December 17, 2010

America's Most Walkable Cities - the data

There's a nice post by smart-growth advocate Richard Florida pulling together a couple of different data points to find America's most walkable cities.

The top city by both and Nate Berg's calculations on number of above-average walkable neighborhoods: San Francisco. Order differs on numbers 2-4 but the cities are the same: Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

Florida also notes that a majority of Americans say they'd prefer living in walkable neighborhoods. And, he points out that researcher Joe Cortright has demonstrated that "housing prices have held up better in more walkable communities."

Why don't more of us live in walkable neighborhoods when the data are so compelling? Partly because zoning makes it much easier to build a conventional suburban-sprawl subdivision than a walkable neighborhood. And, partly because you often get more for your money in a sprawling subdivision in the exurbs than a walkable neighborhood in, say, Wellesley or Concord center. Note that a "pedestrian-friendly neighborhood" is not the same as "densely populated." Safe and attractive streetscapes are required for a neighborhood to truly be walkable.

July 16, 2010

'Big box' retailers don't generate as much property tax revenue as you might think

A 'big box' store like Wal-Mart coming to town may look like a local tax revenue windfall. But according to an analysis of property tax revenue per acre in Sarasota county, Fla., such pedestrian-hostile developments "produce barely more than a single family house; maybe $150 to $200 more a year," reports. "(Think of all those acres of parking lots.)"

Meanwhile, a high-rise mixed-use project downtown contributed $800,000 in local property tax per acre, compared with $22,000 per acre for high-end retail shopping mecca Southgate Mall (Macy's, Saks Fifth Ave., etc.)

"Indeed, that three-quarters of an acre of in-town urban-style development is worth more property tax revenue than a combination of the 21-acre WalMart supercenter and the 32-acre Southgate Mall."

That's from a presentation by Peter Katz, director of Smart Growth/Urban Planning for Sarasota county. (See charts/stats from the property tax per acre analysis).

There may be less parking acreage in eastern Massachusetts than Florida, but nevertheless, this is one interesting and useful way to view the value of various developments. Yes, there are plenty of other factors to consider (like generating employment, cost of public services, etc.) But it can be too tempting to look at the total value of property tax per development, without considering what benefits other uses might generate on the same amount of property.

June 27, 2010

5 reasons why this pedestrian trail really works: Ogunquit's Marginal Way

Marginal Way
Along the Marginal Way

Yes, Ogunquit, Maine's Marginal Way has spectacular views of the ocean along the full 1.25-mile walking path, and that's certainly a key reason why so many people use it. Not every community is so fortunate to have such breathtaking scenery for a trail. However, there are many other towns with beautiful coastlines, but without the popularity of Ogunquit's. (One might argue at the height of summer that perhaps it's too popular, but that's a discussion for another time.) It's not only the views that make the Marginal Way such an appealing walking environment.

Here are 5 other reasons it works so well, which can be applied to other trails without gorgeous vistas:

* Appealing destinations at both ends. When you walk the Marginal Way, you're not only enjoying the views; you also end up someplace, well, worth ending up: walkable Ogunquit town center on one end; walkable Perkins Cove at the other. (And those who  don't want to make a roundtrip  can hop a trolley bus at either end.) Something to think about when designing railtrails.

* Easy entrance/exit at several points along the trail, not just each end. There are clear, well-marked and attractive ways to join the trail at several points besides the start and finish. So you know you're not trapped (or force to cut through places you're not necessarily meant to be) when you start out.

* Not cut off from town. When you think nature trail, you might think of paths that go through woods or other nature areas, far removed from the sights and sounds of a city. However, the Marginal Way works so well for pedestrians of all types and not simply nature hikers, precisely because it's not cut off from the community. While nature is on one side, the town is very much on the other. And the homes and yards looking out at the trail help give it a feeling of safety. It's the same reason why having windows of homes or businesses close to a sidewalk in a city center makes for a much more appealing walking environment than a garage door or blank wall.

Bench along the Martinal Way

* Benches along the way.
Those benches allow people who may not want to walk the full length at once not to be intimidated by the trail; and having a lot of people relaxing along the way also makes for a nicer environment for those out for a stroll.

* Great upkeep. Trash is picked up, plants are well trimmed, weeds are kept at bay. A well maintained trail also feels safer and more appealing than one with litter and out-of-control plants invading the walking area.

June 8, 2010

Better streetscapes lead to more walking

Add Scientific American to the list of those saying we need aesthetically pleasing streetscapes to encourage more walking.

Says a recent podcast:
"According to Andrew Furman of Ryerson University in Toronto [] . . .  in many places in North America it’s just not that nice to walk. But if cities and suburbs put more effort into building better pedestrian routes, he says more people might leave their SUVs at home."

And as I mentioned and Brett commented on a recent post, European cities and towns make much more of an effort at this -- not only with effective transit systems, but with communities designed with walking in mind, not simply driving.

"With its older cities, Europe is more amenable to meandering. Think cobblestone streets and hidden gardens. But North American cities and suburbs are more modern and car-centric, which generally forces pedestrians and cyclists to always take the same, boring path from A to B," Scientific American agrees.

Attractive pedestrian paths aren't a frill. They're vital to get people out of cars and walking from place to place.

May 23, 2010

We can keep living standards high while cutting energy use

"I know that these days you’re supposed to see the future in China or India, not in the heart of 'old Europe,' " writes Paul Krugman in a column called Stranded in Suburbia.  But "Europeans who have achieved a high standard of living in spite of very high energy prices — gas in Germany costs more than $8 a gallon — have a lot to teach us about how to deal with that world."

Many Americans found gasoline prices of just half that untenable. But that's because so many people drive enormous gas-guzzling cars while living in exurbs designed to require you to drive to get pretty much anywhere or do anything. "Any serious reduction in American driving," Krugman notes correctly, will mean "changing how and where many of us live."

When I'm able to visit Europe, it's always both startling and refreshing to be able to spend most of that time getting around just fine without a private car. Communities are designed so you can walk to get groceries or take dependable public transit where you need - or want - to go. Train stations tend to be surrounded by pedestrian-friendly areas, so it's expected you can take a train from one city to another and then walk to where you need to go.

In Berlin, Krugman visited "a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping.
"It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.

"And in the face of rising oil prices, which have left many Americans stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas — it’s starting to look as if Berlin had the better idea."

The irony is that some people moved out to the exurbs in order to find more affordable housing -- without factoring in the added costs of a lengthy commute. For those who, say, move beyond Rte. 495 but still work in the Boston area, the annual costs of driving can more than offset lower mortgages.

"When driving costs are added to housing costs, the institute found that, for example, the average household spends more each year in Dracut ($35,643) than in Cambridge ($28,671), and more in Stoughton ($37,513) than in Brookline ($36,846)," the Boston Globe noted in a story about a report by the Urban Land Institute released last month. And that doesn't include the "cost" of time spent commuting.

Says Krugman: "If we’re heading for a prolonged era of scarce, expensive oil, Americans will face increasingly strong incentives to start living like Europeans — maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives."

March 30, 2010

Public Transit 2.0

The LivableStreets Alliance is hosting what looks like an interesting presentation on Tuesday, April 6 from 7 to 9 pm: How technology is improving public transit with data.

Find out how the Mass Dept. of Transportation Developers Initiative hosts transportation data that can be used by third-party software developers to build Web sites, mobile apps and more to deliver information to public transit users. That's at 100 Sidney St. in Central Square, Cambridge, featuring Chris Dempsey, "director of innovation" for the initiative. $5-$10 donation suggested.