Travel Update: Miami Is Denser Than When I Left It

Miami, FL

I’ve been busy this week writing, but still carved out time to walk Miami. The first thing that hit me was how much denser it got since I last visited in 2011. The downtown, once caked in human waste, is only halfway like this now; a few square blocks of cafes and bars have emerged just off the waterfront. New condos in nearby Brickell have turned it into a legitimate 24/7 neighborhood, with unique cultural status as a playground for young bankers. And just north, Wynwood–Miami’s arts neighborhood–is making strides.

My observations are confirmed by the data. From 2010-2013, the city grew by 20,000 (or 5%) and there has been similar growth in key adjacent suburbs like South Beach, Hialeah, and Coral Gables (where I’m staying). Since that visit, Miami’s Walk Score went from the nation’s 8th- to 5th- best, behind only New York, SF, Boston, and Philly–and ahead of Chicago!

But as MU reader Chris Harlan noted, the city hasn’t built the pedestrian infrastructure to keep pace. Added density always brings more of two traditionally conflicting uses: cars and pedestrians. If traffic engineering is not changed to encourage their graceful interaction, then cities will have public safety disasters. And this has happened in Miami, which is the nation’s 4th most dangerous city for pedestrians (trailing only the other 3 major ones in Florida). Walking around, it wasn’t hard to see why: people here drive aggressively, encouraged by wide roads, long blocks, and a lack of side-street parking to encourage slower speeds. Long blocks mean fewer cross-walks, and because waits at intersections take forever, many people choose to cut across mid-block, with cars speeding by in both directions. I found myself behaving the same way; after waiting long enough for things to clear, I would literally just sprint across busy roadways. But those more accustomed would mozy out halfway and wait at the yellow stripe–with dozens of cars going past in each direction–until the other half cleared. It seemed like practical suicide, but is a common form of jaywalking here. Solving this would be as simple as building medians, but there are precious little of these in Miami.

Now for the links:

1. I wrote 4 articles this week for Forbes: on the private gift that will fund another iconic park in Lower Manhattan; on how beach towns cope in the slow months; on Newark’s idiotic idea to fund vertical farming; and on Los Angeles’ government-manufactured housing crisis.

2. For brevity’s sake, I’ll save this subject for next week, but would like to know: is there a Market Urbanist position for how governments should invest the money in their employee pension systems? Although I haven’t studied the issue, it seems that having government-run management boards invites disaster, since they have less incentive to seek high returns (and often don’t, falling well under their predicted 7-8% returns, thus leading to under-funded systems). I’ve already heard of the phenomenon of “social divestment,” in which boards steer money away from companies that the left finds offensive, like gun and oil manufacturers. As Governing Magazine finance writer Liz Farmer has noted, this can lead to under-performance or even huge losses. Is the answer to privatize city governments’ asset management? Anyone with expertise on this issue, feel free to weigh in…

Travel Update: Miami-bound

Hialeah, Florida

I’m writing this from Hialeah, a suburb just north of Miami that is the nation’s most Cuban city. I can’t wait until Sunday, my first big day in Miami, and the de facto start to this 3-year trip!

I’ve spent the last week slogging down the east coast, stopping in Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Hilton Head, and Savannah, before continuing on down Florida’s Route 1 (which is literally—and I mean literally—one big strip mall the entire way through the state). Particularly from West Palm Beach down, Florida’s east coast feels a lot like Los Angeles: it’s dense enough to technically be urban, but not dense or pedestrian-oriented enough to be walkable. In many cases, what you get instead are these dated, low-budget towns that don’t have definitive centers and are just a mass of concrete and bumper-to-bumper traffic, but that are softened by water and palm trees.

Anyhow, here’s a list of articles that I’ve found this week, which will be a feature of these updates. Except this week, I didn’t find them. One thing that I’ve lacked while driving and exploring is the time to just kick back and read. Instead, this week’s updates come from a mystery figure named ‘Bob Johnson.’ Bob friended me on Facebook immediately after I first posted on Market Urbanism, and has since filled my message box with article links. Luckily they are good, so I’m reposting them in his honor.

