It’s Policy, Not Preference, that Shapes Cities

Baltimore [Population: 288,530,000]

Baltimore. Photo by Oslo In The Summertime, on Flickr

People keep writing about the effectof our urban policies, but very few outside the urbanist blogosphere write about the policies themselves. The articles that result satisfy our curiosity about change but fail to actually inform. They’re all candy, no vegetable. Two articles published last week exemplify this trend. Both describe the effects of the same policies, but both fail to discuss the policies themselves.

The New York Times profiled the blighted rail corridor between New York City and Washington, DC. If you ever travel that stretch of rail, you’ll see boarded up homes, weedy back yards, abandoned factories, and the detritus of a country that’s moved on from its industrial past. In its place has arisen an incestuous service economy built by a New York-Washington axis of power. Anyone with any money has moved to the ‘burbs, leaving the cities behind to rot. At least, that’s what the Times’ Adam Davidson says.

Meanwhile, Meredith Galante, writing in Business Insider, wrote glowingly of micro-apartments, tiny homes 160 to 300 square feet. These, it’s thought, will help solve the housing crunch in major cities as people flock to city centers and drive rents to the stratosphere. Such homes, according to one entrepreneur, are the future in increasingly overcrowded urban areas.

Wait a second. Anyone with money has moved to the ‘burbs but people with money are so desperate to live in cities that tiny, expensive apartments make sense? Both explanations can’t be right, but both trends are happening anyway. What gives?

Suburbanization, and the policies that encourage it outside and within cities, is to blame. The layers of regulation banning increasing density; the hundreds of billions invested in roads to speed suburbanites into the city in cars; the parking lots to store all those cars that destroyed buildings and the city’s fabric; and the zoning codes that locked uses into place have released bizarre forces on cities. Where suburbanization has been restrained, city living is so valuable but so difficult to accommodate that housing is squeezed into every nook and cranny of developable space, and there’s not a lot of that. Where suburbanization runs rampant, cities collapse under the weight of regulation and outright destruction.

Micro-apartments in the Boom Towns

Zoning, that can be the most destructive by banning reinvention of place. Regulations dictate exactly what kind of building can be built, how many people can live there, what kind of business you can open, how many parking space you must have, how far back the building must be from the property lines, and on and on.

To amend the zoning code requires going through homeowners zealously protective of the status quo. Consideration of legalizing in-law units incites howls of protest that such plans would destroy the neighborhood. Even in New York, the idea of allowing taller buildings in Midtown Manhattan has caused consternation and hand-wringing over whether they would, yes, destroy the neighborhood.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1910s, Manhattan’s West Side was all mansions; by the 1930s, it was apartment blocks. The wealthy had found other places to put mansions, and the city was growing so rapidly that allowing one family to occupy a half-acre of land was unacceptably expensive. Putting a hundred families in its place ensured that new housing satisfied the extremely high demand. Apartments along San Rafael’s D Street are the result of the same process. Sprinkled among single-family homes, the apartment buildings provide valuable housing for those who want to live close to Marin’s urban heart.

Now, the places where development can happen become ever more rare, and stiff design review processes ensure that it will take huge sums of money and sometimes years to pass just one project. It’s no wonder there’s a housing shortage – we have the political brakes on so hard we can’t move anywhere near fast enough. Micro-apartments, which allow the most units to be squeezed into the city’s apartment production line, are the inevitable result of supply constrained on every side.

Cities We Leave Behind (Every Day)

In the blighted cities described by the Times, policies designed to facilitate the suburbs accelerated declines from prominence. Loans and tax deductions favored single-family homes, single-use zoning isolated residences from business from office, and superhighways encouraged anyone with money to leave cities behind. It didn’t help that those superhighways destroyed huge swathes of cities and shut out downtowns from the nearby neighborhoods.

The trigger for the exodus in many of the cities between Washington and New York were race riots in the 1960s. Angry mobs tore through businesses and destroyed the livelihoods of millions. Even DC was not immune; the current population boom mostly involves repopulating the burned-over areas that had rotted for decades. New freeways built over the poorest neighborhoods whisked people between their new homes in the ‘burbs and their old jobs in ossified office districts, zoned and reserved for the needs of car-based office workers. Even today, those workers leave their cities behind to fend for themselves on a daily basis.

Now that we want to reinvest in our center cities, the priorities of the car-driving suburbanite still take precedence. Requiring developers to build a certain amount of parking spaces, for example, is extremely common in American cities. Unfortunately, the practice has little basis in science and does quite a bit of harm. It reduces the viability of projects by forcing the construction of excess spaces, hurts the streetscape by putting more cars on the road and lining sidewalks with parking rather than retail. At the very least it means investments in on-street bicycling are rejected because of reductions in on-street parking or in the number of lanes on a street. Dedicated transit lanes and freeway demolitions are often rejected for the same reason.

