Congress of New Urbanism: Meeting the Demand for Walkability

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The First Baptist Church in Dallas. Photo by Kevin Barton.

Charter Amendment No. 1 was approved on May 9. Voter approval is now required for future rail projects that would use city funding, property, or right-of-way. Those who advocated for the amendment argued that it was important to give citizens the chance to vote on large capital projects. Considering that same mandate was not extended to roads and highways, those who opposed the amendment perceived it as an effort to kill the future of transit rail in San Antonio.

San Antonio’s population is expected to almost double in the next 25 years. Rail may or may not be dead, but the chance of a successful rail project anytime in the near future is certainly handicapped. As a consequence, San Antonio very likely has one less transportation option as we plan how to best accommodate those one million new residents.

The Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) met in Dallas April 29 to May 2. CNU 23: Meeting the Demand for Walkable Urban Places provided a national perspective on the emergence of walkable places, and their role in defining economic opportunity, quality of life, and sustainability in the United States.

CNU is an organization of architects, planners, engineers and activists committed to developing quality urbanism that is sustainable, walkable, desirable, and equitable. The central focus of CNU 23 was understanding the market demand for walkable urban places. CNU has advanced urbanism for more than 20 years, and during that time has worked through its own growing pains. Today though, CNU is focused, committed, and bold in their work to develop quality urbanism. CNU has transitioned from its early beginnings of greenfield development of Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) to today’s focus on infill and adaptive reuse.

Presentations covered a wide range of topics, such as equity, environmental protection, transportation, sustainability, affordable housing, and finance; but for me, the most compelling presentations explained the market demand for walkable urban places.

Of all the research and work presented, one study captured the future of walkable urban places most succinctly. “Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in Americas Largest Metros” studied walkability and economic indicators in America’s 30 largest metropolitans. The study found walkable, urban places demand a price premium that cannot be fully explained by value, but rather by a supply imbalance. In urban areas across the nation, a shortage of walkable commercial and residential space is supporting a walkability premium for the few places that do exist. People want walkability, but supply is not keeping pace with demand. Less than 1% of urban land mass is considered walkable, where walkable is defined as having a WalkScore of 70 or greater. As a result, not only do walkability premiums exist, that premium is continuing to climb.

Not surprisingly, the study found Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle as the cities with the best walkability. Of the 30 largest metros, San Antonio ranked 27th. About 43% of Washington, D.C. residents live within walkable urban places, where only 6% of San Antonio residents live within walkable urban places.

This fact might be trivial, it would be easy to be indifferent, except there are consequences. The study also found a correlation between walkability and economic performance. There is a direct correlation between walkability and two important indicators: per capita GDP and educational attainment. Decreased walkability was associated with lower per capita GDP and lower education attainment. This report did not attribute cause and effect. In other words, it was not clear if walkability influences educational attainment and GDP in a city, or if cities with more educated and productive people build more walkable communities.

Walkability in downtown Dallas. Photo by Kevin Barton.

A walkable neighborhood in downtown Dallas. Photo by Kevin Barton.

However, other research presented makes it clear that cities are competing for both talented workers and jobs. Millennials, the next working generation, are selecting a place to live, then looking for work. Employers and jobs are following them. Their lifestyle preferences are different than earlier generations. Millennials are less interested in driving and suburban lifestyles. They are gravitating to walkable urban places. As a result, cities are re-creating the walkable urban places that were discarded after World War II.

It is clear that cities are using walkable urban places to attract educated workers and higher paying jobs, but it also clear that walkable urban places offer opportunity for low income residents. Automobiles are expensive to operate and maintain. Parking drives up the cost of residential and commercial real estate. Two parking spaces add 25% to the cost of affordable housing. Excessive parking is mandated by most zoning codes, and burdens low income residents without delivering value.

Walkable urban places with quality, well connected transit provide low income residents access to education and employment opportunities that typically are not within their communities. Walkability and public transit address social equity and economic mobility in ways that auto-dependence never has.

There is a connection between the amendment, CNU 23 and San Antonio’s future.

Transit is a critical component to walkability. It connects compact walkable places together, and provides the city-wide and regional access needed to make economies and metropolitan areas function at their full potential without the damaging effects of auto-dependence. Rail is just one transit option. Bus is the second.

