Tag Archives: Walkability

The Rise of Walkable Urbanism and “the End of Sprawl”

foot_traffic_aheadby James A. Bacon

The Washington metropolitan region is the national model for “walkable urbanism” in the United States — more so even than metropolitan New York, according to the findings of “Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros,” a report released this morning by LOCUS, an organization of smart-growth real estate developers, and Smart Growth America.

The study identified 558 WalkUPs — regionally significant activity centers characterized by a high level of walkability — in the nation’s 30 largest metros. Forty-five of them are located in the Washington region, about half in the District of Columbia and half in surrounding Virginia and Maryland jurisdictions. The overall walkability exceeds even that of New York. While Manhattan is the single-most walkable place in the United States, it accounts for only 0.3% of the New York metro region’s land mass, and outer jurisdictions dilute its overall walkability, explained Christopher B. Leinberger, LOCUS president  and co-author of the report, during the LOCUS annual conference.

Washington’s lead in developing “walkable urbanism,” in contrast to the “drivable suburbanism” that dominated U.S. growth and development between World War II and the Great Recession of 2007-2008, should stand the region in good stead as it faces an economic future made insecure by the retrenchment of its main growth industry, the federal government. Walkable urbanism is closely correlated with the presence of a highly educated workforce, and a highly educated workforce is closely correlated with faster economic growth. While correlation does not necessarily mean causality, an argument can be made the the desirable attributes of walkable urbanism make it easier to attract and retain educated workers who, in turn, contribute to economic growth.

The report findings suggest that there will be future demand for hundreds of millions of square feet of walkable development over the next generation, said Leinberger. “This is likely the end of sprawl.”

A clear sign of shifting market preference is the 74% premium the market is willing to pay for office space in WalkUPs compared to space in Drivable Urbanism.  That’s the reverse of 30 years ago when suburban office parks enjoyed a marked advantage, Leinberger said. Even excluding the New York market, which skews the results, WalkUps enjoy a 44% edge, he said.

While Washington was the star metro, some surprising regions have been coming on strong thanks to dramatic shifts in development patterns in the post-2008 development cycle. Metropolitan Atlanta, which only 20 years ago was the poster child of sprawl, has concentrated 50% of its development in WalkUP districts comprising only 1% of the region’s land mass. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Detroit has seen similarly focused re-development in downtown, midtown and a handful of urbanizing suburbs.

Leinberger attributed Washington region’s success to five main factors. First, the region has the highest overall education level of any metro in the country, Second, the region has been aggressively expanded its Metro rail system; 80% of the WalkUPs in the region are, or soon will be, served by Metro. Third, for the most part local governments put in the right kind of zoning around their Metro stations, encouraging walkable, mixed-use development. Fourth, the region’s real estate industry has mastered the discipline of developing WalkUPs, which are inherently more complex and expensive than green-field development. And fifth, the public sector has done an exceptionally good job of “place management” — creating quality walkable places.

While rail transit gives a big boost to walkable urbanism, said Leinberger, it is not essential. One out of five WalkUPs in the Washington region are not connected to the Metro. Also, many small cities and towns have walkable places. “It sure does help but it is not required.”

Emerick Corsi, president of Forest City Enterprises Real Estate, agreed. “Walkable can be built anywhere,” he said. He cited the example of a town miles outside of Los Angeles where his firm is converting an old shopping center into 2 million square feet of new buildings with the capability to expand a lot more by going “totally vertical.” There is no transit but the development will be highly walkable, he said.

Leinberger predicted that real estate development in the foreseeable future will be driven by the desire to meet the demand for walkable urbanism. The process won’t necessarily be smooth. Some metros — San Antonio, Kansas City, San Diego — have continued to sprawl. Providing affordable housing in the most desirable areas will be a challenge. But if Leinberger is right and the most walkable regions prove to be the most economically dynamic regions, the success of metros like Washington, Boston, New York and even Atlanta and Detroit will be clear for all to see.

