It’s been my pleasure as founder, of the Oxnard Community Planning Group (OCPG), to participate in the good work of the OCPG and to build and maintain this website. The OCPG brought the Downtown Oxnard Vision Plan Charrette to Oxnard (thank you Dao Doan and the CNU-CA) and has produced events like the 5th Street Tactical Urbanism (Aurelio Ocampo and the OCPG) and Jane Jacobs movie (produced by myself with assistance from Heritage Square and the Oxnard Historical Society).
For some time now I have wanted to create regularly scheduled small by-invitation forums for Oxnard based planning issues and the OxnardRenaissance website/blog and newsletter will now focus on these events.
Here is a list of some of the specific issues Oxnard Renaissance will focus on and explore in 2018:
Revitalizing Oxnard Boulevard (The City has no current plans to revitalize Oxnard Boulevard)
Infill and small-scale mixed-use development housing and development in the Central Business District (CBD) and other appropriate Oxnard locations (City Zoning and Development Standards incentivizes sprawl and make infill housing [small-scale mixed-use] impossible) (Large developers are currently being incentivized at the expense of small-scale mixed-use development in Oxnard today) and (City needs to incentivize and encourage mixed-use development downtown and in other appropriate locations)
Oxnard Development Standards are out of date and prevent small-scale mixed-use development in the Central Business District (CBD) and other Oxnard locations
Architectural Review in Oxnard to encourage quality building design throughout the City and in the Central Business District (CBD). Currently, in the Central Business District (CBD) the Downtown Design Review Committee (DDRC) will not deny a project from local architects, regardless of the quality of the architecture. This is how it is today in Oxnard, and I know because I was appointed to the DDRC early in 2017. Also, one set of drawings, the design, is submitted to the DDRC and then another set of drawings are submitted for a building permit that may or may not include the DDRC findings, because there is no process to be sure that what is submitted for a building permit – has been reviewed by DDRC staff to assure compliance with DDRC findings. OxnardRenaissance is working to bring better design and better architecture to Oxnard.
Oxnard Development Standards and Design Guidelines (Oxnard is not working on updating Development Standards or Design Guidelines as of Nov 2017 – there may be movement no real work being done.) (Currently there are very minimal design and consistent theme guidelines to make Oxnard a unique and attractive place. And what limited guidelines there are the DDRC ignores as a matter of course.)
Economic Development issues in Oxnard
Oxnard as a truly walkable and bikeable place for people to enjoy our city
Planning department is understaffed (Currently Oxnard has ⅓rd the number of planners per capita than other Ventura County cities)
Oxnard Downtown Manager announced by the City Manager at the Nov 28, 2017 City Council meeting (I hope to work with the downtown manager to strengthen all aspects of making Oxnard’s downtown into a place where people want to walk and shop and where well designed small-scale mixed-use buildings will be supported and incentivized in downtown Oxnard)
Thank you and hope to see you at OxnardRenaissance.org where the above work will be continued, Roy Prince
Traffic in Tokyo Reveals Narrow, Safe Traffic Lanes. Photo by Raphael Desrosiers / Flickr
In Beijing, Chennai and Fortaleza, the rate of fatalities from road crashes is 20-27.2 deaths per 100,000 residents. What do these cities have in common? They have traffic lanes wider than 3.6 meters (11.8 feet). A long-standing belief among transportation planners and engineers is that wider traffic lanes ensure safe and congestion-free traffic flow. Recent academic research, highlighted in Cities Safer by Design, a WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities publication, shows that wider lanes are more dangerous than narrower lanes. To further investigate how cities are stacking up against the existing evidence, the Health and Road Safety team of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities decided to compare typical lane widths in selected global cities with reported traffic fatality rates.
How Wide Should a Traffic Lane Be?
WRI’s research shows that cities with travel lane widths from 2.8 to 3.25 meters (9.2 to 10.6 feet), such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Tokyo, have the lowest crash fatality rates per 100,000 residents. However, many cities, specifically in the developing world, have wider lanes and higher fatality rates (See Figure 1).
Figure 1. Comparative illustration showing travel lane widths of different cities, their fatality rates per 100,000 population and Safety Index. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety
New Delhi, Mumbai and São Paulo have wider lanes, ranging from 3.25 meters to 3.6 meters (10.6 to 11.8 feet), which leads to a fatality rate of 6.1-11.8 residents per 100,000, while Beijing, Chennai and Fortaleza have the highest fatality rate, 20-27.2 deaths per 100,000, with lane widths of 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) and higher.
But Why Are Wider Lanes Misinterpreted As Safer?
For decades, transport engineers and planners have considered wider lanes safer, as they provided higher maneuvering space within the lane and were said to help prevent sideswipes among cars. Yet, in an urban setting, this means cars may go faster, and, when cars go faster, the likelihood of crashes and injuries increases. For example, if a car is traveling at 30 km/h (18.6 mph), pedestrians have a 90 percent chance of survival, but, if the car is traveling at 50 km/h (31 mph), there is only a 15 percent chance the struck pedestrian will survive (See Figure 2).
Figure 2. Pedestrian Death Risk declines at lower vehicular speeds. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety
Narrower travel lanes, coupled with lower speed limits, can foster a greater sense of awareness among drivers. Narrower lanes also ensure shorter crossing distances for pedestrians at intersections, which reduces the risk of an accident.
Do Wider Lanes Help to Reduce Congestion?
In 1963, Lewis Mumford said: “Increasing road width to reduce congestion is the same as loosening your belt to fight obesity.” In fact, increasing road space by having wider lanes doesn’t reduce congestion due to rebound effects. More road space results in generating more traffic. Research shows that 3 meter-wide lanes have 93 percent of the road capacity of 3.6 meter lanes—not a noticeable difference. In addition, if narrower lanes reduce speeds, this should not put great strain on vehicle movement. A recent study from Grenoble shows that private vehicles take only 18 seconds longer to travel a kilometer on a road with speed limit of 30km/h as compared to a road with a speed limit of 50km/hr. Moreover, signal delays at intersections create congestion—it rarely depends on mid-block traffic flows.
How Would Road Dieting Help?
Road dieting is a technique of narrowing lane widths to achieve sustainable and safer pedestrian and cyclist environments. If cities embrace narrower lanes, there are a range of possibilities for re-designing city streets to make them safer and more accommodating for pedestrians and cyclists.
Scenario 1: Narrowing lanes may provide space for a pedestrian refuge island or median
Figure 3. Before intervention: 12 meter-wide, two-lane roadway. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety
Figure 4. After intervention: 12 meter-wide, two-lane roadway. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety
Scenario 2: Narrower lanes may provide space to install protected bicycle lanes
Figure 5. Before intervention: 24 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety
Figure 6. After intervention: 24 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety
Scenario 3: Narrower lanes can provide wider sidewalks
Figure 7. Before intervention: 32 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety
Figure 8. After intervention: 32 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety
But Why Aren’t 3 Meter Lanes the Norm?
Most cities in developed countries, like the U.S., follow road design guidelines from standard-setting bodies like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, commonly known as the Green Book, which actually allows lane widths to vary between 10-12 feet (3.0 to 3.6 meters). While the book provides a range, engineers tend to design streets with the maximum lane width, due to the ill-informed notion that wider lanes are safer and can help reduce congestion. Many cities in low- and middle-income countries have adopted this same approach, erring on the supposed side of caution.
Today, with new research showing the opposite of the status quo and a rising interest in cycling, walking and bus systems, it is time for cities to reassess how their own standards foster a safer and healthier city.
New recognition of the health and safety benefits of parks is changing how the public and leaders view green spaces.
Central Park in New York City generates $1 billion in economic benefits annually. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
For generations, parks were viewed simply as an amenity, a way to beautify a city. Whether they were planned for gardens, sports, or picnicking, parks were rarely seen as central to public safety and health. But that is beginning to change.
As cities around the world continue their growth, the role of parks is shifting. Parks are no longer seen as something nice to have, but rather as a vital system within the city’s overall network of infrastructure. These hard-working public spaces are probably the biggest untapped resource for cities in this century. Why? Livable, sustainable cities must balance density with open space for the health of their residents, their environments, and their economies.
From physical and mental health, to economic development, to resilience and sustainability, parks offer myriad tangible benefits. New York City’s parks, which attract more than 130 million visits a year, model those benefits to the world. For example, our parks are crucial to the city’s resiliency efforts: NYC’s shoreline parks in the Rockaways and Coney Island are being rebuilt since Hurricane Sandy to withstand rising sea levels, storm surges, and to protect waterfront communities. And thanks to our collaboration with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, our parks have become sites of crucial green infrastructure like rain gardens and storm water-collecting bioswales.
Alongside their environmental benefits, parks have demonstrated time and time again their ability to stabilize communities and drive economic development. According to the Trust for Public Land, well-maintained parks add 15 percent to the value of homes within 500 feet. Our experience in New York bears that out. For example, in under a decade the world-famous High Line has brought more than two billion dollars in new real estate investment to the surrounding community –an enormous return on investment for a $153 million park. An older but well-loved landmark can also drive value: Central Park generates $1 billion dollars of economic benefits annually.
Now we’re working to bring the benefits of well-maintained parks to all New Yorkers, with our $285 million Community Parks Initiative, which will completely rebuild more than 60 historically underserved parks across the five boroughs.
New York is the city I know best, and I am proud of the progress we have made. But as I have traveled, I have seen many cities begin to take parks seriously as part of their urban infrastructure. Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, for example, was created a century ago to control the flooding of local waterways and to provide a recreational area for the city. Now, it is one of the nation’s finest urban parks –and a core element of Houston’s water management infrastructure. On the other side of the globe, Singapore’s spectacular Gardens by the Bay not only offer Singaporeans an awe-inspiring new public space, but they are built to clean and filter water and cultivate biodiversity of flora and fauna.
Lawmakers, designers, and planners the world over are learning that well-designed, well-maintained open spaces makes cities work. As our urban centers become more dense, let’s make sure that our investments—and innovation–in city parks matches their importance in our lives.
OCPG member, and videographer Aurelio Ocampo (Red Sky Productions – www.RedSkyPro.com), recently released this brilliant short video on the Downtown Oxnard Vision Plan Charrette process. Aurelio clearly and beautifully documents the Charrette event that took place over a 5 day period in January of 2016. Enjoy!
The City Manager and his leadership team were there and received the award. Apparently, they were all very taken with the keynote speaker, Jason Roberts of the Better Block Foundation. This is a group that is a leading practitioner of guerrilla Tactical Urbanism in Dallas, TX. They’ve got a wild story. Click here to explore: http://betterblock.org/
Here are some YouTube vids of Jason rapping about Better Blocks:
THE NATIONAL POLITICAL dialogue is suffused with substantive issues like Benghazi, beauty pageants, and the best debate memes. But the biggest bugbear in neighborhood politics just got some serious side eye from the Obama administration: Parking.
