Skip to content

Facilitating neighborhood change through automatic upzoning

April 19, 2012

If you haven’t read Chris Bradford’s idea on Austin Contrarian on automatic upzoning for neighborhoods as a way to facilitate necessary change in them, please do so now. Basically, his idea is a mandatory upzoning of parcels, or entire neighborhoods, at the end of some specified long-term time frame (he throws out 30, 40 and 50 years as possibilities). This idea might work because over such a long period of time, virtually everyone currently living in the area is guaranteed to have migrated out or passed away. However, as it stands now the fact that in the short term neighborhoods don’t change en masse, as he puts it, means that they easily resist change for long periods of time. This is accomplished because at any given time 99 percent of an area’s residents are short- or long-term residents who moved into the area because they liked its character and want to preserve it. The very low proportion of turnover each year or so mostly keeps out those who would desire change, since they would be a huge minority and would probably be paying a premium in the meantime for the preservation they don’t care about.

I really like Chris’s idea. It would be a relatively painless and palatable response to the NIMBYism that precludes changes to neighborhoods that would benefit cities as a whole, but are resisted by that neighborhood’s residents, who feel they have more to lose. This way, what they usually feel they have at stake is largely preserved, while ensuring that if change is in the cards for the area, it will probably happen sooner rather than later.

Central questions as to how it would work remain, though. Those that come to mind are which neighborhoods would be targets for such upzoning, and what kind of upzoning and how much would take place. In comprehensive planning, future land use maps are often based on sound population and housing unit projections for an entire city or metro, with residential land use allocated in some way throughout the area. Similarly, commercial and industrial land uses could be tied to population (especially for retail land use) and even employment projections for the area. A city (or region) would have to determine somehow how much greenfield development on the outskirts they will allow (or should allow), and how much they will allow in existing neighborhoods through upzoning. So, it seems like the amount of upzoning needed (a number of additional housing units needed metrowide, divided by an assumed density to get the amount of land needed) is a fairly simple calculation. It would likely require an update every few years, but this is usually done with comprehensive plans as well.

But how exactly should this development be allocated? In terms of which neighborhoods to upzone, these could be chosen in service of some goal that would benefit the metro as a whole. Top ones that come to mind would be the ones that offer the most accessibility or drilling down further, adding development that would have the least negative (or the most positive) effects on travel times or jobs-housing imbalances. A meta-analysis of transportation research by Reid Ewing finds that regional accessibility (e.g. number of jobs within five miles/30 minutes by car) affects travel time the most, when compared with other factors including density and street network design of the immediate area. (Street network design was the second most important factor.) This method, therefore, would in general call for most central city neighborhoods to be upzoned to some extent, though results would vary by city. Cities/urban areas that are exceptions to the monocentric model would produce some very different results for this, and possibly different methodologies altogether to identify neighborhoods. (Dallas-Fort Worth comes to mind.)

Another goal that these upzonings could serve is affordability, which has become more of an issue in central cities, especially in large cities. If neighborhoods are evaluated as census tracts or block groups, median rents more than 150 percent or so of the regional median (a totally arbitrary number) could demand upzoning. Some trend analysis of rents could be in order too, and could be preferable, given this method’s lower possibility of picking up elite neighborhoods near the urban core, in which upzoning would likely be more difficult. Again, the region would have a total number of target housing units based on growth projections to allocate throughout the region. Allocation of affordable housing is a strategy that’s already being undertaken in California, utilizing their Regional Housing Needs Assessment, created by state law and updated every 7 years. The RHNA allocates a certain share of a region’s needed low and moderate income housing units to each municipality in it. The implication of the methodology I described, though, would probably be to increase density in areas with development pressure, which would bring down housing costs overall; not to increase affordable housing in certain areas per se. In addition, California’s mandate seems to apply only to municipalities as a whole, so therefore, California cities can place low and moderate income housing units wherever they like, so long as they allocate enough land. Still, some variation of this general idea is already taking place in the U.S., which could help enable its adoption elsewhere.

It’s clear we need better mechanisms through which established parts of our cities can change to accomplish many of our objectives relating to transportation, land use and even economic development . Some problems must be approached regionally, and given our fragmented system of government and political power, this is usually extremely difficult. Neighborhoods should have their role and their say in development, but they shouldn’t have permanent domain over what is, in the aggregate, a regional issue. This method would provide much-needed relief, especially in fast-growing cities like Austin. And it’s important to note that this would not mandate development in any given area, but would simply allow it to occur in more situations.


Can low income households locate closer to employment?