Want to Combat Noise Pollution? Measure It

I’m a big fan of city life but I’m the first to acknowledge that there are drawbacks to crowding and congestion. The foremost of those is noise. Cities are noisier than the burbs and the countryside. The older I get (I’m 61 now), the larger the noise factor looms in my consideration of things. Even in suburbs, it doesn’t take much commotion to jangle my nerves. In the early morning birds can drive me crazy with all their chirping and cawing and twittering. As for children, don’t get me started. The noise-oblivious little monsters can be worse than freight trains. If it sounds like I’m turning into a cranky old man… yes, I believe that’s exactly what’s happening.

As a rule, cities are even noisier than the burbs. People are more densely packed in urban areas, so there are more people — more drunks, more wife beaters, more backyard dogs, more buses, more sirens, more jackhammers, more big, honking HVACs — generating sound waves within hearing distance. Cities also have more concrete and masonry that reflect sound and less in the way of trees, bushes and vegetative mass to dampen it. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), problems resulting from too much noise include poor work and school performance and even cardiovascular problems. Clearly, in the battle for livability, the noise factor favors suburbs, small towns and rural areas.

How does a city combat that disadvantage? Ordinances can limit excessive noise from construction, honking horns or barking dogs. Transportation officials can build sound walls along highways. Aside from such obvious measures, one useful place to start is to measure decibel levels to visualize where noise is the worst. Thanks to the increasing ubiquity of smart phones, the practice of noise mapping is spreading around the world.

In 2010 the Sony Computer Science Lab in Paris released an app, NoiseTube, that anyone can download and use to record decibel levels wherever they go. Users can tag particularly obnoxious noise sources and display them on Google Maps. The data can be aggregated to create noise maps accessible to researchers and city officials.

Sony appears to have neglected its website. NoiseTube.com claims to have data from 509 cities worldwide (including Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Richmond, Scottsville and Lynchburg) but the data doesn’t upload to my PC. Regardless, the code is open source, and anyone is free to improve upon it. Creating regional noise maps sounds like a cool community project to undertake. I’d volunteer to participate.  If there are any civic hackers in Virginia looking for a project, let me know.


Safer Streets Require Less Traffic Engineering, Not More

by James A. Bacon

A week or two ago, I lamented the disparity between the high cost of traffic accidents in Virginia and the paltry resources devoted to reducing their number. But to say that insufficient attention is being paid to the issue is not to say that no attention is being paid. According to Virginia’s 2012-2015 Strategic Highway Safety Plan, traffic deaths in the state fell 23% between 2006 and 2010. We are making progress.

Since my blog post, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRPTO) published its own regional safety study. The HRPTO did a number of worthy things. It mapped the location of accidents across the region and honed in on the worst freeways and intersections that offered the best prospects for improvement. The planners asked a critical question: Which improvements offer the best benefit/cost ratio? As Brian Chenault with the HRPTO summarizes the range of possible solutions: “Recommendations run anywhere from restriping pavement, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, optimizing signal timing, adding additional lanes, trimming vegetation, reducing speed limits, adding extra signage/signals, etc.”

As untutored as I am in the arcana of traffic engineering, it strikes me that the HRTPO has identified a number of projects that will provide considerable bang for the buck, at least as measured by traditional traffic-engineering criteria. Some of the tactics it advances are ideas that I have championed, such as making better use of roundabouts and traffic light synchronization. Its recommendations undoubtedly would amount to a net positive for the people of Hampton Roads — and I hope readers will view it in that light even as I discuss its shortcomings.

The problem with the study is that the authors approach the safety issue from a traffic-engineering perspective. Not surprisingly, every traffic-engineering challenge has a traffic-engineering solution. Indeed, for some safety problems, traffic-engineering solutions are entirely appropriate. But for many, they are not. In many instances, the best solution is precisely the opposite of what traffic engineers recommend.

