Tag Archives: transit

Suburbs may be getting cooler, but they will never, ever be as cool as the city

1 Dec

The suburbs may be getting cooler, but they will never, ever be as cool as the city.

You might assume they are based on real estate trends and survey results. Unfortunately, housing choices and urban vs. suburban development just aren’t that simple. If they were, urban planning would be a lot easier…and a lot less important.

[Previous Agenda story: Living in the city is cool, but are the suburbs cooler? I’m torn.]

Just because people are moving to the suburbs, it doesn’t mean they’re cool.

Guys, I’m here to tell you: I live in the suburbs and I think they’re boring as hell. I choose to live where I live because our Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district has three A+ schools and if those districts change, we’ll still probably have all highly ranked schools.

I know there is an argument out there for neighborhood schools, charter schools, homeschools, etc. That is another article for another day – but when all is said and done there is no doubt that quality of schools (or perceived quality of schools) is driving the real estate market.

I also want to have a nice little tribe of kiddos – and they and my sanity need a little space. I am not alone. I have made the decision to sacrifice what I want for what I think is the most important for my children…because I can’t have it all.

If I could afford to live in the city and pay for my children to go to a school of my choosing I would stick my house on the market so fast your head would spin.

The uptick in sales in the suburbs post-2016 is a result of the economic recovery. All those millennials kept getting older, getting married, and having kids during the recession. Now that things are looking up, they have the ability to purchase property – and for the reason I just mentioned, a lot are headed further out of the city.

Rail Trail Southend

The Rail Trail in the Southend (Photo Credit: Alan Goodwin)


But not everyone has a choice in where they live.

Many people depend on the social support of their families and neighbors. They may live in the same neighborhood their whole lives and they need to stay there because their grandmother lives down the street and watches their children while they work the third shift or take night classes.

Moving is very expensive. Some people may never be able to afford to pack up their house and start over somewhere new. Finding another house they can afford while their house has been declining in value for decades might be impossible.

These are all very real scenarios that many Charlotteans face daily – and there are many more. We have to stop only thinking about the people who have choices and think about everyone in this city as it relates to housing.

Even if we could decipher the infinite reasons why people choose or have to live where they do (not necessarily where they want to), it is important to know that not all is fair in the war between city and suburbs.

An article in Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns takes a deep dive into federal financing’s effect on the housing market, but in summary here are a few facts to know (stay with me – these are important):

  • Since 1934, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) have insured mortgages for 34 million homes, only 7.4 million were in multi-family buildings.
  • Federal program guidelines make loans for mixed-use buildings very difficult so most banks won’t make them. They also cap the amount of non-residential space within buildings because outdated research shows single-family developments are less risky than mixed-use development. This encourages developers to shy away from “riskier” urban projects.

Developers like to make money, which is no surprise to anyone. And in order to build a product to sell, you have to be able to easily get financing. If developers can only get financing to build single-family neighborhoods, that’s exactly what they’ll build. When a young family comes along who has scraped their pennies together for a down payment, they really don’t have a lot of choice in their housing type. With a much larger supply of single-family surburban homes, they are often more affordable. When you only have a choice between suburbia and suburbia…you choose suburbia.

Because there are less urban, mixed-use, and walkable places being built (and when they are they are limited and also become unaffordable), the financing systems in place are reinforced because people continue to buy in suburban neighborhoods, creating a false demand in the market.

Not all suburbs are as cool as Davidson and Matthews.

And as we consider whether suburbs are cool, it’s worth keeping in mind that Davidson and Matthews are not really suburbs.

They don’t suffer from a lack of connected streets, architectural character, a mix of uses close to one another, or wide tree-lined sidewalks like typical suburbs around Charlotte do.  They have historic downtowns built in a 1800s, WAY before suburban growth hit America hard in the 1960s-2000s.

And we just don’t build them like we used to. All the towns mentioned in the article (Matthews, Davidson, Fort Mill, Belmont, Mooresville, Huntersville, Rock Hill, Weddington and Waxhaw) were in existence way before the automobile was invented or Charlotte was anywhere near. Charlotte kept growing and just ate them right up.

While they may be suburban by location, they are not suburban in character.


Downtown Matthews, North Carolina (Photo Credit: Charlotte Agenda)

The suburbs might blend into a mega-city over time.

Time will tell, but I do think it’s very likely that Charlotte will continue to grow into a metropolitan area with a series of smaller cities with commuting and housing markets overlapped.

I believe it is human nature to get off our butt and walk outside, enjoy the breeze on a fall day, and be around other people and community. The traditional suburbs do not offer that, and that is why we have seen an increase in walkable activity centers like Ballantyne, Blakeney, Baxter Village, and Birkdale.