September 19, 2011

The location of people throughout the metropolis is constantly in flux, in terms of who locates where. This means transportation investments to serve certain place-based communities or populations can often be misguided. Looking at the bigger picture, what are the goals of new transportation investment? Reducing congestion is the one that gets the most press. Opening up new land for development gets less but is still a very real objective for local governments in particular. One that is not explicitly talked about as much is to increase accessibility for people in general and especially for lower-income/mobility populations. Reducing congestion is part of doing so by reducing travel times. One may speculate that those with highest incomes value time the most, and have the financial resources to locate wherever in the metropolis will maximize their accessibility/minimize their time in transport. So do lower-income populations inevitably just get the short end of the stick?

This paper talks about the effect of income on commuting time. It also refers to the tension between the high value of time for high-income households, making them locate near job centers and minimize commute times, and the neoclassical theory of higher incomes leading them to consume more land and housing, causing them to locate further out. Through least-squares regression and other controls, it attempts to control for all other variables other than income. The paper mentions that commute times increase slightly as income does (18-24 minutes on average from lowest to highest income quartile). The coefficient for time in the model is positive, showing commute times increased as time went on (i.e. as people got older). Therefore, older people may tend to commute longer as well. The end result is that income has a positive (increasing) effect on commute times, but not much of one – the demand for more housing pushing them outwards and value of time pulling them closer virtually cancel each other out.

This is a good study and produces valuable information. What one must remember is that high and low incomes simply do not occur in isolation. There are many other factors including household size, presence of children and even personal taste for living space and commute time. Higher-income workers are unlikely to agglomerate in large numbers near job centers. With widely varying household characteristics and the financial ability to live almost anywhere, there is a low probability of getting the majority of them to live in close proximity to where they work. However, it’s interesting to note that while they have higher commute times than lower-income workers, they don’t commute much longer. Why is this?

In part, lower-income individuals face a different tradeoff. Having fewer financial resources, they are more likely to not own a car and thus have to use transit, limiting their access to jobs. Furthermore, the increased commute times created by taking transit make some jobs not worth it, and price some low-income households out of the labor market. Most wouldn’t consider commuting three hours one way for a minimum wage job. Research indeed shows (Ihlanfeldt 1993) that lower income households have a lower propensity to commute. This may suggest it’s more important – and more efficient – for lower-income households to be able to locate near their workplaces. Put differently, perhaps higher-income households, as a whole, are as close to their jobs as they wish to be, while low-income households probably aren’t.

Spatial mismatch literature suggests that the poor do have lower access to jobs. While this alone may not lead to significantly higher unemployment among this population, skill mismatch, in which jobs located near an area are poorly matched to the occupational skills of its residents, comes into play as a big issue as well (Immergluck 1998). Furthermore, another study (Covington 2009) suggests that most of the improvement in the poor’s access to jobs during the 1990s stemmed from the movement of that population closer to jobs, as opposed to jobs moving closer to them.

This would strengthen the argument for vastly increasing transit service in metro areas. This would be necessary because closely targeted transit investments may not be very effective for lower-income populations, given the unlikely event that these jobs cluster/agglomerate in small areas (as opposed to higher-income professions, such as finance). Such investments, which would include things like commuter rail, are probably more likely to favor higher-income groups more than anything. While this may not be politically possible at this point, there is a lot to suggest that offering extensive transit service throughout the metro is simply the most effective way to give the poor better access to jobs. This would reduce transportation costs for individuals and make any given location in the metro more accessible. It would potentially reduce overall costs for low-income households by reducing the need to move so often. If it allowed households to move less often, it might also stabilize and strengthen low-income neighborhoods.

Most of this does not speak to the congestion problem, of course. Nor does it actually speak to whether it would reduce vehicle miles traveled overall. It seems that the eternal challenge for transportation investment is simply figuring out ways to move everyone more efficiently. With the massive allocation of resources likely necessary to accomplish this, we probably won’t make progress on this front anytime soon. However, promoting equality in transportation and accessibility is certainly possible. Further research, which is needed, may indicate that bringing jobs within easier reach of low-income households may even improve congestion somewhat, and may lead to better economic outcomes overall.

Still around

August 17, 2011

Does anyone still read my blog? I’m not sure, but I am working on a new post which will hopefully be ready within a few days. If you’re reading this, you might be interested so please check back.

Agencies vs. interest groups vs. agencies: transportation planning in Texas

December 14, 2010

A recent article (now a few weeks old) by Ben Wear in the American-Statesman details the I-35 widening project between San Antonio and DFW.  Many, probably including myself, would say this project is overdue.  However, additional planning for the corridor, with additional improvements being considered, is currently underway as well.  The website for the project identifies it as “a different approach to transportation planning.”  So what’s different about it?