For purposes of illustration, let us look at the intersection of Mercury Boulevard and Power Plant Parkway, as shown above. (Click for larger image.) This particular intersection averaged 43 crashes per year between 2009 and 2012, the second most of any intersection studied. The HRTPO’s analysis attributes the high accident rate to a variety of micro-factors, which can be summed up by noting that the traffic patterns here are highly complex, leading to a high number of rear-end crashes and side-swipes. The report makes three recommendations:

  • Add a painted triangle yield line with YIELD pavement markings
  • Relocate stop bars
  • Add a flashing “signal ahead” sign
  • Add a pedestrian signal and crosswalk with ladder striping

What’s the common denominator here? It’s the expectation that more signage and clearer road markings will induce drivers to drive more safely.

Now, let’s take a radical leap. At the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism conference last week, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, an English consultant who specializes in reconciling traffic movement with quality public spaces, showed a clip of San Francisco street traffic filmed days before the 1906 earthquake. There were no marked lanes. There were no turn arrows. There were no traffic lights. There were no street signs. Pedestrians, trolleys, horses, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, pull-carts and automobiles shared the street. At first view, it seemed like chaos. People were jay walking and standing around in the middle of the street. Cars weaved between lanes. Vehicles made U-turns. It was a traffic engineer’s nightmare. But no one — at least not in this 12-minute film clip — experienced a mishap. Watch the clip. It’s mesmerizing.

Undoubtedly, some accidents did occur in those days and people did get hurt. Such incidents provided the pretext for the traffic engineers to step in. In the 1920s and 1930s, they segregated vehicular traffic from pedestrian traffic — roads became the domain of cars, and people were relegated to the sidewalks. Not only would this arrangement create safer streets, it was thought, keeping people off streets would allow cars to travel faster, thus increasing the carrying capacity of streets and reducing congestion. That is the path cities have traveled for some 80 years now, with the result that contemporary Americans cannot imagine any other way of doing things. Today, the traffic-engineering solution to every problem is more signs, more lane markings, more signals, more information overload. Continue reading

The Cost of Automobile Crashes


Traffic accidents: a bigger problem than congestion by a factor of four.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia transportation policy is driven overwhelmingly by a desire to mitigate transportation congestion and, to a lesser degree, to promote economic development. Rarely does traffic safety enter into the discussion of which transportation improvements we finance.

As evidence that congestion is one of the state’s foremost pressing concerns, elected officials can point to the annual Urban Mobility Report, which documents the cost of congestion in the nation’s metropolitan regions. In 2011, according to the 2013 report, congestion cost the nation $121 billion in lost time and wasted gasoline. But consider this: The economic cost of motor vehicle crashes amounted to $277 billion in 2010, finds a new study by the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, “Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010.” If you include the economic value of lives snuffed out — and why wouldn’t you, considering that the Urban Mobility Report counts the value of time lost sitting in congestion – the cost soars to $871 billion.

Think about that — the economic value of traffic accidents outweighs that of traffic congestion by four times but the overwhelming share of public transportation resources is funneled to relieving congestion. The question Virginians should ask themselves is this: Why are we spending billions of dollars to build new roads, highways and mass transit facilities and spending mere millions on making our transportation systems safer? By any rational measure, we have a twisted sense of priorities.

One can’t help but wonder why that is. The answer, of course, is political. I see two dimensions. First is popular perception. Nearly all of us experience the frustration and aggravation of traffic congestion to some degree. That means everyone can relate to the desire to tame congestion. By contrast, only a fraction of Virginians experience traffic accidents, and those incidents are by their nature episodic rather than chronic. Moreover, we tend to think of congestion as something that can be addressed by building more stuff, while we attribute traffic accidents to human frailty. It is less obvious to people how we can build safer roads that can protect us against, say, drunk drivers, distracted driving or road rage.

The second dimension is that traffic accident victims are not organized as a political force. By contrast, developers, construction contractors, labor unions, architects, engineers and an array of special interests stand to gain financially from expenditures on roads and mass transit justified on the grounds of traffic congestion. Through linkages to business organizations such as the chambers of commerce, these self-interested groups are able to mobilize the broader business community behind their initiatives.

