Building a framework of understanding for the year to come.
Every year, we at Planetizen take a stab at predicting the major themes that will define the year to come in the world of planning. We hope that given our involvement and interest in the news of planning throughout the year, we might be able to provide insight that's helpful for interpreting the events of the year to come.
But I feel duty bound to precede this year's effort with a caveat about how little I've historically been able to predict, with the help of all my sources in the Plantizen archive, about the future. Looking back at the introduction of the "Planning Trends to Watch" post I wrote in January 2021, for instance, the phrase "herd immunity" is fairly conspicuous. We don't use those words any more. We ditched them for the word "endemicity," and the distinctions implied by those word choices are subtly immense. The former suggests protection and collaboration; the latter, a force ingrained and immutable.
So many of the difficult challenges faced by planners slide along a similar spectrum from adaptable to immutable—the pandemic, obviously, but also climate change, the housing affordability crisis, traffic safety, congestion, and racial and social inequality. The question always boils down to: How much of this illness are we accepting to live with? How much of this illness is baked into the planet and our cultural DNA? Because we are planners, we probably accept less as natural law than many others. We plan for better, healthier, more prosperous futures, or we choose a different path.
The subtle differences between the two phrases, herd immunity and endemicity, also show that it's possible to end up both right and wrong when planning for the future. A nuance here, an unintended consequence there, and the future is suddenly completely out of scale with the visions of the past, even if they bear a passing resemblance.
The Housing Affordability Crisis
How high can prices go? With prices going up in every corner of the country and in every type of market, 2021 was the year the housing affordability crisis went national. Rents dropped in a few of the most expensive cities in the United States in the first months of the pandemic amid reports of a burgeoning "urban exodus," but the pandemic recession only lasted a couple of months, according to official estimates, and housing prices have skyrocketed ever since.
Prices formerly possible only in a few "superstar" cities and neighborhoods—low inventories, new demand, and rising prices—spread far and wide. In May 2021, the cost of housing in the United States grew 15.4%, according to data from CoreLogic. In the same month housing prices rose by 30.3% in Idaho, 23.4% in Arizona and 20.4% in Utah. Cities and regions that prided themselves as affordable alternatives to the coasts, such as Houston, Austin, Orlando, and Boise, are now among the most expensive in the nation. Cities like Dayton and Akron, which spent decades dealing with the challenges of a declining population saw similar trends. Small cities and vacation destinations inspired the phrase "Zoom Towns" as they scrambled to hold back the flood of newcomers. The brief respite from price hikes in superstar cities has also long since expired.
The runaway housing market is more than a question of geographic breadth. In the past year, Planetizen has documented reports of the housing market's interactions with everything from the pandemic to the weather to the global supply chain to inflation.
It might seem simplistic to mention the housing market as a trend to watch in the coming year because that's true every year, and most columns of this variety, no matter the subject area, will try to be clever. But the housing market must be mentioned in any responsible prognostication for 2022. The status quo of the housing market, as determined by land use and planning regimes, will cascade into almost every other measure of quality of life.
According to the Fannie Mae Home Purchase Sentiment Index (HPSI), the public expects the housing market to soften this year. The National Association of Realtors expects new construction and higher interest rates to help normalize the market. I don't share that view (and I'm not alone): if we're talking about more and more exurban and suburban development, new supply won't be enough to bring balance to the market and the economy.
The status quo works by inertia. Until a fundamental shift occurs, there is no reason to expect prices to decline, and all the other effects of the runaway housing market will continue to cascade. While there isn't much that planners can do in the next year to immediately influence the housing market, they can start to plan and implement a response to the current trajectory.
Bus Driver Shortage
The public transit crisis of spring 2020, resulting from a complete collapse in the number of riders and fares, has given way to a new crisis caused by a shortage of operators for buses and trains. But it's really the same crisis.
It's a nationwide problem that you might not recognize as a nationwide problem if you only read your local newspaper. But the story is the same everywhere you look: Virginia, Portland, Washington, D.C., Reno, St. Louis, Atlanta, Massachusetts, Montgomery County, Los Angeles, or New York City.
You might also be forgiven for underestimating the scale of the crisis because so many transit agencies are talking about making transit free. Weren't transit agencies in crisis from the collapse of fare revenues in March 2021? Wouldn't all this talk about free transit indicate some level of fiscal solvency?
