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.

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.

Cities and the Market Process: Part 4

This series looks at some of the ways that people organize themselves to live alongside each other in cities. Part 1 looks at inherent problems with top-down planning, and this part will expand on this issue with the specific problems of pricing government-owned land.

Prices are an emergent order that convey information beyond what is available to any individual. Entrepreneurs are incentivized by profits to provide consumers with the goods that they are looking for. The market is constantly moving toward equilibrium as consumer preferences change and entrepreneurial discovery takes place. With all of these moving parts, equilibrium prices will never be achieved, but we will always be moving toward equilibrium as entrepreneurs respond to profit and loss feedback. For me, the clearest description of this market process is Israel Kirzner’s Competition and Entrepreneurship

The essay “I, Pencil” by Leonard E. Read provides a simple illustration of the dispersed knowledge that prices capture. He points out that there is not a single person on earth with the knowledge to construct a pencil, one of the simplest consumer goods available. Prices allow for this division of labor. While the land market is distinct from manufactured goods, prices play an equally important role in allocating land use. The knowledge of this highest value use is likewise disperse and tacit, so no one decision-maker has the necessary information to allocate land efficiently.

The problem of government pricing is perhaps most severe in below market-rate or zero-price street parking, but it can also be seen in open space, where the value of the land that is dedicated to (often unused) public space is not considered. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs criticizes government-provided land use in the form of city sidewalks that are too narrow, parks that are too large or not visible enough to public view, and blocks that are too long.

Many have disagreed with her on all of the specifics of these criticisms, but there is little doubt that cities make mistakes in land use allocation. Because cities don’t make entrepreneurial profits or losses on the land use allocation that they select, the process of making improvements is slowed and may even go the wrong way. The way to test a better allocation of land is by allowing the price system to function. Prices provide the information for the profit and loss feedback system to tell entrepreneurs whether or not they are doing a good job, and when a city owns land and determines its use, this feedback is not available.

When we see parks that go unused or public spaces that create opportunities for crime rather than add value, the absence of profit and loss is in part to blame. While a city can set prices for government-owned land, it cannot be an economic actor like any other because it acts outside market incentives. When a city sets prices for the land that is owns, this is an improvement over the zero-price alternative, but the market process cannot be introduced to improve land use for property that remains government-owned.

Market Urbanism Flickr Group

Small streets are all over urban planning blogs right now. Nathan Lewis at New World Economics is leading the way with beautiful images of really narrow streets along with Charlie Gardner at Old Urbanist, Small Streets, and Cap’n Transit. They have all compiled photographs of pedestrian-centric streets from all over the world with very inspiring results. Some of my favorite posts on small streets are here, here, here, and here.

I’ve started a Flickr group with the hopes of providing another way for urbanists to share their own images of beautiful (or not beautiful) streets and talk about city design. I’ve started it off with some of my own photos with a couple of disclaimers. I know nothing about photography except that I’m not good at it, and I’ve never been to many of the cities known for really narrow streets. I hope to add some photos of nice small streets right here in the Mid-Atlantic sometime soon.

I’m sure you all have many better pictures of really narrow streets and pedestrian environments, and I hope you’ll share some. I would suggest flagging your photos as Creative Commons which means that any bloggers would be free to use them with attribution, but if you’d prefer not to allow others to use them, feel free to add them to the group as copyright protected. To add photos to the group, you just have to create a Flickr account, upload photos, and then add away. You can also comment on any of the photos I’ve added or on the group’s discussion board.