Research suggests narrower streets could help ease housing crisis
With cities and suburbs across the United States facing challenges affordable housing shortage, researchers have studied for years how government planning standards affect housing costs.
These studies often examine how planning and zoning decisions affect traffic noise, whether neighborhood amenities can be reached on foot, and other factors that can make a home more or less valuable.
A new article expands this body of research by considering housing, schools, parks and other infrastructure that is not built for the benefit of wide streets.
The United States has some of the widest streets in the world. In 20 of the most populous counties, the median residential street plus sidewalks is 50 feet wide, with the dollar value of land used for streets sometimes spanning six figures, finds the research in The Journal of the American Planning Association.
Broad streets are less common in some other countries. Some streets in Japan, for example, are much narrower. Developments in Tokyo since 1990 have average street widths of 16 feet, note Adam Millard-Ball, associate professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of new paper.
“One of the best ways to alleviate the housing crisis is to build more housing,” he says. “To the extent that narrower streets allow developers to build more housing, this will solve the No. 1 housing problem right now. “
The median residential street of Maricopa County in Arizona, which includes Phoenix, is 50 feet wide, according to the Millard-Ball County sample.
The median width of a residential street in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, which includes Cambridge, is 40 feet – the narrowest of the group.
The widest streets in the sample are in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago. There, the median residential street is nearly 65 feet wide.
The 50-foot standard
For town planners, a street is called a right of way. The paved section is the causeway.
A right-of-way includes the roadway and sidewalks, if applicable, as well as space for drainage, utility poles and other public infrastructure. This is land generally owned by a city or county that the public has the right to use and cross by car, bicycle, on foot or otherwise. Neighbors waving to the curb of their properties wave to the other side of the right-of-way.
The 50-foot median grip of the Millard-Ball documents stems from nearly a century of American planning history. After the mortgage lending system collapsed during the Great Depression, the federal government stepped in and created the Federal Housing Administration in 1934.
Mortgage insurance and agency financial assistance for homebuyers was “the most ambitious suburban plan in US history,” write Michael southworth and Eran Ben-Joseph in a 1995 Journal of the American Planning Association item which reviews the historic rise of American suburbs.
To protect the government’s unprecedented investment in home ownership, primarily for white Americans, developers had to get detailed plans approved by the agency. The agency encouraged dead ends for new developments and favored plans that discourage traffic.
“Further, the FHA, unlike other planning agencies, was largely run by representatives from real estate and banking, so the developers felt their intervention protected their interests,” Southworth write. and Ben-Joseph.
If developers wanted to build homes that would receive federal financial support, the rights of way had to be at least 50 feet wide, Millard-Ball explains in his new article, “The width and value of residential streets. “
To understand the value of land used for streets, Millard-Ball relies on research of the Federal Housing Finance Agency which estimates the value of quarter-acre lots zoned for single-family homes across the country. The value of land used for streets can be significant in places where low population density and high housing costs converge.
Santa Clara, California, which includes San Jose, has the most expensive streets in the sample at $ 146,000 per tax plot. This is about 40% of the median price of an existing single-family home sold in the United States in April 2021, according to the data of the National Association of Real Estate Agents.
“One of the best ways to alleviate the housing crisis is to build more housing. As narrower streets allow developers to build more housing, this will solve the No. 1 housing problem right now.
Adam Millard Ball, UCLA
New York City, on the other hand, has high housing costs but also high density – tall apartment buildings are common. Tens of thousands of people live in every square mile. The land under the streets of Queens, for example, is worth $ 36,000 per parcel.
At the other end of the value spectrum, streets are worth $ 7,000 per plot in Bexar County, Texas, which includes San Antonio. But land values and street widths can vary widely within counties.
Terra Vista, a small street in a subdivision 25 miles north of San Antonio, is 52 feet wide and has a property value of $ 43,288 per plot. All the earth under the residential streets of 20 Millard-Ball counties is worth nearly $ 1 trillion in total.
Millard-Ball notes that street land value per parcel estimates are likely low for dense, high-cost cities, which often zone for multi-family buildings over single-family homes.
For example, an Italian specialty food store in the Mission district of San Francisco sold its parking lot for $ 3 million in 2018 – about $ 36 million per acre, according to Millard-Ball’s calculations – to make way for a five-storey, 18-unit building. , according to the news site Local mission.
Most US counties regulate how and where new housing and commercial developments are built, according to the National Association of Counties, a nonprofit organization that represents the governments of U.S. counties.
Many large cities are doing the same.
It would be too costly for cities and counties to change the width of existing streets, especially with local governments facing budget deficits during the pandemic.
Still, the new document’s estimates may be instructive for planners in places like Bexar, one of the fastest growing counties in the United States, as they allow developments to accommodate new and current residents.
“The values indicate that cities should make it easier to use streets for something other than roads and parking,” Millard-Ball said. “A good analogy is that during COVID, one use of the streets was for outdoor dining. It is a recognition that this land has more value to the community if we can use it for people to gather and eat in a safer environment outside, than as a parking space or circulation route for people. cars.
He continues, “The point is, desolate asphalt does no good to anyone – not to the city, not to homeowners, not to anyone. Cities are often eager to expand the grip with new developments. Suppose you want to develop a new apartment building. A lot of times the city will say, “Sure, but you have to give up a lot so that we can add a turning lane or widen the sidewalk. If cities can expand the right-of-way, why can’t they reduce it in exchange for improvements that will benefit the public? “
Indeed, during the construction of a new residential building, cities generally ask developers to widen the streets, according to a paper 2017 in the Journal of transport and land use planning through Michel manville, another UCLA town planner.
In the article, Manville examined how the requirement performed in Los Angeles from 2002 to 2012. He found that the city’s predictions of increasing traffic with the arrival of new buildings were often wrong, and “The standards on which the law is based are in some ways unverifiable. So the law probably doesn’t do much to reduce congestion and probably hamper housing development. “
City and county planning standards vary and change, but the federal 50-foot standard still often dominates residential street design. Yet it’s not always true that counties with more land to expand, like those in Texas, have wider streets. Dallas County, for example, specifies that new residential streets in subdivisions must be at least 50 feet wide. The median width of residential streets there is exactly 50 feet, Millard-Ball notes.
The residential streets of Chicago, on the other hand, are usually 66 feet wide, according to city design standards. This roughly corresponds to the typical surveyor’s chain length as the city grew during the 1800s and early 1900s. surveyor’s chain was a tool made up of interlocking metal bars that land surveyors used to measure and mark the shapes of streets to be built.
Uniformity in street design made sense as the country grew and infrastructure technologies were less advanced. But the take-away point for Millard-Ball is that maintaining rigidity in street design means less amenities and, potentially, less housing.
He wonders, for example, if more streets could be built with car park cuts only where there is no private driveway – providing a unique residential landscape as well as opportunities to use more of the built environment for activities other than driving.
“It would make construction drawings more complex,” says Millard-Ball. “The trade-off is visual interest – and the saving of a lot of precious land.”
The prospect of narrower streets raises the question of whether emergency vehicles could pass, although some planners, and at least a report Department of Transportation, suggest that smaller emergency vehicles may be an answer.