Thinking about Snow in August: A Fiscal Case for Walkable Development

Walkability is about more than the existence of sidewalks, configuration of streets, and the presence of parks and trees; it has to do with density, mixed-use neighborhoods, and a fine-grained scale of development.  More on that in another post, but keep that in mind for now.

Today, StreetsBlog featured an article about how fire departments both perpetuate and are victimized by sprawl.  The premise basically being that the requirements for streets to accomodate the department's largest fire engine begets wider streets and perpetuates the vicious cycles of sprawl sprawl inducement.  In turn, they speculate that volunteering to be fire fighter becomes harder, since so much time in a car-dependent place, is dedicated to driving.  Mark Abraham over @urbandata posed it a different way, asking, "if we did away with #sprawl, what could the typical firefighter salary be increased to?" This reminded me of some very tangible fiscal benefits to compact, walkable development I noticed during last year's big snow storm. 
From Alan Chaniewski of the Hartford Courant

In the middle of February, central Connecticut got about three feet of snow nearly overnight.  Major avenues were brought to a near standstill for hours, and plenty of neighborhoods didn't dig out for several days.  Walking through my neighborhood, I watched people shoveling out their sidewalks and driveways, simultaneously waiting for and dreading the moment when the city plow truck would come by and undo much of their hard work.  

As a homeowner, would you rather shovel 20 feet of sidewalk or a hundred feet?  That's the difference between a row house and a fairly typical detached single family house.  Given the responsibility, I would certainly choose the row house (or better yet, the 20-unit apartment building with only fifty feet of frontage).

By the same token, cities must deal with plowing the streets after such an event.  Let's imagine a block of a residential street is 500 feet long.  Either way, the city needs to plow it.  For the sake of argument, let's say that costs $100.  If the street consists of the aforementioned detached homes, there would be about ten of them (five on each side) per block, costing each household ten bucks to plow the street.  The same street, consisting of row houses would divide the cost by fifty... rendering a plowing cost of only two dollars per household.  Which place would you rather be a tax-payer in?

The same back-of-the-napkin analysis can be done for many a public service or utility... water distribution, transit service, electrical lines, etc... and I would contend that it'd hold true for fire departments too.  It's also probably not too bold to suggest that, all other things being equal (and no, they usually aren't), a more densely populated place can afford to pay its employees more than a less densely populated place, while still being a relative bargain for taxpayers.

The economic efficiency of density isn't a new concept, but in light of the continuing great recession and the squeeze on municipal and state budgets, highlighted by the bankruptcy of Detroit (and no, your city is probably NOT the next Detroit, but that's another story for another time), I'd say it's high time we start thinking more about the fiscal benefit of walkable places.