Walkable + suburban = desirable “surban” places

Homebuyers may still desire to live in the suburbs but they now may want a different kind of suburbia: a walkable, denser, vibrant place.

No longer are McMansions, white picket fences and sprawling square footage topping suburban buyers’ most-wanted list. Instead, proximity to a suburb’s downtown and easy access to restaurants, schools and parks are priorities. For many, walkable suburbs reign supreme…

The shift toward more walkable suburbs started over the past two decades, thanks to planning efforts concentrated on creating mini-downtowns to revive traditional suburban centers, said Kheir Al-Kodmany, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs…

A 2017 study by the National Association of Realtors found that walkers span the generations. Sixty-two percent of millennials and 55 percent of those born before 1944 prefer walkable communities and brief commutes, even if it means living in an apartment or town home. And 53 percent of Americans would give up a home with a large yard in exchange for a home with a smaller yard that’s within walking distance of the community’s amenities, according to the study. That figure is up from 48 percent in 2015…

A 2016 study from realty site Redfin seems to support Dunne’s point. The study took into account more than 1 million home sales between January 2014 and April 2016 and found that homes with higher walk scores tend to have higher sales prices than comparable homes in less walkable areas. One walk score point can increase a home’s price by an average of $3,250. In Chicago, the study found an increase of one walk score point can bump a home’s price by $2,437.

I intentionally cited the broader data from the article (and not just the anecdotes from buyers, realtors, and local suburbs) because there should be an open question involved with this article: do we have a certified trend toward more walkable suburbs? Do we have clear population data showing people moving to walkable suburbs rather than other places? For a variety of reasons, including enhancing local tax bases and environmental concerns, this has indeed been an emphasis in a number of suburbs across the United States in recent decades. But, I would also guess that it is primarily in suburbs that have more traditional downtowns and mass transit options. In the Chicago region, this means the “surban” experience is easier to create in communities founded before World War II and along the major passenger railroad lines.

This possible shift also does not fit easily into the common narrative that suburbs and cities are locked in mortal combat and there are clear winners and losers. What if in the long term Americans want some of both city and suburban life: a little less density, a single-family home with a yard, a smaller town or city where they feel they can influence local government or organizations if need be, and also walkable and not just a bedroom suburb? Arguably, this tension has been behind the American suburbs for over a century: Americans want a mix of urban and country life. A denser suburbia may just be the newest manifestation of this ongoing balance.

Mixing walkability with other concerns like inequality and building community

The concept of walkability can be tied to a number of other important urban concerns as illustrated by this conversation with a member of Chicago Community Trust:

Q: What’s driving the desire to make neighborhoods more walkable?

A: There are a number of factors but I think there’s more interest in being able to be in the community. It’s not just about walking. It’s about basic, human interactions, the surprise of bumping into people.

As we look to 2050 and see the increased reliance on technology and the diminishing opportunities for basic face-to face-interactions, walkable communities are going to become increasingly important as an essential pathway to building community. Neighborhoods and walkable communities — and the community infrastructure that supports them — will become even more important to facilitate the kind of neighborly interactions, chance meetings, and civic and community building that are so vital to our lives today…

I’ve lived here since 2003 and came from outside of the region. What a surprise it was that many suburbs don’t look like strip malls and housing subdivisions. You have really well-established communities like Oak Park, Aurora, Arlington Heights and Evanston, cities with important bones of more walkable neighborhoods or communities. That’s what Chicago and the region has going for it.

The challenge here is that in neighborhoods and suburbs, the patterns of development and reinvestment have been very uneven. You have haves and have-nots. The south suburbs have struggled with reinvestment for many years and the south and west sides of Chicago have grappled with it. When the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute did a study on Chicago segregation, compared to the 100 largest regions we’re the fifth-most economically and racially segregated region. That, to me, is the biggest challenge.

This is a lot to ask of walkable communities. Does a walkable setup necessarily lead to such positive outcomes? Indeed, the last paragraph quoted above hints at this: the real difficult may not be walkability but rather uneven patterns of development and persistent residential segregation.

