December 5, 2005

‘Rating the Suburbs’ - Kansas City Star Gives it a Shot

The Kansas City Star has attempted to rate major suburban communities around K.C. for "quality of life," picking its winners and losers on issues such as crime, education, housing, lifestyle and sense of community. Not being familiar with any of those suburbs (although I have been to Kansas City itself), the specific ratings didn't interest me much; but I was quite intrigued by the scoring system they used. And I have a few disagreements.

First off, I was impressed that they actually included a measure of diversity -- "likelihood that whites will see or interact with a minority, as expressed by a mathematical formula called an 'exposure index,' favored by sociologists studying race relations." I'm hoping here that a higher probability led to a better rating.

Also included -- average commuting time, which I agree with. Long commutes not only negatively affect personal quality of life, but can conceivably it less likely that a commuter can have the time to be involved with his/her home community.

Number of businesses per capita seems kind of arbitrary as a measure, though. What about businesses you can walk to? Local businesses vs. chain stores? An appealing mix of businesses?

Property tax rates was interesting, considering there are a fair number of people who would opt to pay more to get better services, and who believe that improves quality of life. I'm not sure everyone would agree that low tax rates are by definition a good thing; opinions differ, especially depending on the results.

I object as well to new single-family home building permits me as a positive measure, because newer exurbs are much more likely to have lots of empty buildable land than older inner-ring suburbs. That doesn't make them better communities.

Interestingly, the project tried to measure a community's "charm," looking at "attractiveness of the housing stock, tree coverage, neighborhood design, general property maintenance, street beautification, availability of cul-de-sacs, existence of a downtown or town square." The cul-de-sac inclusion irked me. People who live on cul-de-sacs may like them, but they hardly improve things for everyone else in a community. In fact, they end up adding more traffic to neighboring roads while not offloading any of the burden.

Think about it. In my neighborhood, there's a grid of local streets, with parallel roads often providing alternative ways of getting from one place to another. Based on this grid, we should expect a certain amount of traffic given the population. But each cul-de-sac adds more density of traffic being dumped into that grid, without providing the rest of us any additional roadway to get where we want to go. In other words, cul-de-sac residents get to drive on our streets every time they need to go someplace; but we don't get to drive on their street any time we need to get someplace.

Near my home, there are only a couple of small cul-de-sacs, and I don't think they actually add much of a traffic burden. However, if there were a LOT of "available" cul-de-sacs, it could add a significant increased traffic burden to other roadways compared to what one should expect at a given neighborhood density. It's not necessarily a net positive for the community as a whole.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, one of the reasons that the Kansas City people love where they live IS the cul-de-sacs. Safe, no traffic, apart from the problems of the world.

    Be that as it may, maybe a couple of data items we could add for the older east coast suburbs would be building permits issued for renovation, plus either access to public transportation or the use of such transportation.