It sounds bitty and trivial, but parking is a very big deal in city halls and neighborhood associations. Even dense cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, have long required developers to cough up enough parking to serve the residential projects they hope to build.
If you live in the neighborhood, this makes sense—you don’t want n00bs taking your spot. But as cities impotently scrabble to keep housing affordable, requiring developers to provide off-street parking feels like dead weight. The cost—up to $60,000 per underground spot—can kill projects before they even start. And you could argue that it’s better to use that land for bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, not hunks of metal that spend most of the day sitting still. Don’t forget that in 2013, more than a quarter of US renters spend over 50 percent of their monthly incomeon housing. Affordability is a huge problem.
Indeed, says the White House. In a Housing Development Toolkit released Monday, the Obama administration calls off-street parking minimums an affordable housing no-no. “When transit-oriented developments are intended to help reduce automobile dependence,” it says, “parking requirements can undermine that goal by inducing new residents to drive, thereby counteracting city goals for increased use of public transit, walking and biking.”
Granted, the toolkit is merely a list of recommendations, with no teeth. And cities control zoning laws that dictate things like off-street parking. But the Obama administration is reiterating what urban planners have long said: Parking ain’t great for your city. And cities are finally listening.
Death to the Parking Lot
People have written tomes detailing the downsides of the urban parking lot, but let’s lay out the case against it real quick. By investing in cycling infrastructure, sidewalks, and bikeshare programs, dense cities have made it clear they don’t want people driving. But requiring developers to provide parking incentivizes car purchases—along with congestion and pollution. UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup found that people searching for parking in one 15-block stretch of Los Angeles burn 47,000 gallons of gas and produce 730 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
Parking requirements are especially nonsensical in a real estate landscape where buyers pay a premium to live near transit and not have a car. In fact, the requirements effectively tax those who don’t want or can’t afford a car, by passing that cost on to them. And don’t forget that the cost of parking often prevents affordable housing development.
Building parking lots to reduce the demand for on-street parking doesn’t actually work, says Michael Manville, an urban planner who studies land use and traffic congestion at UCLA. “The street is an unpriced commons, which is why you have a shortage of parking,” he says. Cities once thought they could protect free parking and make existing residents happy by passing the hidden costs of those spots on to new residents. But the free spots will always be full—thanks, Econ 101. Manville says any city worried about parking should do the smart but unpopular thing: require permits or install meters.
The Very Slow Death of the Parking Lot
Into this lake of evidence wades the White House. It isn’t the first to do so. People like Manville have been warning anyone who will listen about the downsides of off-street parking minimums for at least 15 years. And cities have been getting in on the anti-parking lot regs for almost a decade. Seattle relaxed requirements for developments within a quarter-mile of mass transit in 2012. New York City and Denver did much the same for low-income housing. Other cities aregranting developers waivers to parking requirements, but they aren’t making it easy.
You can attribute the change in part to a growing shortage of affordable housing, says Stockton Williams, the executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing. And you can expect such policies to become more popular as the affordable housing crisis reaches ever further into the middle class. “Affordability is increasingly understood to be a problem that affects people beyond those in the lowest income bracket,” says Williams. Even tech workers feel the squeeze.
Of course, hitting parking where it hurts is no panacea. The White House toolkit points out other important policy adjustments—like taxing vacant land, zoning for density, and letting homeowners build additional dwellings in their backyards—that will promote affordable housing. All of them must be enacted together to keep everyone housed.
But the White House has said its piece. “Obama’s a lame duck, but as [his administration is] heading out the door, they can choose to make bold statements on any number of fronts. The fact that one of the fronts they chose to make a statement on is zoning, I think, is symbolically important,” says Manville, the urban planner.
Symbols serve their purpose, so go sleep in your nearest parking lot tonight.
The Oxnard Performing Arts & Convention Center (PACC) is a wonderful community asset. However, it could be much better. Its new executive director, Chelsea Reynolds, previously worked as a performing arts specialist with the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission. Under Ms. Reynolds’ direction, the PACC increased its social media presence, launched a new website and connected to print and broadcast media. Ms. Reynolds is reaching out to promoters, which is putting the Oxnard PACC on the radar for a variety of touring acts. But it may not be enough.
The PACC opened in 1968. In addition to the main auditorium, it has two banquet rooms, five classrooms, outdoor stages and an attached youth center. The facility, which ideally would be self-sustaining, has long required subsidies from Oxnard’s general fund. The city’s contribution was $11.1 million from fiscal year 2003-04 through last summer. On top of that, Oxnard in June 2016 paid $2.8 million to erase accumulated fund deficits. The ongoing tab from the general fund is about $900,000 a year. That’s more than half of the center’s $1.5 million budget.
Nonprofit groups now pay half the rental rates commercial entities do. A worksheet provided to the board of directors showed more than $131,000 in rental fees were subsidized for nonprofits in the last fiscal year. Schools get space for free. Revenue from all rentals for the year totaled $585,655. The executive director told the board she is looking at putting a cap on the number of subsidized nonprofits. She also has started reserving dates — weekends, holidays — for potential commercial customers.
I believe we can and should diversify the PACC’s mission and make it a true visual and performing arts center. The City should ask for something in return for its $900,000 a year subsidy. That something is physical space for the following. First, a multimedia studio to accommodate PEG (that’s Public, Educational and Government) programming could be carved out of the 5 classrooms. Perhaps a new structure could be built and paid for out of the over $2 million in PEG fees the City has available to fund such ventures. Certainly Measure O money (the ½ cent sales tax initiative to enhance city services) might also be utilized. A head end connection to the local cable franchise would allow real time broadcasting of PACC events which cannot occur presently. A studio would allow for the training of residents to produce their own content which could then be shown on the public access channel. Opportunities for collaboration with the City and local school districts would provide incredible opportunities for young and old alike.
Second, a satellite senior center, focused on the arts and perhaps partnered with a child care facility, would allow seniors access to both volunteer and participate in opportunities at the PACC. Bringing the arts to the community should be a high priority of the PACC and its Board of Directors. Observing the arts is fine but participation in the many forms of art leads to human growth and the fulfillment of human potential, at any age!
These are just two examples of numerous ways to fully utilize this wonderful asset. The PACC can someday be connected to the downtown and its museums and theatres by a future vision expressed by the Oxnard Community Planning Group we call the Paseo Cultural. More on that later.
I hope this leads to further discussion of the immense potential represented by our Performing Arts and Convention Center.
Oxnard Performing Arts & Convention Center
800 Hobson Way, Oxnard, CA 93030
This is a brilliant article on Placemaking by CNU-CA’s Howard Blackson. It’s a short easy read if you skim it – it’s a deep tretis on Placemaking if you think about each of the C’s and how it applies to your daily civic meanderings and our city. How does Oxnard compare to the 5 C’s – does it work? And where does it not work and what would it take to make it work? – OCPG
I live in a city that is currently updating its Community Plans. This is an historically difficult planning job because Community Plans transcend both broad policy statements (such as the amorphous “New development should be in harmony with surrounding development…”) and specific development regulations (“Front yard setbacks shall be 25 feet deep from property line…”). An issue with updating Community-scaled plans is the personal sentiment people feel for their homes and the difficulty we have in expressing such emotion within conventional 2D planning documents. The source of most conflicts and confusion I see occurring during these updates is due to the confusion over the scale and size difference of a ‘Community’ versus a ‘Neighborhood’ unit.
A community is defined as, “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” Many places have different communities inhabiting them, such as an elderly, or arts, or ethnic community living and/or working in close proximity to one another. Even the internet can be considered a place inhabited by many diverse communities. So the scale, parameters, and character of a community-scaled planning effort is difficult to define.
Usually, community planning areas are defined by political boundaries, or historic development plats and, in some deplorable cases, old insurance red-lining practices that gave a city its initial zoning districts. This being the case, I contend that the neighborhood unit is a better tool to define, plan, and express policies and regulations necessary to preserve, enhance and, yes, build great places.
The neighborhood is a physical place — varied in intensity from more rural to more urban — that many different communities inhabit. At its essence, whether downtown, midtown or out-of-town, its health and viability (in terms of both resilience and quality of life) is defined by certain basic characteristics. Easily observable in neighborhoods that work, these characteristics have been articulated a variety of ways over the years — most notably for me by Andrés Duany and Mike Stepnor. Combined, they form what I like to call the 5 Cs:
Great neighborhoods host a mix of uses in order to provide for our daily need to live, work, play, worship, dine, shop, and talk to each other. Each neighborhood has a center, a general middle area, and an edge. The reason suburban sprawl sprawls is because it has no defined centers and therefore no defined edge. Civic spaces generally (though not always) define a neighborhood’s center while commerce tends to happen on the edges, on more highly traffic-ed streets and intersections easily accessible by two or more neighborhoods. The more connected a neighborhood is, the more variety of commercial goods and services can be offered, as not every neighborhood needs a tuxedo shop or a class ‘A’ office building.
The 5-minute walk from center to edge, a basic rule-of-thumb for walkability, equates to approximately 80 to 160 acres, or 9 to 18 city blocks. This general area includes public streets, parks, and natural lands, as well as private blocks, spaces and private buildings. This scale may constrict in the dead of winter and/or heat of summer, and expand during more temperate months. Compactness comes in a range of intensities that are dependent upon local context. Therefore, more urban neighborhoods, such as those found in Brooklyn, are significantly more compact than a new neighborhood located, for example, outside Taos, New Mexico. Remember, the ped-shed is a general guide for identifying the center and edge of a neighborhood. Each neighborhood must be defined by its local context, meaning shapes can, and absolutely do, vary. Edges may be delineated by high speed thoroughfares (such as within Chicago’s vast grid), steep slopes and natural corridors (as found in Los Angeles), or other physical barriers.
Great neighborhoods are walkable, drivable, and bike-able with or without transit access. But, these are just modes of transportation. To be socially connected, neighborhoods should also be linger-able, sit-able, and hang out-able.
Great neighborhoods have a variety of civic spaces, such as plazas, greens, recreational parks, and natural parks. They have civic buildings, such a libraries, post offices, churches, community centers and assembly halls. They should also have a variety of thoroughfare types, such as cross-town boulevards, Main Streets, residential avenues, streets, alleys, bike lanes and paths. Due to their inherent need for a variety of land uses, they provide many different types of private buildings such as residences, offices, commercial buildings and mixed-use buildings. This complexity of having both public and private buildings and places provides the elements that define a neighborhood’s character.
The livability and social aspect of a neighborhood is driven by the many and varied communities that not only inhabit, but meet, get together, and socialize within a neighborhood. Meaning “friendly, lively and enjoyable,” convivial neighborhoods provide the gathering places — the coffee shops, pubs, ice creme shops, churches, clubhouses, parks, front yards, street fairs, block parties, living rooms, back yards, stoops, dog parks, restaurants and plazas — that connect people. How we’re able to socially connect physically is what defines our ability to endure and thrive culturally. It’s these connections that ultimately build a sense of place, a sense of safety, and opportunities for enjoyment… which is hard to maintain when trying to update a community plan without utilizing the Neighborhood Unit as the key planning tool.
