Saturday, November 24, 2007

Todd Litman: Smart (Growth) Fellow

Todd Litman, the head of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (here), has posted an article in Planetizen entitled "Smart Growth Safety Benefits." After perusing some of his work and from what I could tell about his presentation at the recent Lipinski Symposium, I'm just about convinced that the transportation and land use agencies in northeastern Illinois should just give him the keys, dictatorial powers, and a few billion dollars to spend and step back. He's my candidate to be the reborn Robert Moses of the smart growth/smart transportation set.

"Smart Growth Safety Benefits" looks at the safety consequences of the increased vehicular traffic in less densely populated areas dependent almost entirely on the private auto for transportation. His thesis is that "traffic safety is one of the most important benefits of smart growth and smart growth is one of the most effective ways to reduce traffic risk."

Litman first compares the traffic fatality rates in ten densely populated area with the rates in ten counties that he characterizes as "dumb growth" counties. He finds that accident rates are much (5x to 10x) higher in dumb growth areas, where per capita vehicle mileage is high.

Litman then establishes that traffic safety tends to increase significantly the more a community relies on non-auto forms of transport such as bicycles and transit. He notes in passing the health and environmental benefits associated with smart growth policies that complement the traffic safety benefits of such development.

Finally, Litman points out a flaw in our method of measuring traffic safety. According to Litman, while accidents per mile driven have dropped, the benefits have been almost entirely offset by the increase in the per capita vehicle miles traveled as a result of the dumb growth policies in place throughout most of North America. Consequently, the per capita accident rate has dropped only slightly over the past 40 years.

None of these conclusions are novel. In his typical fashion, however, Litman lays out his points crisply and in a nice commonsense manner. He doesn't scare anyone with his rhetoric and his writing doesn't drip with elitism.

I talked to him recently about his proposal for taxing parking spaces, which has been implemented successfully elsewhere, but was shot down without a fair hearing in this area. Litman was remarkably equanimous. Rather than making some caustic remarks about the Brezhnevian nature of our region's approach to transportation, he just said that good ideas take awhile to get established and aren't for all regions.

It would be great if Litman were a fixture here, rather than stuck in rainy Victoria coming up with good ideas. UIC's Urban Transportation Center or DePaul's Chaddick Institute could use a shot of fresh thinking that Litman would bring.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh, it sounds like the second coming ... but it could also be statistical nonsense.

1. Please differentiate between urban, "sprawl" and rural. Are we calling rural areas "most sprawled?"

2. If 10,000 people lived in the rural area and 200,000 people lived in the urban area and two people were killed from each area, the rural area would have a rate of 2 deaths / 10,000 people, and the urban area would have a rate of 0.1 deaths / 10,000 population 20 TIMES HIGHER. Would this really be significant?

3) Per capita transit miles' relationship to traffic fatalities suffers from the same thing. Per capita transit miles will be greatest in the areas with the densest population. In addition, there will be a relatively smaller population of drivers, as there are more zero auto households and more people without drivers' licenses. You'd then expect the accident rate/population to be less and that wouldn't really be safety induced by land use.

4. The relative stability in fatalities per population vs. decline in fatalities per vmt is surely a sign of increased safety as the number of female drivers grew tremendoudly during this time. The population did not grow nearly as fast as the number of licensed drivers did. Why not look at the fatality rate compared to licensed drivers, which would make more sense? You'd still find a decrease in fatalities/driver as the percent of licensed drivers approached 50% female because of their lower fatal accident rate.

5. The increase in VMT can also be attributed to the increase in number of drivers as women became licensed and joined the workforce.

6. Why is safety only focused on fatalities? We would likely find that the accident rate in total is higher in urban areas. You'd likely see more pedestrian vs. auto crashes, and more lesser injury crashes per capita, which are also very costly to society as non-fatal accidents can still result in disabling injuries.

Anonymous said...

If you believe it hard enough it will be true... especially if you have some wine and cheese. Right?

Anonymous said...

