Car Troubles

Picture this: it’s nearly eight o’clock in the evening and your wife calls to say she’s having car trouble. The problem is, she’s in Austin and you’re 80 miles down the road in San Antonio. What do you do?

During regular business hours, the protocol is fairly straight forward. Call roadside assistance to have them send a tow truck. Call a rental car company that will pick you up where your car left off. Assuming you have the emergency funds to cover these things, the system works moderately well. But after repair shops and rental companies close for the evening, that’s where things quickly fall apart.

Tow companies start discussing storing your car overnight at some unknown location. The only rental cars available are at the airport, and those guys aren’t coming to get you. Suddenly you’re on the side of the road with almost no options. And, for a woman to take a cab alone at night is not exactly ideal.

Ultimately, I drove from San Antonio to pick up my stranded wife when this happened to her. It took more than two-and-a-half hours to address a problem that ultimately lies with the broader transportation system. We’ve built our environment such that we rely so exclusively on the private automobile, we are quite handicapped when the car quits. In fact, even if distance were not an issue, my wife couldn’t have walked home because our apartment is only accessible from the freeway.

Yet, communities fight against comprehensive transit systems and against organized ridesharing. They fight against development at densities that reduce our total dependency on vehicle ownership. People fail to fight for the utility that a broad car sharing network ultimately brings, even insisting that the driverless car will be the thing that saves us (I hate to burst your bubble, but it won’t).

Often I see arguments against shared transportation shrouded in the term freedom. I’m told time and again that having your own car gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want. But is spending a third to half of your income on transportation really freedom? Is it really freedom to spend your hard-earned money to insure something that won’t always ensure a reliable means of getting around? Is it really freedom to be tied down to annual inspections, vehicle registrations, standing at gas pumps, sitting in dingy repair shops, or sitting in traffic? Is it really freedom when you’re bound to months of physical therapy after getting rear-ended? Is it really freedom when you lose a loved one to a car wreck?

My wife was not feeling free last night as she waited for a tow truck to pick up our trusty Honda. She didn’t feel free standing in the dark waiting for me to drive in from out of town to give her a ride. And we certainly won’t feel free when the repair shop swipes our card to pay for whatever is wrong with the car.

Sure, my wife and I learned from this experience that it’s important to have a clear contingency plan for situations like this. But, to a greater degree I hope we all learn the value in building lives—and places—that don’t fail us when our vehicles do. Knowing we might one day be able to get around any way we’d like to: now that is freedom.

Excuse me, sir, your bigotry is showing…

Over this past year I’ve grown more concerned with the use of terminology like “preserving neighborhood character” or “quality of life” in neighborhood plans. Sure, they sound well meaning and play to our sense of nostalgia for a bygone era. But, as I’m coming to learn, these vague notions are often held by community members as shields against the types of development they feel threatened by.

Put more bluntly, I worry that we as planners and civic leaders have allowed the use of these ambiguities as convenient covers for bigotry. When neighbors oppose things like granny flats (accessory dwelling units), on-street parking, or apartments, they essentially assert a belief that the “right” to ever-increasing property values for homeowners trumps equitable access to a community. Sure, they may show up to city council meetings and warn us about the impending gridlock a new duplex will cause to their street, but what they’re really against isn’t the traffic, but the people who make up the traffic.

Some neighborhood groups are clever in their approach to NIMBYism. I’ve heard such complaints under the guise of concerns about garbage bins in the street, safety for kids playing outside, and damage to the environment. Others seek to instill fear in their neighbors by insisting that multifamily housing or transit will bring crime.

One Austin neighborhood was a bit less covert: they specifically outlined the sorts of properties believed to be incompatible with the neighborhood. Together on that list were apartments and “AIDS houses.” I’m not sure how the two are comparable, or why so-called AIDS houses were named in the first place, but I’d like to know how this ever flew past an attorney’s radar before being adopted by the local council.

If we hope to ever make progress in overcoming bigotry as a society, or at least working to foster more inclusive neighborhoods, we need to throw out the nebulous language and require citizens to be specific about what is important to them. The built environment is tangible; the guidelines supporting its development should be tangible as well.

If “neighborhood character” means ensuring that homes are no taller than two stories, for whatever reason, then let’s be clear about that. Want more trees to shade the sidewalks or decorative streetlights so you can feel safer walking your dog in the evening? Then say so. But, if your unspoken intent is to keep the very people out of your neighborhood who keep it functioning—emergency response workers, teachers, service-sector employees, garbage collectors, single parents with school-aged children, students, minorities, and anyone else—it’s time we put that language (and that mindset) back into the 1950s where it belongs.

