Thursday, December 8, 2011

The High Cost of Free Walking

“If you seek a plenty of parking, look about you.” 

While Michigan is home to 14,037,931 off-street parking spaces, well more than 5,000 of these are within a half-mile of Comerica Park.  And while off-street parking accounts for 6.57% of urban land uses nationally, the area surrounding Comerica Park devotes 21.66% of its parcel area to public off-street surface parking lots.  These lots aren’t without societal costs, however.  Numerous studies document the damaging impact of large surface parking lots on pollution levels, economic growth, the tax base, public health, and urban vitality.  Despite these impacts, however, the number of parking spaces in downtown Detroit has grown considerably over the last 20 years.  Three groups have contributed to this state of affairs: parking lot owners, local government officials, and those of us who park downtown.  In this first of a three-part series, I wanted to look in the mirror – as a downtown parker – and turn attention to those who use surface parking lots.

Using the final regular season Tigers game as my laboratory, I inventoried the cost of all the parking facilities in the hour before the game on September 28. That day offered a unique opportunity in that there were no other major events downtown, so the vast majority of those seeking parking were heading to a singular destination.  Using 2010 SEMCOG othroimagery and parking data, I was able to identify all of the parking facilities within a half-mile of the stadium, a rough estimation for a 10-minute walk.  The results of that survey paint interesting pictures about those who use downtown parking.

In economic terms, downtown baseball game parking seems a perfect market.  The sellers offer relatively homogeneous products  (all of the lots I examined had an attendant, for example), buyers have perfect information (it is impossible to get to the most expensive lots without first passing a cheaper option), and no seller has a monopoly.  Given the similarities between all of the options, buyers presumably make their choice between lots on two inputs – the cost and the distance to their destination.

As these two maps suggest, the relationship between price and distance is highly correlated – the parking lots closest to Comerica Park were the most expensive, and those furthest away were the least expensive.

In fact, the relationship between price and distance is relatively linear.  Parking lots of similar distances from Comerica Park had similar prices, even if on opposite sides of the stadium.

The most interesting thing about this pattern, however, is that the median fans valued their energy at two cents per stride – $0.02 a yard.  A small minority of fans who paid a great deal of money – $25 – to park within a few feet of the stadium, however, biased the same numbers for the average fan.  The average fan valued their stride at nine cents.  Extrapolating from these numbers paints a dim portrait of fans, however.

This seemingly inconsequential fact about metro Detroiters has significant implications for downtown parking, however.  Because those using downtown parking are seemingly unwilling to park at even a modest distance from their destination, parking lot owners are unable to consolidate into a smaller number of shared parking facilities.  For example, only a small minority of lots is able to serve attendees of both Comerica Park and Joe Louis Arena, creating a great deal of wasted parking when only one of the two is in use.  If attendees were willing to walk slightly further, downtown would need far fewer parking lots, because a smaller number of shared lots could service a greater number of destinations.

Next time you go out to the ball game, literally vote with your feet, and go for a walk to avoid the premium parking – it’ll benefit you, the environment, and Detroit.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ruminations on Rightsizing, Act I

In this first part of a series of pieces about Detroit’s evolving land use plans, I want to weigh in on the issue of population density.  Issues based on this simple metric are at the core of the reasons for, and objectives of, the city’s rightsizing debate.  Despite the significance of this measure, it seems to suffer from overuse and misuse by both advocates and detractors of rightsizing.

The Free Press’ famous “Comparing Detroit to three other major cities” map is one of the most effective, visually engaging and well-done maps I’ve seen.  No other map seems to have had such an effect on the rightsizing discourse.  The map's premise is mentioned in many articles about the city, including those by the Economist and Forbes.  

With that in mind, however, I think it might make unfair comparisons.  According to the 2010 census data, Detroit is still a relatively dense city.  Even after losing more than 200,000 residents since 2000, Detroit has greater population density than Denver, Sacramento, Portland, Las Vegas, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Cincinnati, Dallas, Atlanta, Tampa, Austin, Boise, Des Moines, Orlando, Indianapolis, Louisville, Salt Lake City, Nashville, and Kansas City.  Among major American cities of its size or larger, Detroit is the seventh densest.  

