More highways failing to meet projections

An article on highlights a number of new or expanded highway projects in the US are vastly failing to meet traffic projections:

Before beginning a $2.5 billion project to widen the New Jersey Turnpike, turnpike officials said the construction was necessary to reduce existing congestion and to cope with future traffic.

“Turnpike traffic is on the rise,” the state Turnpike Authority said in its justification for the project. “By 2032 northbound traffic volume is expected to increase by nearly 68 percent [above 2005 levels]; southbound traffic is forecasted to increase by 92 percent.”

Now, one-third of the way through that 27-year forecast, turnpike traffic is actually about 10 percent lower than it was in 2005.

And this particular project is hardly a one-off:

Similar traffic declines have occurred around the region, challenging long-established assumptions about the need for bigger highways and bridges.

“If these trends continue, it would definitely change the way we need to plan for our transportation future,” said Chris Puchalsky, associate director of systems planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. “But I think the jury is still out on that . . . we need two or three more years of data.”

In 2007, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission assumed that traffic would grow 3 percent to 5 percent every year to help pay for debt as it took on a new obligation to contribute up to $900 million a year to fix other roads around the state.

Instead, traffic has been essentially flat.

And when the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission decided in 2003 to replace the 50-year-old, four-lane Scudder Falls Bridge on I-95 with a $328 million, nine-lane, 180-foot-wide toll bridge, it assumed that traffic would increase 35 percent by 2030.

In fact, bridge traffic has declined slightly and is now below the levels of 2002.

The implications of getting previous projections wrong are significant if funding was expected from toll revenue – which is what has sent a number of PPP transport projects bankrupt. For publicly funded projects though, the failure to meet expected usage hasn’t been so obvious. However, the implications for future transport planning are significant – as we’ve highlighted so many times before. Back to the article:

Highway planners misjudged the future because the Great Recession reduced both commercial and passenger travel, and because of an unexpected drop in driving by young adults.

Now, planners and policymakers must decide whether the last decade was an aberration or the beginning of a new normal.

The decisions are taking on new urgency, as Congress struggles to come up with a new transportation-funding plan by the end of September, when the current one expires. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road projects around the country, is nearly broke.

“The last decade was a really tough decade for forecasting,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Traditional expectations of economic growth – which typically fuel traffic growth – were undone by the recession of 2001, the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and anemic job growth for the entire decade, Hughes said.

Add to that the unprecedented behavior of young adults, driven by technology, lifestyle choices, and economic prospects.

“The millennials are really changing the world dramatically,” Hughes said. “We have a younger generation that is driving less and doesn’t want to live in Valley Forge. They want to live in Center City Philadelphia.”

“We had a 50-year period of unrestricted suburbanization, and now there’s a dramatic shift.”

Cars and driving are less important to young adults, who find that trains and buses allow them to work and socialize on mobile electronic devices, he said.

That may mean fewer cars on future roads.

“Nobody was really anticipating this,” Hughes said. “The models have to be recalibrated.”

Some projections have already been lowered.

NZTA have already noted in changes to their economic evaluation manual that traffic growth can no longer just be assumed – and any assumptions need to be proved. It’s a shame though that complex traffic models still seem to defy reality and project traffic growth.

It makes me think about all of our recent state highway improvements, think Newmarket Viaduct replacement, Victoria Park Tunnel, Greenhithe Deviation, Hobsonville Deviation, Mt Roskill extension, Manukau Harbour Crossing Project, SH20-SH1 Manukau Connection, CMJ Improvements and Orewa-Puhoi extension. All have seen increases in traffic volumes in recent years as people shift their travel behaviour however I wonder how they are currently tracking compared to the traffic projections for 2014 when they were proposed and funded. That would be interesting information to get from NZTA.

Understanding US transit ridership trends

An article in the New York Times looks at the recent announcements that transit (PT) ridership in the USA in 2013 was the highest since the 1950s – much the same as in Auckland. What’s perhaps most interesting in the 2013 numbers is that petrol prices doesn’t seem to have featured as much in the reasoning behind the increase:

The trade group said in its annual report that 10.65 billion passenger trips were taken on transit systems during the year, surpassing the post-1950s peak of 10.59 billion in 2008, when gas prices rose to $4 to $5 a gallon.

The ridership in 2013, when gas prices were lower than in 2008, undermines the conventional wisdom that transit use rises when those prices exceed a certain threshold, and suggests that other forces are bolstering enthusiasm for public transportation, said Michael Melaniphy, the president of the association.

“Now gas is averaging well under $4 a gallon, the economy is coming back and people are riding transit in record numbers,” Mr. Melaniphy said in an interview. “We’re seeing a fundamental shift in how people are moving about their communities.”

New Zealand has been different in regards to petrol with prices hovering around or even above the peaks of 2008 for the last few years. Here’s the graph of our average weekly petrol price up to 7th March.

