My colleague at the Tribune Tony Semerad had an interesting piece last week on the rapidly growing housing market in Utah. Basically, a lot of people are banking on new single family home construction, while a lot of others think the future is in apartments. On apartment vacancies, he writes,
Apartment developers already are bringing a record number of new dwellings to market in and around Salt Lake City in a kind of boom in multifamily units, particularly downtown.
They’ve been spurred by falling vacancy rates for apartments, which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, closed 2013 at around 6.7 percent statewide, down from 8.3 percent just five years ago. Local analysts say the number has dipped as low as 5 percent in recent months.
So what does all this mean?
I think it shows that we’re at a pivotal moment right now in Utah, where we have the opportunity to channel a lot of demand into better city building. We can either opt for sustainable, transit-oriented places. Or we can keep building sprawl.
A few friends recently shared a petition on Facebook asking the Utah Transit Authority to operate its FrontRunner commuter rail on Sundays. When I saw it, the petition had nearly 1,700 signees.
It’s a good idea. Plenty of people travel up and down the Wasatch Front on Sundays and without the rail line they have no choice but to drive. In my own case, I typically meet family in a neighboring county on Sundays and I’d love to be able to take public transit. For those reasons, I hope the petition is successful.
But I can’t help thinking it won’t be. Or, that it can’t be. And on top of that, I wonder if there would be more effective ways to get the FrontRunner to stay open on Sundays.
The problem, at least if I understand UTA’s perspective, is that there’s just not enough demand for regional transit on Sundays. Many of us want to use commuter rail on Sundays, but a handful of individuals is not enough to financially support running a train all day.
The petition also reminds me of another effort asking UTA to run light rail TRAX trains until 2:30 a.m. That too is a great idea — except that TRAX used to run late until the service was discontinued after sufficient demand never materialized.
From the late-night TRAX situation we learn that UTA has a demanded-based service model. So, a petition might get officials to run commuter rail on Sundays, but probably not.
I think a better use of everyone’s time would be a more concerted effort to create transit-friendly communities. Petition local governments to stop giving away free parking, eliminate parking minimums, beef up bike infrastructure, allow major increases in density, etc. These are all things that we fall short on right now — many Utah communities continue to build extremely car-oriented neighborhoods — but that if that changed it would help drive more demand for public transit. In time, that should translate to more transit, including on Sundays, for all of us.
Good news for Salt Lake City: developers are finally building slightly higher density housing.
An article by my colleague Tony Semerad explains that a developer is building a series of townhouses in South Salt Lake. The developer plans to open model units this weekend and has already sold two units. Though I’m not a huge fan of the buildings’ actual look, they have better street engagement than what is usually considered a “townhouse” in Utah.
Here’s are some of the more interesting things about this development:
• As the article points out, it signals a trend in the housing market toward more “urban” — i.e. dense — housing.
• Apparently the supply of single family homes along the Wasatach Front is “dwindling.” I find this a little hard to believe because there is a lot of space and a lot of listings, so the takeaway here is probably that demand for housing is outpacing supply, driving up prices. That could be bad news for younger people wanting to buy a single family home, but it may also be good news for those interested in seeing more high and medium density development.
• People are choosing where they want to live before they choose the house they want to live in. That bodes well for places like downtowns, which are well-connected.
• Related to the above points, these new townhouses are located near a transit stop, meaning Utah’s growing transit system is having the kinds of effects it is supposed to.
In Utah, Mormon missionaries are trained in Provo but fly to their eventual destinations out of Salt Lake City. In the past, that meant a 45 minute ride in a van to the airport.
But ever since Frontrunner commuter rail opened up a year ago it has grown as the LDS Church’s transportation method of choice for departing missionaries. Here are a couple of pictures, snapped by my wife Monday afternoon. These missionaries happen to be on their way to Boise to get passports.
Yesterday I floated the idea of cutting free parking for government employees as a way to fight air pollution and spur better neighborhoods. Here’s another option to consider: congestion pricing for roads.
“Congestion pricing” is a term that means you pay more for using something when it’s congested. If you’ve ever paid more to ride a train during “peak” hours, for example, you’ve experienced this concept. Paying to use our own HOV lanes in Utah also would fall into this category.
