Millard-Ball Receives Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award

Adam Millard-Ball, professor of urban planning at UCLA Luskin, has received the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award, which recognizes outstanding accomplishments by scientists and scholars from around the world. Trained as an economist, geographer and urban planner, Millard-Ball conducts research on transportation, the environment and urban data science. Award recipients are invited to collaborate with scholars based in Germany, and Millard-Ball is currently on sabbatical at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin. Each year, the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award, named after the noted German astronomer and mathematician, is given to 10 to 20 internationally renowned academics. The awards are funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research and administered by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which promotes scientific advances, academic exchanges and cultural dialogue across borders. Award recipients were honored at a symposium in Bamberg, Germany, in March.


Millard-Ball on Who Deserves Carbon Credits

UCLA Luskin’s Adam Millard-Ball, professor of urban planning and acting director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, commented in an MIT Technology Review article about a California-based car manufacturer seeking to earn carbon credits for its electric vehicle chargers. Rivian, producer of high-end trucks and SUVs, has applied to one of the world’s largest certifiers of carbon credits to retain “all environmental attributes” from the use of its chargers, the article revealed. Residential chargers are included along with the company’s own charging stations and third-party site hosts under the company’s plan, which Millard-Ball doubts would be noticed by purchasers or likely pointed out by sellers. “If someone is buying a charger and the company is selling away the good so someone else can pollute more, I don’t think that’s in the spirit of the marketing or the branding or the motivations of many people who buy electric vehicles,” he said.


The Past, Present and Future of Transportation Access Author and scholar Robert Cervero says long-ago research by his late mentor, Martin Wachs, still has relevance for today’s planners and policymakers

By Les Dunseith

When UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Robert Cervero was asked to deliver the 15th annual Martin Wachs Distinguished Lecture, he was initially hesitant. 

“But it dawned on me that a really important foundational piece of work that was published one-half century ago, 50 years ago, was Marty Wach’s paper on accessibility,” said Cervero during a Feb. 28 presentation in honor of his former urban planning mentor and colleague. “And why don’t I wrap my talk … around the theme of that paper and try to show how it really shaped my own research in this field and, I would suggest, generations of other people as well.”

Titled “Physical Accessibility as a Social Indicator,” the article by Wachs and T. Gordon Kumagai continues to influence planning policy, said Cervero, who earned his doctorate in urban planning at UCLA in 1980 and joined UC Berkeley’s city and regional planning faculty, where he remained until 2016.

“The article really highlights a number of different contexts of which accessibility should really be an overarching principle that guides what we do in this field of urban planning and transportation,” Cervero said.

During introductory remarks, UCLA Luskin Professor Brian Taylor mentioned that the lecture was the first in the series to be presented without Wachs himself in attendance. The longtime urban planning scholar taught at both UCLA and UC Berkeley before his death in 2021. Members of the Wachs family, including his wife, Helen, were in attendance. 

Presented in conjunction with the Luskin Lecture Series, Cervero’s talk was titled, “Accessibility, Social Equity, and Contemporary Policy Debates,” and he spoke about how the concepts put forth 50 years before still have relevance today, especially in regard to how access to transportation contributes to the well-being of people living in cities. 

“Marty made the point with his co-author that this sensibility happens at multiple scales. It’s regional access to jobs or medical facilities, but it’s also at the micro-scale of ‘Do you have access to, say, a bus?’” said Cervero, who said he built on this notion in his own research about socioeconomic matching in terms of the realities of transportation access. A person might live in a transit-rich area, for example, “but if you’re in a wheelchair, and the buses don’t have wheelchair ramps, then you don’t have great transit access.”

In the 1970s, few scholars prior to Wachs had written about these types of human components to transportation access. “To me, it was truly revolutionary,” Cervero said. 

For example, Cervero found that people living in central city neighborhoods often bear disproportionately higher costs for transportation services. Because they make frequent off-peak trips for necessities like groceries, they end up paying a lot more than affluent suburbanites taking fewer trips over longer distances.  

The disparity also was apparent when he and other researchers looked at why people who seemed to have public transit options readily available to them choose to rely primarily on their vehicles instead. 

