Thursday, December 15, 2005

New Shape of the Growth Debate in Albemarle-Charlottesville

Gov.-elect Tim Kaine wants to give local governments more authority to restrict development that takes place in the absence of adequate transportation infrastructure. To see the fault lines created by this proposal, it's instructive to look at the debate shaping up in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. (See "Leaders Split on Kaine Plans for Growth" in the Daily Progress.)

Pro-growth forces proffer two powerful arguments:

(1) Albemarle County will either restrict projects, thus aggravating the local housing shortage, or extract concessions from developers to pay for more improvements. Either way, housing will become more unaffordable.

(2) Builders will respond by hop-scotching to outlying counties like Nelson, Louisa, Madison or Orange -- until those governments, too, start cracking down. That will make growth for the region defined by the Charlottesville labor watershed (what Ed Risse calls a New Urban Region) even more scattered, forcing people to drive greater distances and placing even greater stress on the regional road system.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Not all development projects are created equal. Scattered, disconnected, low-density projects generate larger traffic footprints than projects designed to make it possible for residents and workers to make fewer, shorter car trips.

Albemarle County has to face up to the reality that, from a regional perspective, it makes sense for development (or re-development) to occur where there is already a road/utility/services infrastructure in place. The responsible reaction is not to halt growth or steer it to outlying counties, but to enable a more efficient, more urban pattern of growth to occur in locations connected to existing development.

Home to the University of Virginia, the Charlottesville area is an emerging center of the Knowledge Economy. It's going to grow. Kaine's proposal could be a win-win if localities used it not to halt growth, not to redirect growth, but to transform growth from an economically inefficient pattern to an economically efficient pattern.


At 10:26 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

"Scattered, disconnected, low-density projects generate larger traffic footprints than projects designed to make it possible for residents and workers to make fewer, shorter car trips."

As far as I can determine this just isn't so. It is a popular, widely repeated, seductive, and even an apparently intuitive argument but it, at best, it’s only a little bit correct.

I have to ask, what evidence would it take to change or modify your position? I don’t think we have the full evidence, one way or another, but there is ample evidence to suggest this idea is just wrong.

It is true that some studies have observed that some neighborhoods have less auto use. But later studies, designed expressly to determine whether that was a result of density, urban design, job location, etc. have shown that there is no apparent connection to density and number or length of trips, but there is a correlation to household income.

Living in far out Jepip, my personal experience is that I tend to, no, always, combine trips in order to minimize travel, and I purchase in larger quantities to avoid extra trips. Having lived in urban areas, I’m not blind to the attractions, but I also have my financial and auto records to suggest my travel is not a lot different now than it was.

Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that the household cost of transportation is less in rural areas than in urban areas (along with most everything else). In suburban areas, even when travel distances are longer, travel times are not.This suggests that urban travel is likely to be more expensive, and more highly polluting than rural or suburban travel, and in any case what urban pollution there is will be more concentrated.

There is also evidence to suggest that people who travel less to work actually travel more for non-essential travel. Apparently people have a kind of travel budget, and they like to travel. Making it possible for people to travel less doesn’t mean that they will. The auto always means that more opportunity is available with it than without

Reducing auto trips or length is not a necessary and sufficient goal in and of itself without considering competing environmental and social issues. Re-arranging our entire built environment simply to reduce auto travel is probably the most expensive, longest term, and least effective approach to reducing the impact of auto use.

Even if you don't believe the published, peer reviewed academic studies, all you have to do is observe your surroundings. Located in Jepip, I NEVER have congestion on the six lanes of highway adjacent to my property, yet building is severely restricted here. This would appear to be patently nuts, and an invitation for someone to make the link between transportation capacity and land use, out here.

The reason it is not nuts, of course, is that the "link" between transportation and land use is likely to be fifty to seventy miles long. Or, it might be 30 minutes to an hour long, depending on the density pattern where you live.
Continuing my personal observations, if I leave my home and go to Marshall, at the wrong time, I might actually find some minor congestion there. If I go to Warrenton, I'm more likely to find congestion, and for longer periods, but only in the commercial areas and thouroughfares. If I go to Vienna/Tysons, congestion is pretty near endemic. But if I go to Rosslyn or K street, congestion is high during business hours and absent otherwise.