Thus, the real estate/construction industry has donated $10.5 million in 2013-14 to Virginia political candidates, the largest of any group excepting the financial industry. Not a single traffic safety-related group appears in the Virginia Public Access Project’s list of miscellaneous, single-issue contributors. Environmental groups have contributed $4.8 million in 2013-14 but traffic safety ranks way down on their list of priorities compared to global warming, the Chesapeake Bay and uranium mining.

Perhaps another reason that safety warrants so little consideration in the Old Dominion is that the economic loss from traffic accidents in Virginia is lower than in most states. Traffic accidents cost $5.7 billion (in 2010 dollars), for an average cost of $713 per person or 1.6% of personal income. Only four other states (Hawaii, California, Minnesota, Oregon) experienced lower costs as a percentage of income. Be that as it may, the $5.7 billion toll is horrendously high compared to the level of public attention it receives.

As a practical matter, what could Virginia do to make streets and roads safer than they already are? First, take a look at where the traffic accidents occur. The NHTSA study indicates that intersection crashes resulted in 8,682 fatalities, 2.2 million injuries and 10 million damaged vehicles in 2010 — more than half of all crashes, a quarter of all fatalities, 50% of all economic costs and 45% of all societal harm.

I would hypothesize, subject to verification, that a disproportionate number of accidents take place in a relatively small sub-set of roads — typically commercial corridors that combine relatively high speeds (45 miles per hour) with lots of traffic signals, cut-throughs and driveways creating complex traffic patterns where cars collide at relatively high speeds. Many accidents could be remedied by better street design — turning our stroads (street-road hybrids) into Complete Streets that accommodate buses, pedestrians and cyclists intermingling at lower and safer speeds.

The other big killer category is “roadway departure crashes,” in which people run off the road. This accounted for 18,850 fatalities, 795,000 injuries and 2.4 million damaged vehicles, accounting for 26% of all economic costs and 35% of societal harm. Many of these accidents take place on windy, two-lane, undivided roads. Surely it would be possible to reduce the number of these accidents through such measures as road-straightening projects, wider shoulders and better marking in the most accident-prone stretches. Continue reading

Re-Thinking the Sidewalk

tree_rootsby James A. Bacon

The vast majority of sidewalks in my home town, Richmond, Va., are made of concrete slabs. Concrete materials are inexpensive and the sidewalks are easy to install. But in a burg like Richmond, where people dearly love their trees, concrete pavement presents a problem. Tree roots lift or crack the slabs, creating hazards for pedestrians. Replacement can get costly — as much as $35 per square foot in Los Angeles.

So, the race is on to re-think the humble sidewalk, reports the Atlantic City Lab. Is it practicable to use other materials? Can sidewalks be integrated into storm water management systems? Can they be used to generate energy? Is their sole function to enhance walkability?

Some locales have run underground tubes carrying hot water under sidewalks to keep them clear of snow and ice. Others are tinkering with ways to convert the kinetic energy of footsteps into electricity, which can be used as an off-grid power source. Yet others are replacing concrete with recycled, hard-rubber mats that bend and buckle under tree roots without cracking. One English university is working on a self-healing sidewalk.

Senior Land Use Planner Eric Selbst at the site of the walkable solar paneled pathway. Photo credit: GWU.

Senior Land Use Planner Eric Selbst at the site of the walkable solar paneled pathway. Photo credit: GWU.

Another cool experiment is taking place in George Washington University’s Loudoun County, Va., campus. In 2013 the university completed what it billed as the first walkable, solar-paneled pathway in the world. Under ideal conditions, the sidewalk between Exploration and Innovation halls generate enough electricity to power 450 LED pathway lights below the panels. The university hired a Spanish company, Onyx Solar, to install the solar sidewalk. The installation generated dozens of  headlines — “Walking on Sunshine” may be the best —  but the media has been remarkably uninterested in following up.

My questions: What was the cost to install such a sidewalk? How much money will it save by eliminating the need for lighting? How well have the solar panels held up? What happens when tree roots grow underneath? What are the ongoing maintenance costs?

