Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Survey says ... most Americans like smart growth!

February 8, 2012 - 01:40 PM
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(Photo: flickr/daquellamanera)

Last night in his 2012 State of the District speech, Mayor Vince Gray declared that people need public transportation: "As we work with the region's leaders to ensure Metro is an efficient and reliable means of transportation for millions, we are also committed to bringing streetcars back to D.C." He said the 37 miles of streetcar track will attract up to 7,700 jobs and raise property value by $7 billion, and generate as much as $8 billion in new development. "We will open the first line along H Street and Benning Road NE next year," the mayor said.

Mayor Gray is right to laud D.C.'s plans for a new streetcar network as well as Capital Bikeshare and other public transportation options in the District. They're significant, and more than that, reflect broader changes in the way Americans live today — and these transportation shifts and focus on rich, smart-growth cities also influences how people view livability, walkability, and the ideal American home. Let's turn to some of those numbers for perspective. The National Association of Realtors released a major set of survey results last March that suggest people in the U.S. don't like living the way we once used to. What we've got is a 98-page report breaking down the survey results of more than 2,000 U.S. adults. As D.C. struggles to come to terms with streetcars and car-sharing and affordable housing, I found myself looking at what that mysterious "average American" thinks about housing, commutes, and the qualities comprising the good life. Consider:

When selecting a community, nearly half of the public (47%) would prefer to live in a city (19%) or a suburban neighborhood with a mix of houses, shops, and businesses (28%). Another four in ten (40%) would prefer a rural area (22%) or a small town (18%). Only one in ten (12%) say they would prefer a suburban neighborhood with houses only.

Or consider this affirmation that sidewalks matter, perhaps more than any livability amenity:

In another set of questions, the public places a greater priority on having sidewalks and places to take walks (77%, important) than on being within walking distance of specific places in a community, such as stores and restaurants (66%)

But then there's that American love for single-family homes. That's a killer sentiment, and it determines how Americans assess their commutes:

Six in ten (59%) would accept a longer commute and having to drive to shops and restaurants if it meant they could live in a single-family detached home, rather than living in an attached home or apartment (38%).

Yet that desire goes counter to later statements about how we judge our commutes. Yes, we like single-family homes, and in a survey, people say they're prefer commuting more than living in anything alternative to that quaint vision.

But commutes, no one has to tell us, are crushing in their own right. When asked directly about commutes, people offered some pretty specific thoughts about what they like and don't like:

While majorities of Americans prioritize space and privacy, a lengthy commute can sway them to consider smaller houses and lots. Six in ten (59%) would choose a smaller house and lot if it meant a commute time of 20 minutes or less. Four in ten (39%) would stick with the larger houses even if their commute was 40 minutes or longer.

More than three-quarters of Americans (78% very or somewhat important) consider being within 30 minutes of work important in choosing where to live, making it among the most important factors tested, behind privacy.

The District's Live Near Your Work initiative may have some real legs, based on these underlying desires. Here's hoping. Yet on the national scale of these survey results, only 11% of people said they were "primarily attracted" by the idea that there's public transportation nearby... Eesh. I wish that figure were a little higher. D.C. likely values transit more, I suspect. Read the rest of the report here.

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