Mainely Planning

Why plan for an uncertain future? Our world is changing in ways that we can hardly comprehend. The planning we have been engaged in over the last 100 years, is geared to a world with abundant energy, a stable climate, and a dwindling natural resource endowment that is reliant on cheap energy for extraction. That world is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Oil price spikes due to supply/demand and geopolitical concerns, water shortages (Google Lake Mead, Central Valley, CA or the Ogallala Aquifer for details), and soil depletion are just a few of the problems we face. As we move forward, the notion that we can continue with business as usual (BAU) is not going to sustain us.

Thinking creatively and making difficult decisions will test our abilities, push our cultural boundaries and hopefully shape a world where these uncomfortable realities can be dealt with in an equitable and meaningful manner. I write about things I see, think, and work on as I transition from being a planning student into the world of planning. I am neither a technological optimist, thinking we can invent our way out of all our problems, nor a doomer, believing in returning to a world much like pre-industrial times. I believe that our creativity combined with the lessons from the past will be instrumental tools for laying the foundation for the path forward. Some of my ideas may seem radical, others are just based on common sense and keen observations.

Links of Note

Mainely Rural
The Old Pine Tree
Strong Towns
Project For Public Spaces
Streets Blog
Cap'n Transit Rides Again
Human Transit
Pedestrian Observations
The Broken Sidewalk
Maine Architecture
The Vigorous North
Depot Redux
Reason and Rail
Car Free Maine
Walk Around Portland

Transportation for America State Fact Sheets

A Reason to Plan

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Posts tagged "Density"

The census tells us quite a bit about where people are populating and when. What we see in the chart below is a significant (not tested for significance) change in course for population movements. The data examines the population of central cities of each metro area, compared to the surrounding metro area populations. Suburban growth patterns continued to dominate the percent of growth through 2007 (noted by the tall blue bars above the metro area), then abruptly fell for both in 2007-2009. What follows is primarily growth in the central cities (green bars in 2009-2011) with some moderate growth in the surrounding towns.

I continue to believe that when faced with economic uncertainty, due to high fuel prices, sputtering economy, etc., people will choose a more efficient lifestyle. Cities are an opportunity for that, helping to reduce commuter costs and put people closer to the things they want and need. Even in the face of higher housing costs in central cities, the combined cost of transportation and housing is still a better deal. In a flat economy with high fuel prices, that is a choice many are inclined to make.

For my planning activism with the Greater Waterville Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, I have been looking into a lot of crash data, trying to learn about the nature of accidents in and around Waterville and how they could be mitigated.

I happened upon a story that I didn’t expect to find, but did. Waterville is looking into fixing a 5 way intersection at the corner of Western Ave., Lincoln Ave., and 1st Rangeway. The intersection can be a bit difficult to navigate, but in looking at the crash data for the Waterville area, it appears that the intersection is quite safe compared to other parts of town (Interstate Interchanges & Downtown).

While the perception is that the intersection is unsafe, what generally tends to happen is that people navigating that intersection approach it with some level of hesitation and a heightened awareness. Because everyone knows it is a “bad” intersection, it is made safe because people treat it as if it were a place to be respected. In the list of projects for the City of Waterville and Maine’s DOT is a redo of this “unsafe” intersection. While the improvements may in fact change the perception of the intersection as an “unsafe” place, the data suggests that this is a gross miss-allocation of resources. 

Waterville has a downtown business environment that is fighting like hell to remain a viable center of business activity. People take economic risks here by opening up businesses, the downtown development group spends considerable energy building up the downtown, but what is clear to me is that the street network that supports downtown isn’t doing an adequate job.

By the numbers, a two block section of downtown has had 84 accidents in the last 8 years. Most of those are rear-end/sideswipes between people backing out of diagonal stall parking were rear-ended or parallel parkers were sideswiped. As a planner, I know the value of downtown on-street parking to downtown businesses. People need to get in, conduct a transaction, and leave. Eliminating on-street parking is a looser for these businesses and will make traffic even faster due to greater roadway widths. Stories here and here.

What is needed however is a traffic calmed environment that will be a more inviting place for patrons of downtown businesses, families spending a weekend strolling along the shop lined streets, and as a result will slow traffic down, leading to less crashes.

