Our communities need basic elements to support economic opportunity and health for all people, regardless of income level, cultural background or political persuasion. In this report, Reconnecting America does not claim to have captured or addressed all of the complex – and sometimes intangible — elements that contribute to the quality and character of our communities, but we identify some essential elements that help transform our neighborhoods into complete communities.
These elements include a quality education, access to good jobs, an affordable roof over our heads, access to affordable healthy food and health services, the ability to enjoy artistic, spiritual and cultural amenities, access to recreation and parks, meaningful civic engagement, and affordable transportation choices that get us where we need to go.
Complete communities are inclusive, measured by how residents and workers benefit and not necessarily the shape or form they take, and may likely require other supportive assets we have not covered in this report.
The metrics and the composite grades we have developed for every MSA in the country indicate whether one region, and the communities that comprise that region, is closer to being complete than another. A region with more As will have more of the components of a complete community than one with many Cs and Ds. The grades also give a sense of where the gaps are and help regional and city leaders focus resources and energy in the most productive places. “A Tale Of Two Cities” illustrates the case of two different regions — Greensboro, North Carolina, and Lincoln, Nebraska — and discusses how the history and context of these places contribute to the grades received.
To measure progress toward complete communities, we have identified neighborhoods in each region that we are calling “opportunity areas.” Opportunity areas have some of the infrastructure in place to help get us “there” — neighborhoods that national research proves can lead to improved connectivity and increased rates of walking, biking, and transit use at the regional scale. While these places might lack other critical assets found in a complete community, such as parks, grocery stores, or a mix of housing choices, it is easier to transform an opportunity area into a complete community because the foundational elements or “bones” — such as street grid, water and sewer system, storm drainage, street lighting — are in place.
The good news is most regions — of all sizes — have opportunity areas in which to start creating complete communities. In our analysis of the 366 MSAs, only 49 do not have an opportunity area. That means just about every region in this country has a foundation upon which to start building a complete community. And those that don’t have an opportunity area (and even those that do) can get started by planning for neighborhoods with the fundamental characteristics of opportunity areas — streets that are safe and enjoyable for walking and homes, shops, jobs and other services clustered in hubs of community activity.
Opportunity areas were calculated by combining information on block size and intensity (total number of residents and workers) in a census tract. National and international research shows that the density (or intensity) needed to support the most basic transit service is about seven dwelling units an acre, or about 14 people an acre. Higher densities support more frequent, higher quality transit service. Similarly, research shows that when blocks are about six acres in size or less, people are more willing to walk and bike. These inputs were combined to create an index that identified which tracts in metropolitan areas would be classified as opportunity areas. For a tract to qualify, it needed to have a ratio of intensity to block size of 2.0 or less. In practical terms, this means that a tract with larger blocks, but more people, would qualify because the intensity of people living there could make transit service possible. Likewise, a tract with fewer people but very small blocks would also qualify because the small blocks would make it easier for people to choose to walk or bike.
“Fixed-guideway” transit describes public transportation that operates on a track (streetcar, light rail, or commuter rail), or within a lane of its own that won’t get stuck in traffic (bus rapid transit and ferry service). In this report we measure performance in “station areas,” or neighborhoods located within a half-mile of fixed-guideway transit.
Several key issues necessitated our focus on fixed-guideway transit.
Building fixed-guideway transit is costly, however, and many regions will not be able to afford this investment for decades to come — if ever. Moreover, in many places, bus lines in mixed traffic are just as likely as light rail or streetcar to offer a predictable, comfortable transportation alternative. In this report, we assert that, despite its potentially transformative impact on regions, fixed-guideway transit is not needed to create a complete community. Rather, our nation should focus on developing clear regional measures to evaluate how different modes of public transportation service support our communities and economies, including local bus lines.
The images above show a range of blocks in four different regions (all shown at the same scale). Typically, people will walk more often when blocks are less than eight acres. Regions of all shapes and sizes have some walkable blocks, but some regions have more than others. The neighborhood of Phoenix shown above has large blocks that are pretty unfriendly to walkers. Source: Reconnecting America
The increased interest in making streets safer and more appealing for bikes and pedestrians has resulted in regional and state governments adopting “complete streets” policies mandating that all transportation policies and investments must take into consideration the safety and convenience of all users of the streets — not just drivers.
