Tag Archives: smart growth

Richmond Boldly Plotting a Post-19th Century Mass Transit System

The truth comes out: Richmond's bus system still organized around century-old street car routes.

The truth comes out: Richmond’s bus system still organized around century-old street car routes.

by James A. Bacon

The City of Richmond has procured funding for a study to see if GRTC Transit System bus routes can be organized more efficiently, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The study will bring in the Jarrett Walker + Associates consulting firm that showed how rearranging the route structure could triple the frequency of bus service in Houston without requiring additional funding.

“The bus service we’ve been running off of was designed on the basis of the old streetcar lines in Richmond and many of these things have not been looked at since then,” said Ben Campbell, an organizers of the advocacy group TVA Rapid Transit.

At last, a sign that the mass transit in the Richmond region is moving into the 20th century! Given that it’s now the 21st century, we still have a ways to go. But, hey, it’s progress.

One goal of the study will be to adjust routes to connect with the planned bus rapid transit system, the Pulse, that will run along the Broad Street corridor between Rocketts Landing and Willow Lawn. One goal will be to determine where bus stops can be consolidated with Pulse stations to facilitate connections.

Hopefully, Jarrett Walker + Associates will do more than show how to reorganize the bus route structure, as important as that is.  The City of Richmond also needs a long-range plan that encourages higher-density, mixed-use development along Broad Street and provides sustained investment in streetscapes to create an environment inviting to pedestrians walking between transit stops and businesses along the route. Without these fundamental supporting elements, the Pulse is a recipe for losing money.

Outside of downtown, most of the Broad Street corridor consists of low-density, ’50s- and ’60s-era dreck that cries out for redevelopment. Permitting higher densities will give landowners an incentive to invest in their properties; higher densities also will generate more traffic to support the transit service with paying customers. Turning Broad Street from an autocentric wasteland into a corridor where people will actually enjoy walking, shopping, working and even living also will require a sustained commitment of public funds to burnish the public realm. If plans for such rezoning and public improvements exist, however, they haven’t seen the light of day in local media.

My nightmare scenario is that the city is rushing forward with expensive bus rapid transit plans without putting the necessary support elements into place. I am crossing my fingers and hoping that Jarrett Walker + Associates will emphasize the connection between mass transit, land use and walkability — and that City Council will pay attention.

Too Little Density, Too Much Road Surface

Millions of square feet of underutilized pavement cost millions of dollars per year to maintain.

Millions of square feet of underutilized pavement cost millions of dollars per year to maintain.

by James A. Bacon

It goes without saying that New Jersey is dissimilar from Virginia in many ways, so it’s hazardous extrapolating conclusions from one state to the other. But a new study about New Jersey roads co-authored by Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future implies that the Old Dominion could have saved hundreds of millions of dollars yearly in road maintenance expenses had higher-density development been allowed to occur instead of the scattered, low-density sprawl that characterized so much of the state’s growth after World War II.

Using a novel technique for estimating the surface area of road pavement per capita, researchers found that the most densely developed areas of New Jersey maintain about one-third the pavement surface per capita — about 130 square feet of road surface compared to 423 square feet — as the least densely developed parts of the state.

The conclusion is counter-intuitive. Cities seem to be chock-a-block with streets in a way that rural and suburban areas are not. The key is to look at the space devoted to roads on a per capita basis.

States the study, “The Fiscal Implications of Development Patterns: Roads in New Jersey“:

If for the same population and employment levels, New Jersey had directed development into a smaller land area with at minimum 10 people or jobs per acre (still not very dense — single-family homes on quarter-acres lots would meet the criteria), we estimate that the total area of road New Jersey and its municipalities need to maintain would have been reduced by 36 percent, or approximately 1.9 billion square feet. And assuming an average cost of $0.25 per square foot to maintain the roads, the result would have been a $470 million savings statewide every year.

The analysis draws two broad conclusions: (1) local road maintenance costs per capita decrease as activity density increases, and (2) low-density communities have the most to gain by permitting more density.

Bacon’s bottom line: To get a rough (very rough) idea of what a similar analysis would yield for Virginia, consider that the Old Dominion has about twice as many total lane miles as New Jersey (162,000 compared to 86,000) and that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is budgeted to spend $2 billion a year in 2015 (including city and county street payments) on maintenance.

Of course, it’s impossible to go back and tear up the development of low-density areas of Virginia, so the study is academic to some degree. On the other hand, this kind of analysis should guide future investment. Just as Virginians today are paying for poor policy decisions made over the past five decades, future Virginians will pay for our decisions.

I do quibble with the way the authors state their case: It says these savings could have been achieved had New Jersey “directed” development into denser development patterns. I don’t like the idea of government directing how and where people should live. But that doesn’t change the larger point that denser communities cost less per capita on road maintenance than low-density communities. The way to frame the issue in Virginia is this: Had local zoning policies not directed growth into low density areas, average population densities would be higher, less road would have been required, and maintenance costs would be lower.

An Update on the Tysons Makeover

Map credit: Fairfax County Department of Transportation

Planned Tysons street grid. Map credit: Fairfax County Department of Transportation

by James A. Bacon

Transforming Tysons in Fairfax County from an “edge city” into a walkable, mixed-use urban district may be the biggest, most ambitious suburban makeover ever attempted. Anywhere. In the history of the human race.

The obstacles are formidable. The area grew up in such a helter skelter manner, and the layout of streets, buildings and parking lots are so thoroughly auto-centric in design, that Tysons’ built environment will have to be rebuilt from stem to stern. The cost of creating a street grid and providing transportation connections in and out of the district will run into the billions of dollars. It’s not clear where the public dollars are coming from. And it’s not clear either, given Northern Virginia’s current overbuilt office environment, whether the private dollars will be forthcoming any time soon.

But Fairfax County and Virginia are plunging ahead with the decades-long effort. In a presentation to the Tysons Citizens Coalition two weeks ago, Tom Biesiadny, director of Fairfax County’s department of tranpsportation, gave a recap of where things stand. I did not attend the meeting, so I did not hear Biesiadny’s remarks, but a long-time friend of Bacon’s Rebellion who goes by the pen name of Too Many Taxes shared the presentation with me. While the numbers come from Biesiadny, the commentary that follows is mine.