Petrol Price - Mar 14

Furthermore, the article notes how over the last 18 years, PT ridership has grown faster than the rate of population growth, whereas the level of driving per capita has fallen:

From 1995 to 2013, transit ridership rose 37 percent, well ahead of a 20 percent growth in population and a 23 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, according to the association’s data.

Stronger economic growth is playing an important role in the increased use of public transit, as more people are using the systems to get to an increasing number of jobs, the association reported, and transit agencies are nurturing growth by expanding their systems or improving services.

“We’re seeing that where cities have invested in transit, their unemployment rates have dropped, and employment is going up because people can get there,” Mr. Melaniphy said.

Overall public transit ridership increased by 1.1 percent from 2012, with the biggest gains in rail service and in bus service for smaller cities.

Here’s what Auckland’s vehicle kilometres travelled per capita looks like compared to the number of trips per capita. Note: we won’t have VKT data for 2013 till later this year, also the latest PT trips per capita has started climbing again.

VKT vs PT Trips per Captia 1

There’s often debate about whether the levelling off of traffic growth and the fairly dramatic increase in PT use over the past few years is a “blip” – caused by the global financial crisis and the fairly long recession that followed it, plus highly fluctuating oil prices in the past few years – or whether the changes are a longer term trend. With US ridership booming despite lower oil prices and at a time of growing economic success, the “blip” argument seems to be getting weaker and weaker. The longer term trends are well summarised in the article’s final two paragraphs:

Todd Litman, an analyst at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Victoria, British Columbia, said the new data were the latest indication of changing consumer preferences as a result of increasing urbanization, an aging population, and environmental and health concerns.

“A lot of people would prefer to drive less and rely more on walking, cycling and public transit, provided that those are high-quality options,” Mr. Litman said.

Time to change those traffic projections NZTA.

Does building roads harm the economy?

Most proposals to build new roads or widen existing ones seem to boil down to an ultimate belief that it will “help the economy”. Whether it’s by improving freight reliability or getting people to their jobs faster or helping business travel or whatever, there seems to be a fundamental belief among many that quite a strong relationship must exist between building more roads and improving the economy.

Clearly this is a contestable assumption, and some recent research in the USA details some pretty interesting trends – as reported on in Planetizen:

University of Minnesota professor David Levinson has written in the past that, because of the relative completeness of our national highway network and the cost of construction, the return on investment for additional mileage is approaching zero. One study estimates the return on investment for highway construction was just 14% between 1990 and 2000.

I recently decided to follow up on this line of research, so I dug through some Census data. What I found was shocking, though not altogether surprising. It seems that, besides wasting billions of taxpayer dollars, road-building may actually be holding back economic growth overall: from roughly 2000 to 2010, states that built the fewest urban road miles grew an average of 64 to 94 percent faster than their asphalt-enamored neighbors. Rather than increasing productivity through increased mobility and reduced congestion, as politicians and lobbyists so often promise, all this mindless road-building could be depressing statewide economic growth!

Let’s look at the details a bit more:

Looking at the numbers in aggregate, we see some interesting trends that seem to hold up just about any way you slice the pie:

  • States that increased their urban road mileage by less than 30% grew by an average of 14.40%, while those that increased mileage by greater than 30% grew by an average of just 8.77%.
  • If we set the cutoff at 20% mileage growth, states that built less grew by 17.97%, and states that built more grew by 9.24%.
  • At a 10% cutoff, states that built less grew by an impressive 20.70%, compared to just 10.66% for those that built more.

Statistically, analyzing the correlation between road-building and economic growth gives us an r-score (correlation coefficient) of -0.34, which implies that about 10% of a given state’s economic growth can be explained by how much urban road-building they did over this time period. Many things influence the overall health of any economy, obviously, so we shouldn’t expect the quantity of roads to wholly predict statewide economic growth by itself, but this does indicate a negative correlation between the two variables: more roads equals less growth. (As always, please remember that correlation does not imply causation.)

And for a graphed comparison:

roads_vs_growthThe post’s author, Shane Phillips, doesn’t think that these results are particularly surprising:

None of this should be particularly surprising. While politicians and advocates love to tout the job-creating value of new road and highway capacity, congestion reduction rarely lasts more than five years and widened roads ultimately only succeed in extending the boundaries of wasteful, unproductive sprawl. In the case of road widenings, it’s entirely possible that the disruption caused during the construction phase completely erases — or even exceeds — the fleeting benefits of reduced congestion.

Then there’s the opportunity cost: think of all the good that could have been done with the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on roadways over that period: more responsible transportation spending, education, renewable energy … take your pick.

I think it’s probably unlikely that building roads directly harms the economy, but there are logical reasons to think that it might cause indirect harm: particularly due to it not the best use of public funds and encouraging dispersed land-use patterns which undermine agglomeration. New Zealand’s heavy dependency on private vehicles also forces us to spend a lot of money each year importing cars and oil – basically cancelling out wealth that we create from exporting dairy to the the world.

The next version of the Government Policy Statement will be released some time later this year. If it’s anything like the current version it will stress the importance of transport’s role in improving the economy and then make a giant leap of faith in assuming that building more roads is the best way for transport to improve the economy. It’s time to fundamentally question that assumption.