MetroRapid: The Good, The Bad & The Bumpy

Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT for short) has grown in popularity over the last decade, touted by planners as the perfect precursor to rail. It’s relatively cheap, features flexible routes, holds more passengers per vehicle than traditional buses, and welcomes those passengers through any of its doorways, thus speeding boarding times. Capital Metro promised to do the same with its recently-opened MetroRapid, which will include two lines when fully completed this summer. Sadly, early reports have many wondering whether CapMetro is living up to its promises for MetroRapid, especially considering transit advocates have pointed out that MetroRapid doesn’t actually qualify as BRT.

I had my first opportunity to ride MetroRapid a week ago and, at a friend’s request, I’ll share my thoughts on the experience (or you can scroll down for the summary). First, I’ll explain the circumstances that brought me on board:

I took my wife’s car to get the interior cleaned out, and discovered that the detailing place was within walking distance of Route 801’s Koenig station. So, before my trip I downloaded CapMetro’s mobile app and while walking to the bus stop I set up my credit card to buy my first fare—a premium day pass at $3.00. I took the bus downtown, hoping to get in a workout and spend some time at the library during my three-hour wait. As it turned out, the library was closed for Memorial Day weekend, but that’s another matter.

Arriving at Koenig station, I immediately made two observations. For starters, calling it a station is generous. I’ve stood at regular bus stops in other cities that provided more shelter than these. Secondly, the Koenig station location is strangely remote. Just behind the southbound station is a large water reservoir, hidden by a fence. If the goal is to guide development around transit, it’s not gonna happen at this location without major changes. So unless you work for Texas DPS—or happen to need that cat smell blasted out of your car’s interior—the Koenig station doesn’t appear to work well.

Koenig Station

Image: Notice the lack of development around Koenig’s southbound station. A large water reservoir is cited just beyond the fence.

One interesting opportunity the trip gave me was to compare the timing of MetroRapid to CapMetro’s local bus, Route 1. The local bus arrived at the adjacent Koenig stop roughly three or four minutes prior to MetroRapid. Yet, it was not until MetroRapid reached downtown that we caught up to the local bus, despite its many more stops along the way.

Now for the experience itself:

Thankfully, boarding MetroRapid itself was uneventful. The QR code scanner worked as designed on each bus I rode, although getting the QR code to appear on the app was not as intuitive as it should be. Once I took my seat, however, I forgot why I paid for a “premium” pass at all. Aside from its accordion-like center, MetroRapid feels like any other bus. At its best it rides like a boat on choppy waters, and at its worst I wonder if my kidneys will survive without permanent damage.

Driving through UT’s campus along Guadalupe felt especially jerky, thanks to all the stops and starts you would expect driving in an urban area. But wait…shouldn’t there have been signal priority? Nowhere along this route did we breeze through signaled intersections, whether near Triangle, UT, or downtown.

What about lane priority? MetroRapid has access to a ‘bus only’ lane downtown—precisely where the road is so wide that cars won’t miss losing the lane. Well, that is, if the cars notice they aren’t allowed in that lane. Construction happened to be going on through a good chunk of this area on Guadalupe anyway, removing the priority lane from use during my inbound trip. In fact, one station was blocked completely, requiring the bus driver to announce that stop was closed. At least that’s what I think he said…the man sounded like he was chewing a whole pack of Bubblicious, so it’s hard to know for sure.

So, here’s the summary:

PROS

  • Ability to pay for ticket in advance
  • Board bus from any of three doors
  • Seats more passengers than a standard bus
  • Know when next two buses are arriving
  • Stations have button-activated announcement of upcoming buses
  • Full-day pass is affordable and works on both MetroRapid and local buses

CONS

  • Still feels like a bus
  • Bus still waits for passengers paying fare with cash before departing
  • Bikes must go on front rack, requiring the bus to wait
  • Service is too infrequent
  • Still stops at most traffic lights
  • Shares a lane with unpredictable traffic for most of route
  • Flawed station design: Difficult to read screen when standing at stop; Station area map hidden behind station; Provides little shelter from sun or rain; No recycling bins available (one of the stops had no trash can either)

WAYS TO IMPROVE

  • Full lane dedication throughout the corridor
  • Ensure signal priority throughout the corridor
  • Eliminate on-bus payment to speed boarding
  • Increase frequency during peak periods to 10 minutes or less
  • Allow bikes on the bus to speed boarding
  • Redesign stations with better shelter from weather
  • Relocate remote stations (like Koenig) to areas with substantial development and potential for increased density
  • Minimize overlap of MetroRapid with local buses to prevent “bus bunching” at shared stops
  • Refine app to allow one-tap access to your virtual ticket