Existing development consists of 48.6 million square feet of mostly commercial office space, with some retail and a smidgen of housing thrown in. Another 2.8 million square feet is under construction, with 45 million square approved or proposed. The street grid won’t be built until landowners begin re-developing their properties and completing their links in the grid.

Tysons is caught in a Catch 22. The real estate market is moving towards walkable urbanism, but Tysons has little walkable urbanism to offer. While developers can create small islands of mixed-use walkability, the fundamental character of the district won’t change until a critical mass has been attained. Until that critical mass is attained, Tysons will suffer a competitive disadvantage with downtown Washington, Arlington, Alexandria and other locations where the walkable, mixed-use fabric is already in place.

Planners are counting upon completion of the first phase of the Silver Line spur on the Washington metro to jump start the development. However, at present, Silver Line ridership averages around 16,000 boardings per day, according to Biesiadny. After nearly a year since the Silver Line opened, ridership falls far short of the 46,000  forecast made as recently as 2013 in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s marketing plan. (Update: I have been told that comparing 16,000 boardings to 46,000 total riders is comparing apples and oranges. Sixteen thousand boardings translates into 32,000 trips, or riders. Thus, ridership has fallen short of projections but not by as grievous a margin as implied.)

Other parts of the plan appear to be unfolding on schedule. Six major road projects are in the works. Farthest along is a Route 7 bridge over the Dulles Toll Road, for which a design-build contract has been approved. Funding has been approved for a widening of Route 7. Four other projects are in various phases of study and design.

Meanwhile, Fairfax County is working on Tysons’ bicycle and pedestrian connections. Twelve projects have been completed, nine are under design, nine are in the land-acquisition phase and five are under construction. A Virginia Department of Transportation repaving project will add eight miles of bike facilities this summer.

Also of note, the Tysons Partnership has developed a transportation demand management program that will provide services to property owners on a subscription basis. Services include trip reduction strategies, ride-matching assistance, telework support, transit incentives and monitoring of travel behaviors. So far, eight companies have signed up.

Bacon’s bottom line: My reading of this presentation is that Fairfax County is doing all the right things but the Tysons makeover still has a long, hard climb ahead of it. We may not see much visible progress until the Northern Virginia commercial real estate market rebounds strongly, vacancies fall and developers have an incentive to start building again. But I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not close to the situation and my interpretation could be all wrong.

In Praise of Organic Tourism

Which would you rather have in your community.... massive crowds of drunken, puking college kids like Fort Lauderdale....

Which would you rather have in your community…. massive crowds of drunken, puking college kids like Fort Lauderdale….

by James A. Bacon

Promoting tourism is a major part of Virginia’s economic development strategy for good reason. Tourism supports jobs, expands the tax base and helps pay for amenities — restaurants, arts, cultural institutions — that can be enjoyed by the whole community. But it can create problems, too, such as crowding, traffic congestion, noise and tacky, haphazard development. Handled poorly, tourism actually can degrade a community’s quality of life.

It is critical to differentiate between mass-market tourism and what Edward T. McMahon, writing in the May issue of Virginia Town & City, calls “responsible” tourism. Mass market-tourism is all about putting “heads in beds.” It is high volume, high impact but low yield. Think Fort Lauderdale, the “spring break capital” of the United States, which attracted millions of college kids who slept six to a room and spent money on little but beer and t-shirts.

... or a recreational amenity like the beautiful Virginia Creeper Trail?

… or a recreational amenity like the beautiful Virginia Creeper Trail?

“Mass market tourism is … about environments that are artificial, homogenized, generic and formulaic,” writes McMahon. By contrast, “responsible tourism is about quality. Its focus is places that are authentic, specialized, unique and homegrown. … Think about unspoiled scenery, locally owned businesses, historic small towns and walkable urban neighborhoods.”

The challenge for Virginians, suggests McMahon,  a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, is to promote tourism without losing our soul. There is more to building a tourism industry than spending marketing dollars to lure visitors. It involves making destinations more appealing. “This means identifying, preserving and enhancing a community’s natural and cultural assets, in other words protecting its heritage and environment.”

Tourism that arises organically from the history, culture, architecture and natural assets of a community, I would argue further, make our communities more desirable places to live. They improve the quality of life and economic opportunity in ways that transcend the tourism sector. In effect, they become magnets for human capital.

McMahon proffers nine recommendations:

  1.  Preserve historic buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes. McMahon quotes travel writer Arthur Frommer: “Among cities with no particular recreational appeal, those that have preserved their past continue to enjoy tourism. Those that haven’t receive almost no tourism at all. Tourism simply won’t go to a city or town that has lost its soul.”
  2. Focus on the authentic. “Communities should make every effort to preserve the authentic aspects of local heritage and culture, including food, art, music, handicrafts, architecture, landscape and traditions. responsible tourism emphasizes the real over the artificial. It recognizes that the true story of a place is worth telling, even if it is painful or disturbing.”
  3. Ensure that hotels and restaurants and compatible with their surroundings. “Tourists need places to eat and sleep. Wherever they go, they crave the integrity of place. Homogenous, “off the shelf” corporate chain and franchise architecture works against the integrity of place and reduces a community’s appeal as a tourist destination.”
  4. Make your story come alive. “Visitors want information about what they are seeing, and interpretation can be a powerful storytelling tool that can make an exhibit, an attraction and a community come alive.”
  5. Protect community gateways: control outdoor signage. “Protecting scenic views and vistas, planing street trees, landscaping parking lots all make economic sense, but controlling outdoor signs is probably the most important step a community can take to make an immediate visible improvement in its physical environment. Almost nothing will destroy the distinctive character of a community faster than uncontrolled signs and billboards.”
  6. Enhance the journey as well as the destination. Getting there can be half the fun. Encourage the development of heritage corridors, bike paths, rail trails, greenways and scenic byways.
  7. Get them out of the car. If you design a community around cars, you’ll get more cars, but if you design a community around people, you’ll get more pedestrians. It is hard to spend money while you are in a car.”
  8. Create a “trail” with neighboring communities. “Few rural communities can successfully attract out-of-state or international visitors on their own, but linked with other communities, they can become a coherent an powerful attraction.” McMahon points to the example of Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which promotes nine presidential homes, numerous Civil War sites, more than 30 historic Main Streets and other historical and natural attractions.
  9. Ask yourself, “How many tourists are too many?” “Tourism development that exceeds the carrying carrying capacity of an ecosystem or that fails to respect a community’s sense of place will result in resentment by local residents and the eventual destruction of the very attributes that attracted tourists in the first place. Too many cars, tour buses, condominiums or people can overwhelm a community and harm fragile resources.”