What has not changed over the last 25 years is that decisions regarding the growth and development of our communities are still being made by community leaders who might be experts in politics, but do not have an adequate understanding of placemaking principles.
Uninformed decisions can lead to bad results. You are familiar with the types of poor policy decisions that spring from this uninformed position— all road widenings are “improvements,” all density is bad, the public works department should treat an urban area exactly the same as a suburban area, etc. For those of us who are focused on improving our communities through competent urban design, this is a source of great frustration.
So here are my Top 10 Techniques for Educating Community Leaders about Placemaking. If you find yourself similarly frustrated, consider the following tools for those you believe are open to enhancing their knowledge (not everyone is).
1. Lunch. Lunch is rarely adequately leveraged because it is viewed as nothing more than… lunch. But your placemaking initiatives are essentially political issues, and if you want political support you need to build trust with leaders. Whether it is lunch, breakfast, dinner or drinks, start building the relationship and along the way view it as an opportunity to provide valuable information that will help the leader make more informed decisions. And budget for it.
2. Speaker Series. Establish a formal speaker series that brings compelling practitioners to town to speak about your community’s hot topic issues. If you need to gain a lot of ground in a short amount of time, try to put together a monthly series that lasts one year like Chad Emerson did in Montgomery, Alabama. The value in that program was not simply found in the speakers, but in the periodic gathering of community leaders where placemaking issues were the focus. Also consider finding partner organizations who can sponsor or co-sponsor stand-alone events at least once a year like the annual “Smart Growth Luncheon” series that the Independent publishing group has facilitated for the past eleven years in Lafayette, Louisiana.
3. Private Meetings with Speakers/Consultants. When a speaker or consultant comes to town, do not rely upon public events to connect with community leaders. Rather, schedule private meetings where frank discussions can occur without the fear of media coverage. Try to schedule these meetings over a meal if possible. When I conduct Smart Growth Workshops for a local association of the National Association of Realtors, the private meetings are oftentimes more important than the public workshops themselves.
4. Local or Regional Conferences. The Center for Planning Excellence has hosted the multi-day Louisiana Smart Growth Summit in Baton Rouge for the past ten years. It brings national speakers to town, and this recurring dialogue has dramatically improved the quality of projects in the region and state. The Institute for Quality Communities in Oklahoma is another regional organization that is making a differencewith this tool.
6. CityBuilding Exchange. The CityBuilding Exchange is designed to overcome the objections to other national conferences by compacting the content into two days, limiting participation to 100 registrants, holding the event in a place filled with placemaking lessons (this March it will be in New Orleans), and focusing the content on the tools and ideas that community leaders need to understand from the nation’s leading practitioners.
7. Field Trips/Walking Tour. A field trip with community leaders to a place that can serve as a model for where you want to go (or where you do not want to go) as a community is a highly effective educational tool because it permits the conversation to get real. After attending a SmartCode Workshop in 2003, Texas Representative Mike Krusee facilitated a field trip of all of the mayors in the Austin region to visit Washington, D.C. so that those leaders could better understand how transit oriented development could improve the quality of life in the Austin region. In 2004 Austin approved its first commuter rail referendum. Note that the field trip also permitted the building of relationships between community leaders that can form the basis of working together in the future. Finally note that a walking tour can be incorporated into a field trip (or be a stand alone event in your community) where an expert in urban design can take community leaders on a walk down a street and talk about the urban design elements that are working as well as those that are not working. Once again, these trips bring to life the concepts in a way that gets beyond the platitudes on placemaking.
8. Personal Emails. National news articles, local news stories or the release of a new study on an important placemaking topic can serve as an opportunity for you to email a community leader with your perspective on an issue. Instead of simply forwarding the information to the community leader, make sure that you clearly and succinctly state how the information relates to making your community better.
9. Webinar/OnLine Video Presentations. Watching webinars (whether new or old) or online video presentations together with community leaders can be a difficult sale, but it is worthy of your consideration — especially if you set it up as a “lunch ’n learn” event or even have end of the day cocktails. This tends to work better with community leaders who are on city staff as opposed to elected politicians.
10. Books, Web Sites, Blogs and eNewsletters. Provide resources to community leaders so that they can learn more on their own. Your efforts should focus on two basic approaches. First, buy a book or series of books that are particularly relevant to your community, then loan or give those books to community leaders. In my community, I use Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City as the introductory primer on placemaking. Second, have a very, very, very short list of resources such as websites, blogs, a LinkedIn Group or e-newsletters that you can recommend as an ongoing source for information.
Quality Information, Patience and Persistence = Success. Regardless of the tools you choose to use, remember that the mission will not be accomplished in a day. But, if you exercise patience and persistence, you will improve your community by arming your community leaders with the information they need to make better decisions.
Several common assumptions about new urban codes fail to stand up to scrutiny.
Form-bases codes encourage a wide variety of housing types, such as quadplexes—not just high-density residential units.
Since 1981, approximately 600 form-based codes (FBCs) have been prepared for communities across the US, and 362 of them have been adopted. Most of the adoptions have taken place in the past 10 years. But as exciting as that may be, what’s more exciting is that these numbers are miniscule when you think about how many communities exist in the US. If this reform of conventional zoning is increasingly gaining acceptance and being applied to larger areas, why are there still so many misconceptions?
Despite a wide variety of improvements in how form-based codes are strategized, prepared, and used, many of the planners, planning commissioners, elected officials, members of the public, and code practitioners I meet continue to harbor misconceptions or misunderstandings about these codes. Here are the ones I encounter most:
FBC dictates architecture. Some of these codes do prescribe details about architecture, but most do not. Perhaps because many of the early codes were for greenfield projects where strong architectural direction was needed or desired, the perception is that a FBC always regulates architecture. Yet the majority of codes I’ve prepared and reviewed (30 authored or co-authored, 10 peer-reviewed, 9 U.S. states, 2 foreign countries) do not regulate architecture. I’ve prepared codes where regulation of architecture (style) was important for a historic area, but those requirements did not apply anywhere else. The “form” in form-based codes may mean architecture, but not necessarily. Form can refer to physical character at many different scales—the scale of a region, community, neighborhood, corridor, block, or building.
FBC must be applied citywide. To my knowledge, Miami, and Denver are the only US cities that have applied form-based coding to all parcels within their boundaries. In general, FBCs are applied in two ways: to a site to implement a development project or to several areas as part of a zoning code amendment or update. This second category sometimes involves reconfiguration of the zoning code to retain a set of conventional zones for “automobile-oriented suburban” patterns while adding form-based zones for “walkable-urban” patterns. This is called a hybrid code because it merges the conventional zoning and form-based zoning provisions under one cover, in one set of procedures.
FBC is a template that you have to make your community conform to. Untrue. Conventional zoning, with its focus on separation of uses and its prohibition of ostensibly undesirable activities, often conflicted with the very places it was intended to protect. Perhaps what some refer to negatively as a form-based code’s “template” is the kit of parts that repeats from one community to another—the streets, civic spaces, buildings, frontages, signage, and so forth. But a form-based code is guided by how each of those components looks and feels in a particular community. The FBC responds to your community’s character.
FBC is too expensive. FBCs require more effort than conventional zoning—but then, conventional zoning doesn’t ask as many questions. FBCs reveal and thoroughly address topics that conventional zoning doesn’t even attempt. Some communities augment conventional zoning with design guidelines; those guidelines aren’t always included in the cost comparison, and in my experience they don’t fully resolve the issues. A FBC has the virtue of ensuring that your policy work will directly inform the zoning standards. Further, the the upfront cost of properly writing a FBC pales in comparison to the cumulative cost of policy plans that don’t really say anything, zoning changes that require the applicant to point out reality, hearings, and litigation over projects.
FBC is only for historic districts. FBCs can be applied to all kinds of places. Granted, they are uniquely capable of fully addressing the needs of a historic district because of their ability to “see and calibrate” all of the components. Such a FBC works with not instead of local historic procedures and state requirements. This is in contrast to conventional zoning’s focus on process and lack of correspondence with the physical environment it is regulating. While a FBC can be precise enough to regulate a very detailed and complex historic context, that same system can be fitted with fewer dials for other areas.
FBC isn’t zoning and doesn’t address land use. If your FBC doesn’t directly address allowed land uses or clearly rely on other land use regulations, it is an incomplete FBC. Some early FBCs were prepared as CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions) because of particular development objectives, and some well-intended early FBCs oversimplified use restrictions. Since then, FBCs have augmented or fully replaced existing zoning, including land use requirements.
FBC results in “by-right” approval and eliminates “helpful thinking by staff.” With so much emphasis on how FBCs simplify the process, it’s understandable that this perception has caused concern. Throughout the FBC process, focus is placed on delegating the various approvals to the approval authority at the lowest level practical. I’ve seen few codes that make everything “by right” over the counter. The choice of how much process each permit requires is up to each community. Through a careful FBC process, staff knowledge and experience does go into the code content through shaping or informing actual standards and procedures.
FBC results in “high-density residential.” FBC does not mandate high-density residential.” Instead, it identifies housing of all types—from single-family houses to quadplexes, courtyards, rowhouses, and lofts over retail—and explains their performance characteristics. Density is one of many such characteristics. Through the FBC process, communities receive more information and decide which kinds of buildings they want and where. FBCs enable higher density housing—where it is desired by the community—to fit into the larger context of the community’s vision.
FBC requires mixed-use in every building regardless of context or viability. Conventional zoning has applied mile upon redundant mile of commercial zoning, resulting in an oversupply of such land and many marginal or vacant sites. By contrast, FBCs identify a palette of mixed-use centers to punctuate corridors and concentrate services within walking distance of residents and for those arriving by other transportation modes. FBCs identify the components; it’s up to the community to choose which components fit best and are most viable in each context.
FBC can’t work with design guidelines, and complicates staff review of projects. Because conventional zoning doesn’t ask a lot of questions, most planners have had to learn what they know about design on the job, and need design guidelines to fill in the gaps left open by the zoning. That’s how I learned. A well-prepared FBC doesn’t need design guidelines because it explicitly addresses the variety of issues through clear illustrations, language, and numerous examples. However, we are not allergic to design guidelines; the key is to make sure that the guidelines clarify what is too complex, variable, or discretionary to state in legally binding standards.
I’m enthusiastic about FBC and regard it as a far better tool than conventional zoning for walkable urban places. However, it’s still zoning, and it needs people to set its priorities and parameters. It needs people to review plans and compare them with its regulations. Having a FBC will require internal adjustments by the planning department and other key departments, such as Public Works.