My other concern with the Boston, Detroit, Manhattan and San Francisco map is that Detroit has always had less population density than these other three cities.  This is not a new change.  The Free Press could have made the same map in 1950, and it would still make Detroit look comparatively empty.  Moreover, San Francisco, Manhattan, and Boston are three of the densest communities in the country.  Healthy communities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Seattle look sparse in comparison.  Even Indianapolis, a growing Midwestern city, looks empty when compared to Detroit, Baltimore, and Miami. 

Using this technique, you can make many cities look highly vacant.

Urban observers who argue against Detroit’s rightsizing plans often use this high-density defense.  This view, however, is also problematic, as noted in Rethink Detroit.  This defense by density is misguided, because low population densities are only especially problematic – from a budget standpoint – when a city was built for a higher density.  Jacksonville and Indianapolis look vacant in the density comparison maps because many areas of those cities remain undeveloped.  The local governments haven’t installed infrastructure such as streets, streetlights, and sewers in these areas, so they’re inexpensive to maintain.  

To accurately compare the relative density of cities, then, we should measure the amount of infrastructure per resident, in addition to the amount of area.  

Of course, there are many ways to measure infrastructure.  Perhaps the most ubiquitous type of infrastructure, streets and highways, is the best single indicator.  By this measure, feet of street per resident – “FSR” – Detroit has a lower density than 9 of the 10 largest American cities.

When compared to the seven largest American cities, only Houston has more feet of street per resident.

If you assess neighborhoods by population density alone, many of the best neighborhoods in Detroit, such as Indian Village, Boston Edison, and Palmer Woods, seem relatively vacant because the homes are on larger lots.  By an infrastructure density assessment, however, these areas appear healthy, because the roads are further apart, as well. 

While Detroit may appear rather stable through the lens of population density, the city’s FSR suggests another view.  Of the city’s 3,115.91 miles of streets and highways, 581 miles front vacant lots, according to Detroit Residential Parcel Survey data.  If you strung all of these lot-fronting roads together, they would stretch to Philadelphia, or to Chicago and back.  This is all infrastructure that must be maintained, salted, and policed. 

According to the Detroit Residential Parcel Survey data, 10,683 of the city’s 32,913 blocks are comprised of at least 25% vacant lots. 

Of course, FSR is but one metric available to planners, and population density remains a highly effective tool.  Residents should use both population density and FSR in their land use decision-making processes.  While both tools have shortcomings, they are effective complements and paint a more complete picture when used in unison.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Preyday Lenders

Payday lenders – or “deferred presentment service providers,” as they call themselves – are painfully pervasive in the city.  While 15 states have banned payday lending, Michigan embraced the payday lending industry with the passage of PA 244 in 2005.  Lenders are allowed to charge some of the highest rates in the country with little risk of enforcement or real penalties. Due to this relative freedom, payday lending has proliferated.  Detroit is especially inundated with these predatory businesses.  With 44 payday lenders, Detroit has nearly five times more lenders per square mile than Oakland County, and more than three times more Macomb County.  There are more payday lenders than bakeries, and more than two payday lenders for each produce market.

Nationally, payday-lending customers often get caught in a predatory cycle in which they use subsequent payday loans to pay existing ones.  In almost no cases do people get just one payday loan.  This trend isn’t surprising, given Michigan’s maximum allowable rate for payday lenders: 391.1% APR / 3685.7% EAR.

In addition to this exorbitant interest rate, lenders operate in a market with minimal enforcement.  Today, 12% of Detroit’s 44 payday lenders with ads in the local Yellow Pages are unlicensed according to State of Michigan data.  Besides being unlicensed, there are other infractions, too. According to google streetview and the companies’ own websites, some of the lenders falsely advertise affiliation with the FDIC and charge fees beyond those allowed by state law.  Together, all of this suggests a troubling level of law enforcement. 