Continue reading

Reinventing the Suburban Office Park

Sidney Gunst built Innsbrook as a state-of-the-art suburban office park in the 1980s but says he would do it very differently today.

Sidney Gunst built Innsbrook as a state-of-the-art suburban office park in the 1980s but says he would do it very differently today.

Article published in June issue of Henrico Monthly magazine:

By James A. Bacon Jr.

In September 2010, the Henrico County Board of Supervisors put its stamp of approval on a plan to transform the county’s largest office park, the Innsbrook Corporate Center. The idea behind the plan, called Innsbrook Next, was to convert a smattering of office buildings surrounded by parking lots and connected by winding, unwalkable roads into Henrico’s de facto downtown. Planners envisioned millions of square feet of mixed-use development: office towers, parking garages and apartment buildings with stores and restaurants on the ground floors.

Not only would Innsbrook Next breathe new life into Henrico’s largest employment center – between 15,000 to 25,000 people work there, depending on whom you talk to – it represented a sea change in planning policy for the county. Having filled up with traditional, low-density suburban development, the affluent, western half of the county had nowhere to grow but up. To accommodate more growth and more jobs, Henrico had to begin urbanizing. Innsbrook Next would concentrate much of the expected growth into a district that would cause minimal disruption to established neighborhoods.

Nearly five years later, little has happened. A partnership of Markel Corp. and Highwoods Properties submitted a plan to develop the first phase of Innsbrook Next with 2.2 million square feet of mixed-use buildings. The county granted the needed zoning approvals, but the developers backed off. Dominion Virginia Power, a major property owner, submitted plans to convert overflow parking into a townhouse complex. But when county staff balked at aspects of the proposal, Dominion withdrew the project.

Then, earlier this year, the Dixon Hughes Goodman CPA firm announced the relocation of its headquarters office from Innsbrook to downtown Richmond. A prominent reason given was to make it easier to recruit talented young employees looking for urban amenities. Soon after, insurance firm Rutherfoord said it would consolidate offices, including its Innsbrook headquarters, in the new Libbie Mill-Midtown project at West Broad Street and Staples Mill Road, which had gotten the jump on Innsbrook in building what urban planners call “walkable urbanism.”

Across the country, suburban office parks are having a tough time. Built mainly in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, their age is showing. The buildings have lost the sheen of newness. Mechanical systems are wearing out, and maintenance costs are rising. And most challenging of all, young people prefer to work in urban settings where they can walk to restaurants, galleries, music and entertainment. For decades, downtown areas hemorrhaged tenants as companies decamped for the suburbs. Now the reverse is happening: Some businesses are moving back to the city.

Innsbrook property owners see clearly where the market is heading. Henrico County government leaders do too. Innsbrook needs to transition to a walkable, urban community, almost everyone agrees, in order to remain competitive. The question is whether Henrico is equipped to oversee the transition and whether the planning department has the tools to accomplish it. There is considerable grumbling from developers that county officials are stifling investment by interpreting zoning rules too tightly and squeezing developers too hard on infrastructure costs.

“Why is Innsbrook not developing at the pace that was envisioned?” asks Sidney Gunst, the entrepreneur who built Innsbrook in the 1980s and now maintains a role in the project as a partner in the shopping center near the park’s entrance on Broad Street and as a member of the property owners association. “The bureaucracy is bogging it down, discouraging innovation.” He doesn’t blame individual planners, but he thinks the county’s urban mixed use zoning designation, the planning department’s primary tool for encouraging new urbanism, is flawed; the code is designed for a project built from scratch, not for a project like Innsbrook Next that must incorporate existing buildings. “It’s a bad system,” he says.

“Henrico has an opportunity to be one of the premier addresses [in Virginia] if they would take the shackles off and be creative,” says architect Burrell Saunders, chief executive of Saunders + Crouse who led the Innsbrook Next design. “The question is, do they want to get on board and compete or do they want to watch time pass?”

But Henrico officials are generally bullish. They see Innsbrook Next as a great plan and say they’re simply ensuring that developers stick to it rather than take expedient shortcuts during a soft economy. After peaking around 30 percent during the worst of the recession, vacancy rates at Innsbrook have fallen to less than 6 percent, says County Manager John Vithoulkas. Businesses are expanding, soaking up existing real estate as pressure mounts to build new office buildings. “While you don’t see activity occurring now,” he says, “we have a sense … that something is ultimately going to happen.”

Planning Director Joe Emerson does not see the loss of Dixon Hughes Goodman and Rutherfoord as consequential. Office parks always experience churn, he says. “You’ll always see people move around” as companies’ office needs change or they seek better deals. Innsbrook has tremendous competitive assets, he says, and businesses will continue locating there.

The Markel-Highwoods project could start the ball rolling. Highwoods is marketing the land aggressively. “We’ve been in contact with multiple, high-end apartment developers as well as a wide variety of potential office customers,” says Walton Makepeace, vice president in charge of Highwoods’ Richmond operations. “We’re always canvassing for office tenants. We’d love to start with a pre-lease with a six- or eight-story building with structured parking.”

Once that strategic piece falls into place, Emerson predicts, Innsbrook’s transformation will take off. The Markel-Highwoods project would create a nucleus of grid streets for smaller property owners to plug into. “Once that moves forward, everything moves forward.” Continue reading.