The process claims to get local officials, stakeholders, etc. involved in the process from the beginning, which is often not done.  While this may be a step in the right direction, it’s not exactly a fundamental change in the planning process. Still, it’s hard to complain about the effort.

However, for what all this is worth, the perspective of TXDOT on building roads doesn’t seem to have changed.  The plan is full of plans for eight- and ten-lane roadways, managed (HOV/toll) lanes through the countryside, freeway extensions, and so forth.  An example:  a project being considered is widening I-35W between downtown Fort Worth and SH 174 in Burleson to eight lanes with four managed lanes, and continuing the eight lanes (without managed lanes) all the way to Alvarado.  35W from downtown to I-20 is already eight lanes, and 35W south of I-20 is not a particularly congested road, even at rush hour.  While suburbs to the south have grown quite a bit in recent years, until recently they weren’t suburbs at all – they were probably more accurately described as smaller rural towns on the outskirts of a major metro area.  In short, the area south of Fort Worth is growing, but certainly not booming, and shouldn’t require a roadway of this width plus toll or HOV lanes to boot.

Plans also include a western bypass around Waco and a new limited-access freeway from central Arlington south to Hillsboro, to name two examples.  My guess is that citizen opposition will derail many of these projects (which would require a lot of new right-of-way).  However, it’s somewhat distressing that TXDOT seems to see itself as the proponent of building any and all new roads, unless the citizens can stop them.  TXDOT isn’t the only guilty party here (although rightly or wrongly, it’s acquired more power than most); most agencies seem to try to justify their existence by constantly pushing for more and more of whatever they do.  These agencies fight it out with other agencies for funding and with community and interest groups who want to stop them.  This has become the status quo, but one has to question if it is really the best way to do things.

Promising new developments at the federal level may help to change this.  The recent joining together of HUD, the DOT and the EPA will hopefully reduce tension between the objectives of these respective agencies and, in doing so, fully leverage the expertise and knowledge present in each to create solutions to problems relating to all, especially relating to sustainability and livability.  The partnership created a sustainable communities and regional planning grant program, providing funding for planning at a geographic level, the region, that is too often ignored by politicians and planners. Collaboration at the regional level also often falls victim to exclusionary policies by local municipalities, and to competition for retail and other businesses between these cities.  Hopefully this is just one example of good things to come from this and other interagency partnerships.

Birmingham’s sprawl problem

August 26, 2010

In recent years, Birmingham has struggled mightily with issues of public transit and other issues related to urban livability.  Perhaps most telling about the state of the metro area is the population change in the central city and county (Jefferson) over the past 30 years or so.  Between 1980 and 2000, Birmingham and Jefferson County’s population actually fell, by 14.6% and 1.4% respectively.

This can be easily chalked up to poor leadership, race issues, or both, and many do so.  But is the situation really that simple?  Perhaps Birmingham’s rapid suburbanization is to blame.  The Birmingham MSA actually added three counties (Bibb, Chilton and Walker) between 2000 and 2009, and grew in population mostly because of this fact.  (Jefferson County actually lost population between 2000 and 2008, falling from about 662,000 to 659,000.)  To be sure, pretty much every metro in the country has seen significant suburban growth during this period, even those that have declined overall.  As the growth pole of a traditionally rural state, however, Birmingham may have been positioned for more rapid suburbanization than most.  Has this been the case?  Is Birmingham’s rapid sprawl a major, or even the main source of its problems?

This report from 2002 on measuring sprawl places the Birmingham MSA relatively high on the list of most sprawling metros, but at number 23 out of 83 metros studied, it’s certainly not the worst.  However, breaking down the sprawl index created by the authors of the study should shed more light on Birmingham’s situation in particular.

The study combines many economic, socioeconomic, housing and travel/land use variables in a principal components analysis to separate out each particular contributing factor to sprawl.  They end up with components for residential density, street connectivity, mix of land uses and overall centeredness of the metro (the strength of its center and subcenters).  Birmingham fares relatively well on the centeredness factor and, to a lesser extent, the street connectivity factor.  Its ranking is dragged down by low scores on the residential density and land use mix factors.

Indeed, a look at the density numbers for the Birmingham area compared to some similarly sized metros confirms its relatively low residential density.

