The Millennial Move to Walkable Cities with Jeff Speck

October 6, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. I’m honored to have with us today Jeff Speck. He’s an author and city planner. Welcome to Green is Good, Jeff. JEFF SPECK: Thanks for having me, John. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Jeff. About 13 years ago or so, you wrote the book Suburban Nation, which was called by The Wall Street Journal the bible of urbanists, and today we’re going to be talking about your new book, Walkable City. But before we get talking about Walkable City, I want you to share with our listeners the Jeff Speck journey. Talk a little bit about what brought you to this point. What were some of your epiphanies or some of your best inspirations to bring you to the point where you became a bestselling author of two very important books? JEFF SPECK: Probably the most important part of my journey was what led to Suburban Nation, which I co-wrote with Andres Duany and with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the husband and wife team who founded the new urbanism movement. But I’m just someone who studied architecture and design for many years. I was an art history major. I was sure I was going to go to architecture school and eventually did, but I heard Andres give a talk in 1987 in Boston that completely changed my direction in design. I like to joke that I was being trained to design the bathrooms of the very rich, and I would have been very happy to do that. Andres gave a talk that he was barnstorming the country basically called Towns Vs. Sprawl, and that talk was the best story I had ever heard because it lifted the veils from my eyes in terms of I knew I liked certain kinds of places or loved certain kinds of place and hated others. Being in the Boston area, I knew I loved Cambridge and Boston and the little villages of Belmont and Lexington, and I hated the area out by the mall in Framingham and Woburn. I knew I liked certain places and was happy in certain places and disliked others, but I didn’t really understand why, and more importantly, I didn’t understand the different histories and processes and, frankly, rules that caused those two different places to be the way they are. What Andres taught me that I subsequently tried to teach a lot of other people by co-writing Suburban Nation, and now I’ve based my career on, is that actually we used to know how to design places very well, we did so almost instinctively, and then we threw all that away and replaced it by a new model of growth based on the presumption of universal automotive ownership that we call “sprawl,” that’s actually destructive to societies, destructive to our health, destructive to our economy. That’s a lesson that I think not too many people had learned by the ’80s, but now it’s a lesson I think that lies at the heart of this great influx we now see back into city centers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk about your new book, Walkable City, and how the green movement ties into walking. Are cities becoming now more walkable? I was just in DC last week, and I’m seeing now millennials moving back into the city. Is the suburban sprawl trend now moving in the opposite direction, and how does that tie into your new book? JEFF SPECK: It is. I think the statistics are very clear. DC is one of a handful of cities that started a little bit early, and yes, these handfuls of cities are becoming much more walkable. The cities that everyone talks about these days, New York and Boston and DC and Chicago and San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, famously well-planned city — I would say the typical American city is also becoming more walkable, but very slowly and, perhaps, not very much. What happened in DC was that the leadership responded to what the citizens were asking for. A very interesting thing happened between 2005 and 2010, I believe. DC gained 15,000 residents and lost 15,000 vehicles. I like to joke that that was a bunch of Bush employees being replaced by a bunch of Obama employees. That’s probably unrelated, but the fact is that it experienced a little bit early what most American are experiencing now with this huge demographic event that’s now occurring, where most of the new households that are being formed in America are either millennial households or Boomer households, the millennials’ parents. In fact, 80% of the next 100 million households in this country will be childless, and these are households that have no real aspiration for the suburban dream. They don’t need a big house. They don’t want a big yard. They don’t care about schools, which is how the cities usually are lacking, because they’re either pre-kid or post-kid, and they want to have no reliance upon the automobile. They love having transit connections to things that they need to get to. The other really interesting statistic is that when I was a kid, one out of 12 19-year-olds had opted out of getting a driver’s license, and now one out of four 19-year-olds doesn’t have a driver’s license. So, the clear trend here is towards the sort of urban living that, frankly, these kids grew up on. The economist Chris Leinberger points out how while my generation grew up on The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island and that sort of thing, the millennial generation grew up on Friends and Seinfeld and Sex and the City, and their whole ethos is oriented around urban living. In fact, if you pole them, 77% of them say they want to live in America’s urban cores, so that’s where the action is, certainly. