A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner posted commuting data from the Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. But I haven’t compared commuting with urban densities since the 2000 census. The chart below shows this comparison for 226 urbanized areas.
For each decennial census, the Census Bureau maps the land around each major city that is urbanized. The agency’s definition of “urban” is lengthy, but basically it is about 1,000 people per square mile, or 500 people per square mile if the land around them is developed for urban but non-residential purposes. The agency does not remap areas between decennial censuses, so I used the 2010 boundaries to calculate both population density and how people get to work in 2015.
When I was about 12 or 13 years old–this would have been about 1964 or 1965–my elementary school principal gathered the upper classes into the auditorium and gave a lecture about megalopolis, the huge expanse of urbanized land stretching from Boston to Washington. I don’t know why he did that–as far as I can recall, he never gave a lecture on any other subject while I was at that school–but he was obviously inspired by French geographer Jean Gottmann’s book, Megalopolis.
At 810 pages in length, the book was as massive as its subject, but its thesis was simple. As stated in his introduction, Gottmann held that “The Northeastern seaboard of the United States is today the site of a remarkable development–an almost continuous stretch of urban and suburban areas from southern New Hampshire to northern Virginia and from the Atlantic shore to the Appalachian foothills.” This unique (at least in the United States) area has unique problems, Gottmann contended, including “Transportation, land use, water supply, cultural activities, use and development of resources.” Moreover, because it was chopped into eleven states or parts of states, the region’s residents weren’t able to solve those problems. As a result, he predicted, poverty, resource shortages, and pollution were likely to get worse.
Last week, the United Nations conference on housing and sustainable development, Habitat III, adopted the New Urban Agenda. Is this a new version of Agenda 21 aimed at controlling how we live and use our land?
Yes and no. Yes, it is an update to Agenda 21. No, it won’t control how we live any more than the original. If you are worried about such control, look to the city planners on your local government’s staff rather than to some United Nations document.
A close reading of the New Urban Agenda suggests it was heavily influenced by first-world urban planners. But it is filled with so many fudge words and modifiers that it ends up with no meaning at all. Certainly, the United Nations is more interested in eliminating poverty and improving sanitation in developing countries than in interfering with the daily lives of people in developed countries.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs defined a “region” as “an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution.” A proposed rule published by the Obama administration would take the next step in this process, demanding that planning organizations for what were once multiple regions combine or coordinate to produce single regional plans for their now enlarged regions.
The rule states that if multiple metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) exist within a single urbanized area, they must merge or jointly prepare single transportation plans for their area. According to a DOT estimate, about a third of metropolitan planning organizations are affected by the proposed rule.
Congress requires that MPOs write and update two key plans: the long-range (20-year) transportation plan, which must be updated every five years; and the short-term (4-year) transportation improvement plan (TIP), a list of projects the MPO wants to fund, which must be updated every year. As defined by the Census Bureau, urbanized areas often cross state boundaries. However, since MPOs are designated by state governors, they generally do not cross state boundaries. This means the New York urbanized area has separate MPOs for the New York and New Jersey parts of the area, while the Philadelphia urbanized area has three separate MPOs. These would all have to work together to write single long-range plans and TIPs to submit to the federal government.
A new Housing Policy Toolkit from the White House admits that “local barriers to housing development have intensified,” which “has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.” The toolkit, however, advocates tearing down only some of the barriers, and not necessarily the ones that will work to make housing more affordable.
“Sunbelt cities with more permeable boundaries have enjoyed outsized growth by allowing sprawl to meet their need for adequate housing supply,” says the toolkit. “Space constrained cities can achieve similar gains, however, by building up with infill.” Yet this ignores the fact that there are no cities in America that are “space constrained” except as a result of government constraints. Even cities in Hawaii and tiny Rhode Island have plenty of space around them–except that government planners and regulators won’t let that space be developed.