Invoking Robert Moses's name is totally inconsistent. He advocated quick take eminent domain for such proposes as constructing expressways, one of which totally disrupted the neighborhoods in the Bronx.

Rick Powell said...

It would indeed take Moses-like powers to redirect the nation's urban and suburban environment to fully take advantage of a smart-growth mode. Housing stock, etc. must be desirable for prospective buyers to compete with the attraction of lower cost housing in the exurbs - see the front page article in today's Tribune. We're talking square miles of tear-down and infill development, new transit facilities, etc. If this is the desired will of society, the power of eminent domain will be a key tool in the toolbox. The backlash against the Kelo case is a great hindrance to these efforts, at least in the short term.

Anonymous said...

As they say "scratch a planner and you'll find a dictator underneath."

Anonymous said...

"If this is the desire of society"...one of the things about democracy is that it protects the rights of the individual against the "will of society." It sounds like you're talking about taking people's homes and giving them to developers to make a profit from.

You know what? One thing I never heard of is taking people's property and giving the property owner one of the new homes in return. It's mainly -- here's your 120k now get outta here and try to find somewhere else to live. How about this deal "we'll put you up while we build the new houses and this is the new home you will receive in return?" Or, maybe, if you agree to this you'll get a % of the profit. How about "the landowner has facilitated the increased value of the land by giving it up, so his compensation should be related to the increased value that he has created by being cooperative?

By the way, Rick Powell, you sound like a person who's pretty confident that YOUR home won't be in the sites of the developer.

Rick Powell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Powell said...

I'm not advocating a position here, I'm trying to illustrate a point which was much debated in the 1960's - "Urban Renewal" - that to change a neighborhood and its characteristics completely requires either a monolithic block of willing sellers (which is extremely rare), or an expanded power of eminent domain to remove "obstructions" (which has created the Kelo backlash). I have a background in urban planning law and engineering, but I also live in a county with a strong property rights movement, so I think I can see both sides of the issue. FYI, personally I am generally not in favor of using the public's power of eminent domain to directly benefit private development interests, but any public investment obviously has intended and unintended consequences.

8:19- you make some interesting points in a sort of "anti-gentrification" urban renewal scheme. Please be aware that many of the actual property owners in the most blighted neighborhoods might not be the impoverished stakeholders you seek to help, but moneyed interests that are really not "in need".

Also, my property is not in the cross hairs of public development, but the state did buy a portion of my property for a highway improvement years ago, and a private company has bought much of the property surrounding my house, and will likely continue to do so, with the intention of developing it for a non-residential purpose.

There are some states that are experimenting with signing bonuses, inconvenience bonuses, etc. when the government needs to acquire property for a public purpose. Perhaps this is a more fair use of the power. However, at some point the burden is shifted from the displaced owner to the taxpayer, and there is an inherent unfairness in going too far either way for obvious reasons.

My experience indicates there is a tightrope to be walked between nudging public policy in a direction where you want it to go, if you don't want to be too intrusive or unfair in respecting people's rights. The more aggressive planners would tell you that, without a big stick, they can't nudge things as far as they'd like. The more context sensitive planners would tell you they prefer community buy-in (even if it's less efficient upfront) and hiding the stick as long as possible.

Anonymous said...

My only point in bringing up the Bronx is that eminent domain in hands like Robert Moses has been used to further an agenda that is the exact opposite of "transit oriented development," and, in fact, destroyed neighborhoods, as well as constructed needed public works such as the Niagara Power Project.

If redevelopment is the goal, there is plenty of vacant land on the South Side, including owed by the CHA. 8:19 is right about how the owners are treated, except they do get some relocation assistance. The tenants are given Section 8 vouchers and basically told to look in the suburbs like Blue Island and Harvey.

The suburban idea of redevelopment is such as in Arlington Heights--an ethnic shopping center isn't generating enough sales tax, so condemn it and turn the property over to Target. However, Target backed down in the face of opposition, so now you have an unrentable property and real blight. Again, not transit oriented development.

It seems like private enterprise does better when it constructs developments near the suburban railroad stations. Government should facilitate the zoning, but that's about it.

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