Conservatives & Smart Growth

We’re increasingly seeing two of the biggest urban issues – housing and transport – unnecessarily turned into “left/right” debates – most significantly in the USA but also in New Zealand, particularly in recent times it seems. Over the next few days I’m going to be looking at how this is playing out and how when you actually look at the arguments being put forward that traditional left/right ideology just doesn’t fit.

Today I’m focusing on housing – or perhaps a better description is urban development. There are generally two extremes talked about when discussing how the urban area should develop, one is that allow unlimited urban growth on the edges of cities – commonly known as sprawl, and the other is that we should intensify the existing urban area often through policies that seek to contain the urban area – in the US this is commonly called Smart Growth. In a political world that likes to see things through a “left/right” lens sprawl is associated with the right while smart growth is with the left.

Asking the question of why Conservatives seem to hate Smart Growth – James Bacon explores this issue in a useful article that also touches upon some of the hypocrisy in many of the positions taken.

Why is conservatism’s intellectual elite so hostile to the idea of smart growth? I hoped to find out why.

The answer, I discovered, is pretty simple: Conservatives equate smart growth with intrusive government intervention in the economy, with regulations, subsidies and boondoggles. They look at out-of-control spending on mass transit projects that will never pay their own way, and they see smart growth. They look at urban growth boundaries in Portland, and they see smart growth. They look at California land use plans designed to substitute single-family houses with apartment complexes, and they see smart growth. They listen to environmentalists who want to re-engineer the economy to stave off global warming, and they hear smart growth. They listen to “social justice” advocates who want to use urban planning to redistribute wealth, and they hear smart growth.

If spending big bucks on environmental and social engineering is bad, then the opposite must be good. Conservatives find themselves defending auto-oriented development patterns in suburbia. What other people refer to derisively as “sprawl” they see as the American dream.

I guess this makes some logic – although it’s a bit strange to see people from the right-wing side of the political spectrum who supposedly dislike government intervention proposing very restrictive land-use planning rules in existing built up areas or opposing the removal of other intrusive rules like minimum parking requirements. It’s this double-standard that the article then picks up on:

 But I part ways in two important regards. First, while conservative intellectuals are spot-on in their critique of mass transit subsidies, they are blind to subsidies for roads and highways. While they hit the bulls-eye in their critique of land use restrictions, they ignore the systemic subsidies for green-field development. Their critique runs only one way. Second, I take issue with the way they identify intrusive government policy with smart growth, rather than calling it what it is — intrusive government policy.

We have extremely intrusive government policy in the form of planning rules that restrict building heights, require setbacks from boundaries, require the provision of parking even when people don’t want it, apply maximum site coverage restrictions, minimum site sizes for density, minimum sizes for houses and even minimum sizes for particular rooms of houses. Pretty intrusive stuff that we generally see otherwise anti-interventionist politicians completely lapping up.

Furthermore, while some proponents of smart growth and what we might call a more “balanced” approach to transport may be pushing particular liberal of leftist agendas, many aren’t. This is further explored:

There is no denying that many leftists and liberals have hitched their agendas — from saving the planet from Global Warming to redistributing wealth from affluent suburban jurisdictions to poverty-stricken inner cities — to the smart growth wagon. But smart growth covers a wide spectrum of views. Take, for example, the New Urbanists who espouse compact, walkable human-scale development reminiscent of the early 20th century. New Urbanists have suffused the broader smart growth movement with much of their thinking. Yet they are agnostic about where to build — the suburbs, exurbs, inner city, wherever. As architects, builders and developers, they’re all in favor of growth and development. Building stuff is how they make their money and how they see their visions fulfilled. Their prescriptions apply to inner cities, aging suburbs and green-field development alike.

Andres Duany, one of the leading lights in the movement, is perfectly comfortable with the idea that a third or so of all Americans have no interest in New Urbanism communities. He is happy to let them live their lives in peace. What he asks for is a roll-back of zoning codes and other restrictions that prevent him from building the kinds of communities that other people want. Sometimes, he sounds remarkably like a conservative complaining about intrusive, regulatory government.

Conservatives make a strategic error by conflating the smart growth movement with leftist social engineers. They arbitrarily classify potential friends as their enemies. Instead of attacking the smart growth movement, which includes many like-minded people, conservatives should direct their scorn to wasteful subsidies and counter-productive regulations, wherever they may be found.

We’ve made the case repeatedly that when it comes to planning, we probably over-regulate on balance. Like the reference to Andres Duany notes, Smart Growth is as much (or more even) about the removal of bad planning rules as it is about adding in additional rules. So it often is surprising how this is opposed by the very people you would think should support it.

Similarly with transport, the balanced approach that we suggest is about giving people greater transport choice or in areas like parking creating a more market focused system. I’ll be talking much more about how this “left/right” issue is affecting transport tomorrow.

