The Costs and Benefits of Carmageddon

Los Angeles survived the weekend known as “Carmageddon” with minor bumps and early project completion. Despite major predictions and media saturation warning against at total meltdown, there was a tremendous amount of congratulations amongst Los Angelinos for avoiding apocalyptic gridlock.

Instead there were heartwarming stories of people biking, enjoying their neighborhoods with a newfound appreciation, loving the sparsely populated beaches and the very light traffic on the roads. Air pollution and smog levels in the city dropped. Carmageddon became “Karmageddon”! Public transit activists are floating ideas of having more car-free weekends. Wouldn’t it be nice if traffic was cut in half because every other weekend people voluntarily stayed home? Wouldn’t it be great if people had more block parties and biked to meet up with friends? There are lots of benefits to walkable, bikeable, public-transit-able neighborhoods – we’ve known that for years – and Smart Growth America is fighting to create these choices in neighborhoods across the country.

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Smart Growth America Applauds Governor Cuomo for Signing Land Bank Act into Law

Washington DC- Today Smart Growth America applauded New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo for signing an innovative new policy into law. The Land Bank Act will give localities across New York State new tools for redeveloping vacant and abandoned properties. The “land banks” will be created and run by local authorities with the purpose of reducing the high number of vacant properties in many upstate towns and cities and returning those abandoned parcels to a more productive use.

Geoff Anderson, President and CEO of Smart Growth America, said: “I am thrilled that Governor Cuomo has signed this important bill into law. As the Governor noted in his urban agenda, blighted properties bring despair to communities and land banks are an innovative way to restore struggling neighborhoods. Also, I want to congratulate former Representative Hoyt, Senator Valesky, the Center for Community Progress, CenterState CEO and Empire State Future for their vision and commitment to getting this bill passed and signed into law.”

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Smart Growth America Opposes Zeroing Out Funding for EPA Smart Growth Programs

This week the United States House of Representatives will vote on the Fiscal Year 2012 Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill that drastically reduces the effectiveness of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and zeroes out the EPA’s Smart Growth programs.

Smart Growth America opposes this shortsighted budget cut because it will be detrimental to economic growth. Geoff Anderson, President and CEO of Smart Growth America said, “The EPA’s smart growth programs offer critical assistance to communities across the country on a range of issues from supporting farmers and farmland to helping small towns revitalize their Main Streets and growing local businesses, all while protecting the country’s environmental health.”

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“Slugging” saves DC/VA Drivers and Riders Time and Money

David LeBlanc started slugging in 1997 and has been doing it ever since. He’s such a strong slugging supporter that he wrote a short guide and system map for users and now runs the Slug Lines website which is dedicated to the idea.

“Slugging” is an innovative, grassroots form of commuting in Washington DC and Northern Virginia that helps commuters get in and out of the city easily and efficiently. High occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, which require two or more passengers to use, provided the inspiration: drivers who would like to use the more efficient lanes pick up passengers – nicknamed “slugs” – and passengers, for their part, get a free and easy ride into the city. People almost always ride with strangers, but there’s a thriving community of devoted “sluggers.”

No one regulates or manages slugging; it’s a grassroots community of commuters who create carpools on the fly. A few other cities around the country have tried it to varying degrees, but it’s uniquely successful in the DC metro area. No one has ever conducted a formal survey or tally, but in 2007 the Virginia DOT pegged the number of daily sluggers at approximately 10,000 commuters.

LeBlanc visited Smart Growth America’s headquarters this week to discuss some of the frequently asked questions about slugging.

