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Brisbane

Do you think there it would be possible for Apple Corporation Inc. to make tracks in transit and urban design?

Just think:

iBus
iTram
iBicycle
iSuburb
iHomes

Oh the possibilities! It would be a craze.

Leigh Holcombe

Kids aren't stupid. Nobody looks at the daily horrorshow that is US rush hour and actually aspires to someday join that game.

Actually, adults aren't stupid either, and they never consciously planned to be part of the traffic. But there's a turning point in the American lifestyle, where the head of household has to decide whether a commute and a handful of car expenses are worth a little false security and cheaper housing. As long as suburban car-oriented real estate is cheaper, idealistic kids will keep moving there once they get older. So the current development model is self-perpetuating.

Nathan Wessel

I do hope so badly this is true.

Just about every time I get into a conversation with a new person, the topic of our fair city, Cincinnati seems to come up. As an urban planner, I am intrigued by people's opinions of the place; most people don't like it and plan on leaving for greener pastures.

Curiously though, about half of the young professionals/students I have talked to about why they are leaving Cincinnati cite bad transit as one of the prime reasons. A good friend of mine, who lavishes affection on his car and drives it just about everywhere, has nonetheless told me that while he enjoys driving, he hates that he has no other option-mind you this is a person who lives downtown and has a free transit pass from work, but that's another story-and plans to move to a place where he doesn't need to drive. Another friend, similarly attached to his car has asked me how he can get involved in advocating for better travel options. He will soon be helping my try raise barriers to free parking in our neighbourhood(!) My anecdotal experience tells me people really are getting away from cars.

I feel so insulated though living in a central city, going to an urban university, and spending most of my time with liberals and bicyclists and urban planning students...Can someone please tell me this is true somewhere else? What about the suburbs?

Bronwyn

Evidence from my life here in Ottawa Canada is mixed. Roughly half our circle mostly relies on transit, biking, and walking. The other half like their cars and tell us that once you're used to having one you can't go back.

One very interesting data point is the sister-in-law and her husband -- they were car people when they lived in the burbs here, but they sold the car on moving to Toronto, and don't regret it at all. There, they live in a walkable neighbourhood near multiple commercial streets, a mall, streetcars, and the subway. So I think that the type of neighbourhood and quality of transit nearby is a huge factor.

Living near frequent, fast transit, a driver's license, and car sharing/rental is a combination that gives the best of all, and it should be more heavily promoted.

Thor

Is the causality correct? I rent a place in San Francisco with rent control with my girlfriend. Because of rent control, we can afford to live in our neighborhood but we have no ability to buy in it.

But that doesn't mean that we prefer to live in an apartment. We don't. We don't like the fact that to modify anything in the building that I need my landlord's permission. We don't like having shared walls and dealing with the noise that comes through shared walls. I suspect if we do have a baby, my neighbors really won't want to deal with the noise.

One of the reasons my girlfriend and I are both looking for new jobs is that we want to live in a place with cheaper bigger housing, and better schools.

To me the appeal of a place like Fresno vs San Francisco isn't the opportunity to live in dense urban experience, is the opportunity to live in a single family home. I will trade off the less favorable climate for more space and better schools.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

@Thor.  I imply no causality one way or another.  I'm just observing a trend, which is all you can usually get in social sciences. 

Yes, if you move to Fresno, housing will be cheaper but you'll probably buy a car or at least drive your car a lot more, so you might not come out ahead.  On the other hand, if you move to Fresno as someone who likes San Francisco, perhaps you're more likely to invest in older districts with character.  (If you want to know what Portland's Hawthorne Boulevard or Seattle's Broadway looked like in 1970, go look at Fresno's Tower District, and buy now, before they start building High Speed Rail!) 

Danny

Bankers are mostly worried about risk of loss. But losses can come in a variety of forms. Sometimes they come because inflation was incorrectly predicted, sometimes they come because the owner was incompetent, sometimes they come because the market underperformed, and sometimes they come because the investment underperformed.

What you really need to understand is that with a commonplace commodity investment, you are getting a predictable market, a predictable investment, and predictable management practices.