This lack of proper enforcement is especially troubling because payday lenders inherently deal with the city’s most vulnerable residents – those that can least afford to fall victim to these kinds of oversights.  As this map suggests, payday lenders prevalent in areas with low education attainment rates.

Payday lenders are also concentrated in areas dominated by African American residents.  As this map illustrates, only four of the city’s 44 payday lenders are in the 20% of block groups with considerable white, Asian, Arabic, or Hispanic populations. 

Most troubling, perhaps, is that in the rare instance that payday lenders face enforcement action, the penalties seem inconsequential.  In the only instance of state officials shuttering an unlicensed payday lender listed on Lexis Nexis, the owner was fined $5,000.  By contrast, failing to check ID while selling beer carries a prison term of more than 90 days.  Clearly, the current penalties aren't a deterrence.     

Given the Detroit City Council's willingness to standup to other harmful businesses, it's time to increase enforcement, if not regulation, of these lenders at the local level.  As it stands, the residents who can least afford these punishing rates are the ones facing the consequences.  

Special thanks to my colleague, Nick Kahn, for suggesting this topic.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Food Grasslands of Detroit

Despite the successes of many of Detroit’s grocery stores, dozens of researchers, journalists and bloggers have helped brand Detroit a “food desert,” a place where residents cannot access fresh food.   No shortage of media outlets – such as the Detroit News, NBC, CNN, Good Magazine, the New York Times, Guernica Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine - have run stories casting Detroit as a “food desert."  The most common criticism of the city’s food system is its lack of large-scale chain stores, such as Kroger, Wal-Mart, A&P, Costco or Meijer’s.  Others suggest the city has no grocery stores at all.

In many cases, this type of story is little more than a new form of “ruin porn." In one of my favorite examples of this trend, CNN reporter Poppy Harlow reported that there are "no places to get fresh fruit or vegetables" in the entire city, while standing only a few blocks from a large chain grocery store.

Although Model D’s Kelli Kavanaugh eloquently questioned this view in 2007, this predominant view persisted.   More recently, Sweet Juniper’s James Griffioen wrote a similarly insightful piece for Urbanophile, aimed at “eliminating the gross generalization that there are no grocery stores in the city of Detroit.” Its success at combating a tidal wave of journalistic thought, however, remains to be seen.

Although Kavanaugh and Griffioen clearly disproved Good Magazine’s Richard C. Longworth’s argument that there are “no supermarkets in Detroit,” I think neither sought to answer the larger question of whether Detroit, on the whole, was a food desert. Moreover, if it is, how large is our caloric tundra?

To answer this question, I turned to government licensing data from the Michigan Department of Agriculture, which regulates food retailers in Michigan. Weeding through the 15,000 entries for Wayne County was taxing (I started working on this process in November), but worthwhile.  Most of these entries are for gas stations, liquor stores, and vending machines.

According the State of Michigan, Detroit has 111 full-service grocery stores, 58 butchers/fish markets, 34 bakeries, 20 produce markets, and 35 specialty stores, given the following definitions:

• Full-service grocery stores: a store that sold fresh produce, dairy, fresh meat, and bread at the same location.
• Butcher/fish markets: a store selling only fresh meat or fish
• Bakeries: a store whose primary purpose was selling bread.
• Produce market: a store selling only fresh fruits and vegetables.
• Specialty stores are food retail stores that are beyond classification, such as Detroit’s three chitterlings stores, the sweet potato store, and the many spice stores.  I don't include these beyond the first map.

Even with this large number and variety of stores, some areas of the city are without adequate access to grocery stores. Given the United States Department of Agriculture definition of a “food desert” – areas in which the nearest full-service grocery store is more than one mile away – some areas of Detroit are, in fact, food deserts. In total, about 13.5 square miles of the city, or about 10% of total area, fits this definition. About 90,000 people live in these areas. Another 60 square miles have average suburban-level accessibility, with a grocery store less than a mile, but more than a half-mile, away. I like to think of these areas as “food grasslands.”

The majority of Detroiters, however, seem to have relatively normal food accessibility levels. If you compare population density to the location of grocery stores, the highest density areas are usually well served.