“A lot of these individuals were people like working moms who had very complex travel patterns,” Cervero said. “They have a child to drop off at the child care center and then go to their job. They were taking vocational courses at night and had to get there at a time when public transit service was bad. They had split-shift weekend jobs when transit services are notoriously lousy. So, they need a car.”

In looking at the concepts articulated by Wachs so many years before, Cervero also found lessons that can be applied to some of today’s planning and policy debates. One example is the idea of a “15-minute city,” a place designed by planners to ensure that most people have ready access not just to work but to the other necessities of daily life within 15 minutes of their homes.

The idea is laudable, but it has its critics. 

“If you really insist on this, you potentially stifle economic competition. Companies don’t want to thinly distribute activities everywhere,” said Cervero, as some in the audience of UCLA faculty, staff, students and alumni nodded their heads in agreement. “So, this idea of a 15-minute city really runs in the face of what economists have long argued are important economic drivers towards the economic growth and performance of a city.”

In his career, Cervero has consulted on transportation and urban planning projects worldwide, including recently in Singapore. “They’ve come up with this idea of the 20-minute town and the 45-minute city. You can reach a lot of things within 20 minutes. But when it comes to employment, when it comes to going to see a sporting event or buying a car or going to a regional hospital with specialized medical care, that’s a 45-minute city. So, I think we’re getting a lot better articulation and sensible policy.”

During a Q&A session after his formal presentation, Cervero spoke with UCLA Professor Adam Millard-Ball and took questions from the audience. When asked to talk more about his global experience, he explained that much of the scholarly work to date has focused on urban life in the United States and Europe. 

Some of today’s researchers focus on climate change impacts and how to find “a little more efficiency out of electric mobility or ridesharing or whatever. But in the grand scheme of things, over the next 20 or 30 years, 80% to 90% of urbanization is not going to happen in the Global North. It’s going to be in south Asia and Africa, and whatever happens there is going to swamp any and everything we do here, particularly in the rates of carbon emissions and so forth.”

In the developed world, the focus is often on how to get people from the central cores to jobs in suburbia. That’s less true in places like Mexico, South America, Indonesia and other parts of Asia. 

“It’s a totally different landscape. Most of the poor are not in cities but in far-flung suburbs or towns. When you’re talking about lack of access, it’s a two- to three-hour, one-way daily commute,” Cervero said. “The amount of time and resources you have to invest is enormous just getting to and from where you need to be in order to have the earnings to cover basic needs.”

He was also asked about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting rise in remote work.

“Historically, we think of physical proximity,” said Cervero, noting that when workers have highly specialized skill sets they depend on interactions in teams of people with other specialized skills to thrive. 

“The whole idea of access being tied to location is being somewhat thrown around by all these rapidly evolving, powerful kinds of technological advances,” he said. “Technology is transforming. The notion of physical proximity as we all know it has long driven the idea of cooperation. But maybe it happens less.”

Established by students, the Wachs Lecture Series features prominent and innovative scholars and policymakers in the field of transportation. The UCLA Luskin Lecture series brings together scholars with local and national leaders to discuss solutions to society’s most pressing problems. This event was organized by UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and Institute of Transportation Studies, for which Taylor has served as the director and Millard-Ball the interim director. Cervero was the director of UC Berkeley’s counterpart to ITS for many years.

View additional photos on Flickr

UCLA Lecture by Robert Cervero

Watch a recording of the lecture on YouTube

Sustainable LA Grand Challenge Launches Initiative Focused on Transportation

The UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge has launched an initiative called TRACtion — for Transformative Research and Collaboration — that will bring UCLA scholars together with community stakeholders to address key topics related to sustainability: transportation, energy, water and ecosystems. The program will begin with a two-year series of activities and funding opportunities that will tackle the region’s seemingly intractable transportation challenges. Called Transforming Transportation in Los Angeles, this track will tap the expertise of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS), which will work with community-based organizations and advocacy groups to identify barriers to a more equitable transportation system, then fund research to fill some of these gaps. TRACtion organizers held a Jan. 26 kickoff meeting that included California Transportation Secretary Toks Omishakin, UCLA faculty from several disciplines, and community organizations engaged with transportation and environmental justice. “These are voices that will disagree and push each other,” said Adam Millard-Ball, professor of urban planning and acting director of ITS. “If we don’t make some people uncomfortable, I don’t think we’ve pushed people far enough.” He said it is critical that the effort encompass expertise from across numerous disciplines. Involving political scientists, for example, might illuminate how elected officials determine transportation policy; historians could help explain how the car has come to dominate transportation discourse; artists and designers could help ensure that solutions are shared with the public in engaging and culturally relevant ways. “Transportation equity and sustainability are too important to be left to transportation scholars alone, and we need these sophisticated, multidisciplinary perspectives,” he said.