Private Investment in the Public Realm

libbie_mill_lake
by James A. Bacon

The American suburbs built since World War II have many deficiencies, not the least of which are expensive, fiscally unsustainable infrastructure and a proclivity toward traffic congestion. But the greatest drawback of all gets the least attention: the poverty of the public realm. Outside of shopping malls, there really is no public realm in the post-World War II suburbs. Streets are not designed for walking. There are no plazas. Parks are accessibly mainly by automobile. The only gathering places are found indoors — libraries, churches, fitness clubs and the like.

But tastes are changing, and a new generation of real estate developers understands that creating quality public spaces — particularly streets, sidewalks and parks — allows them to charge premium prices for their buildings. The key insight they have grasped is that humans are social creatures. Yes, people like their privacy of their homes, but they also enjoy being around other people. They like to walk. They like to watch other people. They like gathering in groups.

Developers in the Richmond region have gotten the message that there is a large unmet demand for “walkable urbanism,” places that make it easy, even delightful, for people to walk around. Walkability goes deeper than the utilitarian function of allowing people to substitute walk trips for car trips, thus reducing traffic congestion. People like walkability because it facilitates social interaction. Sadly, most efforts to build walkable communities in the Richmond suburbs have been underwhelming.

That’s why I’m paying close attention to the development of Libbie Mill-Midtown in Henrico County. Gumenick Properties may be paying keener attention to the quality of the public spaces they’re building in the 800-acre, $434 million project than has any other suburban developer in the history of the Richmond region. As a sign of how seriously Gumenick takes the public realm, the company has engaged the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization launched by William Whyte, the pioneer who first studied the sociology of small public spaces from a scientific perspective.

Little of what Gumenick is doing is new — it’s just been forgotten. Company spokesman Ed Crews describes the project as “retro.” Libbie Mill-Midtown seeks to create “what the urban environment was a century ago,” before counties outlawed mixed-use zoning and developers designed communities largely around the car.

As I explained in a recent post (see “The Invisible Parking Garage“),  Gumenick is building a pedestrian-friendly community. The mixed-use  project is laid out in a street grid with wide sidewalks. Great attention is paid to defining the pedestrian street space and providing a variety of destinations within easy walking distance of apartments and town homes. Gumenick donated land for construction of a new Henrico County library, and plans call for lots of street-level space for restaurants, shops and local services.

Parking is only one dimension of the challenge. The landscape of the Richmond region is pocked with ugly sediment ponds installed to manage storm water. Occasionally, someone sticks some gazebos by them or turns them into something visually interesting like a man-made wetlands. But Gumenick is investing the resources to transform its storm water pond into the focal point of the entire development.

The rendering above is a conceptual sketch of what that lake might look like. The final design will depend upon the buildings constructed around it. But there will be trails, a fountain, plazas, an amphitheater and places where people can touch the water. One of the key insights learned from the Project for Public Spaces, says Crews, is not to fill in the public space with fixed benches and other objects. Instead, provide portable furniture that people can rearrange to accommodate the size of their small groups.

Shane Finnegan, vice president of construction, says the plaza will be built for flexibility in order to accommodate a wide range of activities. For instance, to accommodate tents for farmer’s markets and other events, the design calls for embedding hold-downs in the pavement. Alternatively, the community might bring in taco trucks and a marimba band. The programmatic element of bringing in events and concerts will be important in Libbie Mill-Midtown, as it is in downtown Richmond, Innsbrook and other areas. The difference is that in Libbie Mill, the physical space will be designed from the beginning with that programmatic element in mind.

“This won’t be built in a day,” cautions Crews. Indeed, the project is expected to take 10 years to complete, depending upon market conditions. There needs to be a critical mass of people living and working in the neighborhood for activity in the public spaces to take off.

Bacon’s bottom line: Gumenick is betting that investing in the public realm will pay off. I’d wager that the company has it right.

The Invisible Parking Garage

Draft rendering of planned apartment building at Libbie Mill-Midtown shows how garage rooftop will be used as communal space.

Draft rendering of a planned apartment building at Libbie Mill-Midtown shows how garage rooftop will be used as communal space. Illustration credit: Gumenick Properties.

by James A. Bacon

It is axiomatic among New Urbanists and like-minded brethren in the Smart Growth movement that parking garages create dead space in the urban fabric that discourages walkability and depresses neighboring property values. Some architects try to dress up the structures by giving them facades that imitate the look of regular buildings, draping them with plantings or otherwise making them visually interesting. Another strategy is to hide garages underground or relegate them to the middle of the block.

There is nothing new under the sun, as the old saying goes, so the Gumenick Properties design for a planned apartment building in its Libbie Mill-Midtown project may not be the first of its kind. But I feel safe in saying that it is unique to the Richmond real estate market — and it’s a solution that, economics permitting, should be employed more frequently.

Libbie Mill-Midtown is an 80-acre mixed-use development in Henrico County roughly midway between downtown Richmond and the Innsbrook Corporate Center. The company is billing the $434 million community as “ten minutes from everything.” When complete in ten years or so, depending upon market conditions, the project is expected to have 994 for-sale homes, 1,096 apartments, 160,000 square feet of retail space, a public library and office space. Marketing the project to people who want to rely upon the automobile less, Gumenick is placing tremendous emphasis on walkability.

The development will contain a grid street system and wide sidewalks, and designers are paying close attention to the science of “place making — creating public spaces where people enjoy spending time, as I gathered during an interview last week with  Shane Finnegan, Gumenick’s vice president of construction, and Ed Crews, company spokesman.

This schematic shows the ground-level view of the retail-apartment building planned for Libbie Mill-Midtown.

This schematic shows the ground-level view of the retail-apartment building planned for Libbie Mill-Midtown. (Click for larger image.)

