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!
Innovators at summit brainstorm ways the city can further transform itselfBY BETTINA BOXALL
When Michael Maltzan visited Los Angeles in the 1980s with a group of architectural students, he was comfortable in a way that many of his fellow travelers were not.
L.A. conveyed the same low-density, car-friendly vibe that he grew up with in the Long Island suburbs — the sense that “you could just go,” he recalled Friday.
Los Angeles, in some ways, still clings wistfully to that identity even as it grows up instead of out, builds light rail instead of freeways and transforms its long-neglected downtown into a cultural center and home to tens of thousands.
The challenges and promise of that transition were the focus of discussion at the Los Angeles Times Summit on the future of cities, held at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
“I think there’s a psychological change,” said Maltzan, the founder of Michael Maltzan Architecture. There “is more anxiety, fear around development,” than decades past, when L.A. just kept pushing out and out.
Now the city is folding back on itself, ind the boundary pushing has to come by way of architecture and innovative infrastructure projects that wire density into commercial thoroughfares without overwhelming neighborhoods, he said.
Instead of a bridge having one use, it can be equipped with solar panels to generate electricity and collect stormwater — as Maltzan has proposed for a reimagined Arroyo Seco Bridge in Pasadena.
“For me that’s the future of infrastructure,” said Maltzan, whose firm designed the One Santa Fe apartment complex in the downtown Arts District and the Sixth Street Viaduct that will span the Los Angeles River.
Paul Schimmel, partner at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, said the international arts gallery found its inspiration in the past, in the form of a more than century-old flour mill in the Arts District.
“It was really the space,” that allowed his firm to transform the building into an enormous gallery space that is fast becoming a community hub with its courtyard and restaurant.
For much of its modern history, Los Angeles was obsessed with private space — the joys of a backyard, a single family home and a solo drive down an open freeway.
But now there is a hunger for walkable public areas, a need that is reflected in plans for the Los Angeles River corridor, downtown’s Grand Park and the popularity of neighborhoods like the Arts District.
“We’re returning to a sense of community,” Schimmel said, adding that the city needs to improve access to pedestrian areas.
“Maybe do a little work on the streets,” he said wryly.
As to whether $6 coffees and upscale apartment construction were driving artists out of the Arts District, Schimmel said he suspected the neighborhood was too expensive for artists before the arrival of bars and restaurants.
But the transformation was much slower than he expected. “In the early ’80s I thought it would be the next Soho,” he said.
“People love the idea of what it was” — a gritty creative community, Schimmel said. Though some of the grit has been scrubbed off the downtown arts scene, “it seems to have roots,” he added.
Moreover, the messy sprawl of the L.A. Basin still offers plenty of relatively cheap industrial space that artists can turn into studios, Schimmel said, citing moves to warehouses in the Interstate 10 corridor.
He also suggested it was time for Santa Monica, an arts incubator in the 1970s and 1980s, “to make its next big move … This is a community that needs to step up again and take the leadership it has in the past.”
Other panelists discussed a more disturbing change in the Los Angeles landscape: the explosive growth in homelessness.
In 1980, people were not living on the streets, said Tanya Tull, founder and CEO of Partnering for Change and an expert in family homelessness.
“Just about everything we’ve done” to address the homeless problem nationally, Tull said, “we’ve done wrong.”
Funneling most funding into supportive housing for the mentally ill will not end homelessness, she argued. “We cannot build ourselves out of this.”
Rather, Tull said, rent subsidies are critical to countering the spiraling cost of housing in Los Angeles that has driven families and individuals to the streets and kept them there, sometimes for years.
She also said local government should be more open to nonconventional housing, such as the “teensy” apartment units San Francisco is experimenting with.
“Don’t you think it’s better to have a tiny apartment than a tent?” Tull asked.
Brian Lane, a principal of Koning Eizenberg Architecture, which designs affordable housing projects, argued that L.A. needs to shed the notion that a neighborhood always equals single-family homes.