Because the centers of these activity centers exhibit the same characteristics of the city, they are also becoming more unaffordable and are experiencing their own scale of sprawl.

As we speak, our transit system is being redesigned to think about how to more directly connect these hubs of population and employment to each other directly without having to connect to Uptown. The network of smaller “towns” already exists, and as our Charlotte continues to see the growth of more than 50 people moving here daily, walkable activity centers will continue to be popular.


Stonecrest Activity Center (Photo Credit: Stonecrest at Piper Glen on Facebook)

The argument of suburbia vs. city never has been and never will be simple.

I think we can all agree that no matter where we live, we all want a choice — which we really don’t have right now. Whether our hand is being forced by the disproportionate quality of schools in our public school system, the type of house we can afford, or if we can afford to move at all, we can all agree the sharing of diverse cultural resources and experiences that the city offers will always be cool.

This article was originally published on the Charlotte Agenda.


Tampa City Spotlight: A Transit Past – But is There a Future?

24 Sep

In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this second post of the series, Stephen Benson, a transportation planner, will examine Tampa’s transit past and if its holds potential for its rebirth in the future.

Creating great urban places relies heavily on providing reliable and efficient mass transit. A pedestrian or cyclist can only get so far on foot or on bike. In this article I will discuss Tampa’s lost love affair with the streetcar, how suburbanization deprived Tampa’s urban core of 60 years of economic growth, and how Tampa’s lack of reliable, efficient transit service has left it a second-tier city.

Tampa began as a blue-collar manufacturing town – industrial, urban, and extremely diverse. Unlike nearby St. Petersburg, Tampa was not a vacation haven for rich northerners. It was a testament to the melting pot of cultural diversity and hard work that personifies what it meant to live in early twentieth century America. Immigrants from all over the world came here to work in and support the booming cigar industry.  My great grandparents came to Tampa from Spain and Cuba to work in factories. My grandparents ran a restaurant that catered to working class cigar rollers. For most of the 20th century, Tampa’s historic Ybor City district was dubbed the Cigar Capital of the World – rolling out millions of cigars every year. This rich history of manufacturing left its physical mark on the city and makes Tampa’s roots unique to most places in Florida, and the world.

Cigar Workers in Tampa

Photo courtesy of Burgert Brothers Collection, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library

As Erin Chantry discussed in the first post of this series, Ybor City and early Tampa were well planned. A connective street grid supported walkability. The more remarkable urban amenity of the city was its robust streetcar system. In its heyday, Tampa’s streetcar boasted over 50 miles of track and had 190 vehicles in operation, running from 4:30 AM to 2:00 AM everyday. The system reached peak ridership in the 1920s – with almost 24 million riders in 1926. My grandmother recounts a common saying about the Tampa streetcar – “if you can’t get there for a nickel, its not worth going.”

Streetcar in Tampa

Photo courtesy of Burgert Brothers Collection, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library

map of tampa's streetcars

Photo of vintage Tampa streetcar map courtesy of The Heights Tampa

The rise of the automobile and subsequent conversion to motorized bus systems led to the streetcar’s demise in Tampa, as it did in many other cities throughout the US. Some historians cite conspiracy on the part of the automobile industry as causing the unpopular transition from streetcar to bus. One by one, the automobile industry gained control of popular streetcar systems and dismantled them, promising more efficient (and profitable) gas-powered bus lines. Suspicious locals complained of bribery, spotting elected officials driving new Cadillacs shortly after voting in favor of the transit system’s conversion. Tampa’s documented history of corruption and mob influence supports this theory. To learn more about why this happened, read Internal Combustion by Edwin Black.

Tampa’s last streetcar ran on August 11, 1946. This began a journey on the path of suburbanization and sprawl that supported growth and industry for many years. Now, it plagues the city’s economy, culture and built environment, as it necessitates the use of a car, which to many is quickly becoming financially burdensome.

The modern bus system that eventually replaced the streetcar – today called Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) – has never come close to the streetcar’s peak ridership in 1926 – almost a century and over 4 Million people in growth later.

While the merits of the transition from streetcar to bus to automobile can be debated, the impact on the urban form of Tampa and nearly every American city is undeniable. During the second half of the 20th century, Tampa grew outward instead of upward. The popularity of the automobile and the availability of cheap far-flung land led to widespread low-density suburban development, severely diminishing the small-scale urbanism of the historic central city, which fell into blight and disrepair. Urban renewal demolished much of Ybor City, made big promises for urban redevelopment and instead delivered a sea of vacant lots. In the 1960s, the interstate highways were expanded through Ybor City and West Tampa, destroying existing communities and disconnecting the urban core even more.

