The affordability swindle: why living in sunbelt sprawl actually costs more

image

Sprawl apologists like Joel Kotkin like to trumpet the continuing population shift to sunbelt metros of the southern US as proof that people prefer to live in these car-centric places that are spread out far and wide — as opposed to compact, walkable cities.

Others believe that there’s a draw to sunbelt states because of pro-business, low-regulation policies that allow for better wages. New York Time columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote an excellent piece that counters that argument, pointing out that, though the population shift is undeniable:

[From 2000-2012] greater Atlanta’s population grew almost 27 percent, and greater Houston’s grew almost 30 percent. America’s center of gravity is shifting south and west.

…this shift to the sunbelt isn’t due to wages:

The average job in greater Houston pays 12 percent less than the average job in greater New York; the average job in greater Atlanta pays 22 percent less.

In other words, what the facts really suggest is that Americans are being pushed out of the Northeast (and, more recently, California) by high housing costs rather than pulled out by superior economic performance in the Sunbelt.

The other draw that sunbelt metros are assumed to have is lower costs of living due to more affordable housing. And though the houses themselves may be lower in price, a new study shows that overall living costs are actually higher in these sprawling, car-centric areas due to transportation spending. Kaid Benfield has the info here: How Transit, Walkability Help Make Cities More Affordable.

A quote from Benfield:

The least affordable cities when housing and transportation costs are combined and compared to typical household income turn out to be sprawling, Sun Belt cities:  Riverside, California; Miami; and Jacksonville.  Those three cities also have the study’s highest transportation costs for a typical household, because of high rates of driving and relatively low use of mass transit.

image

So even though lower home prices are an obvious draw to sunbelt metros — and appear to be the sole reason behind the population shift — these prices aren’t low enough to truly provide a cost-of-living advantage over more walkable cities when we factor in the big costs of car-centric living.

Places that are more compact and walkable offer more transportation choices, rather than tying all residents to expensive car mobility. Additionally, they provide a built environment that gives multiple generations of residents the ability to get around without a car.

As I’ve written before, when we build car-sprawl for the middle-class car owners of today, we’re also building environments that will be eventually devalued by the common trends of the real estate market and that will likely be housing the low-income populations of the future. It’s better to pass along walkable environments to future inhabitants of our places than saddling yet another generation with car dependency.

The answer to a more sustainable pattern of housing affordability is not to accept car-centric sprawl as inevitable — it’s to find ways to create lower housing costs inside walkable environments and encourage a population shift within that format.

Top photo of Atlanta suburbs by Flickr user Maik

Bottom photo of Atlanta traffic by Flickr user Craig Allen

"The transportation dinosaurs of the 20th century love to substantiate their insatiable thirst for new highway capacity for two primary reasons: congestion relief and economic growth. However, highway capacity does neither. In fact…new highway capacity very well might actually hinder these things."

What exactly do you do here? | Walkable DFW

"Prior to World War II, every city in America was built for easy walking and biking. In fact, the idea of living in a walkable place is nothing radical. What was radical was the program we undertook to build an entirely new type of human life…Americans have grown up fully immersed in the car culture, not knowing alternatives — and that’s a problem."

Finding Freedom in the Walkable Neighborhood | This Big City, 7/7/2014

Focusing on car-congestion relief is a bad idea when it comes to good urbanism

Top: depressingly true cartoon.

Bottom: two photos of actual interstate construction tearing through neighborhoods on the middle of Atlanta, harming connectivity between neighborhoods and destroying buildings for the sake of moving as many cars as possible.

Currently on tap: $1billion dollars to be spent on a single interchange — 400/I-285 — to attempt to fix congestion by increasing capacity for cars at peak commuting times.

The dog is chasing its tail again, spending massive resources on the doomed-to-failure attempts at congestion relief when there are so many other needs in infrastructure and mobility.

SIGN MY PETITION

Let “we won’t raise the gas tax to fund roads, we’ll just take public money from other places” Georgia know that this is the wrong investment to make with our dwindling transportation funds. Particularly in a state and metro with many other pressing needs.

Reducing car ownership brings big rewards for local economy
Via Urbandata: According to data from AAA, if you reduce car ownership by 15,000 cars, over $127 million will stay in your local economy — per year.
So how is it that this goal not on the radar of every local politician everywhere?
For most large US cities (ones that aren’t already paragons of compact walkability), successfully reducing car ownership to this degree would probably require a significant increase in affordable urban infill housing in attractive environments, connected with ped/bike/transit infrastructure. Basically: good urbanism.
It’s a big, complex task with many hurdles in place, but it has been done and can be done again. Luckily, urban planners have documented the processes. I’ve enjoyed attending the APA Conference in Atlanta this week and finding out what strategies exist for making more ‘good urbanism’ happen in cities like Atlanta.
I’m hoping to post some highlights from the conference this week.

Reducing car ownership brings big rewards for local economy

Via Urbandata: According to data from AAA, if you reduce car ownership by 15,000 cars, over $127 million will stay in your local economy — per year.

So how is it that this goal not on the radar of every local politician everywhere?

For most large US cities (ones that aren’t already paragons of compact walkability), successfully reducing car ownership to this degree would probably require a significant increase in affordable urban infill housing in attractive environments, connected with ped/bike/transit infrastructure. Basically: good urbanism.

It’s a big, complex task with many hurdles in place, but it has been done and can be done again. Luckily, urban planners have documented the processes. I’ve enjoyed attending the APA Conference in Atlanta this week and finding out what strategies exist for making more ‘good urbanism’ happen in cities like Atlanta.

I’m hoping to post some highlights from the conference this week.

According to the CDC, motor vehicle-related injuries are the leading cause of death in the US for ages 5-34. Worldwide, road traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for ages 15-29. While both statistics are serious, it’s clear that, in the US, a greater range of the population is in danger of death from motor vehicles.
I write a lot about car-centric places being bad for reasons related to efficient, careful land use and for the relationship we have to our built environment and to each other.
But It’s important to take a regular break from those concerns and think about the impact that our car-centric places have on our health in the US. For a look at the other health problems (apart from fatal injuries) caused by cars, see this interview with former CDC director, Richard Jackson.Atlanta traffic photo from Flickr user spartan_puma

According to the CDC, motor vehicle-related injuries are the leading cause of death in the US for ages 5-34. Worldwide, road traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for ages 15-29. While both statistics are serious, it’s clear that, in the US, a greater range of the population is in danger of death from motor vehicles.

I write a lot about car-centric places being bad for reasons related to efficient, careful land use and for the relationship we have to our built environment and to each other.

But It’s important to take a regular break from those concerns and think about the impact that our car-centric places have on our health in the US. For a look at the other health problems (apart from fatal injuries) caused by cars, see this interview with former CDC director, Richard Jackson.

Atlanta traffic photo from Flickr user spartan_puma

"Per-capita vehicle miles of travel dropped again in 2013, making it the ninth consecutive year of decline…This recent downward shift has had no clear, lasting connection to economic trends or gas prices. Evidence suggests that the decline is likely due to changing demographics, saturated highways, and a rising preference for compact, mixed-use neighborhoods."

Per capita VMT drops for ninth straight year; DOTs taking notice | SSTI.us, 2/24/2014