Sunday, March 28, 2010

Zoning, sprawl and experience

Last week there was an interesting exchange in the Washington pundit blogs about zoning and sprawl. It started with James Howard Kunstler giving the most appropriate response to an invitation to debate Randal O'Toole on a show hosted by John Stossel on Fox News: "Please tell Stoessel he can kiss my ass." O'Toole repeated the standard O'Toole/Cox/Kotkin line that "Americans, like people all over the world, prefer to live in single-family homes and like to have a little land they can call their own for gardening, entertainment, and play areas." Matt Yglesias responded with some bullet points:
  • Throughout America there are many regulations that restrict the density of the built environment.
  • Were it not for these restrictions, people would build more densely.
  • Were the built environment more densely built, the metro areas would be less sprawling.
Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum wrote, "It’s not zoning per se that causes sprawl, it’s the fact that lots of registered voters actively want sprawl and have successfully demanded rules that keep density at bay." Drum goes on to ask,

So here's a serious question: outside of a big city core, has anyone ever successfully built a walkable, high-density suburb? Not a village or a small town. I mean something really dense and walkable: a place where sidewalks are busy, mass transit is good, and there are plenty of high-rise apartment buildings. I know the New Urbanist folks talk about this a lot, but do any actually exist? Educate me, peeps.

Drum's question was picked up by someone called Polis on the Sustainable Cities Collective. There were a few takers, including commenters on the Sustainable Cities Collective blog who nominated suburbs of Philadelphia, Portland and San Diego, and several Beltway bloggers (including Greg Sanders and Ryan Avent) who point to various DC suburbs. No reaction from Drum or Polis yet.

This is related to my previous post about how many transit advocates are ill-informed about life without cars. Here we have liberal smart growth "peeps" who are ill-informed about dense, walkable suburbs, but they are at least open to the possibilities, and eager to be educated.

Drum's question actually shows that a lot of urban history is being forgotten. Most "urban cores" started out as bedroom communities. Greenwich Village, Brooklyn Heights, Long Island City and the Bronx were suburbs once. Hudson County, the part of New Jersey across the river from Manhattan, includes the four densest towns in the US, according to the 2000 census: Guttenberg, West New York, Union City and Hoboken. I've long thought that New York should just annex Hudson County as the fifth borough and be done with it.

If those are too "urban core" for you, consider these "streetcar suburbs" of Westchester County, all of whom have high-rise apartments walking distance from a commuter rail station, downtown shops and a supermarket: Scarsdale, where Garth Road is lined with seven- to ten-story luxury co-ops; Bronxville; the Fleetwood neighborhood of Mount Vernon; New Rochelle; Larchmont; and many more.

Oh, and for Jarrett, these Westchester suburbs all have twice-hourly trains to Grand Central Station six days a week, and hourly service on Sundays.

Most of these buildings were built years ago, between 1920 and 1960; for more recent dense suburb-building, see the claims for various DC suburbs. New Rochelle has also seen some recent high-rise transit-oriented development.


Unknown said...

I think Drum's myopia when it comes to walkable suburbs is due in large part to the fact that he lives in Southern California. No wonder this concept seems so foreign to him,

The definition of a walkable suburb gets fuzzy the closer you are to the urban core. I live in Riverdale, a former streetcar suburb that was annexed into the city as part of the 1898 consolidation. To the suburbanites out in Westchester where I work, I live in "The Bronx" (cue image of burning buildings now). To my Manhattanite friends, I live in a quasi-suburb that is barely part of the city.

The reality is that I live in a neighborhood of 7 story co-op buildings, across the street from a bakery and a bus stop and a 15 minute walk from the 1 train. Parking is difficult, but not impossible. The place is neither fish nor fowl and I think it slips through the cracks in a lot of people's minds. Same goes for Forest Hills or places like Tarrytown in Westchester or Newton, MA, or Arlington, VA. Density is a continuum, not an absolute.

Alon Levy said...

Tarrytown has a density of 1,400 per km^2. I don't have time to check now, but I'll be surprised if people working in it have even a 10% transit mode share.

Drum, Yglesias, and Kunstler are remarkably uninformed. I don't think any of them is a liar, unlike Cox and O'Toole, but they're not some big urban policy experts to defer to.

Unknown said...

Your density calcs for Tarrytown are a little misleading, as half of the total boundaries of the municipality lie within the Hudson River. The village's actual density when only land area is calculated is actually over 7,400 per square mile, which is fairly dense for a municipality located outside of an urban core in the United States. It's about 1/4 the average density of NYC and roughly the same as that of Arlington, VA.

re: transit mode share - hard to say. It's a bedroom community, so most of the people who are working IN the village during the day are doing service sector/hospitality work. Bee-Line does have stops in both the village core and its periphery on Route 119, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the low-wage workers who keep the place running during the day arrive by bus or via reverse commute on Metro North.

Alon Levy said...

No, 1,400 is the density excluding water. The city has 11,000 people and 7 km^2 of land. Including water, density drops to 700.

I don't have data for Tarrytown only, but of the people who work in the Town of Greenburgh, 81.5% drive or carpool and 7.5% take transit (link). In Mount Pleasant, the town further north containing Sleepy Hollow, it's 89.5-4.5. In both towns, the few people who take transit have about half the median income of drivers.

Unknown said...

Alon, I stand corrected.

I would still consider that particular community to provide a decent model of walkable (sub)urbanism for the people who live there. i.e. the bedroom commuters who rely on Metro North twice a day. That's the product that these kind of railroad bedroom suburbs offer for a certain demographic subset able to afford it. For who need to be in the community during working hours, it's a different story, and yeah, the mode share is likely to be pretty low.

Adirondacker12800 said...

There's Tarrytown and then there's Tarrytown. Near the station it's dense. Out in Lyndhurst it's not so dense. A place doesn't have to look like Jackson Heights to be walkable.

George K said...

Here's the data for Tarrytown itself:

About 2/3 of the people drive to work (including about 10% of the total workers who carpool). About 1/5 take the train, and the remaining workers either take a bus, walk, or work at home.

The density of the town is 3,752 people per square mile, but a lot of it looks like it's in the water.

I've been there and, while it's kind of hilly, I would consider it walkable. For the most part, there aren't wide arterials that need to be crossed, and the roads have sidewalks. The bus service is infrequent, but the buses do see good loads when they do show up.