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s so funny. What you also point out is millennials are all about urban living, but Boomers, or folks like and I that grew up on Gilligan’s Island, my wife and I live here in Manhattan in 600 square feet with no car, and it’s the best 600 square feet we’ve ever lived in in our whole life. JEFF SPECK: That’s a mansion in Manhattan. My book is written more for the typical American city, Grand Rapids or Cedar Rapids, or a city that might be large but hasn’t been known for progressive planning, like Memphis or Oklahoma City, which is now quite progressive recently. In these cities, the Boomers will start moving downtown once their own kids make it feel safe for them. So, the kids are the urban pioneers. They’re what the real estate folks call the risk-oblivious, who are followed by the risk-aware, which we call developers, who are then followed by the risk-averse, which we used to define as dentists from New Jersey. These are all Andres Duany terms, but the point is that you see a trickle turn into a torrent once the Boomers see that their kids are living quite happily and safely in downtown cores. JOHN SHEGERIAN: If you just joined us now, we are so delighted to have with us Jeff Speck. You can learn more about Jeff Speck at jeffspeck.com, and you can also buy his book Walkable City on Amazon.com where it has a 5-star rating and other fine bookstores in your area. You talk about, Jeff, in your book, location efficiency. Explain the nexus of location efficiency with the greater trend of sustainability. JEFF SPECK: If you can allow me to harp on a favorite subject of mine, since this is the Green is Good show, I really feel that the sustainability argument in the U.S. has been misconstrued, and we have been arguing the wrong thing. I’m not speaking about your show, but just about the general discussion that one, particularly as an architect, hears. The house that I built in Washington, DC, on an abandoned lot has solar panels, it has a solar water heater, it has double insulation, it has dual-flush toilets, it has bamboo floors, a hardwood log burning in our German high-tech stove which supposedly contributes less carbon to the atmosphere than what we’re left alone to decompose in the forest. That’s what the brochure says. But all of these gizmos together contribute much less to my living green than the fact that it’s three blocks from a metro station in the heart of one of America’s urban cores. Location efficiency is the dominant impact that we have on our green footprint. It’s determined by that, as opposed to all of this stuff. The green argument we’ve been hearing, to paraphrase it and maybe exaggerate it a little bit, is what can I buy to add to what I already got to make my footprint lighter? We changed all our light bulbs to energy savers, and everyone should, but changing all your light bulbs to energy savers saves as much energy in a year as moving to a walkable neighborhood saves in a week. So, the real question is, what’s your quality of life? What’s your lifestyle? Is your lifestyle one in which you are bound to this 2,000-pound gas-spewing machine, or is it one in which you don’t rely on that? I should say that the electrical car argument, for me, and even alternatives to electrical cars that might even prove to be more green in the long run, is not really the right discussion because the principal impact that the automobiles had on us is to spread out. So, people who write about sustainability, like David Owen in Green Metropolis says yes, the car is our single greatest contributor, most Americans, to our footprint, but the biggest reason it is is because it causes us to spread out, to live larger on the land, to have these big garages that we then fill with junk that we need to buy to fill them up. This is getting a little more subtle, but the kind of enemy — and Robert Putnam charted this very well in the book Bowling Alone — but the kind of enemy and emptiness that comes from living in a disassociated suburban location causes this hole in our lives that we need to fill up with junk that we buy. So, there’s kind of a multiplier effect of why location inefficiency makes your footprint so much larger. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk about the electric car. Are you excited when you see Elon Musk with the Tesla, and now he’s going to democratize the Tesla in 2017 and come out with his new version, the $35-40,000 version? Is that exciting to you? And, then now move that part of the conversation into what we see Google is producing, as is others, the driverless car. Talk about how that interrelates with your idea of location efficiency. Is that a new version? And then throw on top of it, for a little icing on the cake, the whole Uber phenomenon. How do those three things fit in with your idea of location efficiency and sustainability in a city that operates much better and doesn’t contribute to suburban sprawl? JEFF SPECK: I would reorder it. I’d do electric cars and Uber, then the Google car. