July 19, 2010

So how did we get to "nodal development"?

If putting dense-ish semi-suburban developments outside of cities is a bad idea, and creating them requires deeply disruptive cataclysmic change, how did we come to a point where nodal development seems like a great idea to mostly well-intentioned people in positions of power? (Here, anyway?)

I don't have a simple history, but working up to it from the other direction, the story seems to go like this:

  1. New Urbanists decried sprawl as bad, listing in detail the many ways it wastes resources and produces a landscape that limits people's interests in looking beyond the boundaries of their own little piece. (For the most part, I agree with their analysis, just not with some of their founder's crazier recent statements.)

  2. Upstate New York suffers from an especially strong version of sprawl, in which there isn't much population growth but residents abandon cities for the suburbs. The wasted infrastructures costs of this are especially dire. Rolf Pendall of Cornell's Department of City and Regional Planning wrote a classic Brookings paper on how this looks in Upstate.

  3. Gas and road maintenance prices have spiked recently, and there's cause for concern that they'll continue to climb in the long term. This makes scattered housing more expensive both for its residents and for local government.

  4. No one has the tools to force density back into the City of Ithaca. County Planning has no land-use authority. The City can promote itself, but promotion alone hasn't kept Tompkins County residents in its urban core.

  5. The proposed answer to higher gas prices is more public transit. The old trolley system (and the old rail lines) can't be an option, though, as there isn't enough density even in the City to support them. Instead, the answer is buses. I keep hearing that buses need concentrated densities of 16 dwellings/acre are necessary to make transit generally profitable.

  6. 16 dwellings per acre simply isn't generally going to happen when houses are built gradually by people making their own choices about what to create. Outside of Ecovillage, which is dense clusters surrounded by countryside, even the idea of shared walls and duplexes makes a property more a specialty item.

  7. The kinds of density needed to support transit are only possible in areas with water and sewer systems, for public healty reasons. Those tend to be in places that had sufficient density already to make installing them a worthwhile investment, so those become candidates for 'nodes'.

  8. By expanding the 'node' story beyond the City of Ithaca and the villages, County Planning can say to the rural towns that this isn't a plot to constrain their growth and their tax base - it's an opportunity for them to grow.

  9. Because of the nature of the density proposed, these kinds of developments aren't going to be built by homeowners or even likely small builders. They'll be larger projects, centrally managed and financed.

This leads to things like the Route 13/366 Corridor Study. I remember asking a well-intentioned person why anyone would want to live in the proposed node along the Route 13/366 overlap, suggesting that it wouldn't ever get built. The response was "well, if we can find someone to take on a really big project..." For all that change, we'd see a grand total of maybe a 10% reduction in gasoline use.

Somehow, I don't think these proposals solve that problem well enough to cover the costs of the additional problems they create.

Posted by simon at July 19, 2010 9:00 AM in , , , ,
Note on photos


Nathanael said:

1 - the feasibility of walk-and-ride and park-and-ride arrangements means that buses can be substantially feasible in areas with less than 16 dwellings per acre -- more like 5-10 per acre -- if those areas are clustered around a bus stop / commercial center so that everyone in the area can comfortably walk there. 16 dwellings per acre is not absolutely necessary.

Yet at the moment, development is simply not centered in clusters, it's strung out in long lines along roads, which *doesn't* work for buses. So this argues for 'nodes' even with densities much lower than 16 dwellings per acre.

2 - In addition, a modern system needs sidewalks for access to bus stops, and those are simply MISSING outside the Cities and Villages. The disincentives for using a bus service are severe. Even in Cayuga Heights, with sidewalks, there are practically no proper bus shelters, not even at Community Corners.

3 - there is enough density to support the old trolley system, even in parts of the Town of Ithaca (around Cornell and Ithaca College). Unfortunately trolley systems seem to have gotten gold-plated since then, and are not coming in at inflation-adjusted prices similar to the old ones. Electric trolleybuses would actually make the most sense in our very hilly area.

4 - The City of Ithaca is frankly dense enough that it's hitting the traffic limit downtown, and until exclusive bus lanes are installed, I doubt it's desirable to make it much denser. Forcing density into the Town of Ithaca is a much more plausible goal. If the "inner ring" of the Town -- which already has water and sewer -- were as dense as the City, the public transportation network would be far more viable. But this is still limited by the lack of sidewalks and the powerlessness of County Planning.

In conclusion, I think we should target the already-pretty-developed neighborhoods of the Town of Ithaca (the cluster of developments on South Hill around East King Road is probably the smallest, Northeast is clearly the most fully developed) and make sure that they all have full sidewalks, a walkable local "commercial center" area (like Community Corners in lower Cayuga Heights), and buses which connect good bus stops at that "commercial center" to downtown/Cornell/IC that center to.

Varna could become a neighborhood hamlet like that, though it's smaller than the ones I'm thinking of.

You make good points, though I have qualms about many of them. To go through them -

1 - I've long had hopes that park and rides could work as you describe. After years of waiting, though, my sense is that the odds of them working out aren't great. I believe that the 16 units/acre already includes people walking to bus stops, so I'm not sure that helps.

2 - Yes, sidewalks are a critical component of any plan that involves lots of people walking more than a short distance to a bus stop. People do walk on the shoulder of 366, but I can't say it's a pleasant experience.

3 - We don't have to go back to rails, certainly. I'd be happy with other systems, so long as they worked. Ideally, they'd be quieter than the TCAT buses passing my house now. Occasionally I mistake them for cement trucks.

4 - Ithaca city density may be limited because people want to use cars, but much of the value of city living is not needing cars. I'd be curious how much City of Ithaca traffic originates in the city, and how much is people like me driving through or to.

I agree that the Town of Ithaca is generally a more likely place to build denser housing that has a sane connection to public transit.