Form-based coding began in response to the aspirations of a few visionary architects and developers who wanted to build genuine, lasting places, based on the patterns of great local communities. Unresponsive zoning regulations often erected insurmountable barriers to these proposals and made proposals for sprawl the path of least resistance.
From its outset 35 years ago, form-based coding exposed the inabilities of conventional zoning to efficiently address the needs of today’s communities. Today, form-based coding is a necessary zoning reform—one of several important tools that communities need to position themselves as serious candidates for reinvestment.
A Georgia suburb seizes the opportunity of a closed GM factory to plan for a town center.
A park in Woodstock Downtown, which is a model for Doraville’s new town center.
Throughout the US, discontent is growing over the state of our cities and towns. Frustrated by traffic congestion, a lack of transportation and housing choices, and places that increasingly resemble nowhere in particular, many elected officials, business leaders, and residents are coming together to envision communities that are often strikingly different from conventional suburbia.
Many residents express concern over the kind of growth they are experiencing, but few realize that this growth has not occurred in a vacuum. Transportation policies, lending practices, funding priorities, and consumer preferences have all had a profound impact on the shape of our communities. Even more significant, however, are local government zoning and development regulations, which often mandate the very development patterns that many lament, while making anything else illegal.
In order to change the physical design of neighborhoods, towns, and cities, and realize the visions of diverse community-based plans, zoning and development regulations (collectively known as “codes”) must change. However, the ability to implement a new design plan is not the only reason to change existing codes. For one thing, current regulations are often the result of many years of individual text amendments and ordinances, and internal inconsistencies are common in amended regulations. In some communities, codes are even unwritten, but have been applied for so long that nobody questions whether or not they are still valid.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to updating codes. Different communities have different visions, staffing resources, and regulatory priorities. Additionally, different parts of the existing code may work perfectly fine, while others are grossly inadequate. After careful review, one community may benefit from creating minor amendments to existing codes, while others may wish to throw the whole thing out and start from scratch. Not surprisingly, most coding projects fall somewhere in between these two options.
The work begins by reviewing the existing codes and pinpointing how well they do or do not align with the master plan and other public policies. The ability of the governmental staff to administer the codes is always key to this phase. The process leads to a determination of where changes are needed and what they should entail. Typically, these include expanding permitted housing types and uses, addressing the relationship between building facades and the public realm, revising density standards, incorporating streetscape requirements, modernizing parking requirements and much more. The next step is to work closely with local stakeholders to actually write and adopt the necessary code changes.
Once a new code is adopted, some communities transform gradually, while others have dramatic opportunities to redefine themselves. This is the case with the City of Doraville, Georgia—a suburb of Atlanta—where, for decades, much of the commercial and residential development supported the city’s General Motors assembly plant. When the plant was slated to close, city leaders saw the opportunity to create a master plan for a model mixed-use area centered on the city’s public transit station. The plan is designed to improve connections and encourage pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development (see regulating plan and rendering, below).
Doraville’s traditional code primarily supported single-use development and had to be rewritten to allow increased density to support a vibrant community center and ensure multiple transportation options. The new code has been dubbed, “The Livable Community Code,” and it is already attracting developers eager to participate in Doraville’s renaissance.
It doesn’t always take a major event like Doraville experienced to galvanize a community to envision and bring about positive change. Woodstock, Georgia—a more distant Atlanta suburb—is a great example. The railroad town was chartered in 1897, but in recent decades, the surrounding strip shopping centers and malls drew business away from Main Street. By the 1990s, it looked like a town that time had passed by.
After studying what had been accomplished in other communities, city leadership brought in a team to recommend how to best revive the town center without losing its history and character. Numerous community meetings were held to solicit input, and from there, a vision was created using the Atlanta Regional Commission’s LCI (Livable Centers Initiative) program.
Because of the LCI, developers were attracted to the city, and ultimately a team of commercial, retail and residential specialists worked together to shape the town. It quickly became apparent that the new vision could not become a reality under the city’s existing codes, so our firm, TSW, wrote new zoning codes to allow and encourage the higher-density, mixed-use development envisioned by the town’s leadership and citizens. Woodstock’s elected officials also worked with downtown churches to loosen the existing alcohol restrictions to make the town more appealing to restaurants.
The 32-acre area was officially named Woodstock Downtown. Historic buildings were renovated into shops and restaurants and a new five-story residential building with retail on the ground floor was designed to blend into its historic surroundings (see photo at top of article). New homes of various sizes now surround the downtown area. And, throughout the process, the vision and redevelopment stayed true to Woodstock’s roots as a historic railroad town.
These are but two communities where newly-adopted codes have already started to lay the foundation for a better tomorrow. And, best of all, the new codes not only allow the cities and towns to move forward with today’s vision, but they have paved the way for the communities to grow organically over time to meet the future needs of the new generations who will one day live, work and play there.
If we’re going to curb climate change, urbanism — developing sustainable cities and metro regions — will have to lead the way.
So says Peter Calthorpe, an architect, urban planner, and one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
In his latest book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, he argues that green technology and alternative energy alone won’t mitigate climate change, but that they will need to integrate with smart urban planning and development to really make a difference. I talked with Calthorpe about what that looks like in practical terms, how urbanism is the cutting edge of environmentalism, why sustainable cities are more than just a fad, and more.
SmartPlanet: You say in your book that Americans must reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to 12 percent of their current output. Briefly paint the picture of a city that is designed to reach that goal?
Peter Calthorpe: It’s not a simple – either you live in the suburbs or you live in the city. We used to have things called streetcar suburbs that were very walkable, in California they were built around bungalows, and people walked more and they biked more and they used transit more in those areas.
You basically have to get to a situation where you reduced your dependence on the automobile, and your car is very efficient – 55 mpg. But perhaps more important, you’re only driving it 5,000 miles a year instead of 30,000.
You’re getting around otherwise by walking to local destinations, using you bike, and using local transit networks. You’re probably also living in a townhouse or an apartment where the building is very efficiently built, and demands very small amounts of energy. There’s not a lot of water being used because you don’t have a big yard, but there’s a really cool park nearby. And you tend to eat a little more organic, a little more local, and a little less meat. And the power grid for your region is based at least 60 percent on renewables.
It’s a combination of all those things. But at its foundation is the more compact, walkable, urban environment, because it is what reduces demand. It reduces demand so much that you then begin to satisfy the demand with renewables.
SP: You’re saying that the question shouldn’t be, “do you live in a city or not?” but if you live in a community with these qualities?
PC: Right. And we almost had a perfect system before World War II in the U.S. We had great cities, people loved to live in them, and they were very walkable and transit oriented.
But we had suburbs that were also walkable and transit oriented, they were called streetcar suburbs. There were massive streetcar systems all around the United States. They were torn up after WWII by a consortium of GM, Standard Oil, and Firestone, and they were all replaced with buses, which became less and less desirable as they got stuck in the same traffic as cars. We transitioned away from a pattern that was pretty healthy.
The two compliment each other: the city center, in its higher urban forms, and the streetcar suburbs – what we now call transit-oriented development – really help each other.
Part of the mistake that the right-wing makes here is that they think in order to be ecological, everybody has to be forced into the same lifestyle, and that’s just not true.
More and more we live a regional life. Not just a life in a city or a town. Our economic opportunities, our social and cultural lives are regional and almost all of our environmental issues are regional: air quality, water quality, transportation. All these things are regional issues that can’t be dealt with by a single city or town.
SP: Is the urbanism that you described — sustainable cities — is the most plausible solution to climate change?
PC: I call it the foundation. If you don’t get the lifestyles to a healthier place, the amount of technology that you’re going to have to deploy is going to be really problematic. It’s conservation first. Reducing demands before you start talking about supplies. Too much of the discussion around climate change and carbon seems to focus on technology before it even begins to think about how people’s lifestyles can change.
Of course a more urban lifestyle, whether it’s a streetcar suburb or city, is just healthier and more affordable. It’s a win in many dimensions.
For example, we have an obesity crisis in the United States. Part of that is driven by the fact that we’re too sedentary, we don’t walk. Our communities have less of that natural policing that happens when people live more in the public domain. And more time in the streets and cafes, and less time in their cars. Safety gets in there, air quality is impacted, the household economics.
You can forget about saving the environment, what about just living affordable lifestyles? In America today it costs $5,600 a year to own a car. If you want to own a new one it’s like $8,000. So in American where the median household makes $50,000, and half of that is spent on transportation and housing, you can see how two cars immediately eats into a pretty big chunk of the household budget.
We’ve been able to demonstrate, here in California, as part of our implementation of AB 32, that you not only save the environment, but you save your pocketbook, and you create healthier people and stronger communities.
SP: You make a convincing argument that urbanism has a positive impact on health, economics, safety, and has other co-benefits. Are you saying you can be an urbanist without necessarily being an environmentalist?
PC: People like to live in cities not just because they’re environmentalists, but by living in cities and walkable towns they’re at the cutting edge of environmentalism. That’s the good news.
It should never be a single issue movement. Trying to design healthy sustainable communities impacts so many dimensions of our society that you should never just look at carbon or oil or even land consumption. But it succeeds on all those levels.
In California we looked at a more compact future that only had 30 percent of the new housing in apartments and 55 percent in townhouses and bungalows, with the end result still being over 50 percent of the housing in California being single family. Yet, the difference in land consumption was monumental. It went from something like 5,000 square miles down to 1,800 square miles.
That huge urban footprint, that savings there of 3,500 square miles of building over farmland, and habitats, that’s a very important component to many people, not just environmentalists.
SP: You talk about the history of urbanism with the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s and now a return to the city in the 2000s. Is urbanism and talk of sustainable cities just a fad or do you think there is a paradigm shift taking place?
PC: It’s a fundamental fact of demographics. When we gave birth to the suburbs we were pushing towards 50 percent of households were a married couple with kids. Now only 23 percent of households are married with kids. The other 75 percent have other needs, other priorities other than a big yard on a cul-de-sac. Whether it’s young single people or older empty-nesters or single moms struggling to make ends meet, there’s a whole different set of needs that revolve more around costs and a lot of issues.
When you get to a point where you either don’t want to drive a lot because you’re older and/or you can’t afford to drive a lot, you need places that work for those parts of the population. So this change isn’t just about a fad or a sentiment, it’s fundamental demographics and economics.
And the good news is that it helps us with our environmental challenge.
SP: In the book you say that we need more interconnected whole system fixes, where engineers are working with urban planners, and vice versa, to design a successful communities. What are some examples of this that you have seen successfully play out?
PC: Well, urbanism came along in the early 90s and has now demonstrated a huge number of successes in trying to think holistically about the design of neighborhoods and communities. They range from really large projects — like we did the reuse of the old airport in Denver, Stapleton. There are 10,000 units of housing there; it’s walkable, it’s mixed-use, and it’s very mixed-income.