Read the full story


Millard-Ball on Whether Driverless Cars Will Reduce Traffic Congestion

In late December, a ride-hailing service using driverless vehicles was expanded in San Francisco, and a reporter for Al Jazeera was among those taking a first ride. Assisted by two staffers from Waymo, the writer completes a 15-minute trip from the Castro District to the NoPa neighborhood in a driverless car without incident. The article mentions that autonomous vehicle proponents envision that parking spaces will become less necessary because driverless vehicles will simply drop off passengers and continue on their way. But there’s a downside to such a scenario, notes UCLA Luskin’s Adam Millard-Ball, professor of urban planning and acting director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. Without the need to park, autonomous vehicles might actually increase congestion, cruising without passengers while awaiting riders. “There’s just not the physical space in most cities for unlimited free car use,” Millard-Ball says. “That basically destroys much of what makes cities livable and attractive.”


Electric Cars Only Part of the Solution, Millard-Ball Says

LAist spoke with Urban Planning Professor Adam Millard-Ball for a report on the history and future of the electric car. California’s plan to end the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035 is expected to spur electric vehicle sales across the nation. “We’re not going to be able to resolve the climate crisis without electric vehicles,” Millard-Ball said. “And that’s mainly because transportation is such a big part of the climate problem.” The move toward emission-free cars is part of progression of automotive technology dating to the Clean Air Act of 1970, but it’s only part of the solution, Millard-Ball said. In addition to making individual vehicles more climate friendly, he called for “getting more people walking and biking and better buses, … a transit system that is a real competitor to the private car.”


Millard-Ball on Moving Past Easy, Cheap, Quick Climate Fixes

Associate Professor of Urban Planning Adam Millard-Ball was featured in a CapRadio article about Sacramento County’s in-progress climate action plan, one of many plans adopted by California cities to combat climate change at a local level. Several of the plans have been criticized for sticking to safe solutions and failing to address equity. ​​“Cities aren’t really getting outside of their comfort zone,” Millard-Ball said. “They don’t force the city to do something it wasn’t already going to do.” Radical change will be required for these plans to be effective in the future, he said. “In order to make change, there’s not going to be 100% agreement on these difficult decisions if cities are serious about reducing emissions,” he said. “We’ve already done most of the kind of easy, cheap, quick fixes that everyone can agree on.” The article cited research co-authored by Millard-Ball on equity in urban climate planning.

Millard-Ball on the Tradeoff of Wide Streets

A San Francisco Chronicle article highlighted research findings by Urban Planning Associate Professor Adam Millard-Ball on the width of streets in San Francisco. In places with housing shortages, wide streets take up valuable land that could have been used to build more homes or other buildings, Millard-Ball said. While the average street in San Francisco is 50 feet wide, Millard-Ball proposed 16 feet as the functional minimum width for residential streets. In some areas of the city, streets are an average of 93 feet wide. Millard-Ball argued that in high-cost California counties like Santa Clara and San Francisco, the consequences of unnecessarily wide streets are enough to make the costs to narrow them worth it. For cities that are still growing, Millard-Ball suggested that planners build narrower streets to save land for housing. In established cities where narrowing the streets is not feasible, he proposed adapting unused street spaces into outdoor dining spaces, slow streets and other recreational spaces.