Young people (especially) are driving a lot less

A new report out of the USA supports a hypothesis that we’ve been talking about for quite a while on this blog: that traffic growth is stagnating across the world for a variety of reasons – and this has a compelling long term impact on our transport policies.

Some of the key findings from the report are outlined below:

From World War II until just a few years ago, the number of miles driven annually on America’s roads steadily increased. Then, at the turn of the century, something changed: Americans began driving less. By 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year than in 2004.

The trend away from driving has been led by young people. From 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita—a drop of 23 percent. The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting—even once the economy recovers.

Young people are driving less for a host of reasons—higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences—all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.

Federal and local governments have historically made massive investments in new highway capacity on the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady pace. The changing transportation preferences of young people—and Americans overall—throw those assumptions into doubt. The time has come for transportation policy to reflect the needs and desires of today’s Americans—not the worn-out conventional wisdom from days gone by.

Some of the statistics are pretty amazing: a 23% fall in the average vehicle miles travelled by young people in only eight years! Per capita travel peaked in 2004, well before the economic difficulties of the past few years:

usa-vmtThere are other supporting statistics which make for interesting reading too:

  • In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent.
  •  In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds walked to destinations 16 percent more frequently than did 16 to 34-yearolds living in 2001.
  • From 2001 to 2009, the number of passenger-miles traveled by 16 to 34-year-olds on public transit increased by 40 percent.
  • According to Federal Highway Administration, from 2000 to 2010, the share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased from 21 percent to 26 percent.

What the report helpfully does is then delve into some of the reasons behind the pretty dramatic changes: looking at things like higher fuel prices, the toughening up of licensing, improvements in technology, a changing culture and so on.

As always, the critical question is whether these statistics are just a ‘blip’ caused by the recession and slow economic recovery, or whether they are likely to indicate a long-term change. This is a really important question because it determines the extent to which we really do need to change our longer-term transport policies. Of course the only proper answer is to say that “we just don’t know for sure”, but there are some interesting suggestions in the report that the trends are here to stay:

The recession has played a role in reducing the miles driven in America, especially by young people. People who are unemployed or underemployed have difficulty affording cars, commute to work less frequently if at all, and have less disposable income to spend on traveling for vacation and other entertainment. The trend toward reduced driving, however, has occurred even among young people who are employed and/or are doing well financially.

  • The average young person (age 16-34) with a job drove 10,700 miles in 2009, compared with 12,800 miles in 2001.
  • From 2001 to 2009, young people (16 to 34-years-old) who lived in households with annual incomes of over $70,000 increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent.

For Auckland, what will be interesting is to see whether reductions in per capita driving are swamped by the massive population growth anticipated over the next 30 years or not. If not, then pretty much every new roading project planned for over the next 30 or so years may not actually be necessary.

Is the shopping mall dying?

The indoor shopping mall turns 60 this year, but an Atlantic Cities article questions whether it’s dying:

At the mall’s peak popularity, in 1990, America opened 19 of them. But we haven’t cut the ribbon on a new one since 2006, for reasons that go beyond the recession.

Not a single new mall in the whole of the USA opened since 2006. That’s quite amazing. And by the sounds of it many of the existing malls are struggling to survive too:

By Dunham-Jones’ count, today about a third of our existing malls are “dead” or dying. That’s not to say they’re mostly vacant. But they have dreadful sales per square foot. High-end dress stores have moved out, and tattoo parlors have replaced them – “things,” Dunham-Jones says, “that would normally be considered way too déclassé for a mall.”

About a third of our malls are still thriving, and those are the biggest, newest ones. But America is no longer building many new highways, which means we’ve stopped creating prime new locations for mall development. Some of the earliest amenities of the enclosed mall – air-conditioning! – no longer impress us. And the demographics of suburbia have changed dramatically. Malls draw the largest share of their customers from teenagers, and the baby boomers who largely populate suburbia no longer have teenagers at home.

So what’s replacing these malls? Well, often it seems that we’re seeing something of a return to traditional style “main street” shopping, but within more mixed-use developments known as “lifestyle centres”. The article goes on:

… the suburban mall of Gruen’s plan appears to be victim of more than just the recession. Dunham-Jones, who has tracked this trend in her book Retrofitting Suburbia, estimates that more than 40 malls nationwide have been targeted for significant redevelopment. And she can count 29 that have already been repurposed, or that have construction underway.

In 2010, Columbus, Ohio, tore down the dead mall in its downtown for a park. Voorhees, New Jersey, demolished half of its dead mall, built a new main street and relocated its city hall into the remaining building. In Denver, eight of the area’s 13 regional malls now have plans for redevelopment. One of them, in suburban Lakewood, was converted from a 100-acre super block into 22 walkable blocks with retail and residences.

“It’s the downtown that Lakewood never had before,” Dunham-Jones says. Ironically, this is what Gruen had been aiming for. “Except that now it’s open-air.”