Observation suggests that IF there is a link between land use and transportation, that link is probably temporally stronger for business areas than for residential areas, and in mixed areas like Vienna it is both stronger and longer (in time). Therefore, we should restrict or discourage job growth where it causes congestion rather than restricting or discouraging residential growth which might be far from where congestion occurs.

Air traffic has no limit with respect to pavement: they have virtually unlimited flying space, yet airport congestion persists. This observation supports the idea that we cannot build our way out of congestion, and it suggests a reason why: everyone wants to go to the same place at the same time, and the peak load cannot be accommodated in one location.

Airports are notoriously hard to expand, and the major airports with the greatest congestion have long since exceeded their useful size: they are no longer walkable communities and now rely on satellite parking, multiple forms of mass transit, and mile long hikes in order to continue operations. Some even have on-site nap areas and hotels to accomodate the needs of people they are unable to transport.

In short, they are just like our cities.

If, in fact we have to restrict growth due to congestion, lack of infrastructure and costs, the logical place to do so is where we are already most congested, not to promote more of the same. This is the argument that TMT and others, including organized citizens groups are making against further Fairfaxation. Like a super Wal-Mart, at some point we reach a maximum suitable size and we have to replicate elsewhere.

If the concentration of jobs is what is causing unmanageable congestion and causing the need for hideously expensive and inefficient mass transit that offers a lower level of service at higher cost, then the answer is to move the jobs: we need more mixed use.

This is the conclusion reached by the BRAC commission and every other company located outside the beltway. They can't all be wrong.

You cannot argue that it is more efficient or less expensive to further urbanize what we have, except for areas that are truly ripe for infill. Even re-development is more expensive. Time magazine has an article this week about an air rights purchase in New York city. The Air Rights above a church there were sold for $430 per square foot, so that owners of a high rise condo would be guaranteed a view of Central Park. The air rights in such a place are more than the construction costs most anyplace else.

In this case, what they are paying for is the right to view precious open space. You can lower prices by increasing supply, only so long as the demand can be met economically. With limited space and increased infrastructure costs due to complexity and density, demand cannot be met economically in urban areas. The prices are higher not because the values are higher, necessarily, but because the costs are higher. Importing open space is not an option.

Auto use is a red herring. And efficiency/cost is an argument you can't win because it is patently and obviously wrong. More urban/more efficient is an oxymoron.

The real issue is preserving open space, and that is why we see the call for more urbanization: ostensibly it will preserve open space. But the Urban footprint is far larger than the urban area, so "saving" open space this way is an illusion. As it is, we see increasing demand in urban areas for more open space, or even a glimpse of it, as in the case of New York air rights.

Sure, the government has an interest in developing infrastructure in the most economical way, and that means in an orderly fashion. But in order to make those savings, the community is renting the future profits of those that provide the ability to have orderly growth: those to whom growth is denied. And they are doing it at no cost to themselves or existing dwellers. It is an anti-market subsidy to the urban areas, along with subsidies for mass transit that is not used by rural dwellers.

Orderly and efficient development isn't the government's only interest: they have to find a way to do it that is fair. I don't want to see my farm developed. I also don't want to sit here and starve to death as county taxes rise due to new school costs and my neighbors a few miles away make a fortune by tapping into the city water supply.

If you want to keep open space you have to find a way to make it profitable. You probably have to find a way to make it as profitable or nearly so, as development. It is not a question of whether the value of urban development is anywhere near the price, because it clearly is not. It is not a question of whether automobiles are paying their full external costs. It is a question of whether open space is valued at a price that is far too low.

So if PEC, Sierra Club and whoever else want to save open space, then they should raise the money and go buy it, or else to find a way that the value of the urban footprint is properly shared. As it stands now, the only way to profit from open space is to dispose of it. That could change if those that wish to enable or transform growth were willing to pay the costs.

At least in New York, those people that are paying a fortune to protect their view of open space are honest enough to pay the support of the open space as well. The real fault lines in this proposal are caused by those who want something for nothing. At least developers are willing to pay for what they get.


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