Cities levy taxes to pay for things people need. Some of those things are schools, parks, streets, police & fire protection. Understandably, nobody really likes taxes, so cities try their best to keep taxes low. In a town like Waterville, in what is considered a service center town, taxes can be a bit higher. This is largely due to having more hospitals, churches, non-profit organizations, judicial buildings, schools and colleges, than many of the surrounding communities. These places don’t pay property taxes and that is ok, because they bring people to the community for those services and the jobs they represent.

It can be argued then that service center towns will have a much more difficult time attracting residents who use tax rates as a measure of attractiveness to settle in a particular town. One solution to that problem is to focus on adding more value per acre of taxable property, thereby reducing the property tax rate and the burden on a towns citizens.

While increasing the density of value may be a difficult political sell in some respects, it represents a solution to a vexing problem of overtaxing a tax-weary citizenry. The map below is a simple parcel map of Waterville, ME that shows the value of each parcel in terms of its area (value/acre). The most valuable parcels of the town are primarily the downtown (red parcels), which also happens to be the most dense part of town.

Considering that infrastructure and other city services become less expensive as density increases (less roadway to pave, less patrolling needed, etc.), it begs the question of why we create zoning codes that promote low density development? If residential housing is restricted to 4 homes/acre (.25 acre lots) and the street that those houses reside on costs the same as a street that is zoned for 6 houses/acre (.17 acre lots), which street has a better chance of being supported by the tax revenue of the properties on the street?

When we look at downtown, you note that most parcels are either red or dark orange, representing value/acre at over $1M or $750K respectively. These represent breadwinners for the cities coffers and probably subsidize much of the low density areas infrastructure costs. Not that downtown development is right for every part of town, but any chance a city has to increase density will increase value on a per acre basis.

As a planner, I feel it is my responsibility to find solutions to how cities develop that cater to people of the broadest possible political persuasions. Reducing tax rates while maintaining a high level of city services appeals to a broad coalition. Reducing our ecological footprint by taking up less space is also appealing to many.

I rail (no pun intended of course) on about fuel prices, sustainability, and changing how we do business with regards to transporting ourselves. As I have noticed in Maine, we are lucky because the State has done a good job of preserving rail corridors. These will be instrumental to our transition to a more sustainable existence and density along those corridors is a big part of that. When crunching 2010 census figures, I found that within 20 miles of arbitrarily chosen (I looked at towns with rail and towns with people in them) station areas, over 900,000 or Maine’s 1.3 million people reside.This is a tremendous opportunity for conventional passenger service and allowing for people to have some great mobility options other than cars.

The map below is a view of the Southern Maine Portion of a proposed route map showing station locations, 20 mile buffers around the stations, and population density of census blocks within those 20 mile buffers. 

This map (below) is more of the same with 5 mile buffers around the proposed rail stations. More than 560,000 people live within census blocks 5 miles from these stations. At some point I will crunch the within 1 mile of stations numbers and get back to this, but regardless, this represents a great opportunity for both commuter travel and conventional longer distance service.

As we seek out ways to keep our population mobile and provide opportunity for employment, I think rail will play a big role in that mobility equation. For now I just wanted to talk about density, show a picture (map) of where Maine is at in terms of some initial feasibility. At a future point in time, I would certainly like to talk about current rail infrastructure, transit oriented development, rail vehicle technologies, and a few other important ideas related to this.

Here are some other maps that I created with station towns identified. Again, these aren’t official anything, just a boy, some data, and some ideas. Northern Maine above, Southern Maine below, just like it is on the map.

Enjoy. Comments welcome.

Planitizen’s Michael Lewyn explores the relationship between density and price, combating the notion that dense urban development is bad because it is unaffordable. While urban housing prices have risen lately, it is largely a reflection of housing preference and supply and demand for those sought after living spaces. He includes several examples of dense development at various price points.

My not so original contribution to this is to ask: how big of a role does transportation play in affordability when one isn’t paying for the high cost of an automobile? There is a great mapping site that uses a variety of data inputs and displays housing affordability according to median home price, then combines that with transportation costs to give a clearer picture of affordability.

Once transportation costs are accounted for, and perhaps disaggregated to tease out auto ownership in high density transit served areas, can an accurate analysis be performed. That would provide a clear picture of the real cost of living based on place and transportation choice.