The city has “miles and miles” of single-story commercial strips that can be rebuilt with greater density and create neighborhoods around transit hubs, he said.
Sam Polk is a former hedge-fund trader on Wall Street who is working on another shortage — healthy fresh food in poor city neighborhoods that he calls “food deserts.”
Polk founded the nonprofit Groceryships, which does educational outreach to improve eating habits in parts of the city dominated by fast-food restaurants.
He also co-founded Everytable, which prepares meals in a central kitchen and then sells them to go in storefronts.
The prices vary according to what a neighborhood can afford.
Someone living in South L.A., for instance, pays $4 for the same meal that costs a buyer $8 on the Westside.
“Healthy food is a human right,” Polk said, pointing out that it simply took some innovative thinking to develop the Everytable business model.
In perhaps the most optimistic prediction uttered at the Summit, he declared: “We are on the verge of becoming one of the great cities of the world.”
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.
Administration calls for local laws to allow accessory dwelling units and denser development and eliminate off-street parking requirements, among other changes.
The Obama Administration is calling on cities and towns to reform land-use regulations to allow denser development by right while recommending actions that new urbanists have long supported.
The administration released a “toolkit” on housing development that recommends eliminating off-street parking requirements and allowing accessory dwelling units.
The toolkit also calls for more “high-density and multifamily zoning,” “streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines,” and allowing “by-right development,” which are consistent with many form-based codes and new urban reforms.
Antiquated land-use regulations, often dating from the 1970s or earlier, are holding back economic growth and increasing housing costs across America, says the administration.
“Significant barriers to new housing development can cause working families to be pushed out of the job markets with the best opportunities for them, or prevent them from moving to regions with higher—paying jobs and stronger career tracks. Excessive barriers to housing development result in increasing drag on national economic growth and exacerbate income inequality,” the report says.
On the other hand, “Cities like Chicago, Seattle, Sacramento, and Tacoma and states like California and Massachusetts have already begun to foster more affordable housing opportunities by removing restrictions, implementing transit-oriented-oriented zoning ordinances, and speeding up permitting and construction processes,” according to the Housing Development Toolkit.
The report marks a first—at least going back several decades—that the White House has made local zoning and land-use regulations a national issue.
“City zoning battles usually are fought block by block, and the president’s involvement will create friction, particularly among environmental groups and the not-in-my-backyard crowd,” notes a Politico report. “But the White House jawboning is welcome news to many others, including mayors and builders increasingly foiled by community opposition to development.”
The report is backed up by a fiscal year 2017 budget proposal to spend $300 million on Local Housing Policy Grants to help cities modernize housing regulatory approaches. However, the Administration’s lame duck status means budget priorities could radically change with whoever is elected in November.
Nevertheless, land-use reform could win support across the political spectrum—from mayors and smart growth advocates to developers and pro-business groups.
“It’s important that the president is talking about it,” Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute, told Politico. “Local restrictions on housing supply are a crucial economic issue. I would say it’s one of the top 10.”
In addition to previously mentioned priorities, the Toolkit recommends:
· Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
· Establishing density bonuses
· Employing inclusionary zoning
· Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
· Using property tax abatements
CBE 2015 Geoff Dyer
Click the link above to view.
The Downtown Oxnard Vision Plan Charrette was held in Oxnard between January 29th and February 2nd 2016. The Charrette was organized by the City of Oxnard, the Oxnard Community Planning Group (OCPG), and the Congress for the new Urbanism – California Chapter (CNU-CA). The Charrette, lead and created for Oxnard by the CNU-CA, was a resounding success – bringing together many stakeholders from the Oxnard community.
The Administrative Draft report is the culmination of 5 days of community input and dedicated and creative work by the more than 20 distinguished planning professionals of the CNU-CA.
California’s Bay Area housing disaster tells Southern Californians that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is both an irrational and irresponsible response. We are faced with deciding to have more neighbors or pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure. The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers.
