City, Country and What’s In-between

I should read The Atlantic more often–the June issue had a number of great pieces in it. In addition to the aforementioned review by Caitlan Flanagan, there’s a very readable (if fussily technical) piece about the infamous Conficker computer worm and an article on Google and the future of journalism.

I also read an article about the shifting real estate preferences of urbanites by Christopher B. Leinberger. The article, significantly about the need for more light rail in cities, had some facts that surprised me:

  • While the recession impacted all housing prices, it had less of an impact on urban and inner suburban dwellings than it had on exurban houses on “the suburban fringe”. In metropolitan Washington, DC, for example, the former group of houses has declined 20% from peak prices, while the latter has lost about half its value.
  • The housing nearer the centre of town tends to be on smaller lots, and also includes townhouses and apartments. They’re within walking distance of services, or have good access to public transit. The outer suburbs feature bigger lots and bigger houses, and their owners almost exclusively drive cars. Not surprisingly, younger home buyers are opting for dwellings closer to city centres.
  • Suburban households spend 24% of their income on transportation. Urban households in walkable neighbourhoods spend 12%. A hundred years ago, before the advent of the car, households spent an average of 5% on transportation.
  • A 2006 article from the Journal of the American Planning Association (I’m waiting at my mailbox every month for that bad boy) predicts that, because of shifting demand, the US could have a surplus of 22 million large-lot houses by 2025.

The article goes on to make a case for the increased use of street cars and other light rail systems to cities. I’m no urban planner, but I’ve witnessed the success (at least, I think it’s a success) of the newish Luas street car system in Dublin, and Vancouver’s own Canada Line. I was just in Toronto, and wondered how effective that city’s street car network was. Does anybody know?


  1. I can’t recall who it was, but I am pretty sure it was a faculty member from U of T geography dept that mentioned to me that Toronto has the highest rate of transit ridership in North America next to New York City.
    Housing preference is a fascinating topic. Most people today automatically assume that a family home is detached, surrounded by a yard, and has one bedroom per child. Anything less is often considered undesirable or sub-standard… (yet only one or two generations ago kids shared rooms, and today in other parts of the world it is common for families to live in buildings)… but something suitable (and safe) in town is rare, so most people head to the suburbs. The suitable buildings are also in high demand – expensive – which pushes the everyday buyer to where they can afford. Nice, residential-feeling, yet near things is the ideal. (Cook Street or Oak Bay in Victoria, Kits other areas in Vancouver…. but we are slowly seeing an acceptance of tradeoffs where location matters more than size – Yaletown has a primary school…

    Local Todd Littman is an international expert and has lots of meaty reports that get into it.

  2. We recently bought a home in Edmonton and this phenomenon is even more pronounced here than in more “urban” cities like Vancouver.

    We’re expecting a baby and no one we talked to could understand why we wanted to find a condo or townhouse in a walkable neighbourhood when for the same price we could get a house in the ‘burbs.

    On the other hand, *I* don’t understand why anyone would be willing to sacrifice 10+ hours of their life every week to sit in traffic just so they can have a lawn!

    Oh, and as for TTC streetcars… In my experience they are slow, but very frequent and reliable. When used in combination with the subway, a very efficient way to get around the city!

  3. Oh, and apparently some real estate agents do use “walk score” to market their properties. High walk scores are usually fairly urban. Perhaps The industry is slowly catching on….

  4. TTC streetcars … an abomination when it comes to transit. A single car, dead on a track, paralyzes the route and that happens daily. They’re okay for short runs but check out the numerous complaints about the Queen cars. Check out the horrendous impact that the St. Clair line created. They put in a right-of-way for street cars on Spadina and traffic analysis afterwards showed that it had *slowed* street car traffic. Street cars are a complete waste of money.

    Subways … ah, subways. Now *that* is the way to go. This is the subway map that Toronto needs while this is the map we get

    I used to commute to work (GO, subway and bus) but when I found I could drive the same distance in 45 minutes (an hour less than the commute time … that’s right: an HOUR less — so I save 2 hours each day) it’s easy to understand why I switched.

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