MSA Population density (persons per square mile)
Birmingham, AL 289.1
Knoxville, TN 280.6
Jacksonville, FL 417.6
Oklahoma City, OK 255.1
Louisville, KY 495.0
Columbia, SC 368.7
Richmond, VA 338.4

This might help to explain Birmingham’s struggles with providing public transit.  Its very low residential density makes efficient and effective transit service very difficult.  Its relatively high score on the centeredness factor in the study may be somewhat misleading as well.  The low residential density has likely put a high percentage of residents so far away from the central city that regular interaction with it is not an option.  The Birmingham MSA likely includes a number of subcenters detected by the study’s methodology that have very large service areas.  The separation of land uses would corroborate this as well, as the average subcenter would have a larger than average concentration of commercial, industrial and other non-residential land uses, to compensate for the strict separation of residential land uses, and would thus likely serve a larger area.

Density is not all that matters, but is probably the most important factor.  To bring this into focus, consider that a metro with a very dense center and low density outlying areas isn’t necessarily sprawling.  The concept of weighted density, which weights densities of sub-areas within a larger area based on the percentage of population they contain, can be used to illustrate this.

Weighted density (persons per square mile) Central city vacancy rate
Birmingham 1,666 11.7%
Knoxville, TN 1,151 9.8%
Jacksonville, FL 2,242 7.9%
Oklahoma City 2,561 10.4%
Louisville 2,888 8.1%
Columbia, SC 1,660 8.4%
Richmond, VA 2,327 8.4%
Atlanta 1,873 10.0%

At about 1,666 persons per square mi, the Birmingham MSA’s weighted density is very low.  Larger MSA’s do tend to have higher weighted densities, but Birmingham’s is low compared even to MSAs of a similar size.

Interestingly, Birmingham’s weighted density is only a little lower than Atlanta’s. However, one might consider Atlanta a bit more successful on the livability front (its awful traffic notwithstanding).  Atlanta central city has a much higher median household income than Birmingham; the gap between it and median income for the MSA is also smaller.  This results in a larger residential and commercial tax base.  The vacancy rate for Birmingham’s central city further illustrates the disinvestment that has occurred.  At 11.7%, it is higher than any of its counterparts in the Southeast.  Political initiatives that would help the central city in Birmingham have little support.  Atlanta’s public transit agency has a little sway, though not much, in the state legislature.  Birmingham’s, of course, has none.

All is not necessarily lost for the Birmingham area, though.  Its strong center and subcenters should be considered something to build on; attracting jobs to subcenters throughout the area to bring them closer to residents is a possibility.  This would also allow for a more viable and effective transportation strategy, including better mass transit, linking these centers.  Discussions and studies getting underway regarding the future of U.S. 280 through Jefferson and Shelby counties are good opportunities to start moving in this direction.

Continuing to invest in the knowledge and high-tech economies in Birmingham and Alabama as a whole will also likely help the central city.  Such industries often favor inner-city locations and can occupy spaces left vacant by industrial land uses that have long since departed.  This will make the inner city more attractive and attract more skilled and educated residents who often favor a more urban type of living.

Good leadership will be needed to make legitimate efforts to pursue these objectives.  That, of course, is another matter entirely.

I-35 and Austin’s possible urban rail

June 19, 2010

This article from the American-Statesman on Austin’s expected bond election this November mentions an interesting study a small portion of the proceeds will be spent on:  what to do about traffic problems on I-35.  The SH 130 toll road around the city now complete and still rather sparsely used, the city has apparently realized the problem has not been solved, and isn’t waiting for TXDOT to figure it out.

The challenge is accommodating all of that through traffic combined with local traffic, which probably made the toll road sound like a nice idea (albeit one I doubt many are surprised isn’t working).  Unfortunately, better transit service, at least in the short term, probably wouldn’t alleviate local traffic much, as it wouldn’t replace many longer trips for which people are far more likely to choose or need to use 35, to speak nothing of the ability of land uses and densities to support such service.  All of this has to be done with minimal damage to the urban fabric in central Austin, a point which will inevitably be reinforced by neighborhood groups and probably some downtown boosters as well.  (In its current state, I-35 through downtown doesn’t occupy a huge footprint; this facilitates some pedestrian travel between East Austin and downtown, and has probably played a small role in continuing reinvestment in near eastside neighborhoods.)  It seems extremely doubtful that removing it in favor of a parkway-type road would pass muster.  Even if the city thought it would be good from an economic development/livability type standpoint, the importance of I-35 as a through route means TXDOT would be extremely unlikely to agree, with the only other options around Austin being toll roads. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with; I’m no transportation planner/engineer, but I’m not seeing many good options there.

