Monday, June 23, 2014

Issues of privilege in walkable cities

A couple reports out this week share a theme of how and to whom the benefits of urbanism are flowing. Smart Growth America's study of America's largest metropolitan areas describes how some are moving faster than others in providing walkable downtown areas, but also notes that housing and office rental prices have increased there and may be pricing some people out. FiveThirtyEight cites data, particularly from a new study on BuzzFeed, that bicycle use varies widely by sex and class, with men and middle class people biking far more often.

Smart Growth America puts six cities at the top of the walkable urbanism charts: Washington, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. Together these six cities account for 48 percent of the walkable urban places in the 30 metro areas studied (pp. 11-13). They predict, however, based on a number of factors, that Miami, Atlanta, Detroit and Denver have the potential of reaching the top, with Chicago in particular likely to drop in the rankings (pp. 14-17). Impressively, walkable urbanism is positively correlated with educational attainment and metropolitan per capita income (p. 20). The authors note, however, "The vast majority of growth in regionally significant development in the late 20th century occurred in a metropolitan's 'favored quarter' areas of concentrated upper-middle-class housing separated from concentrated minority housing." And "Further research is needed to determine how walkable urbanism influences housing in terms of prices, rents, affordability, and the propensity to rent versus own" (p. 32). Much of the discussion on the webcast release of the report focused on the need to stimulate affordable housing construction. Richard Bradley, executive director of Washington, D.C.'s Business Improvement District and a panelist at the rollout, called the traditional approach to housing costs "Drive 'til you qualify," i.e. commute from a distant suburb whose real estate prices you can afford, but noted that is not viable in the long term either for regions or families ("Foot Traffic Ahead"; see also Samuels).

There's construction in the city center, such as the soon-to-be Coventry Lofts apts...
...but a lot of affordable housing, like this complex on Johnson Av SW, is remote from places of value
Speaking of commuting, this isn't a new report (though I'm pretty sure I've seen newer data than these), but significantly more jobs in high-skill industries are accessible by public transit than in low- and middle-skill industries (Tomer et al.).

On BuzzFeed, Jeremy Singer-Vine tracked usage of bike sharing programs in Boston, Chicago and New York. While there is some variation across bike share stations, all three cities show women accounting for between 21 and 25 percent of users. The rate goes up on weekends in all three cities, but only to about 1/3. These numbers are consistent with an earlier U.S. government study that found women took 24 percent of bicycle rides. Hypotheses for the gender difference abound, including fear of distracted drivers and physical assaults, additional responsibility for transporting children, and the intervening factor of pay differential. Far more middle class households even own bicycles than poor or working class households do (Chalabi). That doesn't surprise me: at Coe, I work on a park-like campus with plenty of bike racks, and when I'm not teaching I can come to work in t-shirt and shorts. If I worked in the Geonetric building, I'd soon be able to shower after arriving by bicycle at their new 12th Avenue facility. But for workers at Wal-Mart or Target or Hy-Vee, routes to the stores are often not bike-friendly and  then you have to navigate across an enormous parking lot.

I'm for prosperity, and this blog is pretty much an ongoing plug for walkability, but there are also any number of reasons we need to be intentional about inclusiveness on the way. In a nutshell, inclusive communities are fairer and more sustainable. So we need to acknowledge that the path to urbanism is affecting people differently by sex and income. If we probed further, we might well find that it's affecting people differently by race and age as well [though Streetsblog USA notes bicycling is rising fastest among people aged 60-79]. Some of the contributing factors can be addressed through public policy: rental price controls in some cities may be distorting the housing markets (though I suspect it's just the market itself providing higher returns on investment at the upper end), zoning laws that prevent walkable development need to be changed, and the federal government should certainly stop subsidizing highway and McMansion development. There are some possibilities for positive government action as well: Better biking infrastructure may help with the fear factor, and creative support for transit, transit-oriented development and housing diversity would be most welcome. Anything beyond that?

"Downtown, Where All the Lights are Bright?" November 10, 2013
"Gentrification in the Mission District," December 4, 2013
"The Gentrification Conundrum (II)," March 21, 2014

  Michael Andersen, "Surprise! People Aged 60-79 Are Behind More Than a Third of the Biking Boom," Streetsblog USA, 20 June 2014,
  Mona Chalabi, "Why Women Don't Cycle," FiveThirtyEight, 16 June 2013,
  Coventry Lofts property website:
  "Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America's Largest Metros," Smart Growth America, 17 June 2014,
  Robert Samuels, "Millennials Consider Leaving Washington as the City Becomes More Costly," Washington Post, 16 June 2014, [as we say on Facebook, HT Ted Carroll for this article]
  Jeremy Singer-Vine, "These Maps Show A Massive Gender Gap in Bicycle-Riding," BuzzFeed, 16 June 2014,
  Adie Tomer, Elizabeth Kneebone, Robert Puentes and Alan Berube, "Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America," Brookings, 12 May 2011,

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