One of the most radical things that happened there is that we ended up being able to put in one neighborhood the very high-end housing and the most affordable housing a block and a half apart. Whereas the development community had been operating for decades on the notion that you have to segregate income groups.
I think that there’s a lot [of benefits] for the society, for the strength and coherence and the basic sensibility and investment we have in each other to not live in isolated enclaves.
At the other end of the spectrum, the New Urbanists helped Henry Cisneros, when he was head of HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] to execute the Hope VI program, which was to tear down the worst of the public housing projects and build in their place mixed-use, mixed-income communities that really fit with their surroundings. They were no longer a stigma dragging huge sections of the city down.
There are a lot of success stories out there and a lot of good examples. So much so that the development community, and its leadership – for example the Urban Land Institute – has completely signed on to all of these precepts.
The models, the paradigms are there and once we come out of this great recession I think we’re going to be able to move in a much healthier direction.
SP: Do you think when we come out of the recession that there will be less single family home development and sprawl?
PC: The interesting thing is that the development community understands that the marketplace that’s going to come next is much more compact, walkable communities. The question is: are they going to be allowed to build it? Therein lies the big problem.
All of our zoning codes are still focused back into the hindsight, into single-use homes and low density. So all zoning needs to change, which of course is a huge political hurdle.
Then you have the problem of NIMBYs [not in my backyard], and a bunch of them actually use environmental alibis. They’re people who just don’t want infill, they don’t want density, they don’t want townhouses near their large lot, they don’t want commercial in the neighborhood, even if they could walk to it. Because fundamentally they don’t want change.
That creates a very perverse situation where even when the developers want to build the right thing, they don’t get the chance.
SP: Is that the biggest hurdle for building more walkable, dense communities?
PC: Absolutely. NIMBYs – it’s interesting to watch how many of them use environmental issues as alibis – are the biggest problem. Of course there’s infill parcel-by-parcel along an arterial, and there are also big infill sites which really scare people: old army bases, large industrial areas, and things like that that can be converted. People are frightened by the scale of change. But what they have to realize is that the end result is that development gets pushed farther and farther to the regional periphery where there’s less transit and fewer jobs.
[Along with zoning codes] there’s a third leg here, and that’s that our departments of transportation have a real strong addiction to building roads rather than transit. There are really three shifts [that need to take place]. We have to reframe the infrastructure and put more money into transit than roads, we need to redo the zoning codes, and we need to find a way to overcome local opposition to infill.
The problem is always that infill does cause local impacts, there’s no question. But when you’re looking at it holistically, it’s a much more environmentally benign way to grow. But on someone’s block it doesn’t look that way.
I live here in Berkeley, California. And I think downtown Berkeley is a prime example of this. We have BART, we have the university, we have jobs, we should be building high-rise residential right there, right at a transit node, right at the doorstep of a great university. But there are a lot of environmentalists here who just say, “no that’s not the right thing to do.” In the end what it means is people get pushed farther and farther out to the suburbs and commute greater and greater distances because there just isn’t enough housing close to the jobs.
SP: Most of your book is from a US perspective. But climate change is a global problem. Are there places around the world that are getting urban design right? Is the rest of the world going in the right direction?
PC: There are many northern European countries that are really getting it right. The Scandinavian countries are doing a fabulous job of putting the brakes on autos and really orienting towards biking and walking. Copenhagen is a great example of that. And in Sweden over 50 percent of all trips are on foot or bike, and it is a cold, wet climate. And they have, on a per-capita basis, higher incomes than we do. They could afford to drive everywhere, but they don’t. It’s the cityscape and it’s the culture. Those are good models.
I’m doing a lot of work now in China where they’ve got three of the four things you need to make good urbanism. They have density, traditionally they have very mixed-use environments – they have small shops everywhere. And they invest heavily in transit.
But they’re getting their street network all wrong, and they’re building super blocks that really defy the pedestrian and the biker. So you find these huge drop offs in pedestrian and bike mobility in China. What they need to do is reconfigure the way they design their street networks back to small blocks and human-scale streets. And if they do that they’ll really be a model.
Let’s make “10 not 12!” a new mantra for saving our cities and towns.
When state DOTs bring streets through cities, they apply highway standards (above, Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach, Florida). (Screenshot via Google Maps)
A friend of mine heads an office in the White House. I never see him anymore, except at the occasional black tie design dinner, where he is always good for a couple of gin and tonics as the crowd disperses. At the last such event, he asked me a question. Or maybe he didn’t. But I answered it.
“What’s the number one most important thing that we have to fight for?” I said. “You mean, besides corporations being people and money being speech?”
“Well that’s easy: 10-foot lanes instead of 12-foot lanes.”
And so I did, brilliantly. So brilliantly that the White House issued an Executive Order the very next day. Or so I imagined; such is the power of gin.
Sobered by my now palpable failure, I have steeled myself for the task of explaining here, in a manner that can never be disputed or ignored, why the single best thing we can do for the health, wealth, and integrity of this great nation is to forbid the construction, ever again, of any traffic lane wider than 10 feet.
A little background: First, we are talking only about high-volume streets here. Neighborhood streets can have much narrower lanes. The classic American residential street has a 12-foot lane that handles traffic in two directions. And many busy streets in my hometown of Washington, D.C., have eight-foot lanes that function wonderfully. These are as safe and efficient as they are illegal in most of the United States, and we New Urbanists have written about them plenty before, and built more than a few. But what concerns us here are downtown streets, suburban arterials and collectors, and those other streets that are expected to handle a good amount of traffic, and are thus subject to the mandate of free flow.
Second, you should know that these streets used to be made up of 10-foot lanes. Many of them still exist, especially in older cities, where there is no room for anything larger. The success of these streets has had little impact on the traffic-engineering establishment, which, over the decades, has pushed the standard upward, almost nationwide, first to 11 feet, and then to 12. Now, in almost every place I work, I find that certain streets are held to a 12-foot standard, if not by the city, then by a state or a county department of transportation.
States and counties believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong.
In some cases, a state or county controls only a small number of downtown streets. In other cases, they control them all. In a typical city, like Cedar Rapids or Fort Lauderdale, the most important street or streets downtown are owned by the state. In Boise, every single downtown street is owned by the Ada County Highway District, an organization that, if it won’t relinquish its streets to the city, should at least feel obliged to change its name. And states and counties almost always apply a 12-foot standard.
Why do they do this? Because they believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong. Or, to be more accurate, they are wrong, and thousands of Americans are dead.
They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering—and many other disciplines—an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. This error applies to traffic planning, as state DOTs widen highways to reduce congestion, in complete ignorance of all the data proving that new lanes will be clogged by the new drivers that they invite. And it applies to safety planning, as traffic engineers, designing for the drunk who’s texting at midnight, widen our city streets so that the things that drivers might hit are further away.
The logic is simple enough, and makes reasonable sense when applied to the design of high-speed roads. Think about your behavior when you enter a highway. If you are like me, you take note of the posted speed limit, set your cruise control for 5 m.p.h. above that limit, and you’re good to go. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment free of impediments to high-speed travel. Traffic engineers know that we will behave this way, and that is why they design highways for speeds well above their posted speed limits.
Unfortunately, trained to expect this sort of behavior, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way. On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?
When lanes are built too wide, pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.
All of these factors matter, and others, too. The simplest one to discuss, and probably the most impactful, is lane width. When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.
In the paragraphs that follow, I will lay out the evidence against 12-foot lanes, evidence compiled by traffic engineers, for traffic engineers. When presented with this evidence, DOT officials will face a mandate: provide conflicting evidence, or give in. In over a year of searching for conflicting evidence, I have failed to find any. The closest I came was the following conversation, with a DOT district commissioner in a western state, which I recorded faithfully within moments of it taking place:
“Yeah, you’ve got your studies that say that 10-foot lanes are safer than 12-foot lanes. But I’ve got a pile of studies this high,” he insisted, waving at his hip, “that say the opposite.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “May I see them?”
“No. They’re from the early days. I threw them out.”
Emboldened by that exchange, I will again present the evidence at hand. First, we will investigate what the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Green Book, the traffic engineers’ bible, has to say on the subject. Then we will review the very few studies that compare crash statistics and driver speeds on lanes of different widths. These will allow us to draw some clear conclusions about safety.
Consulting the Green Book
For traffic engineers, AASHTO is the keeper of the flame. Its “Green Book,” thePolicy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, is the primary source for determining whether a road design is an accepted practice. As such, it is useful in protecting engineers against lawsuits; if something is in the Green Book, it’s “safe.”
Given the protection it affords, nobody questions the Green Book. Never mind that very little of it is evidence-based, and that there are no footnotes justifying its pronouncements. I mean, does the Bible have footnotes?
Whether or not it reflects reality, the Green Book’s position on lane widths is more than relevant, since the engineers need its blessing to modify a standard. Theodore Petritsch relates this position as follows:
For rural and urban arterials, lane widths may vary from 10 to 12 feet. 12-foot lanes should be used where practical on higher-speed, free-flowing, principal arterials. However, under interrupted-flow (signalized) conditions operating at lower speeds (35 MPH or less), narrower lane widths are normally quite adequate and have some advantages.
Here, the takeaway is clear: AASHTO says that 10-foot lanes are just fine—for what it’s worth.
The Studies: Rare but Conclusive
A number of studies have been completed that blame wider lanes for an epidemic of vehicular carnage. One of them, presented by Rutgers professor Robert Noland at the 80th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, determined that increased lane widths could be blamed for approximately 900 additional traffic fatalities per year. Unfortunately, Noland is a mere Ph.D. and not a practicing engineer. His evidence apparently didn’t mean squat to the TRB. If you don’t have short-sleeved white shirt and a pocket protector, you may as well stay home.
… all projects evaluated during the course of the study that consisted of lane widths exclusively of 10 feet or more [rather than 12 feet] resulted in accident rates that were either reduced or unchanged.
A safety evaluation of lane widths for arterial roadway segments found no indication, except in limited cases, that the use of narrower lanes increases crash frequencies. The lane widths in the analyses conducted were generally either not statistically significant or indicated that narrower lanes were associated with lower rather than higher crash frequencies.
It is clear, then, that at the very least, 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and may cause fewer. But what about the severity of these accidents, a subject on which these studies appear to be mute?
Here we can make use of another study and some common sense. We all know that people drive faster in wider lanes, but we need the engineers to say it. Fortunately, the Texas Transportation Institute, as old-school as they come, has done just that. They state:
On suburban arterial straight sections away from a traffic signal, higher speeds should be expected with greater lane widths.
Granted, this study covers only one type of road, but there is no reason to expect opposite results on, for example, straight urban roads. The same logic would apply, although perhaps less dramatically: people drive faster when they have less fear of veering off track, so wider lanes invite higher speeds.
