According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the costs of congestion have quadrupled since 1982. The Antiplanner has often argued that cities have deliberately allowed congestion to increase in the erroneous belief that more congestion would lead people to stop driving and start riding transit or use other modes of travel. However, the evidence for this is merely anecdotal; it’s hard to imagine city officials admitting even in private memos that congestion was their goal.
An article in last Friday’s New York Post, however, makes the case that congestion is deliberate. “City officials have intentionally ground Midtown to a halt with the hidden purpose of making drivers so miserable that they leave their cars at home and turn to mass transit or bicycles,” reports the newspaper that was founded by Alexander Hamilton. The article specifically blames “today’s gridlock” on the “Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations.”
Sensational news, perhaps, but not necessarily persuasive. The article attributes this information to “high-level sources,” later saying it comes from “a former top NYPD official.” While the article offered specific examples of ways the city has increased congestion, including the conversion of auto lanes to bicycle lanes and restrictions on the ability of drivers to make turns at many intersections, it offers no documentation that these things were done specifically to make auto drivers miserable.
By driving up land and housing prices, Portland’s urban-growth boundary has accelerated gentrification of low-income neighborhoods, displacing blacks, Latinos, and other families. As the Antiplanner has shown in a recent paper, the number of blacks in Portland actually declined between 2010 and 2014.
Portland promised to find affordable homes for displaced blacks, but for some reason those blacks aren’t too thrilled with the 387-square-foot condos the city has offered them. The city is making the condos available to families earning less than $47,000 a year, with priority given to people displaced by gentrification (which is often subsidized by the city’s urban-renewal agency).
Such people will be welcome to buy these condos for a mere $164,000, or nearly $425 a square foot. Such a deal, especially considering many of the displaced people were living in single-family homes several times the size of the condos, and that such homes in places without urban-growth boundaries would cost half of what the city wants for its “affordable” condos.
Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is following the White House’s advice by proposing to increase the densities of nearly two-thirds of the city’s single-family neighborhoods. Under the proposal, duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units would be allowed in single-family areas.
The plan also proposes to limit the size of a home to about half the square footage of the lot it is on, while at the same time allowing buildings to cover a larger area of the lot. That’s supposedly to prevent McMansions, but it also just happens to encourage people to build two separate homes on one lot (one of which would be called an “accessory” unit).
Portland’s current mayor, Charlie Hales, is a strong advocate of densification–so long as it isn’t in his backyard. When the city proposed to increase densities in Eastmoreland, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods on the city’s east side, residents strongly protested. Hales, who just happens to live there, backed them up. Judging from the map on page 14 of the proposal, neither Eastmoreland nor the wealthy Tualatin Hills neighborhoods are among those that would be rezoned. Continue reading →
HDR, an engineering consulting firm that has been behind many of the nation’s streetcar plans, wants to build a new headquarters in Omaha. The firm is very familiar with tax-increment financing (TIF), since TIF played a role in funding many streetcar projects and developments around those projects. So, naturally, it asked the city of Omaha for nearly $21 million in TIF subsidies to support its new building.
The amount isn’t smaller because HDR had a pang in conscience. The original proposal was to build the headquarters in downtown Omaha, while the latest plan is to put it more than five miles away from downtown, where it would probably pay less property taxes. Since TIF effectively returns the property taxes back to the developer, lower taxes mean less TIF.
Buffalo’s Main Street is coming back to life thanks to one simple change: the city has opened it up to cars after three decades of being a pedestrian mall. As a pedestrian mall, “it was like a ghost town,” says one business owner. Now that it is open to cars, “the difference on the street is like night and day.”
The surprise is not that opening the street to cars has revitalized the downtown area. The real surprise is that it took the city so long to learn its lesson. Businesses started closing almost as soon as the street was closed. By 2002, everyone knew the street closure, which was supposed to renew the area, was a failure. Yet it took more than a decade after that to open it up again.
The Antiplanner gets into the background of this story in Best-Laid Plans. In 1959, Kalamazoo, Michigan became the first city to try to create a downtown pedestrian mall by closing streets to cars. Over the next three decades, cities across the United States and Canada emulated this example by creating more than 200 pedestrian malls. But far from revitalizing downtowns, nearly all of them hastened their demise.
Jacobs made two points, one of them right, and one of them wrong. Her correct point, which is celebrated by many libertarians, is in recognizing that urban planners don’t understand the cities they claim to be designing. The hubris of planners writing 50 year plans when they don’t even know what’s going to happen five years from now would be amusing if the consequences weren’t so expensive.
Jacobs wrong point, which is celebrated by many urban planners today, was in thinking that she did understand cities. She thought she understood her neighborhood, Greenwich Village, New York, but she didn’t understand it very well. She reduced her understanding to four simple “conditions” that she said all cities needed: mixed uses, short blocks, a mixture of old and new buildings, and density of residents and jobs. Her application of these oversimplified conditions to all “great cities” made her just as guilty of hubris as the planners she criticized.
The capital of Bulgaria and the nation’s largest city, Sofia has 1.2 million people packed at a density of 6,900 people per square mile, which is nearly as dense as the densest urban area in the United States. The actual density is probably much higher as the developed area of the city is surrounded by a wide greenbelt of undeveloped land within the city limits. Whatever the density, it is achieved through lots of mid-rise (four to six stories) and high-rise (more than six stories) housing, most of which was built during the soviet era. Before that time, the city was nearly all low-rise (one to three stories) with a few mid-rise buildings in the city center.
This former single-family home is cute enough that someone built a Lego model of it. But the land it is on is too valuable to use it as a house today.
Many pre-war single-family homes are scattered throughout the city, but most of the ones near the city center have been turned into businesses. According to former Sofia resident Sonia Hirt, 47 percent of Bulgarians live in single-family detached homes. But too many in Sofia live in soviet-era high rises.
However, he missed the mark in last Sunday’s show about special districts. “Special districts are small units of government with the power to take tax dollars to do one special thing,” he notes, adding that there are about 40,000 such districts in the country. Instead of weighing whether such districts were better or worse than other forms of government, such as cities and counties, he then proceeds to attack the idea of such districts using often specious reasoning.
Damascus, Oregon, was supposed to be a great experiment in urban planning. A rural community just outside of Portland’s original urban-growth boundary, in 2002 it became the largest addition ever to the land within that boundary. Yet it has had almost no new development since then, and it appears local opposition will lead to the disincorporation of the city, supposedly only the fourth city ever to dissolve in the history of Oregon.
The problem is that urban planners don’t understand how cities work. Here’s how a private developer creates a city. First, they buy land. Then they divide it into neighborhoods of commercial, residential, and other uses, then subdivide each neighborhood into lots. Then they put in infrastructure to support those neighborhoods. At some point along the way, they either incorporate a city or a service district to provide a mechanism for maintaining and expanding the infrastructure and create a process to allow the people who live there to democratically elect officials to oversee the government.
The latest issue of the University of California Transportation Center’s Access magazine has an article that asks, “Does Transit-Oriented Development Need the Transit?” Noting that previous studies found that people who live in TODs are less likely to own cars, the authors dare to ask if the observed changes in travel behavior had anything to do with having rail transit near the TOD.
Since you are reading this here, the answer, of course, is “no.” Instead, the biggest influence on travel behavior is the presence or absence of parking. (The paper didn’t mention the self-selection issue, which is that differences in travel behavior are largely accounted for by the fact that people who don’t want to drive are more likely to live in TODs than people who do.)
In any case, whatever benefits may come from TODs, the authors conclude, “may not depend much on rail access.” That’s good news, the authors claim, because rail lines are expensive to build, so the benefits of TODs could be attained without that expense.