Yet this is The Greater Marin, a blog about a suburb, and it may seem out of step to advocate for keeping Marin’s low-rise towns while excoriating cities for bowing to the needs of the people that live in those low-rise towns. I don’t think it is.

Novato has zoning rules that ban banks from facing Grant Avenue, forcing the new Umpqua Bank branch to face a parking lot instead of the sidewalk. San Anselmo’s zoning bans bike shops from San Anselmo Avenue, though clearly the rule is happily ignored. San Rafael forces downtown residences to build parking on-site while city-owned parking garages sit half-empty. These restrictions hurt our towns, businesses, and both current and potential residents. It’s not just the big cities that are hurt by unexamined rules; we are, too.

When articles tout micro-apartments as the Next Big Thing or bemoan the decline of the industrial city without a policy discussion, they do a disservice. They gloss over the causes that created and perpetuate these trends, providing easy answers in place of honest critique. It wasn’t just industrial decline that wrecked the cities of the Northeast; suburbanization did. It’s not that young people want to live in tiny apartments; zoning forces them to trade living space for location. Avoiding discussions like this is bad for San Francisco, bad for the Northeast, and, ultimately, bad for Marin. The Times and Business Insider should know better.


Two-Week Links: Busy Busy

Farmer's Market, San Rafael

Farmer’s Market, San Rafael by ftchris, on Flickr

Quite a bit has happened in the past two weeks, so I won’t bore with an introduction. From SMART to the economy to a rash of deaths, it’s been eventful. Oh, and that whole election thing. Here are the highlights.

Marin and Beyond

  • The driver who killed Hailey Ratliff was cleared of wrongdoing by Novato PD, who said the driver was going the speed limit and that Hailey was at fault for failing to yield to traffic. (Patch) While the Ratliff family has moved back to New Mexico, their former neighbors are investigating ways to make Novato streets safer. (IJ)
  • It won’t be viable to raise SMART tracks at Jennings Road in Santa Rosa. The planning process was begun too late for that option, but the other contenders – an at-grade crossing and an elevated pedestrian crossing – aren’t so great, either. (PD)
  • California is hiring new staff so water quality permits for SMART and Marin County can be approved more quickly, and SMART and Marin are picking up the tab. (IJ)
  • San Rafael is waging a crackdown on homelessness in its downtown and is looking to move homeless services out of the neighborhood. City manager Nancy Mackle calls it a quality of life concern; homeless advocates call it unjust and capricious. (IJ)
  • The economy is going strong in Marin, and it’s going to get better. So says the Marin Economic Forum, which projected continued job and income growth for at least the next two years. (IJ)
  • With a second term secured, the Obama Administration has a fantastic opportunity to reform how the US funds infrastructure, builds railroads, and stop some of the principal drivers of sprawl. (Atlantic)
  • Not every coffee shop needs to sell tea, and not every building needs to look the same. David Alpert makes a cogent argument for form-based zoning and for abolishing parking minimums. (GGW)
  • Yeas and nays: Sausalito City Council gets a much-needed shake-up. (IJ) … Ross gets to keep its police department. (IJ) … Marin parks and open space get a boost. (Patch) … Levine vs. Allen still unclear, except to Levine. (PD, KSRO) … And the rest of the initiatives, state propositions, and offices. (Pacific Sun
  • And…: A major mixed-use office building opens in Novato. (IJ) … Larkspur’s Doherty Drive is looking good with new bike lanes. (James Bikes) … The Larkspur Ferry set a ridership record by transporting people to the Giants victory parade. (Patch) … George Lucas is pressing on with developing Grady Ranch despite Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm. (Patch)

The Toll

Three dead, 19 wounded in just two weeks of travel in Marin and Sonoma.

  • Alvin Hesse was killed by a driver on Wednesday while crossing the street in Sonoma. Police arrested a suspect, 80-year-old Joe Kwai Lee, on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter. Hesse was 93. (PD)
  • Two other drivers were killed in two separate, single-driver crashes in Sonoma County. (PD)
  • 92-year-old Leo Arkelian hit two teens crossing the road in Sonoma with his car, seriously injuring one and moderately injuring the other, but he denies that he hit anyone and is fine to drive. His denial raises the question: when is someone too old to drive? (PD)
  • Toraj Soltani, testifying at trial, detailed his harrowing experience nearly getting run over by Harry Smith: how Smith yelled at Soltani and tried to run him off the road, Soltani’s retailiation, and the apoplectic rage that nearly turned Smith into a murderer. Smith is on trial for attempted murder and assault. (PD)
  • Remembering John Von Merta, a homeless man who was killed by a driver while crossing the street last month. (PD)
  • A bicyclist injured himself by falling off a trail in West Marin. While a friend was retrieving his bike, a driver careened off the road nearby and got stuck in a tree; the friend helped the driver escape. (Patch)
  • Santa Rosa: Two drivers injured themselves by colliding head-on.  (PD) … A pedestrian crossing the road was seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver, who was later found and arrested. (PD) … A driver hit and injured two trick-or-treaters on Halloween, while another child was hit by another driver in a separate crash that night. (PD)
  • Everywhere Else: A driver injured herself and her passenger on Highway 101 in Greenbrae. (PD) … Three people were injured in a three-car crash on Highway 12 in Glen Ellen. (PD) … A driver injured himself and two others in Healdsburg by crashing into a pole. (PD) … A driver and bicyclist collided in Sonoma; the biker was injured. (PD) … Four people were injured in three separate crashes caused by drunk drivers in Marin last month. (IJ)