To conclude this radical thought experiment, we need to confirm another commonsense assumption, that higher-speed crashes cause more injuries and deaths than lower-speed crashes. This has been amply demonstrated to apply to all road users, especially pedestrians. According to a broad collection of studies, a pedestrian hit by a car traveling 30 m.p.h. at the time of impact is between seven and nine times as likely to be killed as one hit by a car traveling 20 m.p.h. This tremendously sharp upward fatality curve means that, at urban motoring speeds, every single mile per hour counts.
All of the above data, studies, and pronouncements, collected and disseminated by the mainstream traffic engineering establishment, point to the following conclusion: 10-foot lanes cause no more accidents than 12-foot lanes, and they may cause fewer. These accidents can be expected to be slower, and thus less deadly. Therefore, 10-foot lanes are safer than 12-foot lanes.
Before finishing, we need to investigate the carrying capacity of different width lanes, since traffic volume remains a legitimate concern. If safety were the only goal of traffic planning, all streets would be one-lane wide—or better yet, zero lanes wide. The fact that they are not means that we, as a society, are more than willing to sacrifice lives for automobility. So, what’s the data?
Here, as again reported by Petritsch, a thorough literature search conducted by the Florida DOT yielded these findings:
The measured saturation flow rates are similar for lane widths between 10 feet and 12 feet. … Thus, so long as all other geometric and traffic signalization conditions remain constant, there is no measurable decrease in urban street capacity when through lane widths are narrowed from 12 feet to 10 feet.
It is striking to hear this news from FDOT, the agency that may preside over the greatest pedestrian massacre in U.S. history. Four out of the five deadliest American cities for walking are currently in Florida. This is by design: in no other state has the DOT had such a powerful influence on the design of urban streets.
Alarmed by its horrifying safety ranking—and the barrage of resulting bad publicity—FDOT has taken bold measures to improve pedestrian safety. It released just last year a 44-page Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan. Unfortunately, while this document talks plenty about such things as driver, cyclist, and pedestrian education, only two of its pages deal remotely with the real culprit, traffic engineering. Here, we are told that FDOT intends to “implement pedestrian and bicycle best practices,” a phrase that is fairly meaningless without further definition.
To its credit, the plan advocates for the application of a “complete streets” policy to benefit cyclists and pedestrians. But such policies, as we have learned, make sure that some streets include bike lanes and sidewalks, but rarely require the dimensional properties that make them safe. Nowhere in the entireStrategic Safety Plan are lane widths discussed, or any other design feature of the roadway that might encourage deadly speeds.
In fact, you can learn all you need to know about this effort by glancing at the cover of the report, which is stamped with the project motto: “Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow.” Think about that statement, and what it implies. In an encounter between a car and a pedestrian, whose life is at risk? Who, then, is expected to reform her behavior? Certainly not the driver—and most certainly not any engineers who endanger their populations with 12-foot lanes.
A Test Case
I believe that FDOT—and every DOT—is capable of reform, but experience suggests that this will only happen when enough people make a stink. In Florida, we will be able to gauge the DOT’s willingness to enter the reality-based community by how it responds to a proposal recently made to restripe Okeechobee Boulevard, a deadly state highway that cuts through downtown West Palm Beach. Its nine lanes separate the Palm Beach County Convention Center from everything that conventioneers walk to, and are a nightmare to walk across or beside. These lanes, of course, are 12 feet wide.
What would happen if these lanes were reduced to 10-feet wide, as proposed? Three things. First, cars would drive more cautiously. Second, there would be roughly eight feet available on each side of the street for creating protected cycle lanes, buffered by solid curbs. Third, the presence of these bike lanes would make the sidewalks safer to walk along. All in all, an easy, relatively inexpensive win-win-win that DOT could fund tomorrow.
But will they? Only if they are capable of reform. Let’s find out. The agency’s bike and pedestrian coordinator, Billy Hattaway, is one of the good ones. But does he have the power to move FDOT to a 10-foot standard?
Moving beyond Florida, the task is clear. Our lives are currently being put at risk daily by fifty state DOTs and hundreds of county road commissions who mistakenly believe that high-speed street standards make our cities and towns safer. In my most considered opinion, these agencies have blood on their hands, and more than a little. There are many standards that they need to change, but the easiest and most important is probably the 12-foot lane. Armed with the facts, we can force this change. But only if we do it together.
It’s time to push this discussion to its logical conclusion. Until conflicting evidence can be mustered, the burden of proof now rests with the DOTs. Until they can document otherwise, every urban 12-foot lane that is not narrowed to 10 feet represents a form of criminal negligence; every injury and death, perhaps avoidable, not avoided—by choice.
In the meantime, I welcome evidence to the contrary. We’ve shown them our studies; now let them show us theirs. Unless, of course, they’ve thrown them out.
Will Calle Ocho become a “complete street”? Or remain a highway?
Miami’s 8th Street, also called Calle Ocho, is flanked by stout, boxy buildings on either side: gas stations, pawn shops, ACE hardware stores, supermarkets, and the occasional Cuban bakery with cafecito, croquetas, and pastelitos. The street is home to some significant cultural landmarks—jazz bars like Hoy Como Ayer and Ball and Chain, for example, and Versailles, everyone’s favorite Cuban restaurant. Around 15th Avenue, tourists pour out of buses and peer into Domino Park, hoping to catch elder Cuban exiles cursing out opponents over a game. Nearby stands the beautiful art deco Tower Theater, where Cuban immigrants would go to get their fix of American films back in the day.
While this last stretch has seen some improvements recently, 8th Street as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. The throughway is, essentially, a one-way, three-lane highway connecting Downtown’s Brickell neighborhood to the Western suburbs. It has pinched, dilapidated sidewalks. And crossing the road, locals say, is like playing Frogger.
“It’s not elevated, it’s not sunk; it’s a scar,” says Juan Mullerat, who is a resident of Little Havana and director at Plusurbia, a Miami-based urban design and architecture firm. “It allows for cars to move at high speed through a historic neighborhood.”
But now, the Florida Department of Transportation is kicking off a new study into the revitalization of 8th Street and its westbound sister, 7th Street. “As the study progresses, the vision for the corridor will begin to take shape with the input we receive from the public,” Ivette Ruiz-Paz, the media outreach specialist for FDoT told CityLab via email.
But local urbanists, developers, investors, city officials, and even city Mayor Tomás Regalado aren’t quite sure that FDoT’s vision is in concert with their own. “There will be a before and after for this project,” Mullerat says. “Question is, what is the after? Is it a ‘complete street’? Or does it remain a highway?”
Turning Calle Ocho back to a “main street”
Before launching into the project development and environmental study it’s doing now, FDoT completed a planning study of the corridor from Brickell Avenue in the East to 27th Avenue in the West (the area in the map above). From the report’s summary:
This part of the city has seen significant growth in the last decade, especially within the Brickell area, where current and future major developments are expected to impact the study corridor with increased travel demand.
To be fair, FDoT’s report mentions that the purpose is to create “a pedestrian-friendly corridor with improved safety, overall traffic operations, and mobility for transit, bicycle, pedestrian, and automobile users.” But the focus on improving access to the Brickell area has raised concerns that the rest of the street—especially the parts that run through Little Havana—will be an afterthought.
“What I hope is that the DOT can see Calle Ocho not just as a facilitator for traffic but as a beautiful boulevard,” Mayor Regalado told the Miami Herald.
To represent the interests of their neighborhood, Mullerat and his colleagues at Plusurbia have created an alternative plan for the street. The aim of this pro bono project is to present a vision of Calle Ocho as a “main street,” just like it was before it was refashioned into a high-speed vehicular conduit in the 1950s (pictured above, left).
For one, that means turning the street back to two-way. They also propose narrowing driving lanes, designating lanes for public transportation and bikes, and adding curb extensions or “bulb-outs.” Plusurbia also imagines shady trees and curbside seating lining the street.
Carlos Fausto Miranda, a real-estate broker and local property owner in Little Havana, has long beena proponent of mixed-use, mixed-income, medium-density urban development. Miranda says he’s on board with the suggestions in the plan, which “undeniably, unquestionably fits into the movement of new urbanism.”
He and other urbanists, however, differ on some of the finer details. Miranda, for example, would like 7th and 8th Streets to be considered together. That way, 7th street could be the main commuting throughway with bike and transit lanes, and 8th could have roomy sidewalks “for people to meet and interact.”
Andrew Frey, the executive director of the urban planning nonprofit Townhouse Center, has been fighting to make the city more walkable for a long time. He also likes Plusurbia’s general idea, but feels that bike lanes and parallel parking don’t mix. His other preference would be for the trees and street furniture to be along the curb, so that sidewalk space is clear for walking.
Generally, there’s consensus that Plusurbia’s plan, and the accompanying petition, is an invitation for everyone to participate in a much-needed conversation about the street. “I’m glad Plusurbia and other stakeholders are trying to insert neighborhood voices” into the planning process, Frey says via email. These voices aren’t often audible, he says. And when they are, they’re not always heeded.
The spillover benefits of the plan
Bill Fuller’s grandparents lived in the Shenandoah neighborhood, which isn’t far from where his office in Little Havana is now. Fuller has been investing in the neighborhood since 2001, and taken on a number of restoration and civic-engagement projects there. He recently restored and reopened Ball and Chain, for example, and organizes the Viernes Culturales art festival, which draws both tourists and locals to the neighborhood.
Fuller represents the new generation of Cuban immigrants trying to reclaim a neighborhood that, for many reasons, has been neglected over time. He wants to make sure that Little Havana reflects the past as well as the present of Miami’s Cuban-American, pan-Latin culture: It must be authentic and modern, but not tacky or cookie-cutter. “We’re trying not to create an Epcot version of Cuba,” Fuller says.
But Calle Ocho, in its current form, has been a persistent impediment to achieving that vision. Because it has been developed as a car-reliant throughway, it attracts car-oriented businesses with expansive parking. The businesses that aren’t drive-through don’t really get foot traffic. And because the street is an eastbound one-way, prospective patrons zip by in a hurry to get to work during the morning rush hour instead of stopping. On their return commute, they take 7th Street, and miss these businesses altogether.
If a version of PlusUrbia’s two-way, pedestrian-friendly plan were implemented, commerce in that corridor could really thrive, supporters say. Locals and visitors alike could stroll down the street, window-shop at small businesses, and experience the work of local artists and artisans. The makeover would usher in a better quality of life for the locals and allow the street to become a real destination for tourists.
“The principal street is the draw, [but] it’s going to have a spillover effect for the neighborhood,” Francis Suarez, City Commissioner of District 4 (which includes the area south of Calle Ocho) tells CityLab. And given that Little Havana is the densest neighborhood in the city—and an incredibly diverse one—the per-capita impact of the revitalization would be immense
The push to revitalize Calle Ocho comes as Little Havana experiences changes that locals believe threaten its character. The National Historical Preservation Trust put the area on its list of 11 most endangered sites in 2015 because of its dilapidated architecture. As housing prices elsewhere in the city skyrocket, Little Havana’s aging housing stock makes its residents vulnerable to displacement. Plusurbia’s plan, however, would only foster and conserve economic and cultural diversity, the firm says.