San Antonio has a lot of rail critics, and the dominate argument is that bus is superior because it is cheaper and more flexible. Buses are certainly cheaper and more flexible, but that does not necessarily equate to better. If buses were truly better at creating opportunity, wealth, and success in urban areas, we would be able to hold up examples of that success. There would be cities in the U.S. with walkable urban places built solely on the back of bus transit. I am not aware of one. The five most walkable cities all have rail, and the cities with the most extensive rail also have the most walkable places. Coincidentally, they also have the highest GDP and education attainment.

Charter Amendment 1 reflects more than just anti-rail. It also reflects resistance to walkable urban places. Creating walkable urban places in San Antonio will require commitment from more than city government or developers. Citizens who want quality, walkable urban places in San Antonio must also show their commitment, and citizens must be engaged and vocal. And, here’s where the CNU can help.

CNU members have extensive experience in writing new development codes, advocating for and designing transportation solutions, and developing commercial and residential properties to create walkable urban places. The CNU is one potential way to organize local efforts to create walkable urban places. CNU Central Texas is the local CNU chapter representing the San Antonio/Austin regional area. Membership is open to anyone of any discipline who wants to learn about and help create walkable places.

CNU 24 is in Detroit, June 8-11, 2016.


*Featured/top image: The First Baptist Church in Dallas. Photo by Kevin Barton.

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9 thoughts on “Congress of New Urbanism: Meeting the Demand for Walkability

  1. Due to urban sprawl, and also because businesses are scattered throughout San Antonio walk ability is not a viable choice. Additional buses of the elongated type would probably do the trick in terms of traffic congestion as opposed to the high cost of new rail. The cities that you use as an example have high office towers alongside high rise residential towers. In order to get walkabilty there must be a new business office tower combined with a residentail package. If we look at the freeway system in San Antonio, there has been an effective history to cover all sections of the city using a “wagon wheel,” pattern efficiently. Historically San Antonio has not been built in the manner that other cities have developed.

    • Roger,

      I agree sprawl and single use zoning have destroyed walkability in San Antonio, and in most places in the U.S. However, I disagree with several other points you make. First, please show examples where elongated, articulated or any other kind of bus alone has reduced congestion or attracted riders with choice in the U.S. since the rail transit was dismantled across the nation. Bus service has it’s merits, but there are still reasons why a transit system should also include rail.

      Second, high rise office and residential towers are not necessary for walkability. I have personally lived in very walkable communities that were predominantly single family homes of 2-4 floors. Setbacks were small, yards were small, parking was extremely limited, and we had a train station that was a 10 minute walk from most homes in the community. Commercial and government buildings were 1-5 floors. There was not a single building taller than five floors in the village.

      Last, there is very little that is unique about San Antonio’s highways. Many American cities have loops and spokes, which I assume is what you mean about a wagon wheel, including Dallas and Houston. If you look at the MPO’s congestion management plan, you will also note that congestion in every major Texas city has increased since 1970, even though every city has steadily added highway capacity. If the wagon wheel design were so effective, please explain how even as we add more lanes, increase speed, and add new loops, that congestion increases. Not just in San Antonio, but in every Texas city, and I’d predict in every American city.

      San Antonio was walkable before that was destroyed to accommodate the automobile. That same environment can be rebuilt, and the bigger point of my article is that it should be rebuilt in order for San Antonio to be more prosperous. I acknowledge that will be difficult, but difficult is not impossible.

      • Kevin Barton,
        On your points.
        1.) Using bus alone- more buses to park and rides throughout the city would reduce congestion obviously because more riders would equal less car drivers from let’s say the Medical Center to Converse as an example. VIA could institute direct non stop bus lines to all parts of town. Another idea could be for Millenials to park their individual bikes at Park and Rides should they opt out of a personal vehicle. And culturally speaking, most Americans do not want to give up their cars. I take your point in the article that many millineals are attracted to walkable communities, however they would still have to take a train using your train vs. bus examples.
        Point 2- high office towers/tall residential towers- The point I’m trying to make here is that walkability can be achieved if one lives in close proximity to their place of employment, add in retail, medical or any other human needs then walkability without the need of a personal vehicle can be achieved. As you stated that a train depot was close by, the same can be said of bus stops.
        In your article you state that more successful cities have train. I believe your comparing apples to oranges in this case. Historically San Antonio and south Texas has had defiencies in educating the masses and also due to the fact that it has been a historically working class city with few large industries other then civil service on the military bases in addition to a large sector of the working poor. Education is the key to stop this cycle. Do not misunderstand me, walkability has its advantages, but it shouldn’t come at the cost an expensive rail system that instead can be used for increased education funding.