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s do it. JEFF SPECK: I want to own one of those Teslas. I think electric cars are ultimately probably a good thing, but I really do think it’s the right answer to the wrong question, which is how can cars be more efficient. Here’s some interesting data that’s in my book. In Sweden, they have the greatest public subsidies of green car purchasing, and so in Sweden more people bought green hybrid and full electric cars than anywhere else. When they did the math afterwards, they found out that the carbon output of the transportation sector, as a result, went up. The guy’s name was Firmin DeBrabander who was covering it, he became convinced that the reason was that people felt so guilt-free about driving, that they were just driving more and more and more. Frankly, it costs a ton less to drive an electric car than it does to drive a gas car. So, if you add up all of the hidden pollution in the making, the moving, the sourcing of electricity, a Nissan Leaf is about two-thirds as polluting as a Nissan Altima. It’s better, but it costs about one-fifth as much to drive. So, you add the lower cost to the fact that we’re feeling guilt-free, and you get a lot more driving. I’ve noticed, as you probably have, too, that the hybrid cars keep getting bigger and bigger and faster and faster. Now I’m always angry when I see a municipal hybrid-only parking space because you can park a 21-mile-per-gallon Yukon in there, but you can’t park a 40-mile-per-gallon conventional Ford Fiesta in it. People think there’s some hidden benefit to hybrid cars besides the better gas mileage, when, in fact, there’s a negative which is the disposal issues associated with the battery, and also remembering in much of America, an electric-powered car is a coal-powered car. That’s trading a hydrocarbon gasoline for a pure carbon, which is even worse. So, I have issues with that. I like Uber a lot. I think Uber just makes taxis a lot more efficient. I like UberX, where people are driving other people around. It’s the same phenomenon as Zipcar. Anything you can do in a sharing economy way that allows you to not own a car makes you drive less. Depending on who you talk to about Zipcar, every Zipcar, which is a car share, takes between 10 and 30 cars off the road. Zipcar is one of the dominant things that allowed me to get rid of my car when I moved to DC. It gave me that comfort, knowing that I could take weekend trips and knowing that I could go to the supermarket with it, that made a big difference. So, that’s great. But the driverless car, the Google car, really worries me because what that does is it makes it easier and cheaper for everyone to not live in a centralized way. It is the atomization of transit, and one of the greatest benefits ecologically of transit is that it causes us to live closer to each other, where there are all the efficiencies of the smaller footprint, the apartment vs. the house. I like to joke that a Google car is just a taxi with the driver out of work. Because of the absence of the driver, which is the biggest cost in taxis, if it drives down taxi using to such a degree that it becomes the standard way to get around, then it’s going to be the second great inducement of sprawl after the federal highway system, so I’m quite worried about that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. You know, we’re down to the last three minutes, unfortunately, Jeff. You are in so many ways an artist. You’re an author, you’re a city planner, and, of course, you’re an architect. And, so, I’m interested, and I bet our listeners are as well, what cities today are to you representing the best paradigm in terms of walkable cities? If you were boss for the day, which cities would you be most excited about redoing right now? We’re down to three minutes. Give us a short list of both. JEFF SPECK: I’m not a registered architect. I like to joke that I spent seven years in postgraduate architectural education, and now what I do is stripe streets. I have a perfect one-yard pace, and I measure streets. When I go to cities, I restripe them. I’m going to say you asked two different questions. The great cities to go see what they’re doing are the atypical ones like Portland, San Francisco, DC, but then there’s some cities that I’m allowed to show other cities, and they actually take as real, like Chicago, with its new separated bike lanes, its buffered bike lanes, that it’s putting in, that are really worth a look. For me, the surprise is how typical cities that I’ve worked in, like Oklahoma City, like Lowell, Massachusetts, West Palm Beach, Florida, that these normal cities — although no city is really normal — but these not-so-exceptional cities are, as a large group now, beginning to circle the wagons around certain simple fixes that are making them much more walkable in the short run. Principally, those have to do with something we really haven’t talked about at all, which is the reallocation of asphalt, recognizing that many city streets have more lanes even than the traffic would demand, that the lanes are wider than they should be and are inducing speeding, and that they don’t have significant bike facilities, and really need buffered bike facilities, where you pull the parked cars off the curb, put the bike lane between the cars and the curb, that have made great impacts in New York City, Chicago, and other places. I think it’s really between the curbs that the great revolution is happening, and the greatest impact on quality of life can happen. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. That is just wonderful. For our listeners out there that want to learn more about Jeff and all his great work and read his new book Walkable City, please to go jeffspeck.com, amazon.com, where it has a great 5-star rating, and other great bookstores in your area. Thank you, Jeff, for being an inspiring author and city planner. You are truly living proof that green is good. JEFF SPECK: Thank you, John.