While scientists and engineers dabble with new materials and technologies, the more important question may be to ask what sidewalks are for. Do they serve a purely utilitarian function of allowing pedestrians to get from Point A to Point B? Or should we take a broader view of sidewalks as critical elements of the public realm? Sidewalks help define the public space along a street. Wider sidewalks create space for benches, restaurant tables, planters, trash receptacles and other public furniture. A well designed sidewalk can make a place inviting, a poorly conceived sidewalk can ruin a place.

We take sidewalks utterly for granted. They deserve a lot more thought and consideration than we give them.

Suburbs Regain Their Appeal! But the Definition of “Suburb” Is Changing

by James A. Bacon

“Suburbs regain their appeal!” shouts a headline for an article in the Wall Street Journal today accompanied by a quarter-page aerial photograph (shown above) of a cul-de-sac subdivision in Chicago. The editor’s treatment of the story, which is based upon research findings by Brookings Institution scholar William H. Frey, is highly misleading. While the article does say that population growth in major cities declined slightly between 2012 and 2013 and population growth in the suburbs rebounded incrementally, the differences are small and the larger narrative — that urban core jurisdictions are gaining, not losing population, while suburban growth remains subdued — still holds true.

Indeed, the article quotes Frey as saying that it remains unclear “whether the city slowdown signals a return to renewed suburban growth.”

The issue is important because it bears upon the debate over the future of metropolitan development. Urbanists, who support more compact, walkable, mixed-use development, have cited the changing growth patterns since the 2007-2008 recession as evidence of a fundamental shift in the kinds of communities people want to live in. The suburbanists argue that the trend is temporary and that pre-recessionary growth patterns will reassert themselves. The headline and photo suggest that urbanism is losing momentum. In fact, the article provides no such evidence at all.

Indeed, the article touches not at all upon a trend that renders suspect any analysis based upon comparisons between population growth in “urban core,” “suburban” and “exurban” jurisdictions. That trend is densification and re-development. Some unknown percentage of “suburban” growth can be attributed to re-development initiatives occurring in places such as Tysons, in Fairfax County. That so-called “suburban” jurisdiction is fostering higher-density, transit-oriented development around five soon-to-open Metro stations. In effect, the dense, mixed-use land use patterns typical of the urban core, in Washington, D.C., are transforming the “suburbs.”

By proclaiming that “suburbs regain their appeal” and displaying a photograph of a low-density, cul de sac subdivision outside of Chicago, the headline suggests that the pattern of metropolitan growth that prevailed between 1945 and 2007, commonly called “suburban sprawl,” has reasserted itself. That’s just plain wrong.

In all likelihood, the population rebound of urban core jurisdictions will slow from its recent boom. The reason will not be due to changing consumer demand for walkable urbanism, which is running unabated, but the inherent difficulty increasing housing supply, especially in the most desirable urban neighborhoods where NIMBYs thwart proposals to build at higher density. The constraint on population growth in the urban core is one of insufficient housing supply, not insufficient demand.

Also, in all likelihood, population will continue moving into the so-called “inner suburbs,” especially those that support re-development of aging commercial districts into walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods — sometimes supported by heavy or light rail, sometimes not. Thus, a county like Fairfax, which is mostly built out, will continue to see in-migration and population growth. But that growth won’t consist of single-family dwellings in subdivisions. Most of it will be apartments, condos and townhouses.

Bacon’s bottom line: Measuring population growth in jurisdictions defined as “urban core,” “suburban” and “exurban” doesn’t tell us much at all about what is happening in America’s major metropolitan regions. The spread of walkable, mixed-use development into so-called “suburban” counties makes a hash of the traditional categories we use to analyze population trends.

Save Lives: Treat City Streets Like City Streets

dangerous_by_designby James A. Bacon

In the decade between 2003 and 2012, more than 42,000 pedestrians died on American streets and roads. That’s more than 16 times the number that died in earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. While natural disasters attract national attention, pedestrian fatalities are buried in the back pages, if they’re noted at all, even as the incidence of pedestrian deaths has spiked in recent years.

