editorial writers at the Virginian-Pilot want to compound the folly by slashing fares from $1.50 per trip (before discounts), among the lowest in the nation, to $.50 in a desperate bid to jolt ridership and stimulate economic development. The problem with that idea, he says, is that it cannot generate sufficient ridership to encourage developers to build around the train stops. The idea would expand the operating deficit while doing nothing to build the property tax base.

Ironically, light rail, much beloved by environmentalists for taking CO2-emitting cars off the road, is more energy-intensive at low levels of ridership than automobiles. Writes O’Toole: “Norfolk’s rail line uses far more energy than cars: 5,400 BTUs per passenger mile in 2012 compared with an average of less than 3,400 for cars and 4,100 for light trucks (and 3,7000 for Hampton Roads buses).”

O’Toole continues:

Rail transit is supposed to be about bringing large numbers of people into major job centers. But there are no major job centers in the region, or at least none served by the Tide rail line: Norfolk has only about 24,000 downtown jobs, less than 3 percent of the metropolitan area. Transit subsidies are also supposed to help low-income people who don’t have cars reach jobs, but the 2012 American Community Survey found that only 2.6 percent of workers in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach urban area lack cars, and half of them travel to work by car, while only 32 percent ride transit.

In fairness to the Tide, the rail line’s financial performance has improved since 2012. A mid-2014 review indicated that farebox recovery had increased to 17.7% and the operating cost had declined to $3.4 million (or $6.8 million annualized).

Still, even the updated numbers call into question the wisdom of extending the line to the Virginia Beach resort district, a project that could cost more than $1 billion. Does Virginia Beach really want to spend hundreds of millions of its own money (the state and feds would pick up much of the tab) for the privilege of creating a permanent subsidy and tax drain at a time when Americans are driving less and congestion is easing?

Bacon’s bottom line: Mass transit is a great idea… when it works. But the fact that heavy rail has done wonders in New York City and the core Washington metropolitan area does not mean that light rail will have a similarly transformative effect in a sprawling, low-density metro like Norfolk-Virginia Beach. You can’t force-feed mass transit. Commuter rail requires high-density, mixed-use pedestrian friendly development around rail stations. That land use pattern does not exist in Norfolk/Virginia Beach right now. It will take appropriate zoning, years of re-development and public investment in creating walkable streets before there is any chance of generating sufficient ridership to justify the investment.

There is a logical progression for mass transit: Serve a transportation corridor with scheduled bus service and support it with higher-density, mixed-use rezoning. If and when sufficient redevelopment occurs along the corridor to support it, upgrade the service to Bus Rapid Transit. If and when sufficient redevelopment occurs to support another phase transition, upgrade the route to rail. That process could well take decades, too long a time to satisfy impatient environmentalists who want to save the world now. But it would be fiscally sustainable in an era in which Virginia local governments are increasingly hard-pressed to meet their obligations.

Meanwhile, the Uber-Lyft revolution continues to roil the transportation industry. Using smart phones to connect drivers with riders and writing algorithms that optimize the distribution of fleet vehicles serving different price points and demographics (Cadillacs for rich riders, vans for poor riders) could render much of our transportation infrastructure obsolete. I’m still waiting for a politician who says it’s time to prioritize ride-sharing over mega-road and transit projects. Surely, there’s someone out there!

Sharing Information to Gain Competitive Regional Advantage

by James A. Bacon

Very different models of regional competitiveness are emerging as people think seriously how to harness the power of smart cities. In metropolitan regions like Charlotte, Seattle and San Diego, for example, major property owners are collaborating with municipalities and power companies on communal energy-efficiency initiatives.

Tapping the potential of “smart grids” is a great idea. But that’s just a start. Udaya Shankar, a vice president with Xchanging, sees smart buildings as the foundation for smart cities. Writing in IoT World, he recommends that smart buildings pool information for mutual benefit. “When buildings operate in a silo, we gain no insight into the effects one has on the other, and if a smart city is the sum of its parts then there is something to be lost in keeping them separate.” He envisions a future in which smart buildings connect and talk to cities and to one another.

It’s an intriguing premise. Shankar provides few examples of what kind of information sharing property owners can share, but we can think of a few.

Smart grid. Almost all smart buildings draw electricity from the electric grid. They monitor their consumption carefully and have some flexibility as to how much they consume and when. Sharing this information can help the power company optimize its generation and transmission assets, benefiting everyone through lower rates.

Water. All smart buildings consume water. In many municipalities leaking water pipes is a major issue (up to 20 percent of all water is lost through leakage). Sharing of usage data can help water companies identify leaks, reduce water loss and delay the need for expensive capacity expansions.

Parking. Many smart buildings maintain parking assets for their employees: either open parking lots or parking garages. Sharing information about parking capacity and usage can help cities better match parking supply and demand. By optimizing the amount of valuable urban land dedicated to parking, cities can convert excess parking to more productive uses that yield more taxes.

Lighting. Cities operate street lights. So do many smart buildings. Sharing information can allow cities and building owners to reduce the wattage needed to light public spaces, thus conserving electricity and curbing light pollution.

Security. Smart buildings typically are equipped with security cameras to provide added security for occupants. Sharing video feeds with the city can provide law enforcement authorities with more eyes on the street, helping prevent and solve crimes.

Transportation. Smart cities utilize a variety of strategies — mass transit, walkable and bikeable streets, road improvements, car- and van-pooling — to manage traffic demand, many of which require cooperation with employers. Sharing information about employees and their transportation needs can help cities fight congestion.

We’re moving into a world where the sharing of information confers competitive economic advantage. Here in Virginia, we should start by encouraging state agencies and local governments to open up their data — not just to link to it from websites but to make it available so anyone, whether a business enterprise or a civic activist, to add value to it. Then we should start creating mechanisms whereby building owners can share information with local governments to tackle public challenges ranging from energy conservation to traffic congestion.

Communities that move first will gain competitive advantage. Those that are slow to adapt will fall behind.