Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Transportation Choice and City Building to Accommodate It

It's the dolla dolla bills y'all. First, a semi- book review:
Last week, I destroyed Game Change in about three days, which does read occasionally like the hysterics of equally happy and jilted junior staffers aimed at their either current or former bosses. One thing that struck the biggest nerve with yours truly, was the level at which the old guard didn't or couldn't grasp the irresistible force that was the Obama Express '08, next stop White House.

This was particularly mentioned with regards to the Clintons and in a specific case with his eventual running mate, Joe Biden, with regards to Obama's proposed tax policy. Biden exclaimed, "that's it?! THAT is your tax policy?!" with pronounced bewilderment toward the seeming simplicity of it (the book didn't go into any explanation with regards to the two men's policy differences). To Biden, it seemed like nothing more than hollow rhetoric.

This is something that I've seen at every level of government throughout the country, and IMO why we see so much backlash towards bureaucracy and the unnecessary complexities of government. Each particular level of government at the leadership level was too involved in the minutiae, when they really should be up at the proverbial 10,000 foot level offering direction, but little in the way of detailed policy.

This is particularly true when it comes to planning, zoning, review boards, and city councils. Too many city councils are worried about every detail of every property, when they should really be focusing on simplifying and streamlining their own zoning documents. If you don't think the overwhelming complexity of city planning and zoning is a deterrent to real estate development, check your local 500- to 1000-page zoning document.

Set the goals, let your departments worry about administration, and focus on steering the ship.

At some level, I believe Obama gets that. His policies don't have the depth that lifetime policy-makers and wonks expect, because they...well, don't. Nor should they. This is the kind of simplified, tangled bureaucracy-cutting directive that this country needs, and all levels of government should take heed.

The lifers don't get it simply because Obama is the leader of an entirely new generation; a new phenotype if Howard Bloom is to believed. Millennials think differently than the previous world changing generation that has preceded them, the Baby Boomers. It is no coincidence that Millennials went 66-31 for Obama and that they made up much of his campaign staff, including his still executive speech writer.

Like government bureaucracy, mathematics can be similarly complicated and confounding. Especially when you consider that our lives for the past fifty plus years have been defined and controlled by equations that are incomplete. By this, I'm referring to all those things that were determined to be too subjective to appropriately assess the value of, so they were in turn, left out. Who needs clean water, clean air, quality of life, etc.

Before such hysterical rationality dictated our lives, a politician once declared that the citizens of his city demand two things: Justice and Beauty. This is what we call, a pattern. A simple guiding principle, establishing a hierarchical decision-making process that empowers each level of the chain.


Cities are often also thought to be complex. Perhaps this is only so, because no mathematical equation has been able to accurately assess or predict a city, other than to simplify a city into its component processes. What if rather than looking for more complex equations, we start thinking simpler? The water bodies of the planet are infinitely complex in their physical permutations, but the defining equation is that all water seeks to find its own level, and gravity does the rest.

My recent post last week took recent examples of theft in downtown Dallas and extrapolated it to a larger issue, the requirement of all to own and maintain a car in order to participate in what we call civilized society. I suggested that some incremental measure of crime and despair is driven by the lack of mobility or choice in transportation. If we had a similar directive to assess problems and affect decision-making like "Justice and Beauty," how much better off could we be (this makes the assumption that available lifestyle choice, in particular mobility, is a form of justice).

In the previous post, I referenced a study showing that more walkable cities can have car ownership per household rates at or near 50%, whereas Dallas finds itself at 10%. A new study referenced by the New Republic and conducted by Universities of Alabama and Florida (who knew they could cooperate?), states that residents of walkable communities save 16% of their income compared to those in non-walkable environs. Residents in walkable communities have a choice: they can have a care, if they so choose. The report goes on to suggest that this costs the nation trillions of dollars spent because of a lack of walkable communities providing adequate choice.

We know Dallas would look much differently if it were to approach a 50% car ownership rate, but how would it affect the local economy? Applying that % of $ savings number to two hypothetical cities of 1 million people, we will calculate the implications.

First, in order to compare apples to apples we need to define our variables and controls. The variable will be the rate of car-ownership per household, city A will be 90% and city B will be 50%. While these car-ownership rates would likely have drastic effect on spatial organization and, in turn, real estate values, we will for the time being ignore those differences (ahhh, too complex!!!).