What I’m talking about here, however, is basically some sort of toll system for major roads, like freeways. There are an infinite number of ways the details of this idea could be worked out, but on a basic level it accomplishes two things: incentivizing alternative forms of transportation, which in Utah would help fight the inversion, and raising money that could be used for infrastructure.
In China — the only other place that has worse air quality than Utah right now — this idea is gaining traction as a way to fight pollution. Streetsblog reports:
Increasingly, however, with traffic and vehicle exhaust demonstrably harming business as well as human health in dozens of cities, and with strategies like quotas on new vehicles unable to offset the growth in driving, officials are looking to “economic measures.” Tolling vehicle entries to congested city centers has established a strong enough track record elsewhere in improving traffic flow and air quality that it is attracting interest not just from municipal officials but also from China’s national transport and environment ministries.
The Streetsblog post later points out that both pollution and congestion are major drivers behind this idea.
Many people would surely hate this idea, but we have a dramatic pollution problem in Utah — one I suspect is hard for people to comprehend when they don’t live here, where you can literally feel your lungs burn — so we need a dramatic solution. Charging people for the amount they contribute to the problem seems like a fair and effective way to accomplish that.
Slate’s design blog covered cul-du-sacs recently, revealing the seemingly-obvious but often ignored fact that common suburban layouts make getting around harder:
The system makes just about every destination farther away because it eliminates the most direct routes between them. Connectivity counts: More intersections mean more walking, and more disconnected cul-de-sacs mean more driving. People who live in neighborhoods with latticeworklike streets actually drive 26 percent fewer miles than people in the cul-de-sac forest.
The point is that the spagetti-like streets of suburbia push destinations out beyond walking distance. The article also touches on the psychology of walking; people will walk different distances to different things based on how they perceive those things. For example people are willing to walk farther to get to the train than they are to get to the bus.
Things get even worse, the article points out, because the experience of walking itself has deteriorated:
Put simply, most people do not walk in American cities because cities have designed destinations out of reach. But they have also corroded the experience of walking. Road engineers have not even bothered to build sidewalks in many Atlanta suburbs. Try a Google search for directions near, say, Somerset Road in Mableton, and the map engine will offer a warning you would not expect in a first-world city: “Use caution—This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.”
The same could certainly be said for parts of Utah, California where I grew up, and other places. As the article notes, aesthetics matter.
To give you a sense of how these things look, here’s an over head view of the Avenues neighborhood in Salt Lake:
The Avenues has fairly small blocks and streets (for Utah) and because it’s a grid offers a variety of route options for users.
By contrast, here’s a neighborhood just a few miles to the south:
In this neighborhood, distances are distorted because no one can chose a direct route.
As the Slate article points out, this is bad for health. I’d add that it’s also bad for the environment and the economy, as it contributes to pollution and costs people more to get around. And transit also will have a difficult time ever serving this neighborhood. In other words, this type of design makes everything worse.
The Atlantic posted a story yesterday with this gif:
It’s a fantastic way to visualize how much more efficient transit is than cars are for moving people. And that’s what most people were pointing out yesterday after it showed up on The Atlantic.
But it’s also a good way to visualize the economic costs of transit vs cars, especially because transit proposals often sink for their alleged priciness.
For starters, take the absolute space used by each of these modes. In the gif above, we see a four lane street vs a single lane of transit. It should be obvious which one of these two things are cheaper to build: the streetcar.
The great thing about this gif, then, is that it puts these two modes of transportation on equal footing; transit doesn’t seem like an “extra” or a “luxury” when spending on car infrastructure is no longer automatic or taken for granted. In other words, transit is absolutely cheaper than road building but it seems expensive because we never actually compare it to road building.
In Utah, for example, some people complained about the cost of the recently completed FrontRunner commuter rail. But at the same time that UTA was building the rail lines, UDOT was building more freeways, a project which was vastly more expensive and is ongoing.
The gif above this point explicitly clear: transit requires less space, few materials, etc. and is consequently cheaper.
Consider also the cost of the vehicles themselves. One streetcar is expensive, but less so than the 50+ private cars that are required to transport the same number of people. Yes, the money for these different vehicles comes from different places, but the point is that the overall cost to society is lower. If people were not spending money on cars they would also be free to invest that money more efficiently on things that appreciate, for example, like stock or real estate or whatever. The point is that increasing the overall efficiency of the system results in greater overall wealth.