One of the basic rules of place making is to minimize the expanse of parking lots and to hide the parking garages from view. Having erected two retail-office buildings, Gumenick now is designing the first apartment building, which will consist of 40,000 square feet of street-level retail space and 327 apartment units above. In a nod to market reality, the developer acknowledges that most suburban Henrico tenants, while wanting to live in a walkable community, still will own automobiles. Rather than surround the apartments in a sea of asphalt parking, which would diminish the appeal of the streetscape, Gumenick plans to encase the parking garage inside street-facing stores.

Other developers have done the same thing but Gumenick is going one step further. It’s building a pool, terrace and public area on the roof of the parking garage. The parking lot will be totally hidden from view, not just from the street but from the perspective of the tenants living in the apartment building.

Bacon’s bottom line: Gumenick did not divulge financial details of the planned parking structure, but it doesn’t take a construction engineer to figure out that reinforcing a garage so it can support trees, decks and a swimming pool is not an inexpensive proposition. But the invisible parking garage accomplishes two important goals. First, it allows Gumenick to create a shared recreation/courtyard for its tenants. Second, it tucks parking into the middle of the block, preserving pedestrian-enhancing streetscapes. It will be interesting to see how the market responds. Will people pay a premium to live in a walkable community with such amenities? I would. I’m betting others would, too.

The Microtransit Revolution Has Arrived

Oren Shoval and Daniel Ramot, founders of New York's Via private transit system.  “Our goal is to transform public transit from a regulated system of rigid routes and schedules to a fully dynamic, on-demand network,” they say.

Oren Shoval and Daniel Ramot, founders of New York’s Via private transit system. “Our goal is to transform public transit from a regulated system of rigid routes and schedules to a fully dynamic, on-demand network,” they say. What does it take get these guys to come to Virginia?

by James A. Bacon

The smartphone-engendered revolution in urban mobility may have a new name: microtransit. At one end of the transportation is our old friend, the automobile. At the other, we have trains and buses, collectively labeled mass transit. But there is an emerging in-between option, which Lisa Nisenson, writing in the Strong Towns blog, dubs micr0-transit.

Eric Jaffe, a senior associated editor at CityLab, picked up the term in an article last week headlined “How the microtransit movement is changing urban mobility.”

This, of course, is the same phenomenon that I’ve been blogging about on Bacon’s Rebellion for years. As soon as Uber demonstrated that (a) it was possible to connect riders with vehicles through smartphones and (b) algorithms could optimize the number and locations of vehicles in the fleet to accommodate consumer demand for Uber’s car rides, it was only a matter of time before competitors figured out how to do the same thing.

Following Uber’s lead, there have been literally dozens of start-up enterprises — Bridj, which has started service in the Washington region, is the one I featured recently on the blog — that provide flexible new transportation services. To quote Jaffe:

Commuter buses like Leap Transit or Chariot in San Francisco or Bridj in Boston (and now Washington). Dynamic vanpools like Via in New York. Carpool start-ups like Carma. True cab-share options like UberPool (now claiming millions of trips) or LyftLine (now with fixed-point pick-ups). Company and housing shuttles like the Google bus belong in the mix, too.

What you might not appreciate is just how crowded this microtransit space has become. The start-up platform Angel List’s “public transportation” page, currently with 177 projects, seems to grow daily. Its general “transportation” page lists more than 1,000 ventures, and some services like Uber that insist on being labeled “technology.” Plenty of local entrepreneurs don’t bother with the list at all (like a new Omaha bar shuttle). One company, TransLoc, is even building an entire flex-transit platform to help public agencies to join the fray.

Jaffe describes three ways in which microtransit might be a good thing for the world. These fleets of networked cars, vans, minibuses and other vehicles might lure people out of the single-occupancy vehicles. They might identify and serve new niches markets of under-served populations. And they might function as feeders to existing mass transit enterprises, bolstering passenger volume and revenue.

Alternatively, suggests Jaffe, microtransit might not be so good. It might compete with mass transit, “poaching” bus and rail riders in dense transit corridors, requiring more public funding to keep the mass-transit enterprises afloat. While microtransit undoubtedly would take automobiles off the road, microtransit vehicles would be running non-stop — conceivably generating more Vehicle Miles Traveled. Finally, microtransit might “drift into the sort of exclusivity that violates public transit’s equity mission.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Anyone interested in the future of transportation should read Jaffe’s piece. It provides a cogent summary of key issues surrounding microtransit. However, I beg to differ on a couple of key points.

First, an omission from Jaffe’s list: We may not know whether microtransit will result in more or fewer Vehicle Miles Driven, but the phenomenon almost certainly will require fewer cars to deliver the same amount of miles traveled. Fewer idle cars sitting in parking lots means less space — potentially thousands of acres less — for the storage of cars will be required. Anything that allows the nation to recycle parking lots into economically valuable property will stimulate urban economies across the country.

Second, I don’t worry about a move to “exclusivity.” The momentum is in exactly the opposite direction. Uber started out providing a luxury ride service, competing with limousines as much as taxicabs. The company has moved decisively toward the mass market. And if Uber doesn’t make the jump to less affluent riders, others will. In business revolutions like this, start-ups almost always target the most lucrative market slices first — they go for the biggest, fattest profits they can get while they can get it. As long as there are low barriers to entry, as in the case of microtransit, the upscale markets quickly get saturated and businesses migrate to under-served market segments.

My prediction: It is only a matter of years before microtransit begins providing vastly superior transportation services to the poor, as measured by cost of service and flexibility of routes, than they are getting from many municipal bus companies. Public mass transit will bleed customers and face an existential threat. Many will not survive. But the riding public will be better off.

Getting Around London

red_buses

by James A. Bacon

London is one of the most photographed cities in the world. Tourists flock there by the millions, and most of them have cameras. The Parliament building, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey… the list of world-class photo-worthy historical sites goes on an on. And then there’s the scene shown above — nothing that the typical tourist would care to capture digitally. But it caught my eye because four double-decker red buses were visible on the same street in one shot, and it illustrated one of the more mundane aspects of London — how the 8.5 million inhabitants get around.