1. Here’s an absolutely magisterial speech on cities by the recently-deceased M. Stanton Evans, who was a Market Urbanist before his time.

2. What is it with D.C. and height caps? They even impose it now on their pop-up housing.

3. There have now been two high-rise projects in Hollywood that were invalidated either during or after construction, because judges decided that they didn’t undergo proper environmental review.

4. And last but not least, the articles I wrote this week for Forbes—about pedestrian safety and Houston’s new General Plan.

I’m Traveling Cross-Country to Write a Book on Market Urbanism

batman-hitchhiker-gotham-city
Ever since Adam founded this blog, it has become a great forum for describing how free-market economics intersect with urban issues. But the term Market Urbanism itself has remained under the radar, especially compared to ones that encourage more government intervention for cities, like “Smart Growth.” I’ve always thought that Adam’s term deserved more mainstream cache. So I’m traveling cross-country to write a book about it.

My name is Scott Beyer, and I’m a 29-year-old urban affairs journalist from Charlottesville, VA. This week, I began a 3-year trip that will include month-long stays in 26 major cities, and visits to hundreds of smaller ones. Part of this is to continue work as a columnist for Forbes and Governing Magazine. But mainly it is to write a book that I’ve tentatively titled The Sparks From Within—How Market Urbanism Can Revive U.S. Cities.

My inspiration for this trip dates to my late teens, when I moved to New York City. I quickly become so enthralled with the fast-paced culture and diversity of urban life that I saved up some money to backpack the nation’s other cities. This continued on and off through my twenties, as I visited the nation’s 100 largest, burning through several Greyhound “Discovery Passes,” hitchhiking dozens of rides, and even once hopping a freight train from Jacksonville to New Orleans.

I had first expected that these cities would be as dynamic as New York, but was surprised to find otherwise. On one hand, numerous ones had declined despite decades of U.S. population growth, and now had neighborhoods that would embarrass a Third World country. And even many successful ones lacked a certain gravitas, with downtowns that hollowed out after 5pm.

Why were so many cities like this? That question inspired a research period after I returned home that extended for several years. My main conclusion was that U.S. urban failure did not result only from global forces like deindustrialization, but because of counterproductive government policies. This began with post-WWII federal policies that encouraged suburban flight, such as slum clearance, highway subsidies, and loan programs favoring single-family homes. When this caused industry to leave, many cities, feeling desperate, adopted their own aggressive policies, and have maintained this heavily-centralized model ever since. In most large cities today, powerful bureaucracies—bolstered by regulatory authority and gobs of federal money—dictate where and how growth happens. Rather than enlightened decision-making, this administrative model has produced a comedy of errors, as America’s cities are dominated by high taxes and regulations, political machines, rent-seeking, cronyism, property confiscation, and sometimes plain corruption.

What I also learned through research, though, was that this model had inspired numerous pro-market, small-government reforms for cities. These have included charter schools, defined contribution pensions, one-stop shops for business permits, zoning deregulation, and whatever else liberalizes economies and reduces the dead weight of government. These reforms have been explained in depth by various commentators—mostly on the right—but have always floated around separately. I would like to combine them into a single policy blueprint that would make U.S. cities more competitive in the 21st century. I thought the term “Market Urbanism” was catchy, and because Adam’s blog advocates for these policies, I asked him about expanding the concept into a book.  He told me to go for it.

During the trip, I plan to write about 26 different reforms, using each as a chapter for a given city. These chapters will be divided into 5 sections, dealing with housing, transportation, business climate, public services, and finance. This localized, case-study format will help me explore the details of how each reform would help a specific city—and who now opposes it.

What do I hope to accomplish from this project? I would like to bring the term Market Urbanism into public consciousness, and into direct competition with the moldy prevailing wisdom of America’s cities. For decades, this wisdom—moving from academia on through city hall—is that urban problems must be solved through more government. The point of my book is to explain why market alternatives would solve them better—while making cities denser, faster-growing, more affordable, and more livable.

