Smart growth finds inroads around U.S.

It’s happening in places like Denver, Pasadena, Calif., and Arlington County, Va. But the vanguard is Portland, Ore. That city’s extensive network of streetcars and so-called “complete streets” — which offer trees, generous crosswalks, and dedicated cycling lanes — mean that its residents don’t need to climb behind the wheel as often as most Americans. In fact, researchers with the region’s government found that the locals drive four fewer miles per day than their counterparts in other U.S. cities.

That might not sound like much, until you scale it up across the whole metro population. It turns out that each year, if you include the value of productive time lost to commuting, Portlanders hang onto about $2.6 billion that they would otherwise spend on their vehicles. The city’s planners call this indirect payback the “Green Dividend.” Residents are free to spend that money on other things — like a better home or improvements to the home they already have.

Spend transportation costs on housing instead

So where does the money saved on traveling fewer miles get spent? No one has kept track, but there are clues. A national study by the Center for Housing Policy shows that there’s an inverse relationship between household spending on transportation and housing: Households that spend more on transportation spend less on housing and vice versa.

“We have less congestion, shorter commute times, and more housing and transportation choices than is typical of American cities,” says Metro Portland Councilor Robert Liberty. “Our neighborhoods are maintaining their value — and not just property value, but community vitality as well.”

Other research supports his claim. Valuing New Urbanism — a pivotal 1999 study by San Diego University’s Charles Tu and Mark Eppli of George Washington University — found that consumers were willing to pay an 11% premium for homes in compact and walkable smart-growth style neighborhoods. By 2007 Eppli said that premium had increased to 16%, and that it was still holding despite the current market correction.

Concerns about smart growth

You might have concerns about potential crime and traffic increases — and corresponding impacts on property values — when your local government proposes a walkable mixed-use community or a transit station nearby.

In addition, there’s the powerful pull — across much of America — for lawns, lemonade stands, soccer fields, and backyard trampolines, despite rising transportation costs and increasing awareness of suburbia’s  environmental costs.

Those concerns and desires are valid, but the devil is in the details, says Christopher Ferrell, a research associate with the Mineta Transportation Institute, based at San Jose State University in California.

Walkable communities can work

The challenge for urban planners is to make compact living in cities more attractive and accessible for young and growing families than the spread-out living many of us grew up with.

Ferrell’s team recently looked at property values of four neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area, before and after nearby transit stations were built. In three of the cases, the terminals had no measurable impact on home-sale values. And in one case, it improved them.

“The closer the single-family houses were to that transit development, the more they were worth after the development was built,” Ferrell says. His team found that within a half-mile of the new light rail station, actual home sale prices increased 1.5% for every 100 feet they came closer to the ticket booth.  By the way, the fact that the three stations didn’t lower values is a major myth buster in itself.

Careful planning with transit stations

Ferrell adds that when it comes to the neighborhood impact of transit stations, design can make all the difference. “If you put in your station surrounded by park-and-ride lots, you’ll attract more car-access transit users, and that can depress local property values,” he says. But a station with pedestrian access, surrounded by development that lets people shop and ride without a car and integrates into a neighborhood, can bring benefits to people living nearby.

Ask the right questions at a planning meeting

If your city is proposing new greener infrastructure in your area, try to keep an open mind. Consider attending a community workshop or planning meeting to listen, offer your own ideas, and express your concerns.

There just might be more good news in green development than you first expect. And as the people of Portland learned, it might even spell cash in your pocket.