Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Finding the Grey in the Black and White

In my previous post, I mentioned the idea, long considered valid, that kids belong in the suburbs. Being car oriented, they are breeding grounds for accidents, more kids die from cars than anything else, and being in a car doesn't allow the kids to feel a connection to their area, which has a whole host of negative effects.

A loyal reader commented:
Hmmm, I don't think I quite agree with some of your "facts". You have tons more cars driving down the street in front of your house in the city than I do in the suburbs. Plus, I have a back yard for a child to play in. I'm not trying to convince you that the 'burbs are best, but the vast majority of people in this beautiful country prefer where I live to where you live.

I answered a bit, but there is a bit more I want to say. I responded with this:

I don't think I accurately relayed what I or the study is saying.
First, cars on the street are not the inherent problem. Street design can be. However, the big problem is kids being stuck in a car for everything. Every errand you run is with the car. Kids don't die from being hit by car nowhere near as often as being in the car.

As for the street, more cars can actually be safer. On conventional, modern suburbs, streets are wider. This design gives drivers a certain comfort level. That usually means faster speeds. Design considerations aside, more cars can actually be safer. Speeds on I-30 are slower at 5pm than at 9 pm, even though more cars use the 5pm time.

I think a common mistake is evidenced here in that the common thought is either low-density single family or high density towers. Single family neighborhoods can be quite urban. For local examples, see the Bishop Arts District, Lower Greenville or even leftover pieces of Uptown. The difference is design. Modern suburbia is car-only. Pre-WWII suburbia is quite dense and walkable. I think I have a topic for a new post.

I think I sufficiently answered the car vs. kid point. While the hit-by-a-car to death ratio is greater in the developing world, in our fair country, it is being inside the car that is the problem. Those that do survive a wreck can often have injuries that stay with them the rest of their lives. We all know someone who has been at least injured or worse in a wreck.

Allow me to move on then to the second point of the first comment. How do we know that the vast majority of people prefer auto-oriented suburbs? I am not convinced.

A few numbers to consider. The residential rents in walkable areas (rents in economic terms do not refer to lease payments, but land value) primarily located in city centers have eclipsed pre-recession levels.  Meanwhile, residential properties in areas that rely solely on cars for transportation are still declining in value. Together, that tells me a bunch. It means that walkable areas are so scarce compared to demand, that even though the country itself hasn't achieved a full-scale recovery, urban area property managers use a little supply-and-demand theory and raise the prices to match the supply, forcing out the margins, which appear to be wide in this case.

Meanwhile, there was evidence before the housing crash that home builders had overbuilt the supply of single-family housing. After the banking crisis, it became severely evident. Single-family housing still hasn't recovered. Yet there needs to be an asterisk here.

Walkable single family housing has done remarkably better than their auto-oriented peers. Some of the neighborhoods I named above are examples, like Bishop Arts and Lower Greenville, but the M Streets, Winnetka Heights and parts of Lakewood are further examples. Most people don't realize, but even posh Highland Park is a highly walkable suburban enclave. All of these places have either declined slightly or gained in value. Even now, once outside Loop 12 and particularly LBJ freeway, price declines in double digits are quite common.

There is one final point I wish to make on this topic. One critique that planners receive in trying offer the fruitcart variety is that people don't want to live in anything other than single-family homes. I really struggle with that idea. Go to the grocery store and see how many types of bread sit on the shelves. Dozens of brands offer dozens of varieties. Go to a movie store and see how many types and genres of movies there are. Go to an electronics store and see the huge variety of TV's. Walk on to a car dealership and count the many types of different cars. Yet, all we want is one type of housing? It doesn't add up. A person will prefer different housing at different stages in their life. A similar person will prefer different types at those same stages. Cities that don't reflect that will suffer. Some already are.


Ken Duble said...

Enjoyed your post. It's been nearly a week since Belo Gardens opened across from my office building. It's been full of people. Yesterday, kids from the Pegasus Charter School on the ground floor were playing king-of-the-hill in their uniforms.

Despite the fears expressed by many, the park has yet to be taken over by homeless. Dallas will truly offer an urban lifestyle when families with children of all ages and people of all stages of life opt continue living downtown.

Branden said...

Ken, I think you hit the nail on the head. I'll even take it a step further (or back depending on your view) and say it will truely offer an urban lifestyle when families with children opt to visit downtown.

So much of it is geared toward the office population and to a lesser extent the nightlife. Main Street Gardens, despite my critiques in a previous post, helps in that regard. On Sunday, the place is packed with families. Before that, you might have seen some in the West End walking on Market and making train/bus tranfers, but that was it.

Now what's the difference between a park and a backyard. Nothing except ownership and attendance.