On walkable cities

“Walkable City: how downtown can save America, one step at a time”, by Jeff Speck, was exciting to read.

Speck presents all sorts of evidence and arguments that walkable downtowns — designed for people, not cars — increase real estate values, increase tax revenue, improve health, attract businesses, and make for fun places to live. Walkable City

Mixed use development, with medium to high density housing, leads to vibrant neighborhoods where people shop locally and develop relationships.

The greenest and most booming cities are places like Portland, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Fransisco, and (yes) Seattle, where there are sidewalks, local businesses and good public transit.  Property values and tax revenues are higher in places with good public transportation. It’s a win-win economically, for the environment, and for the health and happiness of residents.

(But Republicans in the state Senate seem eager to de-fund Metro and its buses — even going so far as disallowing local transit option for funding.  Partly, I think, they just take pleasure in pissing off liberals  Partly it’s a rural vs. urban dynamic.)

Suburbs, with their sprawl, encourage dependence on cars, with all its ill effects on health and the environment.  Suburban life makes it hard and expensive for people to get together.

Though drivers complain of traffic congestion, building more roads or widening roads has the effect of inducing more traffic. It almost never stops congestion. Instead, it attracts more drivers (“induced demand”) and in a few years the roads are as congested as before, but now nobody wants to live, walk or breathe near those roads, and so land values decrease and tax revenues decrease. Road construction results in urban blight.

Many cities, including London and Copenhagen, have torn down highways and have eliminated downtown parking spots, in an effort to stop people from driving and to increase livability and property values.  For the most part these efforts have been a huge successes.

Still, Speck does not support eliminating all car traffic. He says that while some communities have great success with instituting car-free zones downtown, most cities fail at the effort.  Speck says eliminating all driving is akin to fasting if you’re overweight.

Similarly, light rail has failed spectacularly in Dallas, where transit ridership decreased after the city spent billions on the largest light rail system in the nation. The experiment failed because there were few walkable neighborhoods near transit stops, and people found driving and parking to be too convenient and cheap to relinquish.

Speck’s book is a guide for city planners and mayors about how to approach urban development.  Speck suggests a triage process for revitalizing downtowns. Cities should devote resources (trees, lighting, development money) to those streets which already have interesting shops, theaters, museums, stadiums, or other buildings that encourage walkability.   Also, streets that connect highly walkable districts can sometimes be revitalized. But streets lined with fast food joints, car repair shops, parking lots, strip malls, and other unattractive establishments are better left to car culture.

It turns out that New York is the greenest city in the country in terms of carbon produced per capita. But, of course, per cubic meter of air, the pollution and carbon released are high, due to the density. The suburbs are kinda pretty and green, especially the suburbs further from urban areas, but the people who live there tend to drive a lot.

I’ve lived in cities and lived in suburbs. But my favorite places to live are villages and small towns with walkable central districts and with tree-lined streets. Sewickley, PA — reminiscent of River City in the musical the Music Man — comes to mind, as does the central district of Mercer Island, as well as downtown Kirkland.    Cities tend to be rather ugly, dirty, and noisy. Suburbs are sterile and too car-dependent. Walkable villages and towns combine the benefits of walkability with the quietness and safety of suburbia.

I’ll conclude this little article with interesting quotes and facts from Speck’s book. Many are surprising. Many are disturbing.

“In the Detroit region, he finds that housing walkable urbanism fetches a 40 percent premium over similar housing in drivable sub-urbanism; in Seattle, that premium is 51 percent; in Denver, it’s 150 percent.” In NYC, it’s 200 percent: people will pay three times as much. Similar numbers hold for commercial property.

Communities with a higher Walk Score have higher home prices: “That’s two thousand dollars per point, on a scale from 0 to 100. LA’s Muholland Drive scores 9. San Fransisco’s Chinatown and NYC’s Tribeca score 100.

On how creative, young people prefer walkability: “The share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their twenties has dropped from 20.8 percent to just 13.7 percent.” (Heck, my son, who is about to turn 18, has expressed zero interest in learning to drive. Back in my day, most kids were eager to drive — and a lot of them got in accidents.) “Fully 77 percent of [millenials] plan to live in America’s urban cores.”

Concerning walkable Portland, residents “on average drive 20 percent less…. this 20 percent (four miles per citizen per day) adds up to $1.1 billion of savings each year” (1.5 of all personal income). That ignores time wasted in traffic, which has decreased from 54 to 43 minutes per day.

“Almost 85 percent of money expended on cars and gas leaves the local economy — much of it, of course, bound for the pockets of Middle Eastern princes.”

“The average American family spends about $14,000 per year driving multiple cars… The typical ‘working’ family, with an income of $20,000 to $50,000, pays more for transportation than for housing.”

