less commuting, more livability

Q-St-10th-St_SaratogaTownhomesIn my previous post, I suggested two major changes to the street grid in downtown/midtown Sacramento, one to eliminate one-way streets, and the second to convert all three-lane streets to two-lane streets. Of course there is an overlap between these changes, as all of the three-lane streets are also one-way streets.

The goal of these changes is to make it harder to commute to and from downtown Sacramento by car. Yes, that is my intention.

By way of explanation, I go back to Williams Burg’s documentation of the intentional de-population of downtown, and to a smaller degree, of midtown. There is an insufficient housing stock of all types in the downtown area, and in the midtown area there is a lack of some kinds of housing, primarily single family housing. I’m not talking here about separate housing, the suburban model of isolated houses on isolated lots in isolated communities, but of housing designed for families to live in that are not like apartments with shared facilities. Tapestri Square on 20th St is one example of this kind of single family housing, but there are many more both new and older. And of course there are Victorians still available which have not been subdivided into spaces too small for a family.  Housing is gradually being added back into midtown. Where I live at 16th & O, there are two new mixed-use buildings going up, retail below and apartments above. There are others in midtown, and even a few in downtown.

There is not enough housing to go around, but I think more importantly, there is not a strong enough demand for housing that would accelerate the re-population of downtown and midtown. We need a big change, and we need it in a hurry. Why? So that there are people in downtown, and midtown, to provide customers for the small locally owned businesses that are trying to make it here. Except for the bars so popular on Friday and Saturday nights, most of the businesses are struggling.

So where do we find those people? Among the people who now commute to downtown and midtown  from the distant suburbs. Do these people want to move to downtown and midtown? Some do, probably many do not. The changes proposed would probably add five minutes to the commute of every commuter who works in the grid. Would this cause a mass of people to move in? No, but it will cause people to shift their thinking, and some will move. As has been pointed out by Center for Neighborhood Technology’s H+T (housing plus transportation) calculation, a lot of housing in the suburbs looks unaffordable once the actual cost of commuting is factored in. And this just talks about individual family costs, it does not even include the massive subsidies to the suburbs and to the transportation system necessary to make this all work. So if we increase commuting time, some people will start to look for housing close to where they work, which will in turn create a demand for housing, and will result in housing being constructed.

Of course some people will continue to live in the suburbs and drive to work. There is nothing we can do to force them to change this bad habit, but we can make them pay the real costs of their behavior on the rest of us. Some of the people will continue to live in the suburbs but will start using public transportation, particularly light rail. That is good. More fares mean a better fare recovery ratio and a more viable public transportation system. It may also generate more support for extension of the light rail system, and for transit oriented development around the stations.

What I don’t believe will happen is that people will give up their jobs in downtown and midtown. Many of these jobs are well paying, professional jobs, and even those which are neither, are valuable to those who have them. There are few of these jobs in the suburbs, so there really is not an alternative for most people.

The ultimate goal for me is increased livability and economic vitality. When more people, particularly more families, live in downtown and midtown, existing businesses will be more viable and the door will be open to new businesses which provide services not now available. And once there are more families with children, there will once again be schools.

R-St_sidewalk-seatingI imagine a future for downtown/midtown where people walk and bike for most of their transportation needs. Motor vehicle traffic that remains moves slowly enough that the streets can be used by everyone for all purposes, the 8 to 80 concept developed by Gil Penalosa. People can find the majority of their employment, social, retail, and educational needs within walking distance of where they live. Schools are valued community resources that are supported by everyone to ensure success (not not test success, but citizenship success). The people who live in midtown already like the urban lifestyle (and yes, it does have it challenges), but the future I envision is a vibrant place full of people who want to be there, and see no reason to be anywhere else.

Some of the suburban commuters will complain that this is social engineering, that we are treating people unfairly and making them pay for something that doesn’t benefit them, or even hurts them. The very existence of the suburbs and the transportation system that flushes people between the suburbs and employment centers every day is social engineering on a scale that has never been matched in the United States. Those of us who don’t participate in this daily flush pay dearly in taxes to subsidize it for others. For more information on this, I can’t speak more highly of Charles Marohn’s insightful analysis of the “suburban experiment.” It is worth pointing out that Marohn is a libertarian, certainly no great supporter of social engineering or liberal ideas.

My next post will be about some additional transportation changes for downtown/midtown that will enhance livability.

Note: When I looked for photos to illustrate this post, I realized I don’t have any photos of people in a livable setting in Sacramento. Not that it doesn’t exist, I just haven’t taken those photos, so that is something I’ll work on.

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