Tautological housing study reminds us that demand is more than skin deep

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on a new study by the National Association of Home Builders which found just 10 percent of people born after 1977 want to live in the urban core; the rest want the suburbs or rural areas. The catch was that the study group was only those who had bought a house in the past three years or who plan to do so. In other words, people who want to buy a house want to live in a place where they can buy a house.

But the study, an exercise in tautology if there ever was one, does add some value to the overall discussion about what today’s young homebuyers want out of a home, and the reaction to the study shines light on the foolishness of urban-vs-suburban partisanship.

What the study says

Just 10 percent of young homebuyers want to stay in the central city, while 68 percent want to move to the suburbs. These suburban homebuyers tend to buy smaller, older houses relatively close to the central city, and they put a premium on being within walking distance of amenities like restaurants, stores, schools, and transit.

This is not the typical car-oriented suburb. Rather, it’s a suburban town, the sort of place that grew up along the old streetcar lines before they vanished. It’s a place that can accommodate trips made by car, transit, biking, and walking.

It seems the same things that draw young people to cities remain valuable even when those same young people leave.

What the study leaves out

The NAHB study is a stated-preference study. In other words, it looked at what people said they wanted rather than what they actually did when presented with options, which is called a revealed preference study.

This is most clear in the disconnect between the cost of housing in a dense, walkable urban place and the cost of housing in a sprawling, drivable place. Outer-suburban and exurban homes were the first to lose their value during the Great Recession and have been the slowest to recover. Meanwhile, dense, central cities have seen the cost of housing soar, as have walkable towns near those cities.

These price signals are quite clear: the supply for outer-suburban and exurban homes exceeds demand, and the demand for central-city homes exceeds supply. Similar price stability and price spikes along transit corridors and in the old walkable streetcar suburbs shows this demand isn’t simply for central city homes but for walkable living.

More than that, the study doesn’t scratch the surface of where young people would want to live if central cities had similar prices and similar school quality to the suburbs. After all, the draw of the suburb might not even be a function of the suburban or urban form per se but a simple function of how inhospitable American cities are to raising a family.

Or perhaps it’s simply housing availability: most new housing development has been in the exurbs, and central cities have been housing laggards.

This last theory is held out by analysis by Jed Kolko of real estate analyst Trulia. Last week, he tweeted the following three charts:

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Growth in population closely matches the growth in housing units across the urban spectrum: the more homes, the more people. In fact, a read of the last two charts shows that neighborhoods are adding households faster than homes in all but the most suburban neighborhoods (deciles 9 and 10), with the most pronounced difference in urban neighborhoods (deciles 2-4). As a result, the growth in home sale price is highest outside of the most suburban neighborhoods. While the most urban neighborhoods saw their prices go up fastest, it was the least urban neighborhoods that saw their housing supply and population rise fastest.

This is due to a number of factors, but the largest is the $400 billion worth of federal subsidies (PDF) poured into the most suburban of places. Given the price rises in more urban areas, it seems as though this and state-level policies are working against the underlying demand rather than chasing demand.

It’s a stupid debate

Anti-urban partisans are always quick to crow about the end of the cities and seem eager to pounce all over any shred of evidence that might support this thesis, context be damned. Anti-suburban partisans, alas, do the same about evidence for suburban demise.

Yet being a partisan for a particular kind of urban form is nonsense. The great structural debate about housing and transit in the United States is fundamentally about whether the provision of housing in all its forms has adequately satisfied consumer demand.

The NAHB study doesn’t presage the slaughter of the city and triumph of the suburb any more than the fact that Americans aren’t driving as much presages the opposite. It presents a look at where young homebuyers say they want to live (namely, in places where they can buy homes).

What does this mean for Marin?

Young people want places that look like Marin: walkable, suburban, not too far from the city, with a decent transit network. Consumer demand surveys of all young people, not just homebuyers, found that the strong bias towards walkable living is found among renters and homebuyers alike.

The problem, of course, is that there isn’t enough San Francisco, or Marin, to go around. As I have insisted since the beginning of this blog, the demand for new homes in Marin should be channeled into enhancing and spatially expanding our downtowns.

San Anselmo, for example, has space for 79 of new apartments above stores within its downtown core. That’s 79 new families that could be living and shopping in a totally walkable environment. If downtown zoning were expanded to highway commercial zones, that’s room for dozens more new families and businesses.

Marin could push against its own struggling town centers and try to hem them in, or it could take this as an opportunity to build upon the formula that works: walkable towns adjacent to nature. There is room enough for the entire spectrum of suburban home types in Marin. We can take advantage of that demand, and build a greater Marin out of it.