“Everyone benefits by a blend of people,” Steve Wright, president of marketing communications at Plusurbia, tells CityLab via email. “No one benefits from monoculture.”
A small step for Calle Ocho, a giant leap for Miami?
The arguments for a pedestrian-friendly street that Plusurbia is putting forth aren’tnew, but they’re certainly novel to Miami, which has made forays intowalkability and high-density, mixed-use development relatively recently. The question now is, will the Calle Ocho redesign take the city forward or backward with respect to urban design? And if it is forward, would that urge city and state officials to consider such updates to other, less visible neighborhoods?
The answers to those questions are coming, but one thing’s for sure: Calle Ocho is long overdue for a change.
“I often use the analogy of neighborhoods in the city being like siblings in a family. You love them all, but none of them are the same,” Mullerat says. “Little Havana is one of the oldest children in the family, who was neglected for a long time. And now it needs to become something more.”
A recently published report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials includes insights from dozens of officials and practitioners across North America.
The Loop Link design project in Chicago. (Nate Roseberry, courtesy of NACTO)
Not all urban planners or city governments agree on what kind of street designs are best. But one thing remains clear: Cities who want to plan for the future must prioritize transit accessibility.
To aid this process, the National Association of City Transportation Officials has devised a Transit Street Design Guide, which contains insights from 18 different transit agencies, as well as officials and practitioners in 45 North American cities.
The guide functions as a one-stop shop for designers, city planners, and all those interested in improving the safety and efficiency of their streets. While it serves as more of a toolbox than a prescriptive rule book, here are some of the main takeaways:
Separate transit from standard traffic. Both downtown streets and major corridors have the challenge of accommodating many different modes of transportation. One way to improve safety and efficiency in these high-density areas is to ensure that public transit remains separate from standard traffic. “Transit is often faced with automobile congestion at exactly the time when it needs to be running at the highest frequency and in the most reliable way,” says Matthew Roe, the director of NACTO’s Designing Cities Initiative. “By giving buses and trains their own space on the street, we can make transit work extremely well at exactly the times when people need it the most.”
To help accomplish this, the guide recommends designating certain lanes as “transit only.” According to Roe, the Bronx’s Webster Avenue, along with many streets in San Francisco, are fitting examples of transit-only lanes that have improved both safety and travel times.
In those areas where buses and trams already share the street with cars, Roe says there are “a number of other treatments” that can reduce interactions between cars and transit, including boarding islands and in-lane stops. In Seattle, one-lane streets in each direction even allow bicycles to travel behind bus stops, thereby improving bus travel times.
Don’t forget about pedestrians. “All across the United States and the world, there are bus systems that run on streets that were not designed to be walkable,” Roe tells CityLab. “It’s critical that, as we strive to increase transit ridership, we examine how these major streets work for pedestrians.” One way to accomplish this, according to the guide, is to increase the number of pedestrian crossings at intersections and shorten the distance between crossings. Along edgefront streets (those that run along waterfronts, parks, or campuses), for instance, there is little to no space for vehicles to cross on one side. This presents an opportunity to install extended transit lanes that separate pedestrians from car traffic, as shown in the image below.
Maximize speed and efficiency. By allowing transit vehicles to pull up within two inches of the platform or side of the street, transit curbs have a huge impact on speed and efficiency. These curbs should be clearly marked, over six inches high, and can be either concave or rectangular (the design standard), according to the guide. If possible, they should also be tapered at the point of entry and exit to minimize boarding time. As an alternative, the guide suggests installing a rubber rail or plastic bumper to allow buses to hug the curb.
Another important measure for improving efficiency is to include contraflow transit lanes in a city’s design plans. These lanes are designed for streets with one-way traffic, and are typically reserved for bicycles or buses. According to the guide, they allow for shorter travel times by reducing encounters with nearby traffic. A 1999 study from San Francisco’s Department of Parking and Traffic confirms these findings by looking at the success of the first contraflow bus lane in downtown San Francisco. After examining four intersections at various times of day for an entire month, the authors found that buses along this lane saved up to 8 minutes in travel time after the lane was installed.
Prioritize design over the mode of transit. Despite controversies surrounding recently built streetcar systems, the guide focuses on creating the right designs rather than installing the right form of transit. “Whether it’s a bus or a streetcar or full-scale light rail, what really matters is that transit gets the time and space it needs,” says Roe, noting that the St. Charles Streetcar—the world’s oldest continuously operating streetcar—is an essential part of the New Orleans transit network, and still boasts a hefty ridership.
Don’t just design for downtown. “For a long time, a lot of cities have had transit networks that were designed primarily to give downtown office workers an alternative way to get to work besides taking a car,” Roe says. “[But] when you look at cities like Houston that have redone their bus network to serve all the neighborhoods in the city, sometimes that means doing a grid rather than a hub-and-spoke model focused on downtown. When you do that kind of work and really examine where people are going, you find really large increases in ridership.”
In addition to downtown areas, neighborhood streets face their own set of obstacles. While these streets only suffer from moderate pedestrian or bicycle traffic, their limited width and capacity make it difficult to accommodate a community’s public transit needs. To address this, the guide recommends improving transit stops to include designated spaces for pick-up and drop-off, and installing “boarding bulbs”—or sidewalk extensions—so that buses can stay in their traffic lane without having to pull up to the curb. The guide also highlights the need for reasonably-priced curbside parking.
Make streets accessible for all. Already, the U.S. Access Board outlines various requirements for making streets accessible for wheelchair users. And yet Roe still finds that “there has been a significant gap in detailed guidance on how to make bus boarding wheelchair accessible in new configurations of streets.” In addition to the basic standards developed by the Access Board, the guide outlines its own recommendations for designers and city planners.
“One of the critical things about accessibility is that there a lots of ways to make a bus stop or a rail stop accessible,” Roe says. “When you strive for universal design and make a stop inherently accessible through its design, you can speed up the boarding process for everybody.” A number of cities currently rely on ramps or low-floor or kneeling buses instead of outmoded lifts to provide wheelchair access. These small changes can make all the difference when it comes to speeding up the boarding process.
Emphasize sustainability. Green transitways, or large green areas along or between bus or rail tracks, are a cost-effective way to make an environmental impact, according to the guide. In addition to improving the aesthetics of a neighborhood, these planted areas also help to manage stormwater. One promising example is the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project, which created an “eco-track” to collect stormwater runoff and prevent it from entering the sewer system. Small initiatives like this can make a huge difference for cities today and well into the future.
Models matter. Let’s design more streets like the streets we already love.
When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you’re a traffic engineer, it seems, everything looks like a highway.
If traffic engineers did not control the design of so many of our public spaces, this might not be a problem. But they do—and that’s especially true here in the U.S. Even when traffic engineers have the best intentions, too many simply lack the tools to make successful places. In the typical American city, asking a traffic engineer to design a walkable street is like asking a hammer to insert a screw.
In my last article for CityLab, 18 months ago, I wrote about over-wide driving lanes, and how they encourage speeding and make our streets more deadly. That piece, others like it, and the labors of many have helped to bring about a change in the way that U.S. engineers think about lane widths. While the war is by no means won, many transportation departments are beginning to accept narrower standards. The profession had shown itself capable of reform.
This gives me hope, and prompts me to take the conversation to a higher level. What is the next urgent battle to be fought in the name of more walkable, livable streets and communities? So many things come to mind: the value of trees, the need for parallel parking to protect the sidewalk, the epidemic of unnecessary traffic signals, the mandate for truly buffered bike lanes. . . the list goes on. But what if there were one category that managed to include all the others?
I believe there is, and it goes like this: models matter.
In other words, pay attention to precedent. So, you’re designing a street? Great! What street do you want it to be like? Does it look like that street? Not really? Why not? Where is there a street like the one you just drew? Is it any good?
Sounds obvious enough, right? Then why does it seem to happen so rarely? Are plans that hard to read? Why is it that engineers, planners, citizens, and the media all regularly don’t ask these questions?
Case in point: consider this recent example from Lowell, Massachusetts, a city with a great history of urban wisdom. Thanks to several decades of pro-planning public servants and a great non-profit called The Lowell Plan, the city has reinvented itself as a smaller, less expensive Boston, a place that now attracts residents and businesses to its great urbanism, focus on higher education, and commitment to historic preservation and the arts. Its once-abandoned downtown mills are now full of middle-class lofts, and a third wave of redevelopment is well underway.
Lowell is a city I know intimately, having lived there for some time in 2010 as I completed an “evolution plan” for the downtown. That plan is now being implemented and has, among other things, reverted a confusing and speedy network of one-way streets back to calmer two-way traffic. Lowell is a city that gets things done.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across an article earlier this month about the city’s plans for its southern gateway, the Lord Overpass. This site is particularly important to Lowell, being an area of major redevelopment as well as the key link from the train station (at right in the image below) to downtown (beyond the canal to the left). This collection of streets—a squared traffic circle floating above a highway—is due for reconstruction, and the city came up with the smart idea of putting the depressed highway back up at grade to create more of an urban boulevard condition.
At the level of intention, this seemed a wise plan. It is hard to find a pleasant urban place with two levels of streets, unless the lower level is completely hidden, and it was beyond the budget here to fully cap the highway. There are many good examples of surface boulevards that handle as much traffic as this section of road does, and replacing highways with boulevards is something that U.S. cities know how to do at this point. It turned out that, for the $15 million price tag of rebuilding the bridges, the city could just as easily truck in enough dirt to fill the hole. So far, so good.
But then came the plan, and my reason for writing this article. Picture in your mind a classic large urban street, one that will attract pedestrians while also moving a lot of traffic. Perhaps you are imagining Paris’s Avenue Marceau, Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia, or Washington’s K Street? Now look at the image below.
Not quite what you had in mind? Yeah, me neither. I have to reach the conclusion that the distinctions between the two models of boulevard and highway are actually more subtle than I am suggesting, because this drawing was created by a skilled engineering team, embraced by the City Council, local non-profits, and newspaper, and presented this month to resounding applause from neighborhood residents.
So, let’s zoom in and describe what we see:
Four lanes dedicated to motion straight through, just like the now-submerged highway;
Three lanes dedicated to turning motions, two of which swoop around the edges in great curves;
Two dedicated bus lanes, each about 17 feet wide, curb-to-curb. (A bus is 8 1/2 feet wide, so perhaps the goal is to squeeze two past each other?);
Bike lanes that are partly protected, partly unprotected, and partly merged into the bus lanes;
A collection of treeless concrete wedges, medians, and “pork chops” directing the flow of vehicles;
No parallel parking on either the main road or any of the roads intersecting it; and
Green swales lining the streets, resulting in set-back properties to the one side and open space to the other. (Note that the open space at the bottom of the drawing is too shallow to put a building on.)