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Partnership For Sustainable Communities Grantees Host Briefing On Capitol Hill

This week, Smart Growth America brought together representatives from groups who received Department of Housing and Urban Development regional planning grants as part of the interagency Partnership for Sustainable Community for a briefing on Capitol Hill. The grantees who spoke at the briefing represented a diverse cross-section of communities that are implementing regional planning grants, including representatives from the Metro-Boston region, Northern Maine, and Metropolitan Des Moines. Shelley Poticha, Director of HUD Office of Sustainable Housing and Community Development, shared the agency’s perspective of the transformative potential of regional planning grants and the unique cross-agency collaboration between HUD, DOT and EPA that defines the Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

HUD distributed just shy of $100 million for regional planning grants to 45 different grant recipients as part of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities in fiscal year 2011. So far those grant recipients have managed to leverage almost another $100 million out of local private, non-profit and local government partners to support their efforts. Shelley noted that kind of financial investment in support of a non-construction project was remarkable. Why is there so much excitement from the business community, local governments, universities and other partners on the ground when it comes to these regional planning grants?

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Smart growth news- June 29, 2011

After 55 Years, Where Are We on Highways?
National Journal, June 27, 2011
How far have we come since this first highway bill? Is the highway system now true to Eisenhower’s vision of a workable, free, transcontinental roadway? Are there new technological or demographic changes since 1955 that should be incorporated into the surface-transportation goals? If Eisenhower was alive now, what would you tell him about his proudest domestic accomplishment?

If baby boomers stay in suburbia, analysts predict cultural shift
Washington Post, June 28, 2011
The nation’s suburbs are home to a rapidly growing number of older people who are changing the image and priorities of a suburbia formed around the needs of young families with children, an analysis of census data shows. Although the entire United States is graying, the 2010 Census showed how much faster the suburbs are growing older when compared with the cities. Thanks largely to the baby-boom generation, four in 10 suburban residents are 45 or older, up from 34 percent just a decade ago. Thirty-five percent of city residents are in that age group, an increase from 31 percent in the last census.

Green Transportation Research Bill Introduced in the House
AltTransport, June 28, 2011
While a lot of attention is being paid to new surface transportation authorizations from the House and Senate, Representative David Wu (D-Oregon) introduced another transportation-related bill Monday that aims to fund research on alternative transportation.

California: Mission Bay Prepares for Makeover
The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2011
San Francisco’s effort to transform an abandoned rail yard on its eastern shore in Mission Bay into an urban center is poised for a serious boost from plans by Salesforce.com Inc. to build a sprawling corporate campus in the area. Urban-planning experts say the arrival of Salesforce will provide a vital stimulus for a once-neglected part of the city. But the bold design for the campus is just beginning a monthslong approval process, and Chief Executive Marc Benioff is leaving open the possibility that the company could simply pick a different location for its new headquarters.

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Round Three: Your Stories About Avoiding the High Cost of Gas by Walking, Biking and Taking Public Transportation

A recent NBC poll found a whopping 69 percent say that high gas prices have affected them either “a great deal” or “quite a bit.” That was significantly higher than any other economic concern on the list– higher than rising food prices, foreclosures, or even unemployment.

When Smart Growth America asked for stories about the impact of high gas prices, a number of people told us about lifestyle choices they made so they wouldn’t be dependent on driving or severely affected by gas prices. Several people told us they chose to live in a place where walking, biking and public transportation were viable options because they wanted that kind of freedom for getting around. Here are some of their stories:

Seven years ago, when Patricia moved from “car-country California” to coastal North Carolina, gas prices were $1.38. But she said, regardless of the cost of filling up her tank, they wanted to live where they could walk or bike for most of their daily errands. Now gas prices have tripled. While she’s glad she’s not reliant on a car for most daily needs, her family is still carefully considering (and cancelling some) long-distance car trips. Patricia also noted that since gas prices started climbing she’s seen more people of all shapes and sizes out on their bikes– a trend she thinks is a good thing.

Steve from Kansas City told us “three years ago when my wife and I were considering buying a new house, availability of mass transit was a high priority and living in a ‘walkable neighborhood.’ We now live a half block from a bus stop and within 4 miles of my wife’s work. We regularly walk for errands or ride our bicycles.” Steve logged 3,500 miles on his bike last year (that means savings on gas and a gym membership!) and frequently rides the bus. He mentioned that now that gas prices have gone up he’s noticed many more bus riders, and he’s relieved that he and his wife don’t have to worry about gas prices too much.