 

Politics and Plastic Bags

It boggles my mind how a candidate for City Council in Texas’ capital city can focus so much of his campaign platform on plastic bags. Yes, plastic bags. Of the five key things Jay Wiley hopes to accomplish in office, he wants District 6 to be known for repealing the ban on single-use plastic bags that took effect over a year ago. I figure there are so many bigger issues we could be focused on, like ensuring access to basic services (housing, jobs, education, transportation, healthcare, etc.) for our community’s most underserved residents but, sadly, Jay doesn’t quite see it that way. In fact, Wiley disguises the plastic bag ban under the category of “boutique issues,” and then immediately blames our current Council with “ignoring core city issues and taxpayers’ concerns for far too long.” Does anyone else see the irony here?

In his February blog post titled, “It’s Not About the Bag,” Wiley sees the bag ban as a gateway drug of sorts, one that will eventually cause the local government to regulate other more important things like soda (I kid you not!). He even implies that Austin is becoming prohibitively expensive because of public policies like the bag ban.

Before I go on, I’ll admit I get where he’s trying to come from. A good majority of Americans are cynical about the role of government—whether federal, state or local. It can seem that government is getting too big, stepping into roles it was never meant to occupy, taking on debts it has no business racking up. But one of the fundamental things Jay Wiley (and others) seem to ignore about the private sector is that it often fails.

Companies fail at doing all sorts of things that promote the health, safety and welfare of our residents. They fail at building housing that service-sector employees can afford. They fail at ensuring our foods aren’t filled with unnecessary preservatives and chemicals that have been banned in other developed nations. They fail at mitigating the environmental damage caused by industrial waste and sprawling development to our natural resources. They fail at building infrastructure that serves everyone from the wealthy childless couple to the wheelchair-bound grandmother whose fixed income no longer affords her the “freedom” of a car. And they fail at helping us kick our addiction to disposable goods—whether that be Styrofoam packaging, small electronics, and, yes, even single-use plastic bags.

Thus, the government steps in and becomes the bad guy, requiring us to do the sorts of things we have refused to do for ourselves. So now, we battle over plastic bags.

I do agree with one thing he says on his website, though: “the result of…bad policy is clear in every tax bill, energy bill, and the traffic we endure every day.” Those policies that encourage the development of sprawling suburbs like Wiley’s District 6 are what contribute to the very things he laments—and the market failures I mentioned above. Plastic bags are merely collateral damage.

Housing: Data vs. Demand

Two separate housing-related stories have been lighting Twitter afire this week. Nationally, the American Planning Association released the results of a poll indicating that both Millennials and Boomers overwhelmingly prefer to live in walkable neighborhoods rather than auto-dependent suburbs. Locally, others have been discussing a multifamily housing boom through which nearly 20,000 units are under construction or set to break ground in Austin.

For me, at least, this leads to two basic questions: first, is Austin’s supposed ‘boom’ really a renaissance for multifamily housing here? And second, if all signs are truly pointing to a preference for close-in neighborhoods with urban amenities, why are we still building so many homes in far-flung ‘burbs?

As the Austin Business Journal pointed out in their article, 17,627 apartment and condo units are under construction in the region, and another 2,140 are set to begin work. That is certainly the greatest pace of development in more than a decade, and more than three times the number of units under construction at the start of 2011. But it seems we’re merely playing catch-up with the rapid population growth we’ve experienced as of late. According to the City of Austin’s website we added just over 75,000 residents between April 2010 and April 2014—this doesn’t even count growth in surrounding areas. Assuming an average 2.37 persons per household, that means those new residents would need more than 31,000 housing units. And as household sizes are expected to shrink, the number of units required to meet the demand of growth goes up.

Where will all those people go? Urbanists would certainly wish for most of that growth to occur in the city’s core neighborhoods; but, both local and national data still suggest they’re going elsewhere.

Here in metro Austin, permits were issued for construction of 9,240 single-family homes in 2013, with another 8,261 homes permitted the previous year. While I don’t have exact numbers, I’ll bet most of that construction occurred outside the city in nearby cities like Cedar Park, Elgin, Kyle, Lakeway, Leander, and Round Rock. Within Austin, over 5,000 multifamily units were completed in 2013. More than half of those—2,900 units—were outside of core neighborhoods, and the trend seems to be continuing into 2014 as well.

The nation’s top 10 builders—which include D.R. Horton, Pulte, and Lennar—closed on just under 89,000 homes across the country in 2012 (I couldn’t find 2013 data). I think we can assume nearly all of those are single-family detached homes in suburban subdivisions. Meanwhile, the top 10 multifamily developers added just 36,500 units in 2013. In fact, the National Association of Home Builders reported that construction starts of single-family homes in 2013 was more than double the rate of starts for multifamily units—618,000 versus 307,000.