Bankers don't care about how awesome a property could perform. They care about getting paid back. To them, an average property and a record breaking property are no different, as long as the bills get paid on time.

The problem with financing transit oriented developments has little to do with the promise of transit oriented development. It has to do with the predictability of getting paid back. TODs do not have predictable management practices because establishing best practices for managing TODs is still a work in progress. They do not have a lot of measurable success data, because there simply aren't very many of them. And compared to detached single family homes, there is a hell of a lot more variability in demand. In other words, you can't exactly extrapolate experiences.

But there is also the possibility of major cognitive biases shaping their thought. People tend to believe that most people are like themselves, and they underestimate the rationality of decisions that are different than the ones they would make.

People that drive everywhere they go have a strong tendency to underestimate the amount of people that don't drive, and they tend to have sweeping generalizations as to why they don't drive. It goes both ways though...transit riders tend to overestimate how many people take transit as well.

But in that perspective, it is easy to see why bankers would be reluctant to even consider looking at transit oriented development. They will initially underestimate demand, and they will likely stereotype that demand as being driven by poverty (which happens to be bad for default risks), or because they are kooky environmentalists, or because they are weird. For a banker that likes predictability, none of those stereotypes are amenable to lending.

Danny

One more thing I wanted to add:

Demand for auto-oriented development is going to be predictable because there is little in the way of location dependency.

You see, when you own a car and expect to use it, location matters very little. It still matters, but a 30 minute drive is a 30 minute drive.

You can't say the same for public transportation. If you took two apartments that are exactly 30 minutes from your place of employment, then you still might have a lot of deciding to do.

For example, if one apartment is along a line with a 5 minute headway, and the other is along a line with a 1 hour headway, then one of them is a VERY safe 30 minute ride, and the other is a VERY risky 30 minute ride.

Or one apartment makes you take a long transfer to get to the nearest grocery store or drug store, then you might consider living somewhere else.

For transit oriented development, location matters A LOT. Way more than it does if you have a car that can take you anywhere in one trip.

But even if your development has the most desirable location in the world, you are still subjected to more risks than an auto-oriented development: You could experience a cut in transit service due to budget cuts. You could have a major grocery store go out of business. You could have a major employer move to a building that is ten blocks away and inaccessible by transit. You could have the accessible restaurants and entertainment move to different locations. The biggest part about these risks is that they are risks that the developer has no control over. The best property and the best property management can not protect you from a cut in transit service.

Too many variables affect demand for TOD. Bankers don't like this. That doesn't mean that financing will never be able to happen for TOD...with more experience in development and management, banks might start to lend more to TOD. But TOD developers might want to consider looking for other opportunities for financing, and debt/equity mixed financing might be the right tool for the job.

Danny

@Leigh

The suburbs will always be attractive to people who desire more space to themselves. Unfortunately, they tend to underestimate the costs they force upon themselves to get it. Fortunately, if you find the right way to visualize those costs, this behavior can change.

As an example, I have asked some of my former coworkers how long their commute is. When they tell me, I do a quick conversion for them. I multiply their commute time (in hours) by 21.667. Then I tell them that that number represents the number of days per year that they spend in their car. All of them are shocked to hear this. Some of them even act on it.

One guy I know completely changed his life when he found out that he spent over a month per year in his car driving back and forth to work. He sold his home, bought a smaller townhouse about 15 minutes from work, and while he still drives, he now brags about how he spends 27 more days per year with his wife and kids than he used to.

Justin N

@Nathan- From an urbanist trapped in the burbs, most people I know haven't been on a bus in their lives, and if they have they certainly haven't been on one in Riverside. This is true even though most of my social circle are students at UCR, and therefore have free, unlimited transit passes.

Many express a desire for better transit- a lot of them are from the San Francisco Bay area, and used to use transit a lot more often (if not solely). However, "better transit" is almost invariably code for "rail"- even people who live on a relatively frequent (20m headways) bus line that would provide a one-seat ride to school (and have free transit passes, mind you) are often reluctant to use it. I often hear voices of praise for BART (SF's suburban rapid transit), but not Muni (SF's comprehensive bus-heavy local system).