Americans haven’t particularly outgrown the consumer impulse that Gruen detected. We still love to flock to dense agglomerations of Body Shops and Cinnabuns and Brookstones. But now those places look increasingly like open-air “lifestyle centers,” with condos above or offices next door. Some of these places are just the old mall in a new Main Street disguise. But when you add residences, and cut Gruen’s mega-block into what actually looks like a downtown street grid, that begins to change things.

“You’ve got to get a mix of uses, but the connectivity is probably even more important,” Dunham-Jones says. “The uses will come and go over time, but if you can establish a walkable network of streets, that’s when you’re really going to establish a ripple effect in changing suburban patterns.”

Of course the City Rail Link project means that Westfield’s downtown shopping mall will need to be demolished. This is great as the mall is a pretty hideous building on one of Auckland’s best pieces of land. But elsewhere in Auckland it doesn’t really seem as though we’re following the USA’s trend. Within the land few years we’ve seen Sylvia Park and Albany malls open, two of Auckland’s biggest, while big redevelopments of both 277 Newmarket and St Lukes are on the cards to occur in the next couple of years.

I suppose this begs the question of whether Auckland’s fundamental retail environment differs from the USA, or whether they’re just a little ahead of us in the trend and it’s an inevitability that we’ll start to see a “post mall” retail environment. I certainly hope so, as long as it’s something better than the “mega centres” we often see sprouting up around shopping malls (yes I’m looking at you Wagener Place, St Lukes!)

US Traffic Volumes – something weird is happening

We’ve spoken a lot about traffic volumes over the past few weeks on this blog – and for good reason too: there are some strange things going on with traffic volumes on state highways now static for around seven years and vehicle kilometres travelled on both state highways and local roads in the Auckland area increasing at a much slower rate than population growth over the past five years. Needless to say, these trends are pretty much unheard of previously – in that for close to a century traffic volumes have just gone up, up and up (world wars excluded, I imagine).

The trend is not just limited to New Zealand though, here’s a graph showing the 12 month rolling total of vehicle miles travelled in the USA since 1970: 
Showing a comparison with times of recession is useful because often when you point out to people that traffic volumes aren’t increasing, the first response is “but that’s just due to the recession”. Looking at the above graph you can see that in a recession it’s normal for volumes to flat-line or even decrease. Yet outside recessionary times there’s almost always an increase in volumes – aside from what looks like a time period which coincided the 1979 energy crisis.

That is until recently. While obviously the world’s recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis has been slow, having VMT flat-line and then quite sharply decline in very recent times, outside a recessionary period, is quite unprecedented. Something very different is happening here, a big reduction in traffic volumes even when the economy is growing. It would be interesting to run a comparison for New Zealand – something that the Ministry of Transport should be doing but I suspect aren’t because their heads are stuck in the sand just as much as the Minister’s.

Does the market really still want sprawl?

A couple of excellent posts by Stu Donovan over the last couple of weeks have highlighted a fundamental change in transportation trends across not just New Zealand, but many developed world countries: we’re not driving more – in fact, on a per capita basis, we’re driving a lot less. After a century of almost uninterrupted increases in the use of private vehicles, this is a pretty enormous change – something far too challenging for the small minds at the Ministry of Transport or NZTA, for example.

But this is not the only fundamental change that’s occurring. Just as we have always assumed traffic volumes will increase, we have also always assumed that the land-use development market wants to sprawl. Limiting urban sprawl has been seen as an important planning ideal for a long time (for a variety of reasons), but it has always been pitched as a battle between planners (who want to contain it) and ‘the market’ (which supposedly wants to sprawl). This simplistic situation dominates discussion in Auckland, for example, about how the city should grow. Allowing most development to occur through intensification is seen as “unrealistic”, “contrary to market forces” or even “authoritarian” – based on the assumption that it’s working against a natural desire of people to want large sections on the edge of the city.

Until relatively recently, this simplistic approach may well have been true. If you look at the USA, population change in 2006 showed a huge amount of growth (shown in red) taking place in suburban and rural areas (map from here): 
However, if we look at 2011 the pattern is quite different: So generally a lot less growth in the larger rural/suburban counties that show up clearest in the map above. But the US population is still growing, suggesting that a lot more of the growth must be concentrated in urban centres that don’t show up as obviously in the map (because they’re geographically much smaller). The USA Today article that put together these maps discusses this:

Almost three years after the official end of a recession that kept people from moving and devastated new suburban subdivisions, people continue to avoid counties on the farthest edge of metropolitan areas, according to Census estimates out today.

The financial and foreclosure crisis forced more people to rent. Soaring gas prices made long commutes less appealing. And high unemployment drew more people to big job centers. As the nation crawls out of the downturn, cities and older suburbs are leading the way.

Population growth in fringe counties nearly screeched to a halt in the year that ended July 1, 2011. By comparison, counties at the core of metro areas are growing faster than the nation as a whole.

A bit of analysis of where growth is actually happening:

All but two of the 39 counties with 1 million-plus people — Michigan’s Wayne (Detroit) and Ohio’s Cuyahoga (Cleveland) — grew from 2010 to 2011.