The most glaring omission in this “food desert” discourse, however, is that Detroit has tremendous food accessibility in some areas. If we’re going to label parts of Detroit a “food desert,” we have to give it credit– a lot of Detroit is a “food grassland” and many areas of Detroit are “food jungles” and even perhaps “food rainforests.” Detroit’s Eastern Market area actually has the largest concentration of food retailers of any neighborhood in Wayne County. Ares in Midtown and Southwest Detroit are also well above the county average.

Ironically, the very reason many writers call it a food desert – the city’s lack of national large-scale chain stores – may be the very reason it does not have more of a food accessibility problem.  Among Detroit’s 111 full-service grocery stores, only a handful are over 20,000 square feet, which is fairly small by industry standards. Because of their size, more of them are needed to meet demand of the city’s residents. As a result, they are, in many cases, closer to residents than a larger store would be.

Clearly, Detroit is not a food desert, although some areas do face serious food accessibility difficulties and these areas are home to tens of thousands of residents. That said, calling Detroit a food desert because it lacks major large-scale grocery stores is ironic.  While I think every Detroiter would support seeing additional grocery options, we should celebrate the food gems - like Honeybee Market, Joe Randazzo's Produce, and Eastern Market - that call the city home already.  They could use your support - most of America thinks they don't exist.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Shutter ball

Forty-five years ago, bowling was a major part of Detroit life.  In 1966, residents were so taken by the game that the City Council passed an ordinance – DCO § 38-5-5 – that specifically banned bowling in streets and alleys. That same year, the city took ownership of the Manoogian Mansion, the only mayoral residence in the country with a private bowling lane.  The city was home to tens of thousands of avid bowlers and 47 bowling alleys.

Although 1966 may have been a high-water mark for bowling in Detroit, it built upon a long history of bowling in the city. Thirty years earlier, the Stroh's Bohemian Beers Detroit team represented the United States at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, when bowling was a demonstration sport. (I’m proud to note that my great-great-uncle, Wally Reppenhagen, pictured at far right, was on that Stroh team.)

The post-war period saw a surge in interest in bowling. In the 1950's, ace bowler, and then-Detroit Mayor, Albert Cobo often decided city policy while bowling. He was such a fan of the game that he advocated for adding bowling alleys in public high schools while mayor.  At the time, many of the city's churches had bowling alleys in the basement.

According to the 1966 Detroit Yellow Pages, Detroit was home to 47 bowling alleys in 1966, a period when bowling was at its height. Especially when comparing the city’s east and northwest sides, it’s clear that bowling alleys were highly concentrated in the city’s working class neighborhoods, especially in areas home to concentrations of German and Polish residents.

Unfortunately, with the tremendous loss of residents of German and Polish ancestry, bowling no longer enjoys its once-prominent role in city life. Today,  most Detroiters aren’t bowling alone – they aren’t bowling at all. According to 2010 City of Detroit licensing data, the city has only two bowling alleys: The Garden Bowl and the Renaissance Bowling Center.  This is a sad state for the once-proud sport in the city.  Bowling alleys were centers for communities and anchors for neighborhoods.  

On February 1st – the 209th anniversary of Detroit’s incorporation as a city – celebrate the city’s past and preserve a Detroit tradition: go bowling.  Visit one of Detroit's fine bowling alleys:
  • The Garden Bowl is located at 4120 Woodward Ave.
  • Renaissance Bowling Center is located at 19600 Woodward Ave.

See you on the lanes.

*Special thanks to Detroit legend Bill McGraw for cluing me into the yellow pages as a source for historical data.  You will notice it again in next week's post questioning the "food desert" label.*

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Grease and desist

Last week, the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine urged Mayor Bing to place a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in the city. This group repeatedly cited the fact that Detroit was home to 73 fast food restaurants, which seemed to be a substantial under-count. To explore this issue and determine the number and location of the city’s fast food restaurants, I looked to perhaps the most reliable sources: the fast food companies. I copied the location information for each company’s franchises in Detroit from each company's website. I compiled information for A&W, Burger King, Church’s Chicken, KFC, Long John Silver’s, McDonald’s, Popeye’s Chicken, Subway, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and White Castle. According to the fast food companies, Detroit is home to a total of 195 fast food restaurants.