When Gretchen moved to Boston last year, she got rid of her car. Gretchen pointed out that in addition to gas, she didn’t want to be beholden to maintenance, repairs and parking expenses too. It can be challenging to visit her family in New Hampshire where public transportation options are limited, but with some flexibility, carpooling, and building in extra travel time she’s been able to make due car-free and is happy with her decision.

As gas prices remain high, more and more Americans are looking to drive shorter distances or increase their transportation choices. The NBC poll is a reminder that even though gas prices have recently dropped 30 or 40 cents from their high earlier this year, this significant expense is still hurting household budgets across the country – and people are starting to make big changes in reaction to that. Part of Smart Growth America’s work is helping great communities have more low cost options for getting around, but we need to hear from you to do it. Read other stories about how people are dealing with the high cost of gas here and here, and click here to tell us your story.

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Smart Growth to Blame For the Housing Crash? Not By a Long Shot.

Cross posted from Streetsblog.

The Wall Street Journal yesterday posed the question of whether smart growth policies

and land use restrictions were to blame for the housing boom and bust. The hypothesis comes from Wendell Cox, a long-time critic of smart growth, who, in a recent paper, recycled a specious argument that land use regulations caused housing prices to increase unsustainably, creating the real estate bubble and, eventually, the collapse of the housing market. Cox claims to show that differences in how metro areas regulated development explain the recent housing crisis.

Cox’s argument is full of holes. He examines a few cherry-picked cities while ignoring what happened nationally.

The irrationally exuberant housing market affected real estate prices in most of the country in the decade before 2006, with a pronounced increase after 2003. The only national variable that correlates clearly with this overwhelmingly national trend was the loosening of mortgage lending rules and Wall Street’s invention of new ways to profit from bad loans — not land use restrictions.

In contrast to Cox’s hypothesis, rates of foreclosure correlate most strongly with the year a home was built. All other things being equal, newer neighborhoods – built during the boom and financed with non-traditional loans – have more bank-owned homes now. In other words, areas that pulled out all the stops on new development suffered more than those that took a more measured approach. Rather than impacting neighborhoods that built according to smart growth strategies, the foreclosure crisis is now a much bigger problem for peripheral suburbs that sacrificed quality and access to jobs in exchange for more taxable properties.

As Chris Leinberger, fellow at Brookings and president of Smart Growth America’s LOCUS project, told the WSJ, the price decline on the “drivable fringe” was generally twice as bad during the crash, “and it was that part of the market that is the least regulated.” Walkable, compact neighborhoods essentially “held their value, thank you very much,” he said.

Communities that developed more along the lines of sprawl than smart growth are struggling to recover from the housing crisis. Recent census data show suburban growth is slowing for the first time in decades, and it’s not just the housing crisis that’s to blame. Neighborhoods without transportation choices and located far from employment centers are less attractive to home buyers and are suffering more in the downturn. Desperate developers in the far-flung exurbs are including free cars with home purchases in empty neighborhoods, but it’s getting harder to persuade potential homeowners to commute 60 miles each way to work. Consumers increasingly understand that buying a home with a long, car-dependent commute — especially when gas prices are hitting record highs — can lock a household into an ongoing expense that can blow up their budget.

Smart growth neighborhoods, by contrast, offer insurance against foreclosure and can reduce the combined cost of housing and transportation. Due to consistent demand for walkable neighborhoods with a mix of uses and good access to jobs and public transportation, homes in these neighborhoods are much easier to sell and tend to hold their value. Places that invest in smart growth principles not only survived the housing crisis better, they protect their residents against spiking fuel prices as well. That is good for the homeowners in these communities as well as their local economies, and that’s news we think the Wall Street Journal should be pretty excited about.

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SGA News Clips, 5/20/11

Census finds Pittsburgh is growing younger
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 19, 2011
“The unusual drop in the city’s median age was among the findings in the U.S. Census Bureau’s release today of new information from last year’s population count. For both the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, the number of elderly residents as well as their percentage of the overall population are on the decline.”