  2. Kevin, some great observations here. I was also at CNU and was so refreshed by the possibilities for great urbanism in what is already a great city.

    To Roger’s comment about walkability not being viable here: there are many examples of cities who bought into car-centric development over the last century and have realized how truly unsustainable that pattern really is. The good news is that we have models to learn from–places like Charlotte, North Carolina, Portland, Oregon, and even Copenhagen, Denmark. They were all very much headed down the same path we are. Many other cities are now starting to undo this decentralization of our communities–even places as nearby as Houston. Probably the most compelling transformation from an auto-dominated neighborhood to a truly walkable, transit-friendly place is the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, Virginia. Those clusters of offices, shops, and homes around train stations didn’t happen until the rail showed up (and it almost didn’t!). And to your last comment that San Antonio had not been built like other cities: on the contrary! Like most larger pre-war cities, San Antonio, too, had a robust streetcar system that fed into a gridded network of streets. Just as much as ripping out those streetcars and cutting through neighborhoods with elevated freeways was a deliberate decision, choosing to reverse the damage caused by those mistakes will also take deliberate action.

    • My point I’m trying to make on the comment I made this morning is that I am not against walkability. What I can’t understand is the need for rail when our city has an expansive freeway system that can easily move our VIA bus system through them, especially if we add central parking systems the way we have at Crossroads mall for example throughout the city. We are reinventing the wheel if we add rail. The new double extended buses would be beneficial in moving masses throughout the city during rush hour, resulting in less personal vehicle traffic. As I stated in earlier, walkability would be great, but first we would have to form large businesses along with grocery stores, and the like in order for people to be able to walk to all of these needed places of commerce, at that point residential towers could be formed.

      • Roger, I agree with you on the need to bolster VIA bus service. I think there are many opportunities here to make buses a more viable alternative to driving; that is, especially for choice riders. I see the value in dedicating freeway lanes to buses, but getting TxDOT to see that same value is another thing entirely.

        There are many more people here that we tend to forget have no alternative to transit to meet their daily needs. When things like congestion, construction, and car crashes affect buses’ ability to maintain their schedules, people suffer very directly. Many of our hourly-wage workers are at risk of losing employment simply because their bus got stuck due to some other incident, creating a vast ripple effect on their lives. I’m not naive to think those issues would be completely eliminated by rail, but it’s hard to ignore the vast improvements in reliability/dependability that rail has over buses, not to mention a host of other benefits: higher capacity, more comfortable ride, more accessible for persons with disabilities, improved property values for nearby properties, greater average speeds, lower risk for crashes, etc. I understand that rail cannot serve everyone, but neither do private automobiles. And private automobiles especially fail to serve those whose incomes are relied upon simply for meeting their households’ more basic needs (shelter, food, medical care, etc.).

        Put another way, low- and moderate-income households are disproportionately affected by our auto-dependent development patterns, sometimes spending as much or more on car ownership as they do on housing (I’ve been there). We’re starting to see a shift toward looking at household affordability not just as a function of housing costs but as a function of combined housing and transportation costs. Using this metric, more walkable places previously thought of as unaffordable actually are more affordable than sprawling cities. In fact, the Center for Neighborhood Technology discovered that households in Washington, DC spend less of their income on housing and transportation than households here in San Antonio (34% vs. 49%). And their index doesn’t even consider all the hidden costs of driving we tend to ignore, like air and water quality issues, flood risk due to increased paved surfaces, time lost due to congestion, vehicle depreciation, medical costs related to stress and from crash injuries, the lives of people lost each day due to crashes, and the list goes on.

        If the goal really is to grow our local economy and create places within our community where people can walk, bike, and take transit comfortably, focusing on freeway capacity, vehicle throughput, and abundant parking absolutely will not get us there.