Complete streets are, according to the National Complete Streets Coalition, “designed and operated to enable safe access for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities must be able to safely move along and across a complete street. Complete streets make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops, and bicycle to work. They allow buses to run on time and make it safe for people to walk to and from train stations.”
Complete streets policies have been adopted by 314 local jurisdictions — 100 were adopted in just the last year — as well as by 25 states and the District of Columbia.
Healthy food is as important as exercise to improving the health of Americans. For many Americans, a fast food outlet is easier to get to than a market selling fresh produce, and a child’s meal costs less than broccoli and carrots — largely the result of federal subsidies for commodity crops such as corn and soybeans that are the building blocks of a fast food meal.
“Food access” has become a huge issue, and the term “food deserts” has been used to describe the 10 percent of U.S. neighborhoods where residents cannot walk to buy an apple, and must travel long distances to find a supermarket. Communities that include grocery stores are more complete, and 95 percent of all opportunity areas are located within a mile of a supermarket, proving again that when trying to create complete communities, opportunity areas are a good place to start.
Reconnecting America graded every one of the 366 metro areas based on how they measure up to our vision of complete communities:
Reconnecting America collected data to understand the existing condition of our regions and track progress at the regional level in all 366 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) in the country. The indicators are itemized in the Methodology section.
Why these particular indicators? We researched and debated and narrowed our original list of indicators from hundreds down to 33 individual data points. There are other elements of complete communities that we would have liked to have included, but did not, for a couple of reasons.
In some cases, we couldn’t find indicators at the right scale, or what we could find only measured some of the 366 metropolitan regions that we analyzed. We did make a few exceptions to this rule, because we wanted to include work that others had done for the top 100 metros. School quality was one indicator that we knew would be difficult to quantify at the regional scale and that we hope will be studied more in the future. Neighborhood safety and security are also difficult to define regionally but are key to supporting infill growth. We want this conversation to continue. Let us know what indicators you would like to see in the future.
We chose to grade places at the regional scale, rather than the city or county because, ultimately, efforts to improve individual neighborhoods must trickle up to change regional performance. We believe that successful coordination of transportation and land use happens at the regional scale, and we also wanted to make sure that we recognized the important role that suburbs will continue to play in our metropolitan areas. To be technical, we used the census-defined “Metropolitan Statistical Areas.”
Several indicators are about having people, or jobs, etc. “near fixed-guideway transit.” The TOD database (CTOD) is one source of information for these data points, which we used in this report. We also calculated these data points ourselves in some cases. To do that, we utilized a database of all existing fixed-guideway transit stations (including various forms of rail, bus rapid transit and ferry service) collected by CTOD. “Near transit” is defined as within a half-mile.
The grades are a composite of these indicators. First, Reconnecting America divided regions into three categories by size (under 500,000, between 500,000 and 3 million, and over 3 million.) This was done so regions would be graded compared to the performance of their peers.
Then, each metric was ranked within its size category. Regions in the top quartile (top 25%) received four points for that indicator, in the second quartile, three points, in the third quartile, two points, and in the first quartile, one point. A region could get zero points for an indicator if it had absolutely no progress to show. For example, regions with no opportunity areas received a zero for households living in opportunity areas.
A region could also be exempt from a particular indicator (and not penalized by receiving a zero), if there was data missing. (For example, the Brookings Institution’s “Missed Opportunities” report only analyzed the top 100 metro regions – not all 366.) A region could also be exempt from receiving a zero if it already received a zero for a related indicator. (For example, if a region had no households near opportunity areas, it was not also penalized for having no low-income households near opportunity areas.) Regions with “exempt” indicators received an “N/A” which was not calculated into the overall average.
In some cases, the indicators shared similar components. (For example, share of existing jobs near transit, share of future jobs near transit, and share of jobs accessible by transit within a 90 minute commute). In these cases, Reconnecting America averaged those similar indicators first, and then combined them with the independent indicators in the next step.
Once every indicator had been assigned a score, the scores were averaged together to give a composite score ranging from 0 to 4. The regions with the highest scores got an A, the regions with the lowest scores a D.