Gary, Ind., struggles with population loss
USA Today, May 19, 2011
“The 2010 Census crystallized Gary’s decline: The population, which peaked at 178,320 in 1960, is now 80,294. From 2000 through last year’s count, Gary lost 22% of its residents. The city’s unemployment rate in February was 9.8%. Gary — like Detroit, which lost 25% of its people in the past decade — faces tough questions: What is the best way to shrink a city? How can city government provide adequate services as its tax base contracts? How can new employers and residents be wooed to a place known more for blight than for opportunity?”

Sound Transit to invest $2.1M in rail,bus ridership research
Seattle Times, May 19, 2011
“Sound Transit will spend as much as $2.1 million for consultants to conduct market research, in hopes of boosting its rail and bus ridership. ‘Finding out what will get people out of their cars and into our services is going to require some deep research and talking to a lot of people in our region,’ said communications Director Ron Klein.”

Poll: Gas prices causing hardship for 4 in 10 Americans
Chicago Tribune, May 19, 2001
“With gasoline prices hovering at $4 a gallon nationally, many Americans are making tough choices: scaling back summer vacations, driving less or ditching the car altogether. Some seniors are choosing a tank of gas over their prescriptions. An Associated Press-GfK poll shows the share of Americans who say increases in the price of gasoline will cause serious financial hardship for them or their family in the next six months now tops 4 in 10. Overall in the poll, 71 percent said rising prices will cause some hardship for them and their family, including 41 percent who called it a “serious” hardship. Just 29 percent said rising prices are not causing a negative impact on their finances.”

Never Too Old To Bike To Work (video)
Grist, May 19, 2011
“Gilbert admits to being in her “high 70s,” and she has been biking since she was a 7-year-old in France. She and her friends didn’t have phones, so if they wanted to talk, they hopped on their bikes and went and found each other.”

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Round One: Your Stories About the Cost of High Gas

Earlier this week, Smart Growth America asked for stories about how high gas prices are affecting you, and we’ve already received an overwhelming response. Thank you to everyone who wrote in. If you haven’t told us about the kinds of tradeoffs you’re making to deal with high gas prices, click here to tell us your story.

We heard from people who are saving money by choosing alternatives to driving, including walking, buses, light rail, subways and biking. We heard from people who wish they had more choices for ways to get around and from people living in rural areas where a car is the only option. People sent stories about delaying vacations, spending less on groceries, trading in a gas guzzler for something with better mileage, skipping doctors appointments that are across town, commuting 20 miles on a bike, and more.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, but a consistent theme through these stories is that people who have shorter drives or transportation choices are not as directly affected by rising gas prices. Part of Smart Growth America’s work is helping great communities have more low cost options for getting around when gas prices get too high, but we need to hear from you to do it. Click here to tell us your story

Here are a few stories that you shared with us so far:

  • Karen in Northern California says gas is $4.69 in her area, but she relies on walking and public transportation to get around. She said she decided to live in a place where she could get around without a car, but she said when she carpools with someone she is sure to chip in more gas money or buy them lunch.
  • Matt moved to rural Ohio six years ago with his family and says gas is $4.00 a gallon and his last tank was $72.00. He and his spouse each spend two hours a day in their cars. He thinks they’ll spend $8,000 on gas this year. They have no other options and are miles away from everything: their daughter’s school, work, stores, etc. He says they’re thinking about moving back into the city, partially because of the expense of all that driving, and partially because they’re just tired of spending so much time in their cars.
  • Christie lives outside of Nashville, Tennessee and says filling up her tank is $50.00. She takes the train and bus as much as possible, but she’s forgoing recommended medical treatments because the doctor’s office is too far away and it would cost too much to get there.
  • JR in Hawaii sent in the highest gas price: $4.91 for a gallon. He said even with a hybrid car and minimizing his family’s driving, they’re still seeing first-hand effects of high gas prices because 70 percent of goods, including food, are shipped to Hawaii. JR says everything is getting more expensive.

How much does gas cost in your area? What are you doing to cope with the high prices of gas? If you don’t drive often, or at all, how do you get around? Smart Growth America wants to help more people have the option of shorter drives and more ways to get around. Click here to tell us your story.

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