Two colleagues who commute from out of the area- one from Irvine, another from Los Angeles- both refuse to use the commuter rail system, even though it would save them both time and money in most cases, because they have to transfer to a local bus (for free, again) to ride from the train station to campus.

I'm car-lite. Most days I get around by bus and bicycle. People think I'm crazy.

JJJ

@Thor, some of your concerns with apartment living could easily be fixed. The problem is not the apartment, it's the type of apartment. The truth is, american construction sucks. Paper thin walls, little insulation, you can hear every footstep in the apartment above you, and every door in the apartment next to you.

Even worse, it seems like every apartment building in America is a landscaper. I've yet to see less than 8 apartments per floor, meaning more noise.

I lived in Brazil, and most apartment buildings have one apartment per floor. Sometimes two, and in the nicer ones, every apartment gets two floors for themselves. And of course, they build with concrete, not wood (steel frame for taller US buildings). Makes a noticeable difference in noise.

@Jarrett, the problem with Fresno's Tower district is the school district. Thor is more likely to move to North Fresno or Clovis to enjoy their award winning schools.

GD

@Thor - JJJ's point is extremely well-made. I'm European, and the appartment I live in is very-well sound insulated. Also, in what I guess must sound paradoxical to any North American, it's much safer than a single-family home would ever be. Both against fire hazards and regarding the likelihood of burglaries happening (Vienna's suburbs score much worse on that than the denser inner parts)

It's building codes that make all the difference, not any intrinsic quality of appartment vs. single-family home.

francis

Developers aren't responding to the new generation because all the $$$ has been locked up by the old one. For instance, many unions now have a two-tier system where existing folks keep their benefits and pensions but new hires don't get any.

Art Busman

Every generation is about rebellion. I think the white-picket fence, suburban, auto-centric dream is over. It has become for many a nightmare of alienation, disenfranchisement, loneliness, boredom. Of course, it was a dream when it started compared to the old, ugly, polluted cities with factories bellowing smoke next door to crowded residential districts. But today's urban centers are different and our factories are all now in China making them sick. Our urban centers are now the new American dream of a smorgasbord of more independent, foreign, exotic, local shops and restaurants. Box stores and strip malls are so last century. While not all youth are like this, an increasing portion are.

foo

When I was younger, I lived in a central location and could get by without a car. But then I had kids, and I had to move to the suburbs where I need a car. No kidding younger adults are less likely to want a car. Wait till they're not-so-young adults with kids, then ask them again.

You can point out as much as you like how many extra days a year I spend commuting, and how much money a car costs to operate etc, etc, but there is no way I will ever earn enough to have the $750k needed to buy a 2 or 3 bedroom condo in downtown Vancouver.

So far I haven't seen any urbanist address this fundamental issue: all the cool new sustainable, walkable, transit oriented city cores that are being planned and shaped and developed today are beyond the means of ordinary people. It's almost like a new feudalism. The shiny castle with gorgeous grounds for the rich elite, and hovels in the distance for the peasants.

Tom Ed White

@foo,

The way I approached the cost problem you describe was to compromise a little. You mention:

cool new sustainable, walkable, transit oriented city cores

I set out looking for:

sustainable, walkable, transit oriented city cores

To help me do this, I used a realtor who specializes in high density residential. The property I ended up purchasing is in a beautiful setting, with easy access to shopping, bars, restaurants etc. It's very kid friendly. I don't have kids, but there are a lot of young families here, with lots of kids running around. The development has a lot of open space for them, and they have safe walking access to parks and a public forest.

The cost was manageable because while the condos in the development are sturdy and well designed, with good sound isolation, they are neither cool nor new. The interior design is way out of fashion. For example, the foyer is cramped and not designed to make an impression. The kitchen, while adequate for a family, is smaller than what's currently in vogue. The space saved from the above is in the back, with a lot of open space near the deck entrance. I assume the philosophy at the time was that nobody spends much time in the foyer; it's better to put the space in the living area.

As for the external architecture and appearance, it's too new to be quaint and too old to be trendy.

There is a lot of new high density development nearby. Even though it does not have the same easy access to parks and forest, it's more expensive by a factor of 5 or more.

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