Twenty-eight of the big counties gained faster than the nation, which grew at the slowest rate since the Great Depression (0.73%). The counties’ median growth rate was 1.3% (half grew faster, half slower).

Those 28 — including California’s Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Florida’s Broward and Hillsborough, Texas’ Harris and Dallas — generated more than a third of the USA’s growth. Before the recession and housing bust, when people flocked to new development on farmland, they contributed just 27%…

…Central metro counties accounted for 94% of U.S. growth, compared with 85% just before the recession.

And some further discussion:

“This could be the end of the exurb as a place where people aspire to go when they’re starting their families,” says William Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution. “So many people have been burned by this. … First-time home buyers, immigrants and minorities took a real big hit.”

During the ’70s gas shortage and the ’80s savings and loan industry crisis, some predicted the end of suburban sprawl. It didn’t happen then, but current trends could change the nation’s growth patterns permanently.

Aging Baby Boomers, who have begun to retire, and Millennials, who are mostly in their teens and 20s, are more inclined to live in urban areas, McIlwain says.

“I’m not sure we’re going to see outward sprawl even if the urge to sprawl continues,” he says. “Counties are getting to the point that they don’t have the money to maintain the roads, water, sewer. … This is a century of urbanization.”

Demographic change really is the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to predicting future trends. While it’s early days for us to make completely confident pronouncements over the future of urban sprawl, just as changing trends relating to traffic volumes require us to fundamentally rethink much of what we’ve previously taken as gospel, changing demand patterns for urban development need to be given serious consideration. Perhaps the real urban development debate is not so much about the market wanting sprawl and planners trying to fight the market; but rather more about the market wanting different housing types in inner urban areas and our planning system being unable to cope with how to provide these in an attractive yet affordable manner.

Wider view of affordability needed

The housing affordability dimension to the urban sprawl versus intensification argument is a messy debate. While limiting land supply through measures such as urban limits is likely to have a significant impact on land prices around the limit itself, it’s hard to know for sure what the impact of opening up land on the urban edge would have on prices throughout the majority of the city – particularly in the inner areas where it seems people most want to live.

Albany 2011

Another complicating matter is fairly obvious – the further out people are, the more they’re likely to spend on transportation costs. Potentially this additional expense could counter any affordability gain we get (should that even exist) from opening up new land on the periphery. A recent Atlantic Cities article picks up on this matter:

Housing policymakers have long lamented the trend of home-buyers who “drive to qualify.” If they can’t find anything affordable in the city, house hunters wander farther and father out in search of a mortgage or a rent payment that matches their pocketbook. But of course, there’s a serious flaw in this thinking: The farther you go in search of cheaper housing, the more expensive your transportation costs become.

Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology calls this “the hidden cost of housing location,” and CNT has for several years been trying to illustrate the tradeoff for homeowners and government officials who may not realize gallons of gas add up almost as fast as mortgage payments do. The Chicago-based organization maintains a massive, geo-coded database of location-specific information on average housing costs, driving rates, transportation costs, and transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. The online, interactive index is both highly useful in allowing comparisons of typical household costs in different locations and highly revealing as it illuminates the benefits of close-in, walkable neighborhoods in bringing those costs down.

Remember we’re only talking about the cost to individuals here. The vastly increased costs of providing infrastructure to urban sprawl is in addition to this. So what kind of results do we get from taking a more holistic point of view of affordability – taking into account transport and housing costs.

Analyzing all this data in aggregate, CNT found that, between 2000 and 2009, U.S. transportation and housing costs increased at nearly twice the rate of incomes. But the good news, the organization reports, is that people living in “location efficient” neighborhoods—those with good access to transit, jobs, and amenities—experienced only half the increase in transportation costs ($1,400/year) of those living in car-dependent places ($3,900/year). This means more expensive housing may actually be the more affordable option, if that housing exists in the right place.

Suddenly New York City, with its notoriously high housing costs, looks a little more affordable with the nation’s lowest average annual transportation costs for a big metro region. Households around seemingly more affordable Birmingham, on the other hand, spend on average nearly $5,000 a year more than those in the New York region do just to get around.

It’s worth keeping in mind that transportation costs also have the ability to go up really quickly too – as we saw in 2008 most particularly. The article also goes on to highlight that places in the USA with the highest rates of mortgage foreclosure have also been places where transportation costs are really high:

CNT’s index reveals, for example, that high transportation costs are highly correlated with foreclosure rates. This isn’t surprising given that transportation typically represents a family’s second biggest expense.

On one location on the south side of Rapid City, South Dakota, for instance, the index shows that an average home costs 26 percent of median income. But, given average driving rates for the location, the costs of housing and transportation considered together balloon to 56 percent of median income. The Index also shows that the average household in the vicinity generates more than 8.6 tons per year of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. Average emissions per household in the most accessible neighborhoods on CNT’s map are between 5.1 and 6.5 tons per year.

