The latest example proving the nexus between transportation and land use…

Crossrail Line 1. Source: David Arthur

…Comes to us from London, my brief one-time home. Courtesy of Crossrail, the major commuter rail project linking East and West London together more seamlessly with dramatic expected time savings. While Crossrail is not scheduled to open until 2018, the benefits that the Crossrail project is promising to deliver have already impacted the local real estate market.

Goldman’s employees would be able to reach Heathrow Airport from Farringdon in about 30 minutes on Crossrail, compared with more than an hour on the London Underground. Travel to east London’s Canary Wharf financial district will take 9 minutes, from about 25 minutes today. The City Thameslink system already takes passengers to Gatwick Airport to the south and Luton Airport north of the City.

“That’s what makes this the crossroads of central London,” Rees, the City’s top planner, said in an interview.

Crossrail will build 9 new stations in Central London, provide up to 24 trains per hour (1 train every two and a half minutes!) carrying 1,500 riders each. It will increase the rail network capacity while simultaneously reducing travel times by up to 50%. Transit-oriented development is already taking place, capitalizing on new areas of Central London becoming more accessible. More than 3 million square feet of residential and retail development are anticipated to take place, just over the stations sites.

This is the benefit that transportation infrastructure can bear on a place. It is smart development – taking advantage of the high-capacity, incredibly expensive infrastructure by also providing high density land uses to leverage that infrastructure investment.

See video.


Regulations and Land Use

I am not saying that zoning, fire and safety codes, materials and workforce safety regulations would have prevented the West, Texas disaster. And as rigid and inflexible of a tool as zoning can be, it does have the ability to prevent the building of a school, hospital, nursing home and residences so close to the plant as to be obliterated in case of disaster. And these regulations matter. If I compare Texas to my own home state, Illinois, this is what happens:

Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.

One of the key reasons zoning codes are around is to separate incompatible uses. And while I understand the fertilizer factory was originally built outside of town, it was the town that grew all the way up to the gates of the factory. Since zoning is a police power, this is something the municipality of West, Texas might have been able to control. Or, maybe not. Texas is, after all, proud of its anti-regulatory culture and is proud of  having the largest city in the country without a formal zoning code.

The Suburban Experiment, Explained

I have been an enthusiastic adopter of the term “suburban experiment” after having following the magnificent work that Strong Towns does up in Minnesota. But it came to my attention that I have not fully explained it and applied it here in Chicago.  So, I’d like to take a step back. Of course, since I did not invent the term, it’s best to direct you to the primary source. Chuck Marohn’s seminal articles on the suburban experiment note that:

“our post-World War II pattern of development — operates like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.”

Meaning essentially that this form of development cannot fiscally sustain itself over more than one life cycle without  more growth to pay off previous liabilities.  Essentially, all of the infrastructure that supports the inefficient development pattern that is modern suburbia, the huge investment in roads and utilities to support sparsely dense areas, does not make economic sense after one life cycle.

We’re already seeing this today.

You know we can’t support our towns and cities when roads turn to gravel, when bridges collapse, streetlights get turned off and park districts, schools and municipal budgets are slashed despite ever rising taxes. It means that we’re not allocating our resources efficiently, that maybe the great wealth this country has had has been spent towards a pattern of development that just cannot sustain itself.




Wealth, Generation Y and Cities

Abandoned Paradise

Abandoned Paradise (Photo credit: Seamoor)

Reading this article in the New York Times (and this one) about the lag in wealth building by younger generations compared to their parents has had me reflectively thinking about my own situation. I have two degrees, including a masters. My wife and I even managed to save for a house, which we purchased in 2009 (in hindsight, it appears we bought too early as we’re likely underwater). We also have two kids. Needless to say, our finances are strained. The way things are looking, I’ll pay off all my student loans shortly before I am 60. That would be after both of my daughters complete college, in which case I’ll likely be paying loans off until death. And that’s OK. It’s a decision I made. And yet, I can’t help but feel something is deeply problematic with the financial situation facing much of my generation. The job market sucks, making it  difficult to build a life on a foundation of debt. And if you are fortunate to have a job like I am, then perhaps you are faced with stagnate or declining wages over the long term. But costs are going up. Housing, education, health care, transportation and energy costs have all risen dramatically while income has fallen.


I can’t say how this will play out over the long term. But these trends have an effect on the way people live and our cities are evolving to meet the demands that these trends are making. From a planning perspective we are likely to see the following trends continue, for better or worse.


  • Decline in the traditional household patterns. Forget the 1950′s married couple with 2.5 kids. That’s been gone for a long time and unlikely to return. My generation is getting married later (if at all) and not having children at nearly the same rate as our parents.
  • Continued influx of Generation Y to the cities. This, from an urbanist perspective, is overwhelmingly good. Gen Y doesn’t have the love of cars as previous generations (hell, we can’t afford them) and are looking at cities with new found opportunities. We’re reinvesting in places with existing infrastructure, thus reducing the need for greenfield development. What remains to be seen is whether my generation stays in the cities and that will largely be determined by whether we can make the city livable for all classes of people. Thus, how do we improve municipal finance, urban schools, gentrification/displacement of the poor, and clean up and adaptively reuse brownfield redevelopment.
  • Houses as we know them will be radically different. Gone are the days of large scale cookie-cutter subdivisions as the predominant residential building mode. To meet the needs of Gen Y (and the downsizing baby boomers) we’ll need a lot more multi-family and smaller, more efficient homes near transit. I also suspect the cookie-cutter houses that will go up for sale as the boomers downsize will not find enough buyers, as Gen Y is a smaller generation and seems, at this point, wholly uninterested in moving to the suburbs to the extent our parents did.
  • Public transit will face an existential crisis but will survive. The current financing model for public transit is outdated and does not reflect the economic or demographic realities of our time. Federal support will decline and transportation will increasingly be solved by local governments. However, the demand by Gen Y and the baby boomers (who will, inevitably, learn to ride transit not by choice, but out of necessity due to aging) for public transit will become overwhelming, in reality and politically. Now, what public transit looks like is another story. I can see room for private operators (e.g. jitneys, taxis, even ferries) as public providers contract services, particularly in outlying areas. I think we’ll see a refocus on urban areas where traditional transit has the greatest chance of success.

Our cities will experience a bit of a renaissance as people move back in. On the other hand, the suburban experiment is likely due for hardship. While appealing to some, I can’t see how it sustains itself in its enormity from a market standpoint and fiscal reality. There frankly isn’t a market for the sheer number of single family homes in cul-de-sacs out there. And governments cannot afford the replacement costs of the second generation of infrastructure that many of these suburbs will be requiring over the next 20 or so years. This may lead to a situation similar to many European cities (e.g. Paris) where the center city is luxurious and the suburbs surrounding it are falling apart.




If this is truly our future, I pray that I have made the prudent lifestyle decisions to support my family. We’ll see.