I would encourage the readers of this blog to follow my project, either through my website, BigCitySparkplug.com, or my Forbes profile. I should also note that every Friday, I’ll be providing updates on MarketUrbanism.com from the road, including links to articles I’ve written that week, research I’ve encountered, or whatever else may be on my mind. I hope over these three years that I can connect with my fellow Market Urbanists, and if I happen to be in your city, please don’t be shy about reaching out, as I prefer learning about places through the locals. But at very least, I hope to bring America’s cities alive for you via the web, as I report on them directly from the streets.

Reach out to Scott about his travels:

Los Angeles’ Pedestrian Environment

Last week, Tyler Cowen wrote that Los Angeles is the best city in the world based on several factors, including that it’s one of the best cities for walking. While he makes the valid point that LA’s beautiful weather gives it an advantage over many other American cities with good walking opportunities, I have to disagree that it ranks among the best cities for walking as a tourist or for enjoyment. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic because my boyfriend is from LA and has often tried to convince me that it has great walking neighborhoods.

Tyler is clearly correct that weather is an important aspect of walkability, so whether or not LA can compete with older, colder American cities on walkability depends on the walker’s preferences for weather relative to other factors like aesthetics and safety. Personally, I weight urban design much more heavily for walkability than weather, and from this standpoint I don’t think LA can compete with the few cities built before wide boulevards became standard street construction. As Nathan Lewis points out, American city planners began building wide streets well before personal cars became common for transportation. Only the U.S.’s oldest neighborhoods that predate the Revolutionary War feature the narrow streets that facilitate a pedestrian scale environment.

Stephen Stofka at Strong Towns supports 1:1 as the best ratio of building height to street width, but personally, I prefer a “really narrow street” design with mid-rise buildings, with a ratio often approaching 2:1. With buildings taller than the streets, pedestrians feel a sense of enclosure and close-in building facades pull the walker along as compared to the expansiveness of wide streets that make comparable walking distances feel farther. Although some call Boston’s financial district an urban canyon, to me it’s one of the most interesting places to walk that I’ve seen in the U.S. It’s building height to street width ratio is much higher than 1:1.

Photo by Doug Kerr

Photo by Doug Kerr

Even in Los Angeles’ relatively walkable neighborhoods, street widths typically dwarf building height. Take Wilshire Blvd, for example, which Tyler cites as one of the best walking streets. Using Streetmix to estimate, it’s about 90-100 feet wide. Wilshire does some have 10+ story buildings, but it doesn’t have the continuous facade of 9 or 10 story buildings that would give it a pleasant proportion.

Wilshire

Some might consider Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade one of the most walkable places in the LA area. To me, the pedestrian experience for shoppers there doesn’t compare to the similar touristy shopping streets in older New England cities with streets half as wide.

Third Street Promenade

Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade above vs. Edgartown’s Main Street below.

edgartown

Photo by Josefina Casals

 

In my opinion, downtown LA is the exception to the city’s generally poor pedestrian environments. The historic core’s streets, developed as residential streets in the late 1800s, are, surprisingly, narrower than some of New York or Chicago’s downtown streets of earlier eras. And of course it’s home to some amazing Art Deco architecture.

Broadway LA

If Angelenos wanted to prioritize pedestrian environment over driving convenience in the future, narrowing streets is even more difficult than the monumental policy challenge of lowering parking requirements. While parking lots can be developed as land becomes more valuable to create a continuous building facade, selling development rights to narrow a street would be a slow and painful process, and it would take decades of development for building facades to slowly be built out toward streets.

Making Los Angeles streets narrower is probably impossible, but the city could make changes to the land use regulations governing Wilshire and its other streets with potential for walkability by continuing to pursue land use deregulation in the vein of the failed Hollywood Plan. Allowing for taller buildings and continuous facades would improve the building height to street width ratio on some of the city’s most expensive land where high rises are financially feasible. However, political opposition to the Hollywood Plan’s deregulation demonstrates the difficulty of marginal policy changes that would allow LA to become more enjoyable for walkers.

LA has many great features, but in my opinion it doesn’t compete overall with older cities as a walking city. Pedestrians in the Northeast must endure sub-freezing temperatures and regular precipitation, but personally I would still choose to go for a walk in the few neighborhoods with narrow streets in Philly, Boston, or lower Manhattan over LA’s sunny, expansive boulevards.

