Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Envision Houston, part 3 - The Four Basic Approaches

Continuing from yesterday, today I'd like to comment on the four basic approaches I saw in most peoples' planning maps at the Envision Houston event last Saturday. Teams were asked to write their philosophy and goals in the margin of the map, but they basically seemed to fall into one of four approaches, which I categorize based on a two-by-two grid of concentrated vs. dispersed jobs vs. residences.

1. Concentrated Jobs, Dispersed Residences
This is basically extending today's approach forward: people live in the suburbs and commute into the core to work. A lot of people seem unhappy with this approach: it strains transportation infrastructure (traffic congestion) and it consumes a lot of land for single-family home residences ("sprawl"). On the plus side, people get affordable homes, high-capacity commuter transit is more feasible with concentrated job centers, and it keeps us a more unified city (when people work in the core, they feel tied to the city and support it more, especially nonprofit institutions). I think New York and Chicago may be the perfect examples of this model with commuter rail, and Houston may be the premier example in the country based on freeways/HOV lanes.

What these types of cities wish for: shorter commutes.

2. Concentrated Jobs, Concentrated Residences
A very popular approach at many of the tables: pack more high-density residential areas into our core to go along with the existing core jobs. Classic Smart Growth. This uses less land, reduces sprawl, gets more out of existing city infrastructure, and makes core transit more feasible (density supports transit). Unfortunately, the data from other cities shows that, as density increases, transit usage increases relative to car usage, but not as fast as the density increases, so you actually get a lot more car trips per square mile - i.e. traffic congestion gets a lot worse, especially on surface streets. LA and DC are good examples of this kind of traffic impact. It's also unclear how many people are willing to choose dense living over the traditional single family home. Home affordability is a big problem in many smart growth areas. (here's an article on how it's impacted Sydney)

What these types of cities wish for: parking, affordability, faster trips.

3. Dispersed Jobs, Dispersed Residences
I think of this as the "DFW Metroplex model": spread jobs and residences far and wide. The metro areas of Atlanta, Phoenix, LA, and the SF Bay Area also fit this model. There is a certain logic to it: people often live closer to their jobs, and you're not trying to move masses of people into and out of the city every day. Unfortunately, transit becomes very difficult if not impossible because of the low densities of jobs and people. There's still plenty of sprawl, and there's still plenty of traffic: people change jobs and don't want to move, or their spouse has a different employer across town. Sometimes the traffic gets so bad that people are pretty much forced to move every time they change jobs, which can be pretty frequent in today's economy, and I think this is very detrimental to long-term community-building. I also think you can lose a lot of unity and end up with a fragmented region, with various municipalities and counties squabbling with each other. There's no critical mass focused on a core. While each small community might have a sense of place, the metro region as a whole often does not: the classic line, "there's no there there".

What these types of cities wish for: a "real" 24/7 downtown with a "sense of place".

4. Dispersed Jobs, Concentrated Residences
Think of this as lots of "town centers" around the region with high-density New Urbanist residences around pockets of jobs. Often this is implemented as high-density "transit oriented development (TOD)" around rail stops. People can even bike or walk to work within the TOD, which mitigates some of the surface street traffic problems of approach #2. Arlington, VA outside DC is the best example I can think of. Still have the question of how many people want to live at that density, the home affordability problem that often accompanies density (although probably less of a problem than #2), and the freeway traffic and fragmentation problems of #3 (although these may also be less of problem in the TOD case).

What these types of cities wish for: this one's not as obvious to me - maybe a milder version of #2: parking, affordability, faster trips? In my mind, model #4 is the least clear cut of the four approaches in terms of pros and cons, probably because it's been done in so few places (it's the exact opposite of the normal model). Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about how Houston might mix-and-match from these four models.

(sorry for the posting delay on this one - Blogger wouldn't publish new posts last night)


At 10:05 PM, September 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is Vancouver an example of #4?

And an interesting Austin take on the subject:

At 6:47 PM, September 23, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think Vancouver is a partial example of #4, but not intentionally: they would like more offices/jobs downtown, but the incentives and demand are not there.

Thanks for the Austin link.

At 7:29 AM, September 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, don't quite know where you fit into all this but I read your Blog as interested in the Hurricane having not long visited New Orleans only to see it totally devastated. But fo my sins I am a transport planner in the UK and was also interested in the comments you make on Houston's development. In the UK we have national policy which follows what is called "The Sequential Test". This says that we must first consider transport intensive development only within town or city centres. Next if we can't acheive this we can consider "edge of centre" sites, i.e. those on the periphery of towns and cities. Only if we cannot achieve development in these locations are we allowed to develop in "out of centre" locations. So overall closest to your model 2 I think? The reason for the sequential test is to locate transport intensive development where the greatest number of trips by alternative modes to the car can be achieved. I do think that the US (as well as the rest of us) will seriously have to consider how it can reduce its number and length of car journeys which are the most damaging on the environment. For the record, there is evidence to suggest that car trips peak in City centres and then start to reduce, this has already occurred in many UK cities.

At 9:19 AM, September 26, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, I think Canada has a somewhat similar model. There is no national policy in the US, it is purely a state and local decision. Different states organize it differently. In Texas, the state (TXDoT) builds freeways, but county toll road authorities can also build freeways. Transit investments are regionally decided, although recently the state gave TXDoT the authority to build transit. But the real difference is where development goes. That is a purely local decision, which means that if your city makes it difficult to build where and how employers want to build, they can easily jump to suburban towns or counties. There is an element of competition between local municipalities and counties for jobs and commercial development. This makes it very hard (essentially impossible), for instance, to build a transit network focused on downtown and tell employers they must locate there. It sounds like the UK can force development where it wants it and not where it doesn't on a national level. Texas is a very independent state that likes minimal government, but I think some other states are trying to do things similar to the UK (Maryland?, Oregon?), which works as long as employers aren't willing to switch states.


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