The poetry of The Greater Marin

You may not know it, but The Greater Marin is on Twitter. It’s fun, really, to get in touch with people who agree and disagree with me from all over the world. Follow me, if you don’t already.

A new tool turned all these tweets into semi-coherent poetry. The result made me smile, so I thought I might as well share.

S!@# Together

North San Jose neighborhood
And design for your speed limit!
That does not sounds good.
Of Cut Wood. CUT WOOD, DAMMIT.)

Police, and idiot pedestrians.
Buses, like the GOOG shuttles:
Heh. Vegans.
Urbanist world: cars uber alles.

Inane of nuances of Marin politics.
With the new barrier, not less.
Hearts drown performance metrics.

The county and bring up some gold.
Napa, Capitol Corridor, and Marin.
Not smaller. Just slower and cold.

We’ll be back Monday, but if you can’t wait, find me on Twitter.

New on the IJ: Housing close to transit hubs is a time-tested model

Last week, IJ columnist Dick Spotswood wrote that he had a revelation: The best ways to provide new homes in Marin are to add housing to downtowns, emulate downtown forms, and add second units.

It may have been a revelation to him, but it’s not news to the Coalition for a Livable Marin — CALM. We’ve been advocating for just such an approach since we were founded.

Spotswood wrote the foreword to Bob Silvestri’s pro-sprawl manifesto, but he’s starting to understand the wisdom of Marin’s small, dense, rail-oriented downtowns.

Up until the 1940s, Marin was built to maximize ridership on our old light-rail system, the Interurban. Planners put high-density commercial and residential buildings right up next to stations and less-dense homes farther out.

The layout was deliberate. While people today often drive from parking space to parking space on their way home to run errands, yesteryear’s Marinites would walk from shop to shop to run errands on the walk home.

People taking Golden Gate Transit can often still do that, especially at one of the downtown hubs. Take the 27 from the Financial District to San Anselmo, pop into Andronico’s or Comfort’s for the night’s dinner, then walk home.

Most wonderful about this sort of development is how it’s used when people aren’t commuting. Kids can stop by the doughnut shop on a Saturday, parents can watch the street from the coffee shop, and seniors can live their days seeing neighbors and family without ever setting foot in a car.

Marin ought to encourage people to live in places like this, not just for the sake of affordable housing or greenhouse gas emissions but for the health of the town.

Continue reading on MarinIJ.com

High attrition the cause of GGT’s cancellations

This morning, no fewer than 5 Golden Gate Transit buses were cancelled: 2 runs of Route 24, 2 runs of Route 54, and 1 run of Route 27. Other routes don’t have email alerts, so it’s unknown whether any of those were cancelled. It’s also unknown whether any northbound trips will be cancelled this evening.

At least we know there’s a solution under way. Under the post on Golden Gate Transit’s (GGT’s) high cancellation rate on Route 54 and elsewhere in the system, customer service responded with an answer:

Golden Gate Transit’s goal is to never cancel trips on our routes, and we do everything possible to prevent cancellations. Unfortunately, we have fewer drivers right now due to a much higher attrition rate than expected. Because of this shortage of drivers, we have had more cancellations than we have experienced for some time. Employees are volunteering to work extra hours to minimize these disruptions in service. When Golden Gate Transit is forced to make a cancellation, we rotate routes so that one route is not harder hit than any other. We try to distribute cancellations as evenly as possible throughout our system. We encourage our customers to sign up for our rider alerts so they may get notification via email or text when there are cancellations or other service disruptions. Visit our website at http://www.goldengate.org to sign up for these alerts.

The current bus operator class graduates later this summer, with another class expected to graduate by the end of the year. Both of these classes are larger than most training classes, and will hopefully provide Golden Gate Transit the manpower it needs to prevent cancellations. We appreciate your patience while we work hard to alleviate this problem and want our riders to know that we are dedicated to bringing you reliable service.

While knowledge of the cause of the disruptions certainly doesn’t make them any better or tolerable, it’s good to know there is a solution in sight. Without dates we won’t know when this solution is coming, of course, but I suspect that by September things will look better.

Once the situation improves, GGT must go out of its way to repair its tarnished image. A week of free trips on the effected lines would certainly help, as would some old-fashioned PR outreach. Implementing real-time arrivals would help, too.

Alas, until then, GGT commuters should keep an ear out for cancellations. Follow and report missing buses on Twitter with the #missingbus tag. Email contact@goldengate.org to sign up for text alerts for select routes – 24, 27, 54, and 76 (other routes aren’t available). Keep your fellow commuter apprised.

Bus commuter schedules no longer reflect demand

Though by all accounts Golden Gate Transit’s commuter bus system is quite popular, it is increasingly out of touch with the commute times of Marin’s modern workforce. Marinites leave for work later, but GGT continues to operate with early-morning service.