The controls will consist of population size of 1 million, household size we will use 4, meaning # of households is 250,000, median income of 50,000 per household (if for no other reason than being a round number), while the report mentioned above used 16% as savings for walkable vs. sprawl, we will use 20% because that report makes no distinction for car-free which then averages and dilutes the savings.

Oh, and one last control: people are people. If you are the type of person that says, "shutup we love our cars u no good yella nazi hippie commie jerk." I am applying a system where choice is part of the equation. You are transferring your personal preferences onto everyone else in that system.

If everyone felt like you, the car ownership rate wouldn't vary so much and so predictably based on city form. City form is driven by transportation expenditures. Car ownership is a by-product of that, one whose machinations were too big and unwieldy to appropriately apply the breaks to a downhill-rolling snowball. So give up the phony-libertarianism. Your lifestyle is exceptionally defined by top down measures.

Now that I got that off of my chest, onto the back of the envelope (literally) calculations:

City A: 1,000,000 people
Households: 250,000
Car Ownership Rate: 50% (walkable city rate)
Households w/ Cars: 125,000
Households w/o Cars: 125,000
Median income: 50,000
w/Cars adjusted income minus transpo costs: 30,000
w/o Cars adjusted income minus transpo costs: 40,000
w/ Cars aggregate income: $3.75 billion
w/o Cars aggregate income: $5 billion
That is a total of $8.75 billion in income, transportation adjusted, assuming that excess transpo costs largely leave the local community by way of oil, gas, car, etc.

City B: 1,000,000 people
Households: 250,000
Car Ownership Rate: 90% (Dallas rate)
Households w/ Cars: 225,000
Households w/o Cars: 25,000
Median income: 50,000
w/Cars adjusted income minus transpo costs: 30,000
w/o Cars adjusted income minus transpo costs: 40,000
w/ Cars aggregate income: $6.75 billion
w/o Cars aggregate income: $1 billion
That is a total of $7.75 billion in income, transportation adjusted, assuming that excess transpo costs largely leave the local community by way of oil, gas, car, etc.

The difference between the two is that the more walkable city maintains $1 billion per year within the local community. Because it is local and largely discretionary, it often translates into housing costs, which is why you see higher housing costs in each of the more walkable cities shown in the study referenced. This directly counters Joel Kotkin's assertion that cities should be measured on affordability.
Furthermore, cities built around the car have to provide greater infrastructure to support the excess stress cars place on the city. Ahh, the multiplier effect. Here is where the numbers really get crazy:

City A population: 1,000,000
City A freeway miles per 1,000 people: .564
Freeway lane miles: 564

City B population: 1,000,000
City B freeway miles per 1,000 people: 1.291
Freeway lane miles: 1,291

With land acquisition, design, and construction, an inner city freeway can cost upwards of $100,000,000 /mile.

City A freeway cost: $56.4 Billion
City B freeway cost: $129.1 Billion
How about all that parking. If we take the required parking for a car-oriented city like LA and that of San Francisco, we can begin to calculate the cost of parking on a city. Taking Professor Donald Shoup at his word, each car in America has at least 4 parking spots provided for it. Also, he has stated that San Francisco's required parking rate is 50x less than LAs. Let's also assume that each home that chooses to have a car has 2 and that the average parking spot costs $5,000 (not including spatial dislocation costs).

City A households: 250,000
City A households w/ cars: 125,000
City A cars: 250,000

City B households: 250,000
City B households w/ cars: 225,000
City B cars: 450,000

Even though the walkable city will typically have a lower parking ratio, to keep things somewhat similar, let's just assume both provide 4/car.

City A parking spaces: 1,000,000
City B parking spaces: 1,800,000
City A cost for parking: $5,000,000
City B cost for parking: $9,000,000

Total cost savings in walkable city of 1,000,000:

Income multiplied over earning period of 40 years:
$40 Billion

Highway savings:
$72.7 Billion

Parking savings:
$4 Billion

I just identified $116.7 billion in savings for a local community that chooses walkability to define its future. Now THAT is green. Of course, this doesn't even begin to scratch what Harvard economics professor Ed Glaeser has defined as the role of cities in the future economy:
"the economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required."
Density. Density can only be made livable through walkable design. Cars and their infrastructure are an unnecessary and costly barrier, a tax, to the free exchange of ideas in the new economy.