What to Do if You Come Across a Bike Crash – Comments

Last week I posted on Greater Greater Washington about what to do if you come across a bike crash. Though I thought it was fairly thorough, the comments provided a fantastic appendix to the piece.

The purpose of my piece was to inform potential bystanders to be aware of the needs of the situation and be conscious of any roles to play. Commenter SJE wrote with a proper hierarchy:

I agree it is important to take charge, and direct people. Most people don’t know what to do. Important tasks:

1. Caring for victim
2. Collecting witness statements. Best to get via smart phone, so is verbatim and can be used in court
3. Ensure driver does not leave
4. Directing traffic
5. Calling for help and police, and relatives.
6. Looking after the broken bike.Another thing is not to focus on blood. People die all the time from internal injuries, including head injuries, that show little sign of outward bleeding. If bike or car is mangled, look more closely at the cyclist.

I personally believe everyone should take basic EMS courses: you WILL use it, and it could be your life that is saved.

I didn’t collect witness statements but I did have a smart phone. I didn’t want to seem too intrusive, but I should have been more aware of the needs of the victim and responders. It’s equally important to ensure, in a bike-on-pedestrian crash, that the bicyclist doesn’t leave. A victim of a bike hit-and-run is as much a victim as someone involved in a regular hit-and-run.

Marc pointed out that talking to the victim is equally important:

1. If you are first on the scene, don’t just say “someone call 911”. Instead, point to someone else and say “YOU – call 911”. There have been occasions where no one called 911 because everyone else thought someone else was doing it.

2. While you’re waiting for EMS to arrive, one very practical thing you can do is ask for the person’s medical history. Do they have any medicine allergies? Are there any major preexisting conditions the EMT’s should know about? Where specifically is the pain? Can they wiggle their fingers and toes? Stuff like that.

Keep in mind that someone could be conscious right after the crash but lapse into unconsciousness by the time the EMT’s arrive, so better to get the information while you can.

Ms. D wrote in about the peril of identifying as a doctor or other medical professional:

Also, ask for help in a non-identifying way. I have several friends and family in the medical field, and they’ve all expressed that they’re afraid to identify themselves for fear their position will void good samaritan laws (which are designed to protect non-professionals who try to help and fail or end up doing harm). They DO help, but they would never say “I’m a nurse/medical assistant/etc.” While I have extensive first-aid/CPR/defibrillator training due to some previous jobs (not in the medical field) and don’t normally ask for help in that regard (but rather offer my help), I’d recommend asking if anyone knows first aid rather than asking if anyone is a medical professional if you don’t feel up to providing the assistance necessary.

She added that having an emergency kit is handy, even if you’re a pedestrian or a biker:

My emergency kit, which fits in everything but my smallest clutch, is a mini-mag, sterile gauze, a pair of latex (could also be latex-free) gloves in a sealed baggie, and some alcohol wipes. A pen and small notepad is also useful if you find yourself in charge of collecting witness information, though, as noted, smart phones have excellent features (notepad, video camera, etc.) for this purpose, as well.

Lastly, Observer gave us an update on what actually happened:

I was standing next to the woman injured in this accident Thursday night. Yes, standing. Because she wasn’t on a bike. In fact, when the light turned green for pedestrians she was hit (admittedly without looking) by a bicyclist who had run the light.

Second, in response to your twitter conversation with Ron Knox, she never lost consciousness. We did have a frustratingly hard time flagging down police cars to help protect us from traffic, but EMS arrived and the woman was able to walk to the ambulance by herself.

I hadn’t been taking witness statements, but the combination of bike on the curb + woman on the ground meant bicyclist struck. A few side conversations I’d had about whether the driver was still there were met with an “I don’t know”, so it was an assumption on my part.

Changing Demographics Calls for Changing Housing

Discussions of Marin’s development often lack data but are long on anecdote and impressions, giving misguided assertions about Marin’s population or housing undue cachet.