Pedestrian accidents are far from inevitable, however. Thousands of fatalities along with untold injuries can be mitigated by street design adapted less to the needs of automobiles and more to the needs of people, contends the National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of Smart Growth America, in a publication released Monday, “Dangerous by Design 2014.”

Vehicle speed was a major factor in the pedestrian fatalities. “Where the posted speed limit was recorded, 61.3 percent of pedestrian fatalities were on roads with a speed limit of 40 mph or higher,” states the study. “This figure compares to just 9 percent of fatalities that occurred on roads with speed limits less than 30 mph.”

Sunbelt communities top the list of the most dangerous places to walk in the country. “These places grew in the post-war period, mostly through rapid spread of low-density neighborhoods that rely on wider streets with higher speeds to connect homes, shops and schools — roads that tend to be more dangerous for people walking.”

Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville and Miami-Fort Lauderdale — all Florida metros — nail down the top four spots in the study’s ranking, which compares the number of pedestrian deaths per 100,000 population and adjusts by the percentage of people who walk to work. Among the 51 largest metro regions in the country, Richmond scored the 19th highest Pedestrian Danger Index, with 1.32 annual pedestrian deaths per 100,000 in 2003-2012. Washington ranked 35th and Hampton Roads 36th.

“We can build and design our communities to protect us while walking,” said Stefanie Seskin, deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition in a conference call releasing the report yesterday. “Treat city streets like city streets, not like highways. … Auto-oriented streetscapes are not only uninviting and uninspiring but downright dangerous.”

richmond_fatalitiesLocal government officials need to distinguish between streets, which function as public spaces accommodating people, cars and bicycles alike, and roads, which function mainly for the movement of cars at higher speeds. The greatest threat to pedestrian safety occurs in street-road hybrids (stroads), typically commercial strips where people intermix with cars traveling at fairly high speeds. The map of the Richmond region at left shows the concentration of pedestrian fatalities in the region’s major stroad corridors: Broad Street, Midlothian Turnpike and Rt. 1. The peculiar mix of retail, restaurant and office activity along these corridors induces people to walk across streets ill suited to pedestrian traffic with frequently tragic results.

The same pattern prevails across the state. Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, cited the example of an elementary school principal in Loudoun County who was killed last year trying to cross a four-lane, 35 mph road. “As more people make the sustainable and healthy choice to leave their cars at home, we are unfortunately seeing more tragic crashes,” he said in a press release yesterday. “Decades of car-oriented design has made it hazardous in many of our communities simply to walk to school, work, or shopping.”

What public policy approaches are available to curb the incidence of pedestrian deaths? One option, pursued most vigorously in Florida, is to step up education and police enforcement of speed limits and laws that require cars to yield at crosswalks. A less authoritarian approach is to alter street design. There is a pervasive body of thought that wide roads, wide lanes and the absence of visual cues induce motorists to drive faster than posted speed limits. Proper design discourages pedestrians from attempting to cross high-speed roads and encourages cars to drive much slower on people-friendly streets. Continue reading

Silicon Valley Knows Technology, Not Land Use

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif.

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif. Impressive facade but poor public spaces.

by James A. Bacon

Apple, Google and other collosi of Silicon Valley are re-shaping the world with their technology but you could never imagine them as masters of innovation by viewing their corporate campuses. While the office interiors may be arrayed with java bars and collaborative workplaces to stimulate creativity, the building exteriors are for the most part bland steel-and-glass boxes of a type that can be found anywhere in the United States. Moreover, surrounded by parking lots and landscaping, the buildings are isolated — islands in a sea of mulch and asphalt. Creativity and interaction end at the front door. The streets, sidewalks and other pieces of the public realm are innovation dead zones.

That was the impression I gained from the Bacon family’s whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley earlier this week that took in the corporate headquarters not only of Apple and Google but Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo! and LinkedIn. Perhaps we arrived at the wrong time of year, the wrong time of the week or the wrong hour of the day but we saw almost nothing going on. Most of the street-level activity at Apple was generated by tourist traffic to the Apple store. The environs of the famed Googleplex were even more desolate.