FiveThirtyEight recently took Census data and determined which metropolitan areas get to work the latest. The San Francisco metro area, of which Marin is a part, got fifth on the list, with a median arrival time of 8:17am but a 75th percentile arrival time of about 9:30am. The bottom of the range is about 7:45am.

Just after reading this, reader John Browne, a frequent rider of the last Route 18 from Kentfield, tweeted:

It turns out John Browne is right.

Using the same Census data FiveThirtyEight used (though without the math to convert it into the ranges author Nate Silver did), I plotted out the average departure times for Marin commuters taking all modes to work. Transit commuters leave work at roughly the same rate as others up until 9am:

Yellow is transit.

Yellow is transit.

The proportion of transit riders leaving home between 9 and 10 stays down after the drop from 8:30 to 8:59 while other modes pop back up.

A glance at the span of service for Marin’s commute buses makes it easy to see why that might be. On average, the last Marin stop for a Marin commuter line is about 8:27, while the average last departure is a bit earlier at 8am. In other words, if you want to get out of Marin by bus, you’re probably going to have to leave home before 8 or 8:30, and that’s exactly what shows up in the Census data.

GGT should reexamine the county’s travel demand and which final buses are the most crowded and aim to add service to those lines later in the morning. Adding to service span will scoop up riders that want to leave later, and can also give earlier riders the peace of mind that they can leave later if needed, helping shore up ridership earlier in the morning, too.

It’s not just tech workers that are leaving later in the day, it’s Marinites in general. Our transit system should start scheduling for that.

Optical illusions on Fourth Street

While working on a piece about bike lanes, I stumbled across something odd that says a lot about how the built environment influences perceptions.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

A pet peeve of mine for years has been Fourth Street through West End in San Rafael. The neighborhood has struggled for years under the shadow of downtown, hidden just over a short hill, and street width is part of the reason I rarely spend time there. It just doesn’t feel cozy like downtown. Downtown is above this paragraph, West End is below.

San Rafael's West End

San Rafael’s West End

So when I got back street width data from city hall, I made a double take. Fourth Street through West End, which runs from H to E streets, was actually narrower than the rest of Fourth all the way to its end at Union, by up to 10 feet: 40 feet vs. 50 feet.

So why does it feel so much wider? Look again at the two pictures and you’ll see some stark differences. In downtown, the trees are older, the street parking is a bit fuller, and the buildings on both sides of the street cozy right up to the sidewalk. In West End, the buildings only cozy up to the sidewalk on one side of the street, with parking lots and show leading way back to squat buildings on the other side.

Those parking lots make the street appear significantly wider than it actually is, creating an optical illusion. I can’t think of a better example of how walkable development influences our sense of place better than this.

Substandard bus stops drench, humiliate riders

A soaked bench at the Depot. Image by the author.

A soaked bench at the Depot. Image by the author.

During Marin’s big Pineapple Express a few of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of taking the bus all over Marin. Stepping off a bus without worrying about parking or gas or finding the car always feels liberating to me, so I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect. But thanks to bad stop design, I and my fellow riders got soaked.

After chatting up some of protestors of WinCup, I walked along the narrow sidewalk to the closest southbound bus pad, not just to see what the walk was like but also because I had to get to Mill Valley. Aside from protestors using up the entire sidewalk width, forcing me to walk in the street, it wasn’t so bad. The bus pad, though, was another story.

The bus pad shelter allowed the wind to whip rain right in the face of me and my fellow travelers. The bench was so soaked that sitting would have made for a cold and soggy experience. Someone else waiting spoke very little English but pointed at the rain and the bench and laughed. “Very wet,” she said, and it was quite clear she thought the situation was ridiculous. Though she was heading to Mill Valley, too, she hopped on the next bus that came (Route 36) just to get out of the wet. I decided to stick it out, though, and my Route 17 bus arrived soon enough.

Alas, the Mill Valley Depot, central bus station of this most wealthy of towns, was in even worse shape. The roof dripped everywhere, soaking not just the benches but anyone who risked standing under it without an umbrella. Water trickled in from every slat in the roof and positively poured in through the light fixture.

The state of repair on the Depot and the quality of the bus pad stops tells riders, You don’t really matter. For one of the wealthiest counties in the country and one that prides itself on being green and supporting the less fortunate, that’s unacceptable.

If buses are a travel mode of equal stature to the car or ferry, bus stops – especially signature stops like the Depot – need to be treated like it. They should be comfortable, or at least bearable. The people who ride the bus for work or out of necessity do matter.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,345 other followers