While the Bacon family rushed from one incredible attraction to another on vacation last week, I bedeviled my wife and son by pausing at seemingly random spots to capture images of things that visitors take for granted, such as parks, buses, crosswalks, plazas, sidewalks and ordinary streets full of ordinary houses. As an amateur student of human settlement patterns, I have a keen appreciation for how people organize their build environment. Citizens of countries around the world flock to London not just to visit but, despite a punishing cost of living, to live and work. Even if you stripped away the metropolis’ impossible-to-reproduce historical attractions, it still would be an awesome place. Part of that awesomeness, which won London recognition last year as the “best” city on the planet, is its transportation infrastructure.

London has an excellent mass-transit system, which includes the London Underground, a network of double-decker buses and some light rail. We had no trouble whatsoever getting around the city without a car. Actually, a car would have been a hassle because parking is difficult and there is an £11.50 congestion charge for entering the busy center city.

crosswalkThe key to making mass transit workable is creating hospitable pedestrian environments. London sweats the details. The first thing to notice is that crosswalks are not located at the edge of intersections, as they are in the United States but set back by several yards. The necessity of considering only left-right traffic flows as opposed to multi-directional traffic flow in the intersection, I presume, is improved safety. In London, the on-street signage remind pedestrians which way to look for oncoming traffic (of particular help to foreigners, most of whom drive on the opposite side of the road).

pedestrian_spaceThere is nothing resembling a street grid in London, so streets intersect at all manner of odd angles. As a consequence, street designers create a lot of pedestrian islands that allow people to stop halfway across busy intersections rather than risk crossing all the way. The city also installs wrought-iron rails to prevent people from stepping into parts of the street where they have no business stepping. Considering how fast Londoners drive — faster and more aggressively than in most parts of the States — these design precautions make sense.

cyclistI sense that it has been more difficult grafting bicycle-friendly infrastructure onto the street network. How would you like to be the cyclist at left, riding that close to a huge bus?  Cycling remains relatively dangerous by comparison to other transportation modes. There have been five cycling fatalities in London so far this year. Just last week, 55-year-old Moira Gimmell, recently picked by Queen Elizabeth to oversee renovations at Windsor Castle, was struck and killed by a truck.

Despite the issues unique to bicycles, London as a excellent transportation system overall. An American friend, who has lived in London for about a decade, does not own a car. He doesn’t need one. I’m sure that millions of other Londoners have made the same choice of going carless. A trip on the Underground near the center city costs about £1.7 (more if you’re traveling to outer boroughs), or $3.00. Say the average Londoner takes three bus or rail trips daily, costing about $10 daily. That’s $3,600 a year, or half the price of owning a car. That savings helps offset the mind-numbing price of real estate. (A two-bedroom flat on the street where we stayed is on sale for £1,250,000, about $1.8 million.)

How much does it cost to maintain this system? Thanks to the density of development and the high cost of operating an automobile, Transport of London captures a large share of total travel. Revenues in the year ending in 2013 (the most recent year I could find) amounted to about £5.6 billion, generating a loss of £1.2 billion, or about 20%. I suspect that’s pretty efficient by the standards of mass transit authorities in the United States. It’s certainly cheaper than building new or wider roads. Given the high cost of real estate in London and the narrow street setbacks, the cost of expanding roads would be astronomical.

Transportation systems are always a work in progress, and London is no exception. Personally, I like living in Richmond, Va., where I can load four of five bags of groceries into my car — try lugging four bags of groceries with you on the Underground. Car ownership offers convenience and privacy in travel that no mass transit system can replicate. But I can definitely see the allure of the London way of life.

When Bicycles and Buses Collide

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Cyclists near Buckingham Palace.

by James A. Bacon

My favorite London bicycling story so far comes from the London Evening Standard, which wrote of a bus driver ogling a female pedestrian who failed to notice a cyclist and hit him. That was only one of 25 incidents involving cyclists in complaints lodged with Transport for London over a fortnight last August. In a metropolis of 8.5 million dedicated to building a system of multimodal transportation in narrow streets, I suppose such incidents should come as no surprise.

bike_laneLondon is a bicycle-friendly city, and cyclists are seen with some frequency. Local authorities have done a commendable job of building bicycle lanes; there are even two Cycle Superhighways providing easy access to the central city. And under a new seven-year, £51 million sponsorship by Santander Bank (taken over from Barclay’s), the bus share system is undergoing an expansion. The bike-share stations can be found all over the region, and there is one about a block from our apartment.

According to another article in my new favorite authoritative source on London urbanism, the London Evening Standard, proximity to bike-share stations has joined schools and underground train stations as amenities that drive real estate values.

more_parked_bikes
An unresolved issue is where to park the bikes. In our Earl’s Court neighborhood, which is rich in ornamental ironwork fences, people bolt their bikes to the ironwork — and homeowners don’t like it. I’ve seen at least a dozen signs threatening to haul away bicycles attached to private fences.

chainsIn a city as large and dense as London, there is no perfect system. Cars, buses, bikes, pedestrians and property owners cannot all be fully accommodated. Trade-offs must be made. While I’m a huge fan of bicycles as a transportation mode, I don’t think they should rule the streets. For every cyclist one sees on the streets of London, there are hundreds of cars and hundreds of pedestrians. I’ve counted more of the ubiquitous red buses than cyclists. It’s great to have bicycles as a transportation option, but London could never evolve into a cyclist’s paradise like Amsterdam or Copenhagen without a multibillion-pound reworking of the urban fabric. Even so, it beats most American cities by a country mile.

Update from the London Evening Standard: A truck driver, 53-year-old Barry Mcyer, is facing jail time for running a red light and striking and killing a woman cyclist. The woman was one of 13 cyclists killed in London in 2013.

Why Does London Have So Many Parks?

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The park at Redcliff Square

by James A. Bacon

In the United States, we have gated communities. In the United Kingdom, the Brits have gated parks. They call them “key parks” because it takes a key to enter.

There is just such a park near where we are staying. The Bacon family walks past it every day on the way to the Underground. The beautifully manicured park has a grassy open area enclosed by trees, shrubs and a cast-iron fence. We tried to find a way in. Every gate was locked. We found it baffling. Only later were we told that key parks were a common feature around London.