Transit construction has a 70 percent employment premium over highways.

Portland spent $65 million on bicycle facilities over the past several decades but more than $140 million just to build one of the city’s freeway interchanges.

On walking: “While fully 50 percent [of children] walked to school in 1969, fewer than 15 percent do now.” One mother in Salt Lake City was arrested because she let her son walk to school.

In the mid 70s, only 1/10 of Americans were obese. Now it’s 1/3. The obesity rate for adolescents has quadrupled.

“One study found that for every additional five minutes Atlanta-area residents drove each day, they were 3 percent more likely to be obese…. drivers who switch to public transit drop an average of five pounds.

Asthma is worse in cities with more driving.

“Car crashes have killed 3.2 million Americans, considerably more than all our wars combined…. the leading cause of death for all Americans between the age of one and thirty-four.”

Transit-friendly NYC has a traffic fatality rate of 3.1 per 100,000. San Fran and Portland are 2.5 and 3.2. Car-friendly Atlanta is at 12.7, and Tampa is at 16.2.

German and Belgian studies showed that many heart attack victims had recently been in stressful traffic.

“A 23-minute commute had the same effect on happiness as a 19 percent reduction in income.”

“The Princeton psychologist Raniel Kahneman reports that commuting ranks as people’s least favorite regular activity.”

“Each ten additional minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by ten percent”

People who live longest get exercise not from high-intensity exercise (e.g., running), but from everyday activity: biking to work ….

The US transfers about 300 billion dollars yearly to the Middle East in oil money, $612,500 every minute.

On the high cost of free parking: “Nobody can opt out of paying for parking. People who walk, bike or take transit are bankrolling those who drive.” (p 118) “Because there are so many parking spaces, this cumulative subsidy was calculated a decade ago at between $127 billion and $374 billion a year.” “Parking spaces under Seattle’s Pacific Place Shopping Center, built by the city, cost over sixty thousand dollars each.”   Corporations’ payments for employer-subsidized parking reduce the price of automotive commuting by a remarkable 71 percent … the same impact as an additional gasoline tax of between $1.27 and $3.74 per gallon.”

Many cities have zoning laws that require developers to provide on-site parking — another subsidy to drives — and tax on non-drivers.

Speck describes the story of the dismantling of a freeway in Seoul, South Korea. Many people feared mayhem, and street vendors who had serviced people waiting in traffic protested. But the teardown was a success:  traffic and pollution have reduced, and property values soared near the urban boulevard that replaced it.

Speck discusses the Seattle  tunnel project. Speck and his colleagues tried to convince Nickels to reject the $4.2 billion  tunnel and build an urban boulevard. Nickels refused, thinking the traffic would clog streets.

Speck presents surprising (to me) evidence that electric cars, and especially hybrid cars, offer little benefit over conventional cars, because they use electricity (much of which is generated by dirty coal), and because they encourage more driving. Tail pipe emission are just one part of the costs of automobile use.

Speck tells the ironic story of the new EPA headquarters built in the suburbs. Its previous location was walkable downtown Kansas City. The new building was “green” and energy-efficient, but the added cost of commuting by its employees offset the benefits of the green building.  Trendy environmentalism, I suppose. (But this is not to say that all environmentalism is bad!)

“Cities with higher congestion use less fuel per capita.”   So, rather than trying to reduce congestion — which will encourage more driving and eventually lead to re-congestion — it’s better to let the market work: people will drive less if roads are congested!

“Since 1983 … the number of miles driven has grown at eight times the population rate.  While almost one in ten commuters walked to work in Illich’s day, fewer than one in ten do now.”

In the U.S. 1.5% of trips are by public transportation.  In the New York region, it’s 9% (over 50% in Manhattan). Chicago and San Fransisco are at about 5%. Toronto is 14%. Barecelona and Rome are at 35. Tokyo’s at 60%. Hong Kong is 73%.

Every U.S. city with a population over 10,000 had streetcars in 1902. They were dismantled starting in 1922 by a consortium created by GM and oil companies. The case was proven in court and the companies were fined $5000; execs were fined $1 each.

Poll after poll has shown that voters favor public transit over road building, but current funding is 4 to 1 in favor of roads.

“Widening a city’s streets in the name of safety is like distributing handguns to deter crime,” because wider roads encourage higher speeds, but road engineers regularly do so for fear of lawsuits.  Instead, they should be sued for widening roads, which cause 900 additional fatalities per year.  High speed roads also discourage pedestrians, who feel unsafe. Similarly, turning-friendly intersections encourage high speed turns, and one-way streets increase speeds and harm adjacent businesses.

“In Amsterdam, a city of 783,000, about 400,000 people are out riding their bikes on any given day.”

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