 

Mass transit users want three basic things

Fast wi-fi? Cushy seats? A recent survey of mass transit users suggest they want more basic features:

Analyses in the TransitCenter report suggest that riders agree. In one, the researchers compared satisfaction levels with various attributes of regional transit systems between respondents who said they’d recommend their transit service to others and those who wouldn’t. Of all the attributes (charted above), frequency of service demonstrated the largest gap in satisfaction between transit boosters and detractors, and it got the very lowest rating from transit detractors. That suggests that frequent service is essential if you want happy riders…In that same analysis, the second-largest gap in satisfaction was travel time—how long it takes to get from station to station. Translation: Fast trains equal more satisfied riders. A second analysis supports this conclusion. Respondents were asked to ranked the relative importance of 12 potential improvements to a hypothetical bus route (the results are charted below). They ranked travel time number one. (Frequency is a close second, with cost reduction in third place.)…

Finally, the report identifies walkability—here, the ability to walk to transit—as the third key factor at the heart of effective, useable transit. To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers broke down riders into three types: Occasional riders, who use transit only once in a while; commuters, who use transit regularly, but only to get to work; and “all-purpose” riders, who take transit regularly to travel to all types of destinations—work, dining, entertainment, and shopping. That last category is especially important for cities to pay attention to, Higadishe said: “When you have lots of all-purpose riders, that’s a signal that a transit system is really useful.”

Across all three rider types, most survey respondents said they typically walked to access transit. But all-purpose riders did so overwhelmingly, with 80 percent typically getting to transit on foot, compared to 53 percent of commuters and 57 percent of occasional riders. In an additional, more fine-tuned analysis of spatial data from TransitCenter’s national transit database AllTransit, the researchers identified a similar relationship…

Infrastructure tends to work this way: it has to work well and consistently. Perhaps then some extra frills could be considered but as long as they don’t compromise the basic features.

So, if these findings hold across a majority of transit users, why don’t politicians and infrastructure authorities pay more attention to these issues? Are they too expensive to address? Or, are these leaders always looking for cool new features (i.e., wi-fi) to impress the public? Perhaps this exposes a gap between who uses mass transit and who doesn’t – politicians and business leaders likely use it less.

“Turning Suburban Tysons [Corner] Into a Walkable City Will Take Time”

Eric Jaffe discusses the slow transformation of Tysons Corner, Virgina from car-dominated edge city to walkable city:

Last week marked the Silver Line’s first birthday, and with so much riding on it, so to speak, attention naturally turned to the lower-than-expected ridership numbers. The Washington Post reported that the Silver Line is serving about 17,000 daily riders during the work week, well off the pace of 25,000 riders that planners had set by this time. The “bulk” of this ridership aren’t even new users, according to the Post, but rather people who used to take the Orange Line instead…

But while it’s far, far too soon to declare the great Tysons shift a failure, it’s not too early to point out some of the little failings that still need to be addressed.

Poor walkability is one. Citing an internal analysis, Martin Di Caro at WAMU reports that Metro officials believe a lack of “sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes” is a key reason behind the low ridership numbers…

But the neuroscience of driving habits clearly shows that mode choice is most susceptible to change in the early stages of a major life event, such as moving homes or starting a new job. Insofar as Tysons developers have been slow out of the gate when it comes to encouraging transit, walking, and biking, they might be missing a critical opportunity to change commuter behavior…

A third setback might fall more on Metro itself. The Post’s Dr. Gridlock reports that the biggest problem facing Silver Line ridership isn’t the stations—it’s the service. A delay on new rail cars forced Metro to stretch the existing fleet thin. The proposed fix involves running fewer eight-car trains during rush-hour twice a week so the older cars can get maintenance; given the strong ties between transit service and transit ridership, that’s not an encouraging proposition.

Transforming an exemplar of suburban sprawl is not easy: the community has to respond with corresponding infrastructure (improving walkability), changed mindsets (getting people into new patterns and perhaps this requires newer residents), and adequate service to make it viable alternative.

However, we might ask how much time is needed before we could properly evaluate the impact of the Silver Line. Five years? Twenty years? A couple of generations? And it matters who is doing the evaluating and for what reasons. Is this about seeing a financial impact (paying for the construction of the new line plus measuring new development prompted by the new line)? Assessing the decisions of politicians? Trying to reach a magic number of daily users? It will be interesting to watch the ongoing analysis and who gets to take the credit or blame.