In the U.S., we assume that parks are meant for the benefit of all. The existence of an institution such as private parks in a major city struck me as almost shocking. That’s one of the benefits of visiting other places — it challenges suppositions that there may be only one way to do a thing. Upon reflection, I can see the logic of the key park.

private_gardenI am conjecturing here: Redcliff Square was built as an amenity for the owners of the handsome buildings surrounding the park. Buy a house (or rent an apartment — I’m not sure who occupies the buildings along the street) and you enjoy access to the park. In the States, proximity to public parks adds value to nearby real estate. I suppose in London, proximity to a key park, which keeps out the riff-raff like American tourists, adds even more value to nearby real estate. (At least it does if you have a key.)

London has a remarkable number of parks, some public, some private. Google a map of London and you’ll see not only the massive Hyde Park and Regents Park but dozens and dozens of smaller neighborhood parks. No matter where you live in the city, you’re only a couple of blocks from a park. (You may not have access to it, but at least you can enjoy the view while walking past it!)

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A small park, including statutory, installed by the wealthy Grosvenor family.

Insofar as London parks are built by developers and maintained by private property owners, they provide a partial amenity for the general public at private expense. Personally, I like the idea of developers building parks and handing them over to local government for public maintenance and publnic enjoyment. But, then, we probably would end up with a lot fewer parks that way.

Update: According to the London Evening Standard, municipal authorities are providing funding for seven new parks and the New London Landscape is brainstorming all kinds of new ideas. “Among the exciting new range of watery spaces proposed are floating gardens in Docklands, a linear lido along Regent’s Canal … and a reinstated River Fleet channel as a new low-line park. The subterranean river, below Fleet Street in the City, has been covered since 1769. It would be opened up below street level, with pedestriran footpaths either side.”

Nerdistans in Trouble

nerdistan

How badly are suburban office parks getting clobbered in the current real estate environment? Take a look at the Westfields Corporate Center near Washington Dulles International Airport. Two buildings known as Washington Technology Park I and II were appraised at $187.5 million at the peak of the 2000s-era real estate boom. They were just reappraised for $61.1 million — a 68% reduction, according to the Washington Post.

How could that happen? WaPo reporter Jonathan O’Connell provides the background: First, the buildings lost key tenants as the slowdown in defense spending gutted Northern Virginia’s defense-contracting sector. Defense giant Northrup Grumman paid $4.7 million to get out of the lease. Government consulting firm CSC cut back its space from 180,000 square feet to 20,000. Meanwhile, the office vacancy rate climbed throughout Northern Virginia, driving down lease rates generally. Then, on top of that, writes O’Connell:

Buildings far from public transit and walkable amenities like restaurants began to suffer in particular, as young workers flocked to more urban, transit-accessible neighborhoods. So far this year, 92 percent of all office leases of 20,000 square feet or more are within half a mile of an existing or planned Metro station, according to the services firm JLL.

A decade ago, urban geographer Richard Florida famously termed the sterile and isolated office campuses as “nerdistans,” predicting that they would have little appeal to the rising generation of the so-called “creative class.” It has taken a while, but Florida’s insight has become the new conventional wisdom.

The two Washington Technology Park buildings have other problems as well. The owner, Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) based in Columbia, Md., has been unable to keep up payments on the $150 million in debt it took on to acquire the buildings. Unable to renegotiate terms, the company stopped making payments. The debt has been transferred to a firm that manages distressed loans. COPT has blamed the drop in market value in part on the property’s fractured ownership.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Washington Technology Park buildings may be an extreme case, but they are indicative of systemic problems in the Northern Virginia real estate market — and suburban real estate markets generally.  In a down market, some properties suffer worse than others. There’s nothing wrong with the buildings. The problem is location. The worst off are office parks on the metropolitan fringe offering none of the community amenities — walkable urbanism, access to mass transit — that workers and employers are increasingly looking for.

Residential development continues in outlying suburban counties because the population continues to grow and urban cores can’t infill fast enough to handle the surge in demand. Not so with commercial development. Businesses are moving to more space-efficient work patterns and they need less space per employee than they once did. That problem is compounded in Northern Virginia, where the market over-built commercial space in anticipation that the 2000s economic boom would continue forever. With the shift in consumer preference to walkable urbanism, car-dependent Nerdistans are the big losers. We’re accustomed to the specter of ghost malls. Don’t be surprised if we soon start seeing ghost office parks.

— JAB

Measuring the Impact of Complete Streets

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“Complete Street” projects that make streets more hospitable to pedestrians, bicycles and mass transit have a multitude of benefits, concludes Smart Growth America in a new report, “Safer Streets, Stronger Economies.” In a study of 37 projects, the authors found that complete streets tend to result in higher property values, fewer traffic accidents and injuries and more walking, biking and transit usage.

Previous studies of complete streets tended to focus on the health benefits associated with encouraging people to walk and bike more. People who live in walkable neighborhoods get 35 to 45 more minutes of moderate physical exercise each week, reducing their incidents of obesity. Youths who walk or bike to school tend to focus more and perform better in classrooms. The Smart Growth America report focused more on the economics of Complete Streets. Among the findings:

  • Fewer collisions. About 70% of projects studied experienced a reduction in collisions, and more than half a reduction in injuries. That translated into $18.1 million in lower collision costs in a single year for the 37 cases studied. “If a Complete Streets approach was used strategically … the savings over time could run into the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.”
  • More walking, less driving. Among projects that tracked pedestrian and biking activity, 12 of 13 projects showed an increase in walking and 22 04 23 showed an increase in cycling. Among those that tracked driving, 19 of 33 projects had fewer cars than before, 13 had more, and one did not change.
  • Positive impact on local economy. Although results were mixed, the redesigned streets tended to report an increase in the number of businesses and the number of people employed. Of the ten projects that reported before-and-after data for property values, eight reported an increase in property values while two reported no change. In two-thirds of the studies for which comparable data was available, property values outpaced that of the city as a whole. In one project, Dubuque, Iowa, property values increased 111%.
  • Lower construction costs. The construction cost of upgrading streets to “Complete Streets” costs less per mile than average arterial cost per lane mile.