Millard-Ball on Programming Autonomous Vehicles for Safety

Associate Professor of Urban Planning Adam Millard-Ball joined an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” to discuss the future of autonomous vehicles. The safety of autonomous vehicles was originally framed as a technological challenge that required a programming solution, but the main issue is actually the people outside the vehicle, Millard-Ball explained, beginning at minute 26:50. “If you are a pedestrian and you have that confidence that the autonomous vehicle is going to stop and yield to you as it legally should, then there is nothing to stop you from taking the right of way,” he said. Autonomous vehicles are programmed to maximize caution, which allows the pedestrian to make the first move instead of waiting to see what the car will do. “The more unpredictable a pedestrian appears, the autonomous vehicle will recognize that unpredictability and be more cautious,” he explained. Autonomous vehicles allow for a role reversal where the vehicle caters to the pedestrian’s erratic behavior.

Narrower Streets in New Developments Could Help Amid Housing Crisis New research by Adam Millard-Ball of UCLA Urban Planning considers the schools, parks and other infrastructure that go unbuilt because Americans prefer wide streets

Those studies often examine how planning and zoning decisions affect traffic noise, whether neighborhood amenities can be reached by foot and other factors that can make a home more or less valuable.

A new paper expands this body of research by considering the housing, schools, parks and other infrastructure that go unbuilt in favor of wide streets.

The U.S. has some of the widest streets in the world. In 20 of the most populous counties, the median residential street plus sidewalks is 50 feet wide, with the dollar value of land used for streets sometimes stretching into six figures, according to the research in the Journal of the American Planning Association.

Wide streets
A narrow street in Shibuya City, Tokyo. Photo by Tim Foster / Unsplash

Wide streets are less common in some other countries. Certain streets in Japan, for example, are much narrower. Developments in Tokyo since 1990 have average street widths of 16 feet, noted Adam Millard-Ball, an associate professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and author of the new paper.

“One of the best ways to alleviate the housing crisis is to build more housing,” he said. “To the extent that narrower streets allow developers to build more housing, that will address the No. 1 issue with housing right now.”

The median residential street in Arizona’s Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, is 50 feet wide, according to Millard-Ball’s sample of counties.

The median width of a residential street in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, which includes Cambridge, is 40 feet — the narrowest of the group.

The widest streets in the sample are in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago. There, the median residential street is nearly 65 feet wide.

The 50-foot standard

For urban planners, a street is called a right of way. The paved section is the roadway.

A right of way includes the roadway as well as sidewalks, if any, along with space for drainage, utility poles and other public infrastructure. It’s the land usually owned by a city or county that the public has the right to use and make its way through by car, bicycle, foot or other mode. Neighbors waving hello across the sidewalk’s edge of their properties are waving across the right of way.

The median 50-foot right of way Millard-Ball documents stems from nearly a century of history in U.S. planning. After the home mortgage system collapsed during the Great Depression, the federal government stepped in and established the Federal Housing Administration in 1934.

The agency’s mortgage insurance and financial assistance for homebuyers represented “the most ambitious suburbanization plan in United States history,” wrote Michael Southworth and Eran Ben-Joseph in a 1995 Journal of the American Planning Association article that reviews the historical rise of U.S. suburbs.

To protect the government’s unprecedented investment in home ownership, mostly for white Americans, developers had to have detailed plans approved by the agency. The agency encouraged cul-de-sacs for new developments and favored plans that discouraged through traffic.

“Moreover, the FHA, unlike other planning agencies, was largely run by representatives of real estate and banking, so developers felt that its intervention protected their interests,” Southworth and Ben-Joseph wrote.

If developers wanted to build homes that would benefit from federal financial backing, rights of way had to be at least 50 feet wide, Millard-Ball explained in his new paper, “The Width and Value of Residential Streets.”

Six-figure values

To understand the value of land used for streets, Millard-Ball drew on research from the Federal Housing Finance Agency that estimates the value of quarter-acre lots zoned for single-family homes across the country. The value of the land used for streets can be substantial in places where low population density and high housing costs converge.

Santa Clara County, California, which includes San Jose, has the most valuable streets in the sample at $146,000 per tax parcel. That’s roughly 40% of the median price of an existing single-family home sold in the U.S. in April 2021, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.

“One of the best ways to alleviate the housing crisis is to build more housing. To the extent that narrower streets allow developers to build more housing, that will address the No. 1 issue with housing right now.”