The “trick or treat index” for metropolitan areas and Chicago neighborhoods

In a ranking sure to bring in some Internet traffic, Zillow has put together a “trick or treat index”. The top ten cities: San Francisco, Boston, Honolulu, San Jose, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., Portland, and Philadelphia. You can also see the top neighborhoods for these cities. Here is what goes into the index:

Zillow takes numbers seriously, even when it comes to trick or treating. Taking the most holistic approach, the Trick-or-Treat Index is calculated using four equally weighted data variables: Zillow Home Value Index, population density, Walk Score and local crime data from Relocation Essentials. Based on these variables, the Index represents cities that will provide the most candy, with the fewest walking and safety risks.

A brief and clear explanation. The index includes four equally weighted factors: the price of homes (giving some indication of the wealth in the neighborhood), density (how many people/households are available to go to for candy), walkability (can easily walk to more candy locations), and crime rates (safety while trick-or-treating). All of this presumably adds up to identifying the best places to get candy: wealthy people are likely to give better candy, there are more households within a short walk, and it is safe. But, why don’t we get the actual ratings in these four categories for the top cities?

It is probably not worth anyone doing a serious research project on this but it would be interesting to crowdsource some data from Halloween to see how this index matches up with experiences on the ground. In other words, does this index have validity? This seems like a perfect Internet project – think GasBuddy for Halloween candy.

Questions about a study of the top Chicago commuter suburbs

The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul just released a new study that identifies the “top [20] transit suburbs of metropolitan Chicago.” Here is the top 10, starting with the top one: LaGrange, Wilmette, Arlington Heights, Glenview, Elmhurst, Wheaton, Downers Grove, Naperville, Des Plaines, and Mount Prospect. Here is the criteria used to identify these suburbs:

The DePaul University team considered 45 measurable factors to rank the best transit suburbs based on their:

1. Station buildings and platforms;

2. Station grounds and parking;

3. Walkable downtown amenities adjacent to the station; and

4. Degree of community connectivity to public transportation, as measured by the use of commuter rail services.

A couple of things strike me as interesting:

1. These tend to be wealthier suburbs but not the wealthiest. On one hand, this seems strange as living in a nicer place doesn’t necessarily translate into nicer mass transit facilities (particularly if more people can afford to drive). On the other hand, having a thriving, walkable downtown nearby is probably linked to having the money to make that happen.

2. There are several other important factors that influence which suburbs made the list:

Communities in the northern and northwestern parts of the region tended to outperform those in the southern parts, with much of the differences due to their published Walk Scores. Similarly, communities on the outer periphery of the region tend to have lower scores due to the tendency for the density of development to decline as one moves farther from downtown Chicago. As a result, both Walk Scores and connectivity to transit tended to be lower in far-out suburbs than closer-in ones.

It might be more interesting here to pick out suburbs that buck these trends and have truly put a premium on attractive transportation options. For example, can a suburb 35 miles out of Chicago put together a mass transit facilities that truly draw new residents or does the distance simply matter too much?

3. I’m not sure why they didn’t include “city suburbs.” Here is the explanation from the full report (p.11 of the PDF):

All suburbs with stations on metropolitan Chicago’s commuter-rail system, whether they are located in Illinois or Indiana, are considered for analysis except those classified as city suburbs, such as Evanston, Forest Park, and Oak Park, which have CTA rapid transit service to their downtown districts. Gary, Hammond, and Whiting, Indiana, also are generally considered cities or city suburbs rather than conventional suburbs, because all of these communities have distinct urban qualities. To assure meaningful and fair comparisons, these communities were not included in the study.

Hammond is not a “conventional suburb”? CTA service isn’t a plus over Metra commuter rail service?

4. The included suburbs had to meet three criteria (p.11 of the PDF):

1) commuter-rail service available seven days a week, with at least 14 inbound departures on weekdays, including some express trains;
2) at least 150 people who walk or bike to the train daily; and
3) a Walk Score of at least 65 on a 100-point scale at its primary downtown station (putting it near the middle of the category, described as “somewhat walkable”).

