"Transport is mostly a real estate problem"

In June, the Urbanization Project at NYU’s Stern Center posted several graphics looking at the space devoted to transportation in our cities. As the author, Alain Bertaud, frames it, “transport is mostly a real estate problem.” That is, different transportation modes require different amounts of space to accomplish the same task.

Comparison of population/employee density and street area per person. Image from NYU Urbanization Project.

Comparison of population/employee density and street area per person. Image from NYU Urbanization Project.

Each of the selected examples cluster around the diagonal blue line, representing an average of 25% of a city’s land devoted to streets.

Percent of land use devoted to buildings, streets, etc. Image from NYU Urbanization Project.

Percent of land use devoted to buildings, streets, etc. Image from NYU Urbanization Project.

Two observations: the 25% pattern is remarkably consistent; as is the geometric relationship between modes of transport and the intensity of land use.  The green horizontal lines show how much space a car uses at various speeds – the faster the car goes, the more space it requires. A parked car occupies 14 square meters, while one moving at 30 kph takes up 65 square meters.

The obvious corellation is between a city’s density and its type of transportation network. Cars take up a large amount of space relative to their capacity, and a transport system based on cars alone cannot support a great deal of density.

Alex Tabarrok frames this in terms of “the opportunity cost of streets.” While there is certianly an opportunity cost to various street uses, it’s worth noting that some space must be devoted for streets in order to access property. Charlie Gardner at Old Urbanist takes note that the role of streets is not solely about transportation:

In addition to their transportation function, streets can also be understood as a means of extracting value from underserved parcels of land.  The street removes a certain amount of property from tax rolls in exchange for plugging the adjacent land in to the citywide transportation network.  Access to the network, in turn, increases the value of the land for almost all uses.  For the process to satisfy a cost/benefit analysis, the value added should exceed that lost to the area of the streets plus the cost of maintenance. (This implies rapidly diminishing returns for increasingly wide streets, and helps explain why, in the absence of mandated minimum widths, most streets are made to be fairly narrow.)  For many of the gridded American cities of the 19th century, as I’ve written about before, planners failed to meet these objectives, although these decisions have long since been overshadowed by those of their 20th century successors.

Charlie also notes that many great, dense, walkable cities around the world devote about 25% of their land to streets, yet many American downtowns use a much higher percentage of their land to streets.

Some of those numbers might depend on the exact method of accounting. While Charlie’s estimate for downtown DC shows 43% of the land used for streets, DC’s comprehensive plan shows approximately 26% for the city as a whole:

Land Use Distribution in DC, from DC's 2006 Comprehensive Plan.

Land Use Distribution in DC, from DC’s 2006 Comprehensive Plan.

The graphic doesn’t specify if the street figure refers to street right of way, or just the carriageway portion of the street, but not the ‘parking area.‘ Seattle’s planning documents also showa similar pattern: 26% of land city-wide used for streets, but also a higher percentage of downtown land devoted to streets.

Seattle land use distribution by neighborhood. Image from Seattle's 2005 Comprehensive Plan.

Seattle land use distribution by neighborhood. Image from Seattle’s 2005 Comprehensive Plan.

The Seattle calculation looks at land devoted to right of way for streets, rather than just impervious surface.

Making better or different use of existing right of way is one thing; however, once that right of way is set, it is very difficult to change. Transportation networks awfully path dependent. Chris Bradford looks at Austin’s post-war planning and the abandonment of the street grid – path dependence in action:

Back then, “planning” chiefly meant “planning streets.” It’s a shame that planning lost that focus. The street grid that permeated Austin in 1940  is of course still with us, and forms the backbone for a number of quite livable neighborhoods.

So what happened? Developers building large, planned subdivisions (Allandale, Barton Hills) continued to add decent street networks after 1940. But the City itself appears to have gotten out of the grid-planning business not long after this map was made…

Collectively, these could and should have been platted into 40 or so city blocks. Instead, they remain two big blobs of land. The lack of connectivity funnels traffic onto South Lamar and Manchaca; impedes east-west mobility, dividing eastern and western neighborhoods; forces people to make circuitous trips to run even simple errands; and forecloses any sort of low-intensity, mixed-use development in the area. Then there’s the sheer loss of public space: South Austin should have a few more miles more of public, connected streets than it has today.

Once the street grid is set, it is very difficult to change.

3 comments to More on the geometry of transportation: “Transport is mostly a real estate problem”

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