Vaughn and Wilson in “The Internship.”

I was expecting bustling outdoor scenes like those shown in the movie, “The Internship,” in which Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn finagled their way into summer jobs at Google and into movie goers’ hearts. We didn’t see bupkis. I sneaked around the back of one of the buildings in the Googleplex and did discover an inviting patio with bright umbrellas but didn’t see anyone except a couple of maintenance guys standing around and shooting the breeze. As we drove around the Google corporate campus with its dozens of buildings, we did espy one multi-colored Google bike leaning against a wall and we did spot one fellow riding down the road, but we saw hardly anyone walking outside. Undoubtedly, billions of neurons were burning brightly inside Google’s buildings — but there was no sign of the company’s massive brainpower on display outside. It turns out that, according to CNN, much of the movie wasn’t filmed at Google at all — but the Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Atlanta!

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. According to the Google corporate address listed in Google maps, we did.

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. This is where Google Maps led us.

Who cares whether the innovation occurs inside or outside? Why mess with a proven formula? More to the point, what does a techno-tard like me have useful to say to the likes of Apple and Google, two of the greatest wealth creation machines in human history?

I didn’t visit Silicon Valley with the idea of lecturing the region’s political, business and civic leaders how to improve, which would be incredibly presumptuous on my part. I visited to learn what lessons other communities might learn. Scores of regions around the United States yearn to re-create some of the valley’s technology magic, and I worry they could draw the wrong conclusions. The one dimension of Silicon Valley that others can most readily replicate is its “suburban sprawl” pattern of development — and that would be the worst possible lesson to take away.

Apple parking lot

The parking lots outside Apple’s headquarters are beautifully landscaped but they wall off pedestrian access to the world outside.

I would humbly suggest that Silicon Valley has been insanely successful in spite of its dysfunctional human settlement patterns. Combine world-class research universities, the largest venture capital community in the world and an unparalleled workforce, then shake and stir. You’ll get technological innovation. Silicon Valley’s corporations can create a built environment that discourages interaction outside the firm and it doesn’t matter — the advantages of a Silicon Valley location far outweigh the drawbacks. But no one else has Silicon Valley’s potent mix of research universities, venture capitalists and the smartest engineers drawn from around the world. Other communities need every competitive advantage they can muster — and smarter land use patterns is one of them.

As Hans Johannson has argued in his book, “The Medici Effect,” innovation comes at the intersection — the intersection of different industries, disciplines, cultures or ways of thinking — that allow people to make unlikely combinations of ideas. Some places lend themselves to that kind of interaction, others don’t. Based on her experience living in Greenwich Village a generation ago, renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs brilliantly argued that sidewalks, small parks and mixed uses lent themselves to the kind of meetings and encounters, often serendipitous, where different perspectives and ideas can collide. To spawn entrepreneurship from the ground up, those are the kinds of neighborhoods and communities that aspiring tech centers should be creating.

The built environment of Silicon Valley is Northern Virginia with palm trees — predominantly single-family houses, strip malls and office parks. Thanks to municipal codes and NIMBYs, the region can increase density only sparingly, so it cannot grow “up” by building taller buildings. But wedged between the bay to the north and mountains to the south, it cannot grow “out” through additional sprawl. As a consequence, real estate prices are incredibly high. The cost of housing across the Valley and throughout the entire Bay area is consistently cited as one of the greatest hindrances to living there. The number of homeless in the San Jose metro region, according to the Wall Street Journal, numbers roughly 7,600. To adopt similar land use policies would suicidal for any other region.

Municipal leaders recognize these shortcomings and are attempting belatedly and with mixed results to deal with them. I will discuss two such initiatives in Sunnyvale, as time permits.