Albany 2011

I really worry that these Greenfield areas the Auckland Plan proposes to open up could become future slums when petrol prices spike in the future, making it unaffordable in a transport sense to live in such a peripheral location. Especially as right now despite the persistent highs of oil on the international market price at the pump in NZ has remained relatively calm because of the steadily rising NZD . This could change very quickly; $3 or $4 per litre is not unlikely, all it would take is the NZD to return to its  historical average levels and oil to continue its steady march upward ["It's highly likely that the Reserve Bank will make some strongly worded comments against the currency's strength."Herald 5 March]. Either way the ‘suburbanisation of poverty’ that is noticeable in the US looks like it is heading to Auckland, with the poor priced off the road and subject to another American expression: ‘No transit: No job’.

Edge City: not the future after all?

My Amazon book purchases with Christmas money have all arrived in the past few days, leaving me with an exciting – but somewhat daunting – reading list over the next few weeks:

Typically, I’ve started somewhat madly by reading through the first few pages of each book. But generally it seems like I’ll be digging through Human Transit and Edge City first. While I’ve only read the first couple of chapters of Edge City, it has thrown up some interesting thoughts – particularly as it’s written from a perspective that’s fairly different to mine and, given it was written in 1992, gives us some perspective in the way that things might have changed over the past 20 years.

An Amazon review give us a reasonably good overview of what the book is about:

This book explores what has become of the suburbs. Garreau’s argues that certain suburbs have developed into a new kind of city, a city without a traditional downtown. He believes that such “edge cities”, are the cities of the future. Garreau’s criteria for an “edge city” are:
–5 million square feet or more of office space
–600,000 square feet or more of retail space
–more jobs than bedrooms
–perceived as one place by the population
–developed within the last 30 years

With these criteria in mind, Garreau sets off across the US to study our major edge cities. He explores edge cities in New Jersey, Texas, Southern California, and the areas around Boston, Detroit, Atlanta, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. In each area that he visits, Garreau takes up an edge city theme. For instance, in Detroit he discusses cars and the role they play in edge cities, and in Atlanta he discusses questions of race and class in edge cities.

At the end of the book is a list of US cities that qualified for edge city status in 1992. This is followed by a glossary of words used by edge city developers and a set of “laws” about how edge cities work. These “laws” are statistical observations about human behavior relevant for city planning, such as “the furthest distance an American will willing walk before getting into a car is 600 feet.” Finally, there is an annotated list of suggested readings, endnotes, and an index.

Garreau is neither for nor against edge cities. He tries instead to understand how they work, and why they have popped up so rapidly across the country. He strives to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, coming across more like Jane Jacobs than Lewis Mumford, who argued so stridently for regional planning. Garreau points out that edge cities are being built by developers who are in the business to make money. In other words, they build what they believe will sell, and given the fact that the developments sell so well, a lot of Americans are making the conscious decision that they want to live in edge city developments. Through interviews with developers, employers, and residents, Garreau explores the factors that make edge cities so popular.

He writes “Maybe it worked like this. The force that drove the creation of Edge City was our search deep inside ourselves for a new balance of individualism and freedom. We wanted to build a world in which we could live in one place, work in another, and play in a third, in unlimited combination, as a way to nurture our human potential. This demanded transportation that would allow us to go where we wanted, when we wanted. That enshrined the individual transportation system, the automobile, in our lives. And that led us to build our market meeting places in the fashion of today’s malls.” Cars are key elements in this phenomenon. They make it possible for people to separate their workplaces from the residences, and they define the distances which are considered commutable. They make it possible for people to live spread out enough from each other that everyone can have a front yard, yet at the same time, for the development to be dense enough to support large employers and sophisticated shopping options.

While it’s correct to say that the book doesn’t come out strongly for or against the Edge City, the strong message that I’ve got from it so far is how inevitable the process of further decentralisation, auto-dependency and further creation of more Edge Cities seems to be. Places like Tysons Corner near Washington DC: Garreau describes, rather than promotes, the ‘fact’ that these type of places appear to clearly be the future of urban environments throughout the USA (and presumably, eventually the rest of the ‘new’ developed world). But there’s a sense of inevitability to the whole process, a surety that the future is more of the image above:

Americans are creating the biggest change in a hundred years in how we build cities. Every single American city that is growing, is growing in the fashion of Los Angeles, with multiple urban cores.

These new hearths of our civilisation – in which the majority of metropolitan Americans now work and around which we live – look not at all like our old downtowns. Buildings rarely rise shoulder to shoulder, as in Chicago’s Loop. Instead, their broad, low outlines dot the landscape like mushrooms, separated by greensward and parking lots. Their office towers, frequently guarded by trees, gaze at one another from respectful distances through bands of glass that mirror in the sun in blue or silver or gold or green, like antique drawings of “the city of the future”…

…Our new city centres are tied together no by locomotives and subways, but by jetways, freeways, and rooftop satellite dishes thirty feet across. Their characteristic monument is not a horse-mounted hero, but the atria reaching for the sun and shielding trees perpetually in leaf at the cores of corporate headquarters, fitness centres and shopping plazas. These new urban areas are marked not by the penthouses of the old urban rich or the tenements of the old urban poor. Instead, their landmark structure is the celebrated single-family detached dwelling, the suburban home with grass all around the made America the best-housed civilisation the world has ever known.