Central Tampa Aerial

Photo of central Tampa courtesy of Google Maps

Like the rest of the nation, anti-urban sentiments lured residents to suburbs outside of town. As a result, the City of Tampa’s population has seen little growth since the 1960s– only about 20%. In the same time, surrounding unincorporated Hillsborough County has tripled in population and neighboring Pasco County’s population has increased tenfold. In 1988, the City of Tampa annexed 24 square miles located 15 miles to the north of downtown and dubbed it ‘New Tampa.’ Originally, this newly incorporated area was discontinuous from the rest of the city, but the state legislature later passed a requirement mandating municipalities to maintain a contiguous land area. To comply, the City annexed a small strip of land to connect New Tampa with the rest of the city, near the University of South Florida (USF) campus. The image below depicts the current gerrymandered city boundaries.

Tampa CityLimits

Photo of Tampa city limits courtesy of Southern Spaces

Aerial of New Tampa

Photo of New Tampa courtesy of Google Maps

Today, the Census Bureau estimates the population of the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater Metropolitan Statistical Area at 4.2 million, making it the 17th most populous in the nation and the 15th largest in land area. Yet, it doesn’t even make it into the top 100 for population density. Even with several walkable urban activity centers, the surrounding metro area’s nearly 1,000 square miles of established suburban development is gargantuan. Serving the metro area with efficient transit service is nearly impossible without a staggering financial investment and strong, coordinated political will across the region. Even then, with residents spread so thinly, bus routes would have to criss-cross the county like a tightly-spun spider web.

In 2010, a one percent sales tax increase referendum, to fund transportation improvements (including light rail between Downtown Tampa, Tampa International Airport, and the USF campus) in Hillsborough County failed. Abysmally. The reason? A combination of confusion and distrust of government. Generally speaking, most of the major improvements (including light rail) would have been implemented within the City of Tampa limits and the more urban parts of the unincorporated county.  But the resounding question among more suburban county residents was “what’s in it for me?” Transportation planners failed to clearly and accurately answer that question to the general public.

Sure, you’re building light rail over in Tampa, but what about that nasty pothole on my cul-de-sac? The typical suburban-versus-urban dynamic is alive and well in West Central Florida.

Post-referendum reports cite that over 70% of residents think something needs to be done to improve transportation. Where they disagree is what to do to fix it, and how to pay for it. Local leaders have failed to effectively explain that improvements to the overall transportation system don’t only benefit those who regularly use it, but they help grow and support the economy of the entire region, attracting businesses and residents alike. Traffic congestion impacts the entire region, not just the specific neighborhood or road where it occurs. Wasted time and fuel as a result of congestion trickles down to higher costs for goods and services for consumers. Improving regional transportation is a win-win for everyone.

Suburban residents can’t rationalize walking a half-mile through winding, indirect subdivisions to get to a bus stop, and wait 30 minutes for a bus to arrive. When they moved in, they never intended to use transit and without any major infill and redevelopment they likely never will.

This doesn’t change the fact that building a premium transit system to support the walkable urban core will create a more prosperous region. The economic benefits will positively impact outlying suburbs by preserving their quality of life, and potentially alleviating some of the choking congestion they encounter. At some point, cities like Tampa must choose between a transit system that serves everyone equally across a region, or a system that supports more intensive future urbanism by effectively and reliably serving the urban core. Without an effective transit system, any significant level of density, activity, or growth, is impossible. Sure, Tampa is on the map. But is it somewhere worth going? After all, “if you can’t get there on a nickel…”

Stephen Benson is a transportation planner and third-generation Tampa native. He is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism. Please visit and to learn more!

High Demand for Transit and the Consequence of Little Supply

16 Jun

What happens when you provide something that everyone wants?

When there is a huge demand for something prices are high, and usually markets answer with a large supply. As a result prices lower. Supply and demand…we all learned about it in high school. But in the case of housing along transit lines, in many places across America that demand is never met. With gas prices rising, commutes getting longer, obesity levels increasing, and quality of life deteriorating, the demand for accessible and efficient transit has never been higher. No matter what sector of society you are in, most people add to that demand. However, building high speed rail, light rail, and commuter rail require an oftentimes insurmountable level of funding.

So, when rail is built and housing is constructed along it, the cost per unit is through the roof. It is not unusual for rail to traverse deprived parts of town as a result of taking advantage of existing infrastructure and actively trying to revitalize areas most in need. Therefore the result is often gentrification: people who have lived in one neighborhood for years are forced to move because they can no longer afford it. For people in the later years of their life this uprooting can be devastating.