I believe answers to meet San Diego’s housing demand are found in the following two-tier approach:
The first tier is a baseline ‘Beach Density.’ An existing housing model found in our older, traditional beach neighborhoods that fills our need for the ‘missing middle’ types of housing. This model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, the entire city can enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle that this Beach Model provides us.
The second tier is more precisely located ‘Climate Action Zones.’ Per its recently adopted Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego is required to take actions to “Implement transit-oriented development within Transit Priority Areas,” and to “[a]chieve better walkability and transit-supportive densities by locating a majority of all new residential development within Transit Priority Areas.” In combination with the Beach Density’s baseline housing bump, these Climate Action Zones are intended to achieve our city’s legally binding Climate Action Plan within a reasonable timeline.1 We cannot expect the city to complete it all at once, but it can accommodate for an urban acupunctural approach… pin pricks at key points to make great change.
These ‘zones’ will require updated and new city policies, including community plan updates, to facilitate increases of land use intensity near our region’s transit investments. Fortunately, we have one of our nation’s first and best Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) guidelines written by planning guru Peter Calthrope in 1992 that have sat neatly on a shelf in the city’s Planning Department over these many years, having been emasculated by our currently suburban and convoluted parking regulations. We should dust these off, as they’ve been proven throughout the world – as well as Portland – to increase transit ridership. In addition, we should manage our off-street parking and simplify one space per unit to permit transit, walking, and biking to be as advantageous as driving.
A ‘tower’ in San Diego is a building over 7 stories, and are only appropriate in one or two areas beyond downtown. However, 4 – 6 stories have been built in our old streetcar neighborhoods since their founding 100 years ago, as this height is a ‘walk up’ and appropriate in ‘walkable’ neighborhoods. Climate Action Zones should be located on the 4 to 8 blocks (600 feet radius) around primary intersections with cross-street transit service, currently built as 60’s era gas stations, drive-thrus, and strip centers.
Data shows that the majority of trips within 600 feet of a transit station are made by transit, bike or foot. These zones would permit mixed-use, up to 7 stories/90 feet tall max, using our TOD guidelines that allow for shared parking ratios with limited Community Plan conformance reviews in order to ensure transition steps to protect neighbors. Rather than waiting to build another Rancho del Rancho on our suburban periphery, these retrofitted intersections will be the focus of new development for the next 15-years. Successful case studies include Salt Lake’s Commuter, Light Rail (LRT), and Streetcar corridor economic engine, Dallas’s new LRT stations and Klyde Warren Park and Historic Streetcar value explosion, and Denver’s new infill coding success.
It is untenable to keep century old urban communities from change. But we know change brings fear to local citizens, which is why this two-tier approach makes very clear that new housing can fit comfortably within our current lifestyle if we explicitly plan for what we need using San Diego proven models. Finally, we have to plan for the change we want in order to fix our infrastructure, add public spaces, and to continue to be relevant to working economies by providing attainable housing, accessible transportation, and our unique outdoor lifestyle.
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.
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.
(Before beginning, let me thank the traffic engineers Paul Moore and Theodore Petritsch, who taught me most of this stuff. Yes, there are some good ones out there. This article borrows heavily from an article by Petritsch, “The Influence of Lane Widths on Safety and Capacity: A Summary of the Latest Findings.”)
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.
Happily, it turns out that engineers have conducted studies of their own. Two of these deserve our rapt attention. The first study, called “Effective Utilization of Street Width on Urban Arterials,” was completed by the TRB itself. It found the following:
… 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.
So far so good. A second study, called “Relationship of Lane Width to Safety for Urban and Suburban Arterials,” was conducted by the conservative Midwest Research Center. Comparing 10- to 11-foot lanes to 12-foot lanes, it found:
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.
For decades, city and state governments have seen contracting as a cost-saving panacea. But past experience has left some of today’s policymakers more skeptical.