Not all Complete Streets are created equal, however. As with roads and cars, streets that add to pedestrian, bicycle and transit networks create more value than stand-alone projects. States the study: “The real value of a transportation system is in creasing an interconnected network, whether designed for people in cars, on transit, walking or bicycling. Building facilities without connecting them reduces their utility.”

The study did not calculate the Return on Investment of Complete Streets versus conventional road-building projects. Nevertheless, it concluded: “For transportation professionals the clear implication is that Complete Streets may be one of the best transportation investments they can make. These projects should be allowed to compete and be evaluated against other projects on the bsis of their low costs and the benefits they provide.

— JAB

Uh, Oh, Maybe We Haven’t Reached “Peak Car”

moving_average

Click for more legible image.

by James A. Bacon

Proponents of Smart Growth, of whom I am one, have been arguing for several years that Americans embarked upon a fundamental shift in driving habits beginning in the mid-2000s. So marked was the decline in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) that a certain triumphalism set in — the drop in driving signaled a shift back to mass transit and walkable urbanism. To be sure, some of the downturn could be attributed to the slow economy, but profound changes in values — a rejection of auto-centric development — was taking root. Some commentators went so far as to proclaim that America had reached “peak car,” and predicted that VMT per capita would continue to decline.

Well, the Federal Highway Administration has reported the latest numbers for 2014, and that triumphalism doesn’t seem quite as justified as it did a couple of years ago. Cumulative travel (measured by the moving 12-month average of Vehicle Miles Driven) increased 1.7% last year, bringing the total travel to a point just shy of the record in 2007. Even more worrisome, drivers were really on a tear at the end of the year. Traffic volume in December increased by 5% compared to the same month the year before.

I haven’t seen how other Smart Growthers have spun this data, and they may have interpretations that confirm their conviction that a big re-set is occurring in human settlement patterns. But I regard the data as grounds for re-examining some of my long-held beliefs — not to change them necessarily, but to go back and take a fresh look and see if they still hold up.

Clearly, the pick-up of the economy and increase in the number of jobs is a factor in putting Americans back on the road. More jobs means more commuting. The plunge in the price of gasoline toward the end of the year undoubtedly played a role as well — the increase in driving was particularly pronounced in the latter months of the year when motorists were enjoying the benefit of lower gas prices.

It’s also possible that the much-touted shift in development back to the urban core is less pronounced than commonly stated. There is no denying that the momentum of growth and development has shifted to some degree back toward traditional downtowns and urban neighborhoods. Downtowns are reviving. They are gaining population and jobs, in a reversal of a decades-long decline. But growth and development also continues in outlying suburbs.

I continue to believe that there is a strong unmet desire in the marketplace for walkable urbanism. But I’ve come to realize two things. First, there is a limited capacity for urban jurisdictions to accommodate new growth. Older cities have limited land available for infill, and re-development of existing commercial and residential areas is a slow, incremental process that takes place property by property and is limited by NIMBY resistance to greater density.

Second, the Suburban Growth Machine is still intact, even after the devastation of the 2007 real estate crash. There is still a vast reservoir of suburban land zoned for traditional, suburban-style development. It is still far easier to build large-scale projects in the burbs than it is in urban areas. Developers are adapting by building more urban-lite projects — mixed-use with some walkability thrown in. Rarely is this development transit-friendly (although there are exceptions, such as locations along the new Silver Line in Northern Virginia). The problem is that these nodes of mixed-use walkability are scattered across the suburban landscape. They rarely  connect. Accordingly, they do not achieve the critical scale required to truly change peoples’ lifestyles and reduce driving to a significant degree.

Bacon’s bottom line: I still maintain that we’ve bent the curve of the once-relentless increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled. While total VMT is nearing its previous peak, VMT per capita still remains considerably below the peak. My new modified position is that driving will continue to increase but on a slower growth trajectory than in previous decades. We’ll see how that prediction stands up to real-world data.

What about Virginia? The FHWA report provided a breakdown of travel by state for December 2014. Compared to the national increase of 5.0%, VMT in Virginia increased only 3.5%. Does that slower growth reflect Virginia’s laggard economy or something more profound? Stay tuned.

Update: Darin, who identifies himself as the ATL (Atlanta) Urbanist, tweets that the spike in VMT may be tied a marked increase in the size of the working age population. View thegraph here.

Yes, Virginia, the Millennials’ Shift from Burbs to Downtowns is Real

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by James A. Bacon

The debate still rages over the extent to which young Americans, especially members of the Millennial generation, are moving back to the urban core. Data published by Luke Juday on the StatChat blog should settle that question once and for all. The only questions worth pondering is why they are moving, and how many will move back to the burbs.

The chart above shows the proportion of Millennials living at varying distances from downtown Washington, D.C. In 1990, there was a weak tendency for young adults (defined as 22- to 34-year-olds) to live in the urban core but it was not pronounced. By 2012, however, the next generation of post-college young people had shifted markedly to the urban core.

The chart below shows Richmond.

richmond

In Norfolk, where the distribution of young military-age people in military facilities is determined largely by the location of military bases, the shift is less evident.

Norfolk

While the change is preference is dramatic, it is important to note that a large number of young people still resided miles from the city center in 2012. It’s not as if the suburbs are emptying of young adults. But even a modest shift in locational preference can drive the demand for new construction.

Juday, a Millenial himself, suggests a couple of reasons for the shift. Millennials have worse job prospects than previous generations at the same age and are saddled with greater student loan debt. As a consequence, they are less likely to take on mortgages for single-family dwellings in the suburbs. They’re also postponing marriage and child-bearing, which diminishes the incentives to move to suburban school jurisdictions with better schools. In keeping with their more modest economic prospects, Millennials place less emphasis on home ownership, automobile ownership and driving; they prefer walkable urban neighborhoods.