— Adam Millard-Ball, UCLA Luskin

New York City, by contrast, has high housing costs but also high density — large apartment buildings are common. Tens of thousands of people live within each square mile. The land beneath streets in Queens, for example, is worth $36,000 per parcel.

At the other end of the value spectrum, streets are worth $7,000 per parcel in Bexar County, Texas, which includes San Antonio. But land values and street widths can vary greatly within counties.

Terra Vista, a small street in a subdivision 25 miles north of San Antonio, is 52 feet wide and has a land value of $43,288 per parcel. All the land under residential streets in Millard-Ball’s 20 counties is worth nearly $1 trillion in total.

Millard-Ball noted that street land value estimates per parcel are likely low for high-cost, dense cities, which often zone for multifamily buildings over single-family homes.

For example, an Italian specialty food store in the Mission District of San Francisco sold its parking lot for $3 million in 2018 — roughly $36 million per acre, by Millard-Ball’s calculation — to make way for a five-story, 18-unit building, according to the news site Mission Local.

Click to explore the value of land used for streets in 20 of the largest U.S. counties.

Most U.S. counties regulate how and where new housing and business developments are built, according to the National Association of Counties, a nonprofit organization that represents U.S. county governments.

Many large cities do the same.

It would be overly costly for cities and counties to change the width of existing streets, particularly with local governments facing budget shortfalls during the pandemic.

Still, the estimates in the new paper can be instructive for planning officials in places like Bexar, one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S., as they permit developments to accommodate new and current residents.

“The values are an indication that cities should be making it easier to use streets for something other than roadways and parking,” Millard-Ball said. “A good analogy is that during COVID, one use of streets has been for outdoor dining. It’s recognition that this land is more valuable to the community if we can use it for people to get together and eat in a safer environment outdoors, than as a parking space or travel lane for cars.”

He continued: “The point is that desolate asphalt is doing nobody any good — not the city, not property owners, not anyone. Cities are often keen to widen the right of way with new developments. Say you want to develop a new apartment building. Often, the city will say, ‘Sure, but you have to give up some land so we can add a turn lane, or widen the sidewalk.’ If cities can widen the right of way, why can’t they narrow it in exchange for improvements that will benefit the public?”

Indeed, when a new residential building goes up, cities commonly require developers to widen streets, according to a 2017 paper in the Journal of Transport and Land Use by Michael Manville, another UCLA Luskin urban planner.

In the paper, Manville looked at how the requirement played out in Los Angeles from 2002 to 2012. He found the city’s predictions of increased traffic with the arrival of new buildings were often wrong, and “the standards the law is based on are in some ways unverifiable. Thus the law likely does little to reduce congestion and probably impedes housing development.”

Flexible design

City and county planning standards vary and change, but the federal 50-foot standard still often dominates residential street design. Still, it’s not always true that counties with more land to expand, like those in Texas, have wider streets. Dallas County, for example, specifies that new residential streets in subdivisions be at least 50 feet wide. The median width of residential streets there is exactly 50 feet, Millard-Ball finds.

Surveyor's chain
A surveyor’s chain owned by John Johnson, appointed Surveyor General of Vermont in 1813. Photo by John Johnson Allen / National Museum of American History

Residential streets in Chicago, meanwhile, are typically 66 feet wide, according to city design standards. That roughly matches the length of the typical surveyor’s chain as the city grew throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. The surveyor’s chain was a tool made up of interlocking metal bars that land surveyors used to measure and mark the shapes of streets to be built.

Uniformity in street design made sense as the nation was expanding and infrastructure technologies were less advanced. But the takeaway for Millard-Ball is that maintaining rigidity in street design means fewer amenities and, potentially, less housing.

He wonders, for example, whether more streets could be built with parking cutouts only where there are no private driveways — providing a unique residential landscape alongside opportunities to use more of the built environment for activities other than driving.

“That would make construction drawings more complex,” Millard-Ball said. “The tradeoff is visual interest — and saving a lot of valuable land.”

The prospect of narrower streets raises the question of whether emergency vehicles would be able to pass, though some planners, and at least one report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, suggest smaller emergency vehicles could be an answer.

This article first appeared on The Journalist’s Resource and is republished here with slight revisions for local style under a Creative Commons license.