A few years ago, Chicago residents accustomed to parking on the street got a rude shock. Parking-meter rates had suddenly gone up as much as fourfold. Some meters jammed and overflowed when they couldn’t hold enough change for the new prices. In other areas, new electronic meters had been installed, but many of them didn’t give receipts or failed to work entirely. And free parking on Sundays was a thing of the past.
The new meter regime sparked mass outrage. People held protests and threatened to boycott. But there was little recourse: The city had leased its 36,000 meters to a private Morgan Stanley-led consortium in exchange for $1.2 billion in up-front revenue. The length of the lease: 75 years.
If the meter situation seemed like a bad deal for Chicago’s parkers, it would soon become clear that it was an even worse one for the city’s taxpayers.
An inspector general’s report found that the deal was worth at least $974 million more than the city had gotten for it. Not only would the city never have a chance to recoup that money or reap new meter revenue for three-quarters of a century, clauses buried in the contract required it to reimburse the company for lost meter revenue. The city was billed for allowing construction of new parking garages, for handing out disabled parking placards, for closing the streets for festivals. The current bill stands at $61 million, though Mayor Rahm Emanuel has refused to pay and taken the case to arbitration instead.
How did this happen? The meter deal passed the city council just four days after then-Mayor Richard Daley—desperate to fill a recession-caused budget hole—presented it. There were no public hearings, and the aldermen never saw the bid documents. Afterward, some aldermen who voted for it said they wished they’d known more of the details, but it was too late. “We’re stuck with it for the next 71 years,” Alderman Roderick Sawyer told me recently.
Sawyer, a South Side Democrat who was not in office when the meter deal passed, is trying to ensure similar proposals will get more scrutiny in the future. He has introduced an ordinance that would require more transparency, including public hearings and a comprehensive economic analysis, for any proposed city partnership with a private entity.
An estimated $1 trillion of America’s $6 trillion in annual federal, state, and local government spending goes to private companies.
“This is just about the process,” Sawyer said. “We’re not saying all privatization deals are bad. But if we’re going to do this, let’s be honest with the public and let them know what’s going to occur: It’s going to save this much money, it’s going to cost this many jobs.”
Sawyer is not alone. In states and cities across the country, lawmakers are expressing new skepticism about privatization, imposing new conditions on government contracting, and demanding more oversight. Laws to rein in contractors have been introduced in 18 states this year, and three—Maryland, Oregon, and Nebraska—have passed legislation, according to In the Public Interest, a group that advocates what it calls “responsible contracting.”
“We’re not against contracting, but it needs to be done right,” said the group’s executive director, a former AFL-CIO official named Donald Cohen. “It needs to be accountable, transparent, and held to high standards for quality of work and quality of service.” Cohen’s organization, a national clearinghouse exclusively devoted to privatization issues, is the first advocacy group of its kind.
Doing it right, according to Cohen, means ensuring that contractors are subject to standards of transparency and accountability. Private companies doing government work and their contracts should be subject to open-records laws: In 2011, the city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, hired a contractor to videotape city meetings, then claimed the tapes weren’t public records. (A state appeals court eventually ruled otherwise.) Companies should be held responsible for cost overruns, and governments should be making sure they’re actually saving money: Many private prisons cost more to operate than public ones, the group claims.
“We are definitely seeing a wave of states and some cities passing laws to get control of contracting,” Cohen said. “There’s still a lot of pressure to outsource, but the trend we see is people trying to fix the process and do it better, because of some of the high-profile failures at the federal and state levels.”
The vogue for privatizing government began in the Reagan years, experts say, when an ascendant conservative ideology painted the public sector as a callous and sluggish bureaucracy and the private sector as inherently more innovative and efficient. The trend accelerated in the ’90s, and today, Cohen estimates that $1 trillion of America’s $6 trillion in annual federal, state, and local government spending goes to private companies.
Yet the public impression of privatization as a panacea for the inherent inefficiency of government has been tarnished in the intervening years. From Halliburton to Healthcare.gov to private prisons and welfare systems, contracting has often proved problematic. Perhaps mindful of these high-profile debacles, lawmakers are now more likely to view privatization and contracting proposals with skepticism. “The ideological fervor for privatization has ebbed,” according to John D. Donahue, an expert on privatization at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“If there’s anything Texans hate, it’s big government and cronyism, and toll roads deliver both.”