The Value of Walkability

Last week DC Streetsblog reported on a new survey from Kaiser Permanente. The survey covers Americans’ attitudes toward walking and their self-reported walking habits. While a substantial majority of people believe that walking has health benefits ranging from weight management to alleviating depression, the survey found that most people walk less than the 150 minutes per week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. The Streetsblog coverage attributes a lack of walkable infrastructure to low walking rates, although it’s not clear to me that the survey explicitly supports this conclusion. However, past research demonstrates that people who live in neighborhoods where they are able to complete errands on foot do, unsurprisingly, do walk more than those who don’t.

pedestrians

While people may not cite walkabilty as an important consideration in choosing a house, choosing a home involves weighing many factors, from size, price, distance to work and other amenities, aesthetic, and countless others factors. Consumers rely on tacit knowledge to weigh many of these factors because they can’t consciously enumerate all of them in making a decision of where to live.

For this reason, revealed preference theory is a more reliable tool than survey data for observing how consumers value one attribute of a complex good like housing. Building on a past project, my colleague Eli Dourado and I are studying whether or not consumers do pay a premium for greater neighborhood walkability. Using a fixed-effects model, across all metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas in the United States, our preliminary results indicate that, on average, Americans are willing to pay a premium of about $850 for a house with one additional point in Walk Score. Because of the many restrictions that limit walkable development, consumers have to pay this premium for the scarce supply of houses in walkable neighborhoods.

This finding also indicates that, in a world with fewer regulations limiting the supply of walkable development, the free market would provide a greater supply of walkable neighborhoods because developers have opportunities to profit from doing so that are currently prevented by regulations. In a freer market, more people would have the opportunity to live in neighborhoods where completing daily errands on foot is feasible. These findings don’t tell us what, if any, public health improvements would be seen from more people living in walkable neighborhoods, but they give us a clearer picture of the value people place on walkability than survey data does.

Market suburbanistsoften cite survey data finding that most people prefer detached, single family homes to living in multifamily housing. They also often say that revealed preferences back up these surveys because most Americans live in single family homes. Indeed, this is true, even in the largest cities. However, looking at the housing choices that Americans make while ignoring both regulations that limit the potential choice set and without considering the prices consumers pay is misleading, like saying Americans prefer Fords to BMWs because there are more of them on the road.

An understanding of consumers’ complex decision process in selecting a home cannot be accurately gleaned from either survey or Census data; rather, this information should be observed based on the price that emerges between buyers and sellers in the market. While, all else equal, most people might prefer a large detached house with a big yard, in weighing the many factors like proximity to amenities, price, and house size, we find that people are willing to pay a premium for walkability.

While I’m not prepared to make any claims about health benefits from permitting more walkability, it is clear that people are willing to pay a premium to live in more walkable neighborhoods and that in a freer market, more walkable development would be provided.

Fields of Dreams in Tysons Corner

Earlier this week Cap’n Transit wrote about Tysons Corner in the context of the Silver Line TIFIA loan application and Tysons’ Smart Growth redevelopment. This development plan is something I am quite familiar with as it was the subject of my MA thesis, and his post brought to mind some of the weird issues in the plan.

I am skeptical of Smart Growth generally, and the Tysons plan exemplifies some of the problems that are common to grand Smart Growth redevelopment plans. In an effort to win the support of all progressive causes, Smart Growth plans sometimes encompass many competing objectives. For example, a Smart Growth agenda may advocate increased density while simultaneously championing historic preservation and open space without acknowledging that these goals are opposed. Because of the emphasis on top-down planning inherent in Smart Growth, prices do no reconcile these competing goods.