Why San Franciscans Are Thinner than Other Americans

SONY DSCNo, it’s not the bean sprouts and tofu. It’s not even the great year-round climate that encourages people to do stuff outdoors. It’s the hills. The Bacon family has hiked and biked a lot of hills over the past three days and we’ve eaten a lot of food, but the hills won. I swear I have cinched in my belt buckle by a notch.

As I recall, one of the largest concentrations of superannuated (really old) people is in the Caucasus Mountains. The Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis get lots of exercise walking up and down mountains. Living around hills is healthy! I don’t recall seeing a single fat person in San Francisco. (OK, maybe a couple of hefty people but no obese people). I’ve seen more little old Chinese ladies on walkers chugging up the hills in Chinatown than I’ve seen fat people.

Oh, maybe I should add that it’s not just the hills. It’s the hills in combination with the sidewalks. San Francisco is a walking town. The city has great streetscapes and no matter where you are there is an abundance of destinations within walking distance. People walk places, and when they walk, they walk on hills. It’s that simple.


The Walkability Premium


Americans pay a premium for housing in walkable neighborhoods — $850 per point on a 100-point Walkability Score scale.

The scholars over at New Geography just won’t give up trying to make the case that most Americans prefer to live in single-family detached houses in the suburbs. Citing data from the 2010 American Community Survey, Wendell Cox wrote that 79.2% of the new households in 51 major metro areas moved into precisely such housing over the past decade. He also cited data that the occupancy rate for detached housing is marginally higher than that for attached, multi-unit housing. He concluded: “The trend of the last decade is evidence of a continued preference of American households for detached housing. The results are remarkable.”

Back in September I made two key points to a similar argument advanced by Cox’s buddy, Joel Kotkin: (1) the concept of housing “preference” is meaningless in the absence of price; and (2) the movement of people into detached dwellings is as much a function of supply (what builders are allowed to build) as of demand (what people actually want at a given price point).

Now comes Emily Washington at Market Urbanism, making the same points and tying them to walkability. All other things being equal, she says, people place less value on neighborhoods with low walkability scores (typically with detached, single family dwellings), and greater value on neighborhoods with high scores (which are more likely to include multi-family dwellings). I can do no better than quote her blog post, ‘The Value of Walkability.”

While people may not cite walkabilty as an important consideration in choosing a house, choosing a home involves weighing many factors, from size, price, distance to work and other amenities, aesthetic, and countless others factors. Consumers rely on tacit knowledge to weigh many of these factors because they can’t consciously enumerate all of them in making a decision of where to live.

For this reason, revealed preference theory is a more reliable tool than survey data for observing how consumers value one attribute of a complex good like housing. Building on a past project, my colleague Eli Dourado and I are studying whether or not consumers do pay a premium for greater neighborhood walkability. Using a fixed-effects model, across all metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas in the United States, our preliminary results indicate that, on average, Americans are willing to pay a premium of about $850 for a house with one additional point in Walk Score. Because of the many restrictions that limit walkable development, consumers have to pay this premium for the scarce supply of houses in walkable neighborhoods.

This finding also indicates that, in a world with fewer regulations limiting the supply of walkable development, the free market would provide a greater supply of walkable neighborhoods because developers have opportunities to profit from doing so that are currently prevented by regulations. In a freer market, more people would have the opportunity to live in neighborhoods where completing daily errands on foot is feasible. …

“Market suburbanists” often cite survey data finding that most people prefer detached, single family homes to living in multifamily housing. They also often say that revealed preferences back up these surveys because most Americans live in single family homes. Indeed, this is true, even in the largest cities. However, looking at the housing choices that Americans make while ignoring both regulations that limit the potential choice set and without considering the prices consumers pay is misleading, like saying Americans prefer Fords to BMWs because there are more of them on the road.

An understanding of consumers’ complex decision process in selecting a home cannot be accurately gleaned from either survey or Census data; rather, this information should be observed based on the price that emerges between buyers and sellers in the market. While, all else equal, most people might prefer a large detached house with a big yard, in weighing the many factors like proximity to amenities, price, and house size, we find that people are willing to pay a premium for walkability.