  3. The only months even bearable to walk in san antonio are December, January, and February. I don’t see walkability ever working here.

  4. Hi Kevin

    Thanks for your post. This is part of why I’m advocating for linear trails along as much of the extent as possible of Alazan Creek (approx. 3.6mi) and Martinez Creek (approx. 2.5mi) within the Westside Creeks Project boundary by 2016. The plan currently seems to be to build just a stunted 0.5 miles of hike and bike trail along each of these creeks by 2016, if the construction deadline for these linear trails does not shift again.


    Just 5 miles of additional Westside Creek linear trail work in 2015-16 could dramatically improve the ‘walkscore’ for a large section of San Antonio, linking several parks including Woodlawn Lake Park as well as the Natatorium with downtown and the Mission Reach and potentially serving at least five schools and several senior centers en route. It would also help make walking or cycling a safer alternative for more students, commuters, shoppers and visitors of various area attractions that are close to downtown (within the historic footprint of the city) but are challenging if not nearly impossible currently to access without a car.

    In recent days, San Antonio was ranked 45 out of 50 by ACSM’s annual Fit City index (DC ranked #1) for Personal Health as well as Community and Environment indicators:

    For Community and Environment indicators including walking and bicycle access to parks, San Antonio ranked 48th – nearly the worst in the country. The Westside Creeks Project and public funding obviously envisioned more linear creek trail work on the west and near northwest side to increase walking, cycling and access to parklands and park resources for residents and visitors. Let’s make it happen in 2015-16 with just five more miles of linear trail work along Westside Creeks in addition to the work planned along Apache Creek and San Pedro.

    Which mayoral and D7 candidates will lead San Antonio to achieving this goal?

    • Mark,

      Let me start with your last question. Which mayoral and D7 candidates would most likely take the lead on completing the Westside Creeks by the end of 2016? I can confidently say … I’m not sure. I haven’t watched the D7 race much, and would suspect this is not much of an issue to either D7 candidate. Districts 7, 5, and 1 merge in the Woodlawn Lake area, and without having looked at the political boundaries, my guess is Martinez and Alazan creeks are in Districts 1 & 5. I don’t think these trails go into District 7. If they do, if is for just a very, very short distance. So, it’s probably not an issue for the D7 candidates.

      Both mayoral candidates supported Proposition 2, which is a major funding source for these projects. Just thinking how long it took to build the Mission Reach Trail and the other Greenways that are nearing completion, I don’t know that anyone could really commit to completing the Alazan and Martinez Creek trails by the end of 2016. I suspect the engineering and design would have to be near complete today to make that timeline.

      That said, I was pleased to see Proposition 2 pass, and pleased to see the majority of City Council support the proposition. Councilman Krier is the only council member I heard question the merits of Proposition 2. He challenged the need to continue building linear creek trails, which is somewhat understandable since the sections through D9 are pretty much complete. Unfortunately, that shows a limited view of how people use the trails, and suggests a trail outside of D9 doesn’t serve his constituents. That mirrors his views of the streetcar, which he continues to suggest had no merit because it wouldn’t have served his constituents.

      There is another Westside creek trail that you did not mention, Apache Creek. The groundbreaking ceremonies are done, and construction is ready to begin. I don’t know the projected completion date, but I’ll be happy if it is done by the end of 2016. It will pass within four block of my house, and when complete, I’ll be able to ride trails from my house to the A&M-SA campus on Brooks, so I entirely agree with your point on how the trails serve commuters.

      There is another gap in the trails that I really hope gets resolved soon. The Salado Creek Trail has a gap through Ft Sam Houston. That gap creates a bit of stress when riding north on the trail, where you have to ride against traffic between the SAMMC gate and Holbrook Rd.

      Since you mention Walkscores, I’m happy to report my neighborhood has a Walkscore of 71 and a Bikescore of 74. I don’t know the best Walkscore in the city, but 71 is a little better than the Pearl (69) and a little lower than the neighborhood around Central Market (74). I previously lived in a German village that had a Walkscore of 84. The place with the Walkscore of 84 really was the most walkable, and the best quality of life.

      The Westside Creek trails will have a positive impact in these communities, but they will also benefit many other San Antonio residents with safe, pleasant, off-road networks throughout the city.

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