In the Tysons plan, this planning and consensus building somehow came to include strong support for emphasizing athletic fields. Developers who build in Tysons are required to either provide fields or pay into a fund to support fields on public land. I think that the support for athletic fields comes from the popularity of intramural sports on the National Mall where 20-somethings play sports in think tank or Hill staff leagues after work. Maybe Fairfax planners think that providing athletic space will lure young adults to the suburbs. This issue has gotten so much attention that residents outside of the Tysons area have even started lobbying for fields in Tysons to avoid the traffic of young Tysons residents driving to other parts of the county to find sports fields. The plan calls for 20 new fields of two-to-three acres each for a projected population increase from 17,000 to 100,000.

From a pedestrian perspective, dedicated sports fields in Tysons will create long expansions of dead space, contrary to county planners’ stated objectiveness of liveliness and walkability. Maybe I’ll be surprised and the Tysons fields will all be well-used. Even if they are though, this valuable space will not be put to much use outside of the evening and weekend hours when the weather is decent. This space will be used by a narrower group of people than those who would use more general park space that could include fields.

Given that the objectives of the Tysons redevelopment include creating a more walkable urban form, it would make sense for the plan to take cues from existing places that succeed in these areas. I’m trying to think of an example of a successful and walkable downtown scattered with dedicated full-size athletic fields, but I’m coming up blank. Sure, they may have some open space, but nothing like the Tysons field quota. Northern Virginia developer Keith Turner explains the difficulty of striving for open space and density at the same time:

“We can turf and light dozens and dozens of fields for the cost of building one or two fields in Tysons,” Turner said. “I am not saying that’s the solution, or we won’t try to build as many fields required in Tysons, but it should be looked at,” he said. “Just from an economic standpoint, it just makes sense.”

Developers’ resistance to providing these fields indicate that these acres of green space could be put to more valuable and more walkable use. If other cities take this approach of attempting to lure residents with athletic fields, maybe someday we’ll all be reading The High Cost of Free Soccer.

Some Empirical Evidence on Preference for Cities

This semester I took an econometrics class because I got an MA with the bare minimum of quantitative classes. For the class, I wrote a paper asking the question, “Are consumers willing to pay a premium to live in dense urban areas?” It’s easy to see that urban density is correlated with higher housing prices, but this could come from many factors such as people having to live in dense cities to find jobs or to earn higher salaries or from supply restrictions that impact dense cities more than suburbs.

As a proxy for cities’ urban qualities, I used Walk Score. Walk Score is based on residential distance to amenities, block length, and road connectivity and ranks cities on a scales of 100. It is designed to test the feasibility of living in a city without a car, but it excludes some factors that are often considered relevant to facilitating pedestrianism, including street width, sidewalk width, and population density. Still, I think Walk Score provides a pretty good measure of a city’s urbanist quality. The correlation between Walk Score and median house price is pretty striking:

To test demand for urban living, I wanted to control for the economic factors that drive demand to live in a given city. I tested the impact of Walk Score on median house prices controlling for household income, unemployment, and cost of living. The sample includes 259 cities for which I had Walk Score data and house price data from Kiplinger. The results suggest that for a one-point increase in Walk Score, we can expect a .5% increase in a cities’ median house price, and this result is statistically significant.

In another way of measuring the same question (an IV regression using the year the city was founded as the instrument), I found that a one-point increase in Walk Score can be expected to increase home prices by 3%. This result is also statistically significant, but I have less faith in this model.

For the most part, the other studies that I’ve seen of Walk Score’s relationship to house prices look at one city or a few cities and control for variables like a neighborhood’s crime rate and housing quality. While there are obvious advantages to these more detailed, local studies, I think the national view gets around the sample selection problems that make other results ungeneralizable.

I’d be happy to hear your criticisms of this model — what important variable are omitted, etc. I think there is a lot of room to study people’s preferences for urban form. As Stephen has said previously, looking at where people live without controlling for other factors gives us a better sense of allowable land use than free market revealed preferences, but looking at home prices while controlling for important variables can remove some of this bias.

Thanks to Eli Dourado for helping me think through this model, but of course its problems are my fault.

[Note: I had originally said that the house price data came from the Census. I realized that Kiplinger does not get this data from the Census as their Statistical Abstract only covers select MSAs. The data was collected by Clear Capital, but I haven’t seen it publicly available from them.]