As it turns out, not all public transit business models are created equal: many transit agencies are temporarily flush with cash from repeated rounds of federal stimulus relief and can afford to avoid regular price increases. Moreover, not every transit agency relies on fare revenues to the same degree. The city of Albuquerque, which recently announced a year-long fare-free pilot program for its entire system, only generates 7 percent of its total revenue from fares. In 2016, the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority relied on fares for 47 percent of its operating costs.
As detailed thoroughly in a January 2018 Planetizen article by Steven Polzin, director of mobility policy research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, free transit doesn't grow on trees. The expense of covering rides has to come from somewhere, whether it's reduced service or in non-competitive wages that make it harder to hire drivers—especially in the expensive urban areas where there tends to be a greater need for drivers (see the section about the cascading effects of the housing market above). The bus driver shortage looks a lot like yet another symptom of the same structural deficits that made public transit headlines in March 2020.
Right now it's easy to blame staffing shortages at transit agencies on the spread of the Omicron variant. An article by Jarrett Walker from December makes the case that the problem could be around for the long term, and the bus driver shortage actually predates the pandemic in many parts of the country, such as Denver, San Francisco, and the Twin Cities. Solutions will be needed if there will be enough transit operators if and when Covid finally ebbs.
Transit isn't out of the woods yet.
A New Era of Congestion
For decades, we were promised a future filled with workers conducting business via video screen. Think Back to the Future II, released in 1989. In 2022, telecommuting is here, and it's likely to stay a reality at much higher rates (some estimates say 20 percent) than anyone could have imagined was possible in 2019.
And yet, congestion is still a nightmare.
One of the promises of telecommuting sold by anti-growthers throughout the decades is that telecommuting would mitigate the effects of the traditional commute back and forth between suburban bedroom communities and central business districts. Shouldn't we be seeing traffic effects like those experienced in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics, when about the same amount of traffic, spread out more evenly across the day, suddenly unclogged the famously congested region?
Instead what we have seen is the slow and steady return of traffic, at new times during the day and in new places. The Urban Mobility Report—the standard (but deeply problematic) reference for congestion data published by the Texas Transportation Institute in June 2021—documented the beginning of a quick return to congestion after the startling but brief period of empty roads in March and April 2020. In August 2021, The Boston Globe documented the characteristics of the new normal: less traffic in the morning rush, but a longer, busier afternoon rush. While overall traffic numbers aren't quite back to pre-pandemic levels, in some places traffic still seems worse. The outer boroughs and surrounding region of New York City, for example, are dealing with unprecedented numbers of cars as the famously transit- and taxi-friendly city becomes a city of car owners.
Whether or not people are working from home, fewer people are taking transit; more delivery services are driving around at all times; more people are living in suburbs and exurbs; more collisions are slowing the flow of traffic; and extreme weather is completely shutting down freeways for days at a time (in more than one part of the country).
Expect it to get worse when some of the folks currently working from home return to the office.
One potential response to this morass is a variety of plan that I''ll lump together in the category of delusional futurism—the hyperloop, the Boring Company, flying taxis, and road widening—each with their own unique faults but unified by the common characteristic of offering zero hope for congestion relief. Meanwhile, proven solutions like congestion pricing are stuck in neutral, the sterling example of Paris' sudden transformation goes completely unnoticed in Washington, D.C. and state departments of transportation, and public transit spins further down the spiral (see above).
Biodiversity Enters the Chat
To end on a more optimistic note, biodiversity is playing an increasingly prominent role in planning discussions. Hopefully we'll see more of the same in 2022.
The prominence of the subject was on display in an October 2021 New York Times article, wherein Margaret Renkl made the case against gas-powered leaf blowers. Renkl's argument quickly moved beyond the commonly acknowledged noxious effects of gas-powered leaf blowers—air and noise pollution—to discuss the insects, birds, and other wildlife that rely on the protection offered by leaves.
In recent years, we have seen biodiversity intersect with planning in numerous and surprising examples: a blistering critique of New Urbanist development along Florida State Road 30A, criticisms of land use patterns in a more general sense, and a coastal resilience project called the Living Breakwaters near Staten Island.
But the clearest sign of biodiversity's new prominence in the public discourse comes from the White House. In May 2021, the Biden administration released a report, titled "America the Beautiful," that lays out a preliminary plan for conserving 30 percent of all land in the country by 2030—a "30 by 30" plan for conservation that would almost triple the amount of permanently protected land in the country.
There are concerns among the environmentalist community about the direction of the Biden administration in pursuing its conservation goals, but ambitions of this scale have ushered in a new era of climate and environmental action in the name of biodiversity.
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