Every company has a presence in the city. Contrary to my own expectations, Subway is actually the chain with the largest presence in the city, with 52 locations.

As the map indicates, fast food restaurants are distributed evenly across the city – no area has been spared from a fast food restaurant. (Although it does look like the west side has a bigger grease tooth than the east side.)

In fact, if you are in Detroit, you’re never more than about a 5-minute drive – 1.5 miles – from a fast food restaurant, unless you are on the southeast corner of Belle Isle.

Unfortunately, however, this problem extends far beyond Detroit’s boarders. I tracked the same restaurants in a diverse mix of eight Detroit suburbs and the City of Grand Rapids. Shockingly, Detroit is the second-most under-served municipality. I calculated the number of fast food restaurants per 5,000 residents in each city, based 2005-2009 ACS population data.

These numbers question the wisdom of the committee’s plan – why focus on reducing supply of fast food in an area that has a comparatively low supply per resident?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Space-age Transit

In honor of Metro Detroit’s ongoing transit-planning process, this is the first post in a series looking at previous transit planning efforts. Although the city has a storied – and well-documented – transit history, the city’s transit planning history remains more of a mystery.

City records suggest that Detroit’s first transit planning effort began in 1914, with a proposal by the long-defunct Board of Street Railway Commissioners for a subway along Woodward between Jefferson and Milwaukee. Subsequent Detroit transportation authorities – primarily the Rapid Transit Commission – have produced more than 20 wide-ranging plans that evolved with the city, transit technology, and public opinion. Among these plans is one of my favorites, the Miriani-era 1958 Rapid Transit System And Plan Recommended For Detroit And The Metropolitan Area.

At its core, Rapid Transit Commission’s space-age 1958 plan called for the city to construct an elaborate network of elevated, suspended “duorail” lines along the city’s arterial roadways, with spur lines along some of the outlying major east/west and north/south roadways. This system was to be built upon 28’ tall, concrete and steel “T” and inverted “L” shaped pylons that would support tracks for the large, 58’ long boat-shaped cars. As this artist’s rendering shows, the cars were to hang from the tracks, 18’ feet off the ground. Although cars were supposed to have an average speed of 40 mph along busy routes, the cars were to exceed 70 mph in outlying areas.

The plan identifies seven reasons why Detroit and its suburbs need a unified transit system, including current concerns such as reducing congestion, increasing accessibility, and encouraging compact commercial development. It’s greatest concern, however, was that the CBD was beginning to decline. As the plan notes, “…downtown valuations [assessed value] decreased by 38.5% between 1930 and 1953, and citywide valuations had no change. What is indisputably evident here is the definite and gradual decline of the property valuations not only in the central business district but also along the major commercial thoroughfares in the city.” The commission strongly believed that these space-age trains would draw people to arterial commercial zones and the CBD, and reinvigorate these areas.

This artist’s rendering is supposed to illustrate the benefits of overhead transit to the Book Cadillac area of downtown. (Please ignore the potentially illicit transaction occurring in the lower right-hand corner.)

But just how would this look for the city and the region? Based on the lists of routes and stops provided (no map was included, oddly) I’ve mapped out the system, in the London-subway-map style.

The plan does not outline the exact routes beyond the city’s boundaries, so I’ve just indicated their final destinations. What is most interesting about this plan, perhaps, is the distribution of service - the areas east of Woodward have a far greater concentration given the area's relative size and population, compared to the west side. The choices for suburban terminuses - Mt. Clemens, Pontiac, Farmington, Ypsilanti, Grosse Pointe and Rockwood - illustrate the evolution of the suburbs; today, only two of these - Mt. Clemens and Pontiac - are commonly discussed as possible transit destinations.

Today, as much as in 1958, the City of Detroit needs more transit options. Hopefully, by evaluating our past we can better plan our future.