Donahue, who has studied the issue since 1988, sees privatization as inherently neither good nor bad. Academic studies paint a mixed picture, he said. The private sector can deliver efficiencies when the task being sought is well defined, easy to measure, and subject to competition—mowing public parks, perhaps, or collecting trash.
But when the goals are fuzzier or competition is lacking, the picture gets cloudier. Is the purpose of municipal parking meters to maximize revenue, or is it to provide a low-cost amenity to citizens and the businesses they patronize? How do you value the various objectives of a prison system—justice, rehabilitation, social order—when the financial incentive is to lock more people up? In many cases, Donahue said, privatization and contracting save governments money not through increased efficiency but by undercutting public-sector wages and pensions or, as in the case of the parking meters, by effectively robbing the future to pay for the needs of the present. (By mid-2011, the city had spent all but $125 million of the $1.2 billion parking-meter payment.)
These are the kinds of questions policymakers are demanding answers to as they evaluate government contracts with an eye to getting the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck. In Oregon, the legislature this month approved by overwhelming margins a bill tightening oversight of information-technology projects. It was an easy sell in the wake of the failure of the state’s healthcare-exchange website, which was such a disaster it made Healthcare.gov look successful by comparison. To this day, Cover Oregon’s website cannot accept online applications, forcing Oregonians to use paper applications or go through an insurance agent instead.
The new legislation will require third-party reviews of the quality of IT contractors’ work. One of its sponsors, Representative Nancy Nathanson, a Democrat from Eugene, believes such a requirement might have prevented the exchange debacle had it been in place while the site was being developed. “I think it’s important when you’re spending public money, whoever is doing the work needs to have their books open,” she told me. “We need to see how the money is spent. We need to see performance measures to determine whether something is working. We need accountability.” In the next legislature, Nathanson plans to continue her push on contracting issues, she said.
Most of the privatization skeptics are Democrats, who tend to be sympathetic to the labor unions fighting to save public-sector jobs. (In the Public Interest is partly funded by unions, though Cohen said it has other funding sources, mainly foundations, and operates independently.) When California Governor Jerry Brown proposed, in his latest budget plan, to “reduce [the state’s] reliance on contractors” by bringing formerly outsourced functions back in-house, critics largely saw the move as a sop to labor.
But some Republicans have also turned against privatization out of a desire for fiscal responsibility. In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich recently abandoned his push to lease the Ohio Turnpike to a private operator, deciding instead to have the state issue bonds backed by future toll revenue. The decision may have been influenced by the experience of nearby Indiana, which leased a 157-mile state road to an Australian-Spanish consortium and drew public criticism when toll rates doubled in five years. As with the Chicago meters, the government quickly spent most of its lump-sum payment and now faces decades bound by a restrictive contract that gives it little control over a major roadway.
“Privatization has potential rewards, but a lot of it is really just about shifting money around for political reasons,” said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and author of a report on toll roads called Private Roads, Public Costs. “There are a lot of dangers in terms of loss of control over public policy, not getting enough revenue for these assets, as well as a lack of transparency.”
Many of the ideological proponents of privatization are libertarian conservatives who believe tasks like operating roads and schools are better performed by the private sector. But in Texas, one of the most prominent activists against private toll roads is a San Antonio Tea Party activist named Terri Hall. She has started a petition to change the city charter to require that any toll project be put to a vote, and she blogs relentlessly on toll-related issues. “If there’s anything Texans hate, it’s big government and cronyism, and toll roads deliver both,” she wrote recently.
A worry about handing over American public assets to foreign companies also crosses partisan lines. Last month, the Republican-dominated Nebraska legislature passed, and Republican Governor Dave Heineman signed, a bill to increase transparency in state contracting by requiring contractors to report where the money was going—whether the goods and services the state was purchasing were coming from Nebraska, from other states, or from foreign countries.