Mandating attractive urban design

The most recent installment of the American Enterprise Institute’s series Society and Culture Outlook features a piece about the role of urban design in how people use cities. The article “A plea for beauty: a manifesto for a new urbanism” by Roger Scruton is a deviation from AEI’s typically conservative view toward central planning. Scruton favors heavy-handed planning of the appearance of the built environment, essentially advocating for strict form-based zoning codes:

Many suggestions have been made as to how an attraction to the center might be generated. Building downtown convention centers, expensive museums, and concert halls; offering tax credits for city-center businesses; creating enterprise zones; and removing some of the regulations that make living, moving, and trading downtown so difficult have all been tried, and none has worked. And the reason they do not work is because they are addressing symptoms instead of causes. People flee from city centers because they do not like city centers. And they do not like city centers because they are alienating, ugly, and without a human face. Or rather, they do not like city centers when they are alienating, ugly, and inhuman, the normal case in America.

[. . .]

The proof of this is easy to find in the old cities of Europe. People choose to live in the center of Paris, Rome, Prague, or London rather than the periphery. Others who do not live in those cities want to spend their vacations there to enjoy the culture, entertainment, and beauty of their surroundings. These are flourishing cities, in which people of every class and occupation live side by side in mutual dependency while maintaining the distance that is one of the great gifts of the urban way of life. And there is a simple explanation for this: People wish to live in the center of Paris because it is beautiful. It is also lively and rich in every kind of cultural and recreational opportunity. But it is rich because people of all walks of life live there—not just people engaged in specific occupations, but also the cultural elite—and this has made Paris a symbol of the urban experience, the cité pleine de rêves (“city full of dreams”) of Baudelaire.

I disagree on the cause and effect in this process. Cities are beautiful because they are largely the spontaneous result of individuals’ efforts to build attractive places. Scruton cites Washington, DC as an example of an aesthetically well-planned American city because Pierre L’Enfant paid close attention to details like sight lines down avenues. While DC’s layout is certainly orderly, Scruton and I have a different sense of aesthetic appeal. To me, areas of the city that were planned from on high like the National Mall are pretty desolate when not being used for a  festival or team sports. While he advocates top down planning of city design, he doesn’t distinguish between DC’s long blocks and wide avenues and the narrow winding streets of Venice for what planners should look to. Planned urban design can vary in quality, but the evidence that city planning of today produces results that are preferable to cities built before the rise of planning is unconvincing.

I’m in complete agreement with Scruton that for cities like Venice or Prague, urban design plays an important part in their appeal. But there are plenty of places like Singapore, Hong Kong, or many parts of Manhattan that have no problem attracting residents with more modern aesthetics. Traits that lead cities to become less useable, in my estimation, include surface parking, poorly designed open space, wide blocks, and setbacks. These design features come from the top down at least as often as from the bottom up.

One reason Scruton advocates top-down decisions for urban design is that individuals are prone to making poor design decisions, which could ultimately lead people to abandon center cities for suburbs. What he leaves out is that central planning is also prone to creating aesthetically unpleasing urban design. (See, for example, the snout house. I don’t think the free market could have come up with this one without setback and lot size requirements and wide streets.) Scruton laments that suburbs do not bring people together the way that cities do, but this is at least in part a product of centrally planned requirements for suburban zoning.

The real problem with mistakes in top down urban aesthetic design is that these mistakes are likely to be systematically repeated. If an individual architect or business owner comes up with an unpopular building design, the market provides feedback that will identify the mistake. Scruton writes about poor aesthetic design in the context of today’s architectural trends:

Appearances do not matter, when utility stares from every glass façade, and when the demands of the human eye are everywhere repulsed or ignored.

He suggests that the ugliness of glassy towers plays a part in driving people from center cities to suburbs. This doesn’t make much sense to me, as the rising popularity of glass facades correlates with increasing demand to live in city centers. I can certainly see that modern architecture is not to everyone’s taste (the horror of having to live somewhere like this), but precisely because tastes are subjective, we should leave design decisions to entrepreneurs, not planners. Many factors drive people to choose the suburbs over cities, but I don’t see building aesthetics as a major culprit.