Instead of relaxing artificial constraints on horizontal development, the toolkit advocates imposing even tighter constraints on existing development in order to force denser housing. The tools the paper supports include taxing vacant land at high rates in order to force development; “enacting high-density and multifamily zoning,” meaning minimum density zoning; using density bonuses; and allowing accessory dwelling units. All of these things serve to increase the density of existing neighborhoods, which increases congestion and–if new infrastructure must be built to serve the increased density–urban-service costs.
Palo Alto may be the most expensive housing market in America. The American Community Survey says the home of Stanford is the only city whose median home price was more than $2 million in 2014; the survey numbers don’t go higher than $2 million so we don’t know how much more.
Coldwell Banker’s 2015 report on average prices of a four-bedroom, two-bath home found that Palo Alto’s was $2.1 million; only Newport Beach, at $2.3 million, was higher–but the American Community Survey says a median home in Newport Beach was “only” $1.7 million. (Coldwell Banker’s 2016 numbers don’t include Palo Alto.)
Palo Alto residents earn more than the national average, but not enough to make up for the high housing prices. The median family income was $176,000 in 2014. That happens to also be the nation’s highest, but value-to-income ratios are still more than 11 when they should be under 3.
Poor Martha’s Vineyard is beset by McMansions that have become so controversial that the people having them built have asked their contractors to sign non-disclosure forms to make sure they don’t talk to the press about the giant homes they are building. Local activists are annoyed that many of these homes are occupied only a few months a year but continue to use electricity to keep them heated year round.
A trailer for a movie about big homes on Martha’s Vineyard.
Don’t feel too sorry for residents of the island off the Massachusetts coast, for they brought it on themselves. In 1974, the state legislature created the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, whose mission is to “carefully manage growth so that the Vineyard’s unique environment, character, social fabric and sustainable economy are maintained.” Among other things, the commission has preserved 40 percent of the island as permanent open space, and would like to preserve the remaining 30 percent that is undeveloped.
Lengthy permitting processes are responsible for housing affordability problems in many cities, reports the Washington Post. Of course, I’ve been saying this for nearly two decades, but it doesn’t become true until it is reported in one of our newspapers of record.
While the Post is right about the problem with permitting, the article gets a lot of other things wrong. “Land is obviously part of the problem,” says the article. “San Francisco and Boston, hemmed in by water, have only so much of it left to build on.” Um, not really. The San Francisco Bay Area has built on less than 18 percent of the land available. Just 53 percent of the Massachusetts counties in the Boston metropolitan area have been urbanized, and that doesn’t count parts of the metro area in New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Why do people think that water on one side means they can’t expand in the other three directions?
The article never mentions urban-growth boundaries or other artificial constraints on urban expansion. Instead, it says “critics” have “blamed zoning laws.” In fact, zoning by itself isn’t the issue. Houston doesn’t have zoning, while Dallas does, yet both are growing rapidly and about equally affordable. Instead, the problem is urban containment.
The current administration’s transportation department “subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit,” notes page 5 of the 2016 Republican Party Platform. For example, the administration’s “ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to ‘coerce people out of their cars.'”
In contrast, Republicans pledge “to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government,” including mass transit, “bike share programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping, and historical renovations.” The platform notes that more than 20 percent of federal highway revenues go to mass transit, yet transit is “an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities.” (Really, six big urban areas, namely New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco-Oakland, and Boston, where two-thirds of transit rides take place.)
The Department of Transportation is inviting comments on a proposed change in the rules for metropolitan transportation planning. Under the current rules, every metropolitan planning organization (MPO) must write a long-range (20 years) transportation plan and update it every five years, as well as a short-range transportation improvement plan that lists that projects the organization expects to fund in its region.
Some urbanized areas, however, have multiple metropolitan planning organizations. For example, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach each have their own metropolitan planning organizations even though (since 2000) they are in the same urbanized area. The proposed rule would require the MPOs to submit a single long-range transportation plan for the entire urbanized area.
On one hand, the purpose of MPOs in the first place is to save the federal government from having to review thousands of grant proposals from the thousands of different cities and counties that make up the nation’s urban areas. Thus, this represents a streamlining from the federal government’s point of view since it reduces the number of grant proposals it will have to deal with.