“We’re spending close to $2 billion on contracts out of a roughly $8 billion budget,” said Heath Mello, the Democratic state senator who authored the bill. “The public and the legislature need to know where our contracting dollars are going and whether the state of Nebraska is seeing any economic benefit.” Nebraska lawmakers may also be warier of privatization since the state’s effort to privatize its foster-care system fell apart amid scandal in 2012.
Privatization proponents say contracting horror stories are overblown. Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform for the free-market Reason Foundation and editor of its comprehensive Annual Privatization Report, noted that other cities, such as Indianapolis, followed Chicago’s lead by privatizing their parking meters without a problem. (On the other hand, other cities, such as Pittsburgh, shied away from privatizing their meters.) “Is privatization a magic wand? Is it always going to come in and save you money? No,” Gilroy said. “You have to do this well. You have to do your due diligence. You have to do a good contract and then you have to monitor and enforce that contract.”
In this, Gilroy would seem to be on the same page as advocates of “responsible contracting.” But he suspects that the real agenda of In the Public Interest and the recent state legislative initiatives isn’t to improve contracting but to make it more difficult by creating bureaucratic obstacles. He pointed to the group’s collaboration with unions on a resolution that recently passed the California Assembly. Though nonbinding, the resolution’s decree that the body “opposes outsourcing of public services and assets” drew an outcry from businesses and local governments, including the California League of Cities.
“What seems to be underlying this is an outright hostility to outsourcing,” Gilroy said.
In Chicago, Alderman Sawyer’s accountability ordinance has yet to advance out of the Rules Committee. Emanuel criticized the parking-meter deal during his mayoral campaign and promised “an era of reform,” but as mayor, with the power to push the bill forward, he has yet to take a position on it. Sawyer says he has had “fruitful conversations” with the mayor’s administration and is hopeful Emanuel will back the measure soon. Emanuel’s office refused a request for comment on the ordinance.
Even if the ordinance goes nowhere, Sawyer believes Chicago may have learned its lesson about privatization. Prior to the meter deal, the city was one of the country’s most enthusiastic proponents of privatization. Daley leased the Chicago Skyway toll road for $1.8 billion and privatized city functions from towing to lawnmowing. But in the five years since the parking fiasco, Chicago policymakers have become more skeptical: A proposal to privatize Midway Airport—which would have made it the first privately run major airport in the country—went down after it was subjected to aggressive scrutiny.
“They analyzed the deal themselves,” Sawyer said. “And they determined that it was not worth doing.”
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.
Bundling parking with living space structurally raises the cost of urban life.
There’s no question that Generation Y loves the city, but demographers and urban planners can’t help but wonder how long that love will last. Given their lower income relative to previous generations, many urban Millennials favor small-footprint living: studios, a few one bedrooms, some congregate housing, and micro-units. But what happens as they age and have family? Will the need for two or three bedrooms force them to the suburbs, or will cities create the types of family-oriented units to keep them in place?
Families need at least two bedrooms (and preferably more) to be comfortable. Ideally they would have separate (or semi-private) rooms for teenagers of different genders, or for relatives who come to visit. They want yards and access to safe places for their children to play. Many cities want to encourage the production of family-sized apartment units, but few two and three-bedroom apartment units are being built. Most new apartment projects continue to be developed primarily with studios and one-bedroom units.
So how can cities meet these needs and encourage the private sector to build affordable urban housing for families? Well, they can start by changing their parking policies.
Urban affordability and parking policy are closely connected. In urban apartment and condo projects, parking is almost always required, and because of the high price of urban land, typically that parking is provided underground. Below-grade parking costs up to $35,000 per stall, while in many places wood-framed apartments cost about $100,000 to $120,000 to build (excluding the price of land). That means that for every parking stall we don’t require developers to build, we can save 25 to 35 percent of the cost of rent, right off the top.