But if Marin wants to genuinely plan for the future, it must face the facts of its people and its housing market: there is strong demand for larger apartments in Southern Marin and smaller apartments elsewhere; there are more kids and more people living alone; and that the graying population will need to be able to downsize.

Graying Needs

Between the 2000 and the 2010 Census, Marin’s population grew by about 2 percent and its median age increased three years, from 41.3 years old to 44.5. While the proportion of school-aged children increased by about 1 point, the proportion of middle-aged people plummeted by 10 points; those aged 55 and up increased by a similar amount. So, while we got older, our families grew a bit.

And though our average household got a bit larger, the number of people living alone, especially seniors has already started to increase faster than the population as a whole, while the proportion of families has actually gone down.

Click to enlarge.

The shift is divergent between Southern Marin and the rest of the county. While the median age of Southern Marin has kept pace with the rest of the county, it’s been attracting families. The number of people living alone actually declined by 2.5 percent in Southern Marin while it jumped 9.4 percent everywhere else. The population of elementary-aged kids positively boomed, growing an astounding 17.3 percent while the rest of the county’s population shrank by 1.1 percent.

Yet even here, the continued shift to older individuals means its familial boom can’t continue without seniors leaving the region. Southern Marin is where the families are going, it’s true, but it’s aging just as quickly. Unless those seniors start to leave or new family housing is built in Southern Marin, housing costs are going to continue to climb into the stratosphere.

As this shift away from families and towards empty-nesters goes on, people will increasingly use family-sized homes for couples and singles. Already we have 1.17 bedrooms per person compared to 0.95 for the state and 1.15 for the country at large.  If we want to keep our homes turning over while keeping our long-term residents in town, we need to allow space for people to downsize into. Senior housing, small single-family homes and the like would allow people to transition without leaving out of the county. Building such homes near transit would give seniors flexibility once it’s no longer feasible to drive, incidentally a goal of AARP.

Squeezing the Market

Rents reflect the shifting demands in Marin’s largely stagnant market. The average rent for a three bedroom apartment has skyrocketed in Southern Marin, moving up 28 percent to $3,232 in just a year, from the first quarter of 2011 and now.  Studio rents there have stayed fairly steady, increasing only 4 percent in the same time period. In Central Marin, however, studios and two-bedroom apartments have dominated the market’s rise, with average rent increasing by 14 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

The housing supply has left behind the studio apartment. Marin has been upsizing, replacing small homes for large ones: the number of no- or one-bedroom homes has dropped 19 percent while larger homes have increased 11.9 percent. It means there will quickly be a shortage of studio and one-bedroom apartments, and there’s no relief on its way.

Zoning codes currently in force actually punish developers for building small units. Density limits on a per-unit basis encourage developers to build the largest units that can be rented rather than the most rentable mix of units. Other limits, such as maximum floor area or parking minimums, further strains a developer’s capability to build small. ABAG density guidelines only make the problem worse by politicizing density over height, inspiring impassioned speeches against zoning 31 units per acre.

In Southern Marin, where high rents should bring more development, community backlash against any and all development has had a major chilling effect. Who would buy developable land when they see the nightmare faced by the Blithedale Terrace? Those high rents for three bedroom apartments are the result of a major housing shortage. Shockingly, they’re actually approaching the cost of studio apartments on a square-foot basis, something unheard of except in extremely constrained and warped markets.

Bottom Lines

If Marin wants to continue to be a place for families and its seniors, it must move away from density limits and allow the market to adjust. San Rafael is already doing this with the Downtown Station Area Plan, which maintains height limits but abolishes density limits. Southern Marin could get a boost from the Mill Valley General Plan update if it’s paired with permitting process reform.

Marin can’t be held in stasis; its housing supply is built for an increasingly small demographic – the home-owning family – leaving the childless, seniors, and renting families to compete with extraordinarily high prices. If Marin tries to steer clear of infill development it will only shut out all but the wealthiest of new residents and those lucky enough to get a spot in affordable housing. We’ll be forced to build nonprofit housing, burdening municipal and county budgets with people who need services but whose homes are exempt from property and parcel taxes. Marin is changing, and our governments and residents need to let our housing supply do the same.

What would you do if you came across a bike crash?

Midtown Manhattan crash involving bicyclist, hit by the driver of a van.

Photo by velobry on Flickr.

As I walked home from work last night, I saw a crowd gathered at the corner of 17th and L Streets, NW. On closer inspection, a woman was lying in the road. A bicyclist had been hit. Have you thought about what you would do in such a situation?

A few people were hunched over, talking to her, trying to keep her still and calm. The rest of the crowd watched, concerned but unsure of what to do. Since I’d learned about the bystander effect, which renders people immobile rather than helpful in a crowd, I’d mentally rehearsed how to deal with a crash.

Read the rest of the post on Greater Greater Washington.