Not listed above, but perhaps of the greatest concern, is the issue of precedent. While there exist a growing number of locations in America with street configurations like this one, it is impossible to name one with street life. Swoopy configurations like this design are found mostly in suburban drive-only locations out by the mall, not in cities. If no attractive place can be found with a similar configuration, then a design should not pass the street-planning smell test.
The comparison of drive-only suburbia with walkable cities then allows us to make this critique of the approved plan:
Walkable streets do not have swoops, slip lanes, pork chops, and other features that encourage drivers to make fast turns;
Walkable streets have narrow lanes, typically 10 feet wide—even for buses;
Walkable streets place continuous shade trees in any medians;
Walkable streets have parallel parking along every curb, to protect pedestrians (and potentially bikes) from moving traffic; and
Walkable streets are lined by buildings that give them life, and in urban locations these buildings are tall and sit directly against the sidewalk.
All of the above criteria, in addition to making pedestrians feel welcome, contribute to an environment in which cars drive more safely. Students of urban form will recognize that they all come from studying the proper model, the classic boulevard.
If the goal is to move lots of traffic in a walkable urban environment, there is only one time-tested model. As so well described in The Boulevard Book by Alan Jacobs, all successful boulevards follow certain rules, including those above. Since we know that proper boulevards make successful places, a respect for precedent gives us clear direction here.
So, what would this stretch of road look like as a boulevard? I took a stab at it above. To satisfy the car counters—because they always win—I even added a lane, to match the current condition. This proposal, one of many possible solutions, includes a 4-lane, high-volume center flanked by two 2-lane side roads. One of the lanes on each side can be dedicated to buses, if so desired. Each side road is flanked by parallel parking, and protected bike lanes are placed in the outer edge of the sidewalk, European style. All intersecting streets maintain parallel parking on both sides, and corners are tight, with no swoops. Street trees fill both medians, aligned with the trees in the sidewalks.
Nothing is wider than it needs to be, and the whole facility hugs the properties to one side, with no swales or setbacks. This leads to something surprising: free land. Three large and valuable building sites are now available in what is planned to remain wasted space alongside the railroad. This is great news, for two reasons. First, because the sale of this land—more than an acre of prime real estate—can be used to defray the costs of the project. Second, because a street is only as good as its edges. Without the spatial definition, activity, and supervision provided by buildings against the sidewalk, a boulevard is not complete.
This design was done quickly and could no doubt be improved. It is presented with the confidence that it follows a well-established model, and its outcomes can be predicted. Sadly, the current proposal that it hopes to replace also follows a well-established model, with predictable outcomes. These outcomes are a far cry from those currently anticipated by the good people of Lowell.
City planning is not just an art, but also a profession, and like in the professions of law or medicine, its practitioners have a responsibility to learn from past successes and failures. Study of precedent makes it clear that boulevards create street life and enhance real estate value, while highways obliterate street life and sunder real estate value. It is not too late for Lowell to embrace a model that will transform this site from a place that is easy to get through to a place worth arriving at. Similarly, all of our cities, as they contemplate expensive reconstruction of obsolete roadways, have two models to choose from, one led by engineering, and another led by precedent: the study of places we love.
Traffic approaching Chiverton Cross roundabout in Cornwall, UK
The capacity of a roundabout varies based on entry angle, lane width, and the number of entry and circulating lanes. As with other types of junctions, operational performance depends heavily on the flow volumes from various approaches. A single-lane roundabout can handle approximately 20,000–26,000 vehicles per day, while a two-lane design supports 40,000 to 50,000.
Under many traffic conditions, a roundabout operates with less delay than signalised or all-way stop approaches. Roundabouts do not stop all entering vehicles, reducing both individual and queuing delays. Throughput further improves because drivers proceed when traffic is clear without waiting for a signal to change.
Roundabouts can increase delays in locations where traffic would otherwise often not be required to stop. For example, at the junction of a high-volume and a low-volume road, traffic on the busier road would stop only when cross traffic was present, otherwise not having to slow for the roundabout. When the volumes on the crossing roadways are relatively even, a roundabout can reduce delays, because half of the time a full stop would be required. Dedicated left turn signals further reduce throughput.
Roundabouts can reduce delays for pedestrians compared to traffic signals, because pedestrians are able to cross during any safe gap rather than waiting for a signal. During peak flows when large gaps are infrequent, the slower speed of traffic entering and exiting can still allow crossing, despite the smaller gaps.
Studies of roundabouts that replaced stop signs and/or traffic signals found that vehicle delays were reduced 13–89 percent and the proportion of vehicles that stopped was reduced 14–56 percent. Delays on major approaches increased as vehicles slowed to enter the roundabouts.
Roundabouts have been found to reduce carbon monoxide emissions by 15–45 percent, nitrous oxideemissions by 21–44 percent, carbon dioxide emissions by 23–37 percent and hydrocarbon emissions by 0–42 percent. Fuel consumption was reduced by an estimated 23–34 percent.
A comparison of possible collision points on a roundabout versus a traditional intersection
Small modern roundabout in the United States, where vehicles are driven on the right
Roundabout in the United States with separated side lanes. Vehicles entering the roundabout give way to vehicles in the roundabout. As of March 2009 the road at upper left carries 10,400 vehicles per weekday.
A typical trunk road roundabout in the UK at Carland Cross on the A30 in Cornwall
Statistically, modern roundabouts are safer for drivers and pedestrians than both traffic circles and traditional intersections. Roundabouts are safer than both traffic circles and junctions—experiencing 39% fewer vehicle collisions, 76% fewer injuries and 90% fewer serious injuries and fatalities (according to a study of a sampling of roundabouts in the United States, when compared with the junctions they replaced). (Though, a more ideal metric would be a comparison to nearby similar intersections, since a need for replacement may be a confounding factor.) Some larger roundabouts take foot and bicycle traffic through underpasses or alternate routes. Clearwater Beach, Florida’s multi-lane roundabout has reduced its previously high cyclist death rate to zero since its construction.
At junctions with stop signs or traffic lights, the most serious accidents are right-angle, left-turn or head-on collisions where vehicles move fast and collide at high impact angles, e.g. head-on. Roundabouts virtually eliminate those types of crashes. Instead, most crashes are glancing blows at low angles of impact.
An analysis of the New Zealand national crash database for the period 1996–2000 shows that 26% of cyclists reported injury crashes happened at roundabouts, compared to 6% at traffic signals and 13% at priority controlled junctions. The New Zealand researchers propose that low vehicle speeds, circulatory lane markings and mountable centre aprons for trucks can reduce the problem.
The most common roundabout crash type for cyclists, according to the New Zealand study, involves a motor vehicle entering the roundabout and colliding with a cyclist who already is travelling around the roundabout (50%+ of cyclist/roundabout crashes in New Zealand fall into this category). The next most common crash type involves motorists leaving the roundabout colliding with cyclists who are continuing farther around the perimeter. Designs that have marked perimeter cycle lanes were found to be even less safe, suggesting that in roundabouts, cyclists should occupy a vehicle lane rather than a special lane. The researchers advised that drivers be forbidden from overtaking cyclists (as well as other vehicles) while in the circle.
“It’s the American expectation that’s creating the problem,” says parking guru Donald Shoup.
Parking lots at Trader Joe’s: Like a case study in primate aggression, an elaborate car insurance fraud scheme, or proof that evil really is banal.
A recent Buzzfeed article bore witness to the emotional freight shoppers carry (no doubt in reusable bags) as they navigate the otherwise beloved grocer’s notoriously cramped parking provisions. Some sample tweets:
It’s been 7 days, 15 hours and 3 minutes since we entered the Trader Joe’s parking lot. Tell my family I love them.
So, Trader Joe’s, why all the narrow spaces, the hairpin turns? I know, I know: As the planning blog Strong Towns points out, less parking keeps overhead costs to a minimum, which translates to lower food prices. But is there something else going on? Some social commentary, some demonstration of consumer psychology?
I asked Trader Joe’s reps to provide an explanation, but was told repeatedly that they do not comment on “real estate or business practices.” So I asked Donald Shoup, the UCLA scholar of transportation and economics widely renowned as the “rock star” of parking. He lives in L.A. and shops at the Trader Joe’s in Westwood. In his view, all that frustration is the fault of American drivers’ expectations—not of Trader Joe’s.
Donald, speculate with me: Costs aside, why are Trader Joe’s parking lots the way they are?
I have thought about this. And as you say, this is speculative. But as I understand it, Trader Joe’s is owned by a German family, which also owns Aldi. So I think they have a lot of experience in the grocery business. In Germany, their grocery stores aren’t surrounded by acres of asphalt. They come from a different tradition where, with urban stores in dense areas, you don’t give free parking to everyone. It would be a strange idea.
It’s the American expectation that’s creating the problem. The expectation that there will be free parking and plenty of it, and if there isn’t, there’s something wrong.
So even though Trader Joe’s has always been based in the U.S., its owners continue to operate by non-American parking standards.
That’s right. You know, Trader Joe’s has to comply with the same minimum parking requirements that all other stores have. But what’s different is that they have a lot more customers. They’re such a good store. They have more sales per square foot than other chains. They could respond to this by providing more parking, but that’s not their style. So they’re successful at creating a problem for drivers who expect to find free parking. I think it’s the driver’s problem.
Is Trader Joe’s secretly pushing an active-transit agenda?
No, I don’t think so. I just think they don’t want to buy a lot of extra land and pave it with asphalt and raise prices in the stores. I don’t think it would be fair to force Trader Joe’s to buy more land around their stores and demolish houses or shops so that people can park for free. That wouldn’t be fair to those who don’t drive. And maybe it would make Trader Joe’s a less special place.
I do think people who are willing to walk or bike or carpool or take transit certainly get a better deal there. And I think the world would be a better place if more places were like Trader Joe’s, with lower prices and less free parking. For walkable neighborhoods and environmental purposes and food security and a lot of other reasons, they’ve made the right decisions.
Any other lessons to take away from the Trader Joe’s parking experience?
Just because parking is free doesn’t mean no one has to pay for it. And Trader Joe’s has made a decision to not make more parking than the city requires. They have a different business model, which is why people go. People like the benefits of Trader Joe’s. They’re are so happy when Trader Joe’s comes to their neighborhoods. It’s usually in dense areas, not in suburban locations. It couldn’t be that way if the stores were surrounded by acres of asphalt.
And by the way, if you don’t like Trader Joe’s, you can always shop elsewhere. You can go to Whole Foods or Ralph’s, where usually there are lots of empty parking spaces. If that’s what you prefer then you should shop there. But if you want Trader Joe’s lower prices and different products, that comes with more crowded parking. I don’t see why we should object to that.