This is fairly strict criteria so not that many Chicago suburbs qualified for the study (p.11 of the PDF):

Twenty-five communities, all on the Metra system, met these three criteria (Figure 2). All were adjacent to downtown districts that support a transit-oriented lifestyle and tend to have a transit culture that many find appealing. Numerous communities, such as Buffalo Grove, Lockport, and Orland Park, were not eligible because they do not currently meet the first criteria, relating to train frequency. Some smaller suburbs, such as Flossmoor, Kenilworth and Glencoe, while heavily oriented toward transit, lack diversified downtown amenities and the services of larger stations, and therefore did not have published Walk Scores above the minimum threshold of 65.

I can imagine what might happen: all suburbs in the top 20 are going to proclaim that they are a top 20 commuter suburb! But it was only out 25…

5. There are some other intriguing methodological bits here. Stations earned points for having coffee available or displaying railroad heritage. Parking lot lighting was measured this way (p.24 of the PDF):

The illumination of the parking lot was evaluated using a standard light meter. Readings were collected during the late-evening hours between June 23 and July 5, 2012 at three locations in the main parking lots:
1) locations directly under light poles (which tend to be the best illuminated parts of the lots);
2) locations midway between the light poles (which tend to be among the most poorly illuminated parts of the lot); and
3) tangential locations, 20 and 25 feet perpendicular to the alignment of light poles and directly adjacent to the poles (in some cases, these areas having lighting provided from lamps on adjacent streets).

At least three readings were collected for category 1 and at least two readings were collected for categories two and three.

There is no widely accepted standard on parking lot lighting that balances aesthetics and security. Research suggests, however, that lighting of 35 or more lumens is preferable, but at a minimum, 10 lumens is necessary for proper pedestrian activity and safety. Scores of parking lot illuminate were based on a relative scale, as noted below. In effect, the scales grades on a “curve”, resulting in a relatively equal distribution of high and low scores for each category. In several instances, Category 3 readings were not possible due to the configuration of the parking lot. In these instances, final scores were determined by averaging the Category 1 and 2 scores.

I don’t see any evidence that commuters themselves were asked about the amenities though there was some direct observation. Why not also get information directly from those who consistently use the facilities?

Overall, I’m not sure how useful this study really is. I can see how it might be utilized by some interested parties including people in real estate and planners but I don’t know that it really captures enough of the full commuting experience available to suburbanites in the Chicago suburbs.

Study: home values increase several percent very near a Walmart

A new study suggests that the value of a home increases a few percent if it is located within a half-mile of a Walmart:

It turns out, according to their recently published research, that values increase an average of 2 to 3 percent for homes within half a mile of a Wal-Mart store and 1 to 2 percent when the home is a half mile to 1 mile from a store…

The duo studied more than 1 million home sales between January 1998 and January 2008 near 159 Wal-Marts that were built between July 2000 and January 2006. They compared the prices of homes within four miles of a store that sold up to 21/2 years before an opening or 21/2 years afterward. The long time frame was picked on purpose, after the researchers discovered that the median number of days between when Wal-Mart announced a new store and when it opened was 516 days.

The study also noted that Wal-Mart’s entry into a market often acts as a beacon, generating other economic development nearby…

“On average, the benefits to quick and easy access to the lower retail prices offered by Wal-Mart and shopping at these other stores appear to matter more to households than any increase in crime, traffic and congestion, noise and light pollution or other negative externalities that would be capitalized into housing prices,” the professors wrote.

One interpretation of these findings: people are willing to pay a little more to be located near some commercial development. They may not want to live right next to it evidenced by the fact that most municipalities have some strong guidelines about how commercial areas to demarcate the space between development and residential areas, often with some combination of a berm, a fence, and trees/bushes. But, being a few moments away from a place where you can quickly buy groceries (and Walmart is the country’s biggest grocery store) and other goods is a plus.

One thing that is likely ironic about this data is that while homes close to the Walmart are a little higher, it is unlikely that residents walk to Walmart even though they could. You could interpret this data as evidence people want to live closer to some denser commercial development but having a Walmart nearby is probably not about walkability.

I wonder if these researchers could also tell how much development Walmarts tend to attract. Do they tend to act as anchors for one corner of a busy intersection? Is it enough for development on multiple corners? How many square feet of retail space, on average, can be successfully operated once a Walmart moves in?

I’m now going to look for real estate ads that mention the proximity of a Walmart…I’m not holding my breath.