It’s also likely that people in the gif could afford higher taxes and/or living costs without cars. That saved money could then be used for transit, either via taxes or fares. This, of course, is what happens in some larger cities.
And again, the gif helps to visualize this point; everyone can either pitch in and buy a streetcar, or go at it alone and buy their own automobiles.
The same principle applies to pollution, maintenance, storage costs and a myriad of other things. Ultimately, pooling resources to build a shared transportation solution is vastly more efficient for everyone. That has always been true, but as The Atlantic pointed out the gif is a mezmorizing way to visualize these issues.
(The gif can be found on the blog of Peter from Texas.)
Earlier this week I wrote about a parking garage that was converted to a hotel in Europe and speculated that adaptive reuse of garages may become the rule of the day in the future.
A couple days later Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities wrote about a similar project in New York — the garage was turned into luxury housing in that case — to make an important point:
There’s a growing belief among architects and designers that all urban parking garages should be built with these “good bones,” which will allow them to be re-purposed in the future. For a variety of reasons, from higher gas prices to greater densification to better transit options, city residents will continue to drive fewer cars. As a result, we’ll eventually require fewer parking lots. The ability to adapt a structure rather than tear it down will save developers time, money, and material waste.
In other words, we need to design parking structures “with an eye to their afterlife,” as Jaffe later writes. That requires doing three things:
• Building structures with flat floors
• Giving them sufficient ceiling height to support other uses
• Making sure they are strong enough to hold up whatever else might be built in them.
Jaffe finally suggests that cities can encourage these types of design choices by rewriting building codes and zoning ordinances.
One of the things I often wonder while walking around cities is what we’ll do with all our parking garages when demand for parking falls significantly below our current supply. I like to imagine them as offices, apartments, gyms and stores. After all, these structures are extremely solid and may well outlast their usefulness as car storage facilities.
There’s also some evidence that driving is tapering off.
Wide scale conversion of parking structures may yet be a while off in the U.S., but Slate recently reported on a parking structure that has been converted to a cool hotel in Paris. The Slate post is mostly about the interior design trick of placing two mirrors opposite each other to make a room feel larger, but the underlying point that parking structures can be repurposed is an important one.
In the case of the Paris hotel, the designer also retained much of structure’s original concrete aesthetic, resulting in a sleek modern look. That too offers a lesson: parking structures may be the warehouse lofts of tomorrow. Just as it probably would have been inconceivable for early 20th Century factor workers to imagine people wanting to live in their grungy places of work, it might be difficult for us today to imagine wanting to live in an adapted parking structure.
But time changes tastes, so in the end we’ll hopefully get second and third uses out of one the more common elements in many cities. After all, they’re already there and converting them will likely be vastly cheaper and easier than tearing them down.
Several friends recently shared with me an article from the Guardian called “For the price of a mile of highway, you too can have a bike-friendly city.”
It’s an excellent read that makes the point promised in the title:
Then there’s the cost of roads – building and maintaining them. Our gas taxes cover this, is the myth. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been true since 1956, when President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act, consigning us to generations of escalating civic and private debt. (This report is a great primer on the topic.) Nowadays, about half the cost of the country’s road system is paid for through gas taxes; the rest comes out of the general fund. The other half is paid for through taxes – sales, income, property, special levies – which means that we all pay for roads,whether or not we actually drive on them.
That’s an important point on it’s own, though the article also mentions that cars are a major economic drain on us individually too. The article then goes on to point out that bikes are a bargain by comparison.
Which raises several questions: can a car-centric society ever by fiscally responsible? Can a society that spends so much money on the most expensive transportation option reasonable call itself “conservative”?
Living in a conservative state these are questions I often ponder. Politically, Utah is considered one of the most conservative places in America. But while we have some bike infrastructure and decent public transit, our cities along the Wasatch Front are unequivocally oriented for car usage.
Which means we’re constantly investing huge amounts of money on the most expensive possible transportation solutions. This might technically be a “liberal” approach, though I think most liberals would (rightly) balk at having something so grossly inefficient as car-oriented infrastructure attached to their turf on the political spectrum.
In any case, this is not a political blog. What I actually get out of that Guardian article is that we should be zeroing in on efficiency. We should focus on the best, most fiscally responsible solutions — irrespective of their traditional political labels. After all, as Utah’s big-spending-for-cars philosophy shows, political labels are sometimes completely inaccurate.