My Modest Vision for Lehigh Valley Urbanism

The Geeting blog’s urban infill and transit agenda looks a lot more reasonable when you refer back to my stated goal of increasing the population of urban renters to around 40% of households. I think Rich Wilkins is actually imagining a much more radically-urban future than I am when he says the “overwhelming majority” of Americans will live in cities:

We made a national security and public health decision over the past 100 years to not cram the cities full of people. We decided it’s totally fine to have two million people in Nassau County, or 800,000 in Montgomery County, neither of which was urbanized. Eventually it went out beyond those areas, and now, post-Great Recession, we’re coming back the other way, towards the cities. We’re going to end up settling on this current status as the correct model, if we’re smart as a nation. With that said, we’re not going to cram everyone back into the cities. Sprawl is out, but we’re not all going to live in urban high-rises going forward, even if that is “more green.” In actuality, we’re only going to re-establish the status quo- that the overwhelming majority of Americans will live in cities, or inner-core suburbs within a half hour drive of jobs. That status quo will only become “more true.” In short, we’re going to live everywhere but “Sarah Palin’s America.”

I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where a majority of people live in cities. My issue is, where will all the new housing development go as the population grows?

I think Rich is right that SEPA and the greater Pittsburgh metro will be the major growth centers in PA for the foreseeable future, and that we can expect a lot of population growth in Philadelphia, the Main Line suburbs, and the Lehigh Valley.

My view is that where this housing development goes is up to us. Is future development in SEPA going to be exurban housing off of highways, or is it going to be infill around SEPTA’s regional rail stations? Zoning is like an ice cube tray. We’re going to get the kind of development patterns that we zone for.

If we write zoning codes that restrict population density to 1 home per acre, and ban intermingling of businesses and housing, we’re going to create more places where folks have to drive to all their basic needs.

If we write zoning codes that allow high density development around transit stations, or  form-based zoning codes that allow mixing of residential and business uses, people won’t have to drive to get to all of their basic needs.

So that’s where I’m coming from. My politics are about allowing people to build walkable urbanism, and not mandating low-density land uses for new housing development.

If Rich and I are right, and the demand for suburban housing has peaked, then the existing stock of suburban housing in Pennsylvania should be sufficient to accommodate everyone who wants a large-lot single family home. Many Baby Boomers have been resettling in cities, freeing up some suburban housing. Millenials also have disproportionately been opting for city living in recent years, and even seniors increasingly want walkable neighborhoods. The AARP is all about this, on the grounds that walkable mixed-use places help seniors stay independent past the age when they can safely operate a car. Those are the three largest demographic groups. Where is the demand for new construction suburban single-family housing going to come from? Aren’t Baby Boomers’ and seniors’ old houses going to be enough to satisfy the demand for suburban housing in SEPA and greater Pittsburgh?

I’m sure there will be some more new exurban housing development, but I don’t think there’ll be nearly enough to justify spending $320 million on widening Route 22 up near Cedar Crest or between 512 and 33. You widen the road if you’re planning for more exurban housing construction and interchanges. I don’t think the LV should be planning for that.

The only thing that will cut traffic congestion on 22 is road pricing. With PennDOT looking at automated cashless tolling, you could charge for space on 22 during the busiest times without having to build a toll plaza. This is the only proven way to reduce congestion, and it would have the virtue of raising money instead of losing money. You could use that money to fund LANTA, or finance a general property tax cut.

Meanwhile, the LV cities need to focus on growing their building permits and adding more residents downtown, enlarging their CB zones, and rolling back regressive parking mandates in the neighborhoods close to downtown. To repeat, this is not about forcing anyone to do anything. Developers will still add some off-street parking. Not every developer will want to build to the maximum allowable density. But the cities need to start allowing developers to build housing without parking, and allow urban neighborhoods to develop in a more pedestrian-friendly way over time.

They need to begin to orient future housing and commercial development around bus stations. LANTA is already looking at bus rapid transit service, which could be mostly as good as a subway and quite affordable, but they keep pointing out that you need higher residential density in the three LV cities to make the ridership economics work out.

From the 2010 Moving LANTA Forward report:

– The future of public transportation in the Lehigh Valley could include
higher modes such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or commuter rail;

– LANTA has the opportunity to use short term improvements to establish
conditions for higher modes by establishing corridors designated for higher
levels of service and by making capital improvements along the designated

– Do not preclude higher modes by losing unused rail rights-of-way; and

– Pursue policies to increase employment and residential density along major
corridors and in the Central Business Districts (CBD’s) of Allentown,
Bethlehem and Easton.


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