You kind of see where the book is heading (although not in an uninteresting way). The supposed inevitability of further decentralisation, based around a car-centric transport system, also comes through in many of the more recent critiques of projects such as the City Rail Link, or in critiques of the metropolitan urban limit. Planning is thought to be working against natural processes of decentralisation, investment in public transport projects (other than a thoughtless “but buses can use roads too” slogan) is seen to be ignorant of changes to urban form, ignorant of a decreased role for the city centre in the future, and therefore just a waste of money.

The book’s observations are backed up by some quite interesting facts (remember, from 1992):

 Already, two-thirds of all American office facilities are in Edge Cities, and 80 percent of them have materialised in only the last two decades. By the mid-1980s, there was far more office space in Edge Cities around America’s largest metropolis, New York, than there was at its heart – midtown Manhattan. Even before Wall Street faltered in the late 1980s there was less office space there, in New York’s downtown, that there was in the Edge Cities of New Jersey alone.

While Edge Cities continued to grow and multiply after 1992, over the past decade I think things have changed and seem likely to change further in the future. If we look at Auckland, the city centre is probably a more vibrant, thriving and dominant place than it has been for 20 years. If we look internationally, we see some trends of ‘recentralisation’ , particularly of residents but perhaps also of businesses too. This recent New York Times article was very interesting, when analysing the issue:

By now, nearly five years after the housing crash, most Americans understand that a mortgage meltdown was the catalyst for the Great Recession, facilitated by underregulation of finance and reckless risk-taking. Less understood is the divergence between center cities and inner-ring suburbs on one hand, and the suburban fringe on the other.

It was predominantly the collapse of the car-dependent suburban fringe that caused the mortgage collapse.

In the late 1990s, high-end outer suburbs contained most of the expensive housing in the United States, as measured by price per square foot, according to data I analyzed from the Zillow real estate database. Today, the most expensive housing is in the high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods of the center city and inner suburbs. Some of the most expensive neighborhoods in their metropolitan areas are Capitol Hill in Seattle; Virginia Highland in Atlanta; German Village in Columbus, Ohio, and Logan Circle in Washington. Considered slums as recently as 30 years ago, they have been transformed by gentrification.

Simply put, there has been a profound structural shift — a reversal of what took place in the 1950s, when drivable suburbs boomed and flourished as center cities emptied and withered.

The shift is durable and lasting because of a major demographic event: the convergence of the two largest generations in American history, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the millennials (born between 1979 and 1996), which today represent half of the total population.

Many boomers are now empty nesters and approaching retirement. Generally this means that they will downsize their housing in the near future. Boomers want to live in a walkable urban downtown, a suburban town center or a small town, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors.

This is quite a different vision for the future, and quite a different analysis of the current situation, to what we saw in 1992’s “Edge City”. Interestingly, in this more recent look at centralisation versus decentralisation, we see the “what does the market want” being flipped on its head:

Over all, only 12 percent of future homebuyers want the drivable suburban-fringe houses that are in such oversupply, according to the Realtors survey. This lack of demand all but guarantees continued price declines. Boomers selling their fringe housing will only add to the glut. Nothing the federal government can do will reverse this.

Many drivable-fringe house prices are now below replacement value, meaning the land under the house has no value and the sticks and bricks are worth less than they would cost to replace. This means there is no financial incentive to maintain the house; the next dollar invested will not be recouped upon resale. Many of these houses will be converted to rentals, which are rarely as well maintained as owner-occupied housing. Add the fact that the houses were built with cheap materials and methods to begin with, and you see why many fringe suburbs are turning into slums, with abandoned housing and rising crime.

The good news is that there is great pent-up demand for walkable, centrally located neighborhoods in cities like Portland, Denver, Philadelphia and Chattanooga, Tenn. The transformation of suburbia can be seen in places like Arlington County, Va., Bellevue, Wash., and Pasadena, Calif., where strip malls have been bulldozed and replaced by higher-density mixed-use developments with good transit connections.

It’s too early to tell for sure, but certainly my thinking is that while Edge City was very much correct in predicting what would happen for the rest of the 1990s, it wasn’t correct in thinking that dramatic decentralisation was going to continue forever. What will perhaps tell us most clearly which ways things are headed, in terms of the ‘decentralisation versus recentralisation debate’, is where new office space is constructed over the next 10-20 years. Auckland has seen a decentralisation of its office space to places like Albany, Smales Farm, Highbrook and Ellerslie over the past 20 years, but this trend seems to have ceased in more recent times.

Only time will tell us for sure whether ‘Edge City’ is the future, or whether it was a late 20th century aberration. Looking at the kind of urban environments it creates, I’m kind of hoping for the latter.