Architectural style and building form is indicative of gentrification - Andrew Smith

A familiar site of redevelopment along transit lines. Architectural style and building form is indicative of gentrification (Image courtesy of Andrew Smith)

Gentrification is arguably the worse effect of urban redevelopment and it certainly has been the most debated for decades. The debate lies in the nobleness of improving the quality of the built environment, which has enormous effects on the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of a city, versus the inevitable result of people being displaced from their homes and neighborhoods after decades of living there, because of the growing unaffordable cost of living. Is there a way to reap the benefits of redevelopment while avoiding the natural effects of the economic markets?

The June 2012 issue of Better Cities and Towns, explores how Los Angeles will try to avoid displacement as a result of the “largest transit expansion in the United States.” In the Reconnecting America last month, it was reported that the city will get 42 additional transit stations as a result of the $40 billion ballot measure approved by voters in 2008. LA County will benefit as well.

So, in a city where the average family spends 28% of their income of transportation, how will LA curb the negative effects of growth that have plagued planners for decades? Unsurprisingly, the instruments have not been completely identified, but will most likely focus on:

• Acquiring key properties for long-term preservation and development.

• Coordinating existing tools that can be used to keep buildings intact and reasonably priced.

• Anticipating the behavior of property owners and aiming outreach and enforcement activities at owners and tenants.

Is this government overreaching into the market? Are these practices sustainable and effective over time? Will restricting development hinder the spillover effects of regeneration? Doesn’t a larger amount of the population than you are protecting need and deserve access to public transportation?

These are questions that the LA Housing Department, with the support of Reconnecting America, will be hard-pressed to answer and defend. I will be interested to see how withholding land from development and preserving lower rents affects the lives of the gentrified. I am weary that these few measures will be effective. My gut tells me they will restrain the positive benefits of TOD development, while not prohibiting, what years of redevelopment has shown to be the inevitable. I do have to applaud the city for maintaining the restraint of social responsibility instead of succumbing to the giddy attractiveness of an exponentially growing tax base and re-branding of their city. This is important because “approximately 70 percent of workers who commute by transit earn less than $25,000 a year.” That is a sobering piece of data…

In the Next American City article, “Why We Struggle to Talk About Gentrification,” author Christine McLaren suggests that the unquantifiable result of gentrification makes it impossible to integrate in policy. After all policy is based on provable data, not anecdotal evidence. As a result the conversation of gentrification has become misguided: do we focus on the gentrified or the gentrifiers? Does perception lie in human right issues or social and commercial diversity?

Also, like other societal issues that are often oversimplified to one of race, the debate on gentrification is reduced to a black vs. white issue constantly. In another Next American City article, “Gentrification: Not Only About White People,” Matt Bevilacqua focuses the conversation back to socio-economics and reports on stronger ties to education level and weaker ties to race. With the challenge of collecting accurate data and standing against hot topic debate, the gentrification conversation constantly loses its way and is very difficult to control through policy.

Poor Redevelopment: Loss of culture and identity

The devastating effect of insensitive redevelopment = a loss of culture and identity. (Source: DToronto)

As an urban designer who has studied gentrification case studies of the past and witnessed it on the ground..I don’t know the answer. And I’m confident no one does.

Through our public finance work at Tindale-Oliver & Associates, I come across counties that suffer from a tax-base that has nose-dived as a result of the recession and crumbling infrastructure that they cannot afford to repair, much less expand. Facilities like fire stations, schools, libraries, etc. are burning a hole in local government’s pockets because low densities cannot support them. So I get it, and as a planner, I want to help these places redevelop themselves to be self-sustaining and healthy environments. And perhaps the best catalyst for growth and redevelopment to higher densities is transit.

I think until we can collect the data to be implemented into policy, redevelopment and regeneration should be done sensitively using the following tactics:

• Require high levels of funding for public involvement to ensure local communities are instrumental in the planning process.

• Preserve the physical structures and urban form that contribute to the historical identity of a neighborhood and design sensitively around them.

• Incentivize high levels of public and affordable housing as part of the development.

Sensitive redevelopment, preservation of urban form.

Sensitive redevelopment = preservation of urban form, character, and identity. (Image:

Will generation still occur using these tactics, probably. Will it be done more sensitively with the result of preserving it’s identity? Probably. Gentrification is no doubt a hot topic that after decades has appeared to be inevitable, but many projects demonstrate that the level of destruction that it causes can be curbed. As long as we are constantly aware of everyone’s lives we are affecting as planners, including those who might suffer loss as a result of gentrification, we can have a clean conscience while we continue to debate.

All eyes will certainly be on LA as they actively try to maintain the current population along the future transit line and 40+ future stations. While they will certainly have the luxury of providing a higher supply, for what is guaranteed to be a high demand, hopefully they can set an example of how policy can control gentrification without controlling the market.

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