So, if the largest chunk of our population wants to live in neighborhoods where they can walk to retail, entertainment, and quality transit, why are developers still building with a business-as-usual mentality?

The short answer: it’s easier to build sprawl.

Of course, it’s much more complicated than simply assuming developers are lazy (it sure is easy for NIMBYs to blame them, though!). After all, any developer who attempts to build anything other than a grouping of tract homes or garden-style apartments will likely run into a host of roadblocks. Land use regulations, zoning, lending practices, and deep-rooted beliefs about the American Dream all contribute to maintaining sixty years of suburban status quo.

Cities continue to require the provision of parking at rates that effectively outlaw dense housing in established neighborhoods. Banks and investors continue to favor “proven” development models with minimal risks and high returns on investment. Inner-city public schools continue to lag behind suburban schools. And perhaps most forgotten is that our tax dollars heavily subsidize sprawl, making it easy for most people to justify the habit of car-dependence (yes, research is now calling it a habit).

Ultimately, people have to live somewhere. And if somewhere is the suburbs, builders equate this as demand for suburban living, fueling the cycle of sprawl. And, the results have been frustrating at best. Here in Austin, at least, long-time residents are resentful of newcomers, complaining that they’re clogging our roads and bringing long lines to our restaurants. Drought conditions are made worse by the immense demand placed on our water resources to keep grass green. Flash flooding from the rains we do get is worsened as we continue to pave our hinterlands. Housing prices in desirable central neighborhoods are getting ever-inflated due to high demand but low incoming supply. The list goes on.

How do we get this contingent of Austinites—and Americans—into the neighborhoods where they would rather live? Or yet, make their neighborhoods better reflect their preferences?

  1. Charge the real costs of suburban living.
    1. Impact fees should be tied to the true cost of extending infrastructure to far-out neighborhoods; this not only includes utilities and roads, but extending fire and police services as well as schools
    2. Property taxes should not only be calculated on square footage of land and improvements, but on the length of infrastructure (utilities and roads) needed to service each property
    3. Transition from a gas tax to a vehicle miles traveled tax to maintain existing roadways and encourage more transit use
    4. Set utility base costs to truly encourage conservation—thus, fees are not flat rates but based on usage
  2. Encourage density in core neighborhoods.
    1. Allow secondary apartments to be built by-right on all single-family properties without requiring additional parking where it is not warranted due to transit accessibility or walkability
    2. Actively promote intensification of land use over existing parking
    3. Remove building height limits, density limits and parking minimums along transit corridors
    4. Consider allowing properties with alley access to be subdivided to allow fee-simple ownership of alley-accessible properties
    5. Develop high-frequency transit that serves urban neighborhoods first before expanding into outlying areas
    6. Actively promote the demolition of so-called urban freeways to return the property back to the community—and the city’s tax base
    7. Reduce minimum unit sizes to allow the development of micro apartments
  3. Remove barriers to financing urban development.
    1. Align eligibility for condominium mortgages more closely with those for single-family home purchases
    2. Require banks that offer mortgage products to allow development of secondary units
    3. Develop a consistent process for assessing the added value of secondary units
    4. Incentivize commercial property owners for leasing vacant retail space to short-term (“pop-up”) tenants
  4. Reinvest in inner-city schools.
    1. Reduce reliance on standardized test scores as a measure of school quality
    2. Ensure that school boundaries and per-student funding reflect social justice rather than encourage wealthier families to flee to “better” school districts
    3. Promote grassroots efforts to bolster confidence and performance of lower-performing students, such as through mentoring, job shadowing, tutoring, pre-college programming, and increased access to healthcare and healthy foods

The above list is, by no means, comprehensive. What do you think?

Kids in Condos: How did Multifamily Become a Misnomer?

Most families who rent see it as a stepping stone to homeownership. My parents certainly did. Until moving into our first home just before my tenth birthday, we couldn’t paint the walls, tear out the pink tiles in the bathroom, or run indoors without a broomstick tapping from the neighbors below.  But unlike most kids my age, I was excited for the move. I wasn’t worried about changing schools or leaving friends behind—I quite welcomed the change. I looked forward to having my own bedroom, having a yard, and seeing the pride on my parents’ faces knowing the place was ours.

In fact, I was the weird kid who engrossed himself in the search for our first house. I was there, circling open house listings in the newspaper every Sunday, writing down directions to the homes we were visiting, and co-piloting the drive from house to house. I was the 9-year-old who understood what CAC and EIK stood for (central air conditioning and eat-in kitchen).