Speaking of transportation, some will notice a certain omission from the project list for the bond election: the city’s planned streetcar line, which was getting some attention several months ago as Capital Metro’s Red Line struggled to even begin operations.  I’m glad I procrastinated as usual on this post, because now the city has announced it’s set to pass a resolution identifying a 2012 bond election as the funding source for the urban rail.  As the city’s work on it continues, this project appears to still be a priority, but don’t hold your breath waiting for construction to begin.

Scotland’s cities: creative centers?

May 11, 2010

Migration statistics provide one of the keys to evaluating theories of urban development such as Richard Florida’s creative class theory. (Maybe find quote here to illustrate that creative class theory hinges on migration.) This data ( from Scotland is interesting to consider in the context of his theories, which haven’t been discussed much (to my knowledge) in the context of countries other than the U.S. Florida’s theory relates a city’s diversity, including its proportion of immigrants, to its population and economic growth. Scotland’s largest cities, which in order are Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, all saw positive net migration from 2007-2008. Most of this positive migration came from overseas, as denoted in the column on the far right. Migration within Scotland tended to be negative for these cities. Furthermore, the data indicates that overall net migration to and from abroad was negative for most other areas in Scotland. (U.S. Census data doesn’t provide net migration data for overseas.) Put simply, the largest magnets for immigrants in Scotland were the largest cities.

This pattern doesn’t vary from cities in the U.S. as much as one might think. MSAs (which is the level of geography Florida uses for his analysis) with high inflows of immigrants in 2009 tended to be near the top in terms of size, as seen in the table below. The top four destinations for immigrants were New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami; all of these cities (MSAs) had negative net domestic migration. Overall, seven of the top 15 cities on this list had negative net domestic migration for 2009.

CBSA Code Total population change
Vital events Net migration
Number % Births Deaths Total International
35620 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 101,295 0.5 108,389 250,337 141,948 -9,609 100,669 -110,278
31100 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 106,402 0.8 112,033 190,001 77,968 -4,838 75,062 -79,900
33100 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL 45,299 0.8 23,238 70,298 47,060 22,227 51,548 -29,321
16980 Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL-IN-WI 64,931 0.7 71,553 139,860 68,307 -7,026 33,363 -40,389
47900 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 98,305 1.8 48,153 79,101 30,948 50,093 31,904 18,189
19100 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 146,530 2.3 69,479 105,621 36,142 76,812 31,571 45,241
26420 Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 140,784 2.5 63,191 96,404 33,213 77,658 27,996 49,662
41860 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 57,617 1.4 25,927 55,577 29,650 32,353 24,376 7,977
38060 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 76,771 1.8 42,539 71,553 29,014 34,274 21,833 12,441
12060 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 89,627 1.7 51,412 83,003 31,591 37,767 20,288 17,479
14460 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 43,975 1.0 18,505 53,616 35,111 26,063 19,250 6,813
41940 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 29,054 1.6 18,313 27,733 9,420 10,986 16,347 -5,361
37980 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 27,756 0.5 22,620 75,747 53,127 5,367 12,944 -7,577
42660 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 51,211 1.5 21,685 43,392 21,707 29,954 12,919 17,035
36740 Orlando-Kissimmee, FL 21,453 1.0 13,757 29,057 15,300 7,441 11,720 -4,279

Immigration is one aspect of creative class theory that doesn’t seem very well articulated. Florida includes it in his diversity index in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, and cites that index’s significant correlation with population and income growth. However, when immigration is broken out, the relationship is not significant. Regardless, diversity, including immigration, has a prominent place in his theory. Semi-recent blog posts ( only confirm that there is much more to the creative city’s relationship with immigrants and diversity in general.

Furthermore, this article ( from the New York Times points out that metro areas attracting immigrants of all skill levels are the ones that grew the most between 1990 and 2008. It’s hard to exactly define the relationship here; a fast-growing city might simply attract more immigrants to work in the construction industry and similar areas. Regardless, the data examined here indicates that the relationship may not be exactly as Florida surmised.

This data also highlights the concentration of immigrants in urban centers of the UK, as opposed to a more widespread suburbanization of immigrants in the U.S (Waldinger 2001). Immigrants are a smaller percentage of in-migrants for principal cities in the U.S. (about 13% compared to about 30%). Maybe Scotland’s larger cities, along with the rest of the U.K.’s cities, would fit into a slightly different model for creative cities. That their migration within Scotland tended to be negative suggests an outmigration of mainly families with children, while in-migrants probably tend to be single or without children.

There has been lots of discussion on the limitations of creative class theory in describing U.S. cities. It would be interesting to see a more thorough discussion of urban systems abroad and how they relate to it.

Reference: Waldinger, R. (ed.) (2001) Strangers at the gates: new immigrants in urban America. Los Angeles: University of California Press.