Yet, as I reflect on both halves of my childhood I am struck by how great a place our apartment actually was. Compared to our house, we had far better access to parks and green space, we were directly across the street from my elementary school, and a Metrobus stop was just outside the lobby of our building. The property was even a 10-minute walk from the grocery store, a pharmacy, a small movie theater, and a handful of restaurants. That five-story, 55-unit property built in 1958 was a mere bike ride away from Washington, DC (though I was too young to ever do that on my own).

CalvertParkApts

(Above: The building, where I lived until age 9, is conveniently located next to a hike-and-bike trail, a creek, an elementary school, and large community park with playgrounds and ball fields)

Our house, located just a few miles east of our former apartment, provided that third bedroom we thought we needed, but it lacked the same connectivity to the surrounding neighborhood. Our street lacked sidewalks, and the nearest grocery store had bowed to a larger, more distant supermarket. We had two gas stations welcoming residents and visitors to our neighborhood. And to top it off, the first visit to my elementary school had my family wondering if it had been abandoned. It looked that bad.

Zoning regulations and financing structures don’t really allow for construction of apartments like the one I lived in. In fact, we really only see one of two types of multifamily properties being built today: at one end of the spectrum there are urban apartment buildings, built tall with retail at the street level and parking tucked within or below the building. Green space, if there is any, is found in a central courtyard or on a rooftop with amenities catering to young professionals. At the other end of the spectrum are suburban garden-style complexes—small groupings of apartments scattered in all directions, looking almost as though they’d been dropped from the sky. The “community centers” at these complexes are often little more than leasing offices built to far greater luxury than the units themselves. Throw in a pool, a couple treadmills, and some fancy hotel lobby furniture, and there you have a recipe sure to win new residents.

SaddlebrookApts

(Above: I lived in this garden-style apartment complex for two years, which is a typical multifamily housing type being built in suburbs across America)

Somewhere along the way we have decided that multifamily living isn’t really for families at all. We have come to accept that each child should have a private yard, a private bedroom, and a chauffeured ride by mom or dad to school each day. Playing in the public realm has all but disappeared, and the results are maddening.

The building where I lived is part of what is now known as “the missing middle,” a spectrum of housing types that we just don’t see being built in the U.S. anymore: small courtyard apartment buildings (à la Melrose Place), walk-up apartments, semi-detached houses, live/work units, and Bungalow Courts. This doesn’t even include auxiliary units, like mother-in-law suites, garage apartments, and backyard cottages (formally known as accessory dwelling units). Nor does it include other alternative housing types, such as micro units or single-room occupancy (SRO) housing, both forbidden in most areas.

The point is that we are quick to assume multifamily housing is a product for the childless—singles, couples, college students, and empty nesters. But, as more families with young ones want to enjoy the convenience of living in or near downtown, it is crucial that we build for them in a meaningful way—without succumbing to the sprawl-minded agenda that every family needs their own yard. Because I know firsthand that they don’t.

‘Stealth dorms’ bad for neighborhoods, say coworkers

So apparently I’m in the minority here in my office.  Upon mentioning that I was disappointed with Austin City Council’s vote to reduce the number of unrelated people living together from six to four persons, I was surprised at the way my coworkers responded.  Here’s a quick list of the arguments I heard from coworkers in favor of the occupancy limit reduction approved by Austin’s City Council last night (in no particular order):

  • People who can afford to purchase a home in a neighborhood should be able to decide the character of the neighborhood (in other words, renters don’t get to shape where they live)
  • Students are transient; therefore, they should live in transitional neighborhoods—not in those with a decidedly single family flavor
  • If you can’t afford to live in a neighborhood by sharing the rent four or fewer ways, then you shouldn’t live in that neighborhood (“Go live on East Riverside or Far West where you can take the bus,” as one put it.)
  • If a neighborhood is built as primarily single family in character, then that is the “intent” for all time—it should not be allowed to change unless all the neighbors want it to (“My grandmother who moved to Hyde Park in 1935 shouldn’t have to live next to someone who just built an apartment above their garage.”)
  • Homeowners shouldn’t have to deal with noise and trash—and alleviating those problems are unenforceable without reducing the number of people who can live in a structure
  • Streets with many cars parked on them are inherently unsafe for children
  • Reducing the occupancy limit to four doesn’t affect the affordability of the neighborhood
  • Owners of “stealth dorms” don’t care about the condition of their properties
  • The only way to densify urban neighborhoods is to acquire large swaths of land and build the desired density there—infill density is not appropriate
  • Renters are not invested in their communities
  • Single family means homes with parents and children