So why do cities require developers to build parking and bundle it with apartments? Because people in surrounding neighborhoods don’t want the residents of new apartments using up “their” street-parking spots. It’s as if we were trying to get people to eat healthy affordable meals then forcing them to bundle it with an order of French fries because we don’t want to upset the potato lobby.
If cities are really committed to affordable housing, they need to look harder at their land use and building code requirements—such as bundling parking with living space—that structurally raise the cost of urban life. If parking becomes more scarce as a result, cities could implement systems that require residents to pay for street-parking permits, such as those in Toronto and Boston. Properly priced street parking allows cities to generate more revenue, reduce subsidies for cars, and distribute street space more equitably among all residents—not just those who lived there first.
Another change that could dramatically increase the ability of families to live in the city is shared outdoor space that’s both visible and easily accessible. Many newer apartment buildings are incorporating outdoor amenity spaces, such as shared roof-top decks, and this is a good start. But a roof-top deck that isn’t visible from the third floor is ill-suited to families with school-age children, since they can’t go out and play semi-supervised the way they would in the yard of a single family house.
One of the best urban forms that can adequately meet this need is called perimeter block housing, where row-houses are built continuously around a central courtyard. The kitchens and living spaces are on the ground floor facing the courtyard,allowing a free flow of children and parents between the indoor and outdoor spaces. The cost of perimeter block housing is very competitive with apartments and often less expensive than townhouses.
This kind of housing has been successfully developed in many European countries, but one of the main reasons the private sector hasn’t built much of it in North American cities comes back to parking. Perimeter block housing doesn’t accommodate vast parking lots, and building underground parking is prohibitively expensive, so any parking must be kept on surroundings streets. That’s not a tough adjustment for Millennials (many of whom have never owned cars) to make, especially if the neighborhood is near transit service or a mixed-use walkable area. In other words, what’s really limiting this type of housing is not necessarily parking demand but the minimum parking requirements imposed by cities.
Even in cities where the zoning does allow perimeter block housing, it’s usually grouped with dense residential buildings rather than with single-family zones, which it more closely resembles in typology, demographic, and customer demand. In practice, this means that two- or three-story, small-footprint perimeter block housing can only be built in zones where four- or five- or six- story apartment buildings are also allowed. Given a certain cost for the land, it will always be more profitable to build to the maximum height and density in these zones, thereby making perimeter block housing the least profitable option. Allowing perimeter block housing within single family zones, where it would be the most profitable form in that zone, would result in much more of it being built.
So if cities truly want to encourage more close-in housing that’s affordable to middle- and working-class families, both now and in the future, parking and zoning policies are the place to start. The challenge for growing cities in North America is great and the demand for urban housing is only likely to increase while infrastructure dollars are on the decline. Cities can’t solve the affordability problem with just taxes or public dollars—they need to change the rules of the game to allow more housing to be built that truly meets the needs and wants of today’s families.
Every time a new building includes space for cars, it passes those costs on to tenants.
Seattle’s smart new plan to give tenants transit passes instead of parking spaces should help housing stay more affordable down the line. To get a sense just how much money renters might save, the city relied on a 2012 study of how parking impacts affordability from its neighbor in the Pacific Northwest, Portland. That work is striking for both its clarity and its conclusions, so let’s took a closer look.
Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability modeled what happens to unit prices when a building developer decides to include parking. A few specs if you’re into that sort of thing: the sites were 10,000 square feet (so, about 4 stories tall), zoned for mixed-use (so, shops on the ground floor), with units averaging 550 square feet (so, depending on your persona, cozy or cramped).
The report looked at several types of parking, including a surface lot, podium (a partial cut of ground floor) style, mechanical lifts that maximize space, or underground parking. All are compared to a 50-unit development option with no parking at all. The low-end rents assume developers make a 7 percent profit on the project; the high-end assumes 10 percent.
Charting the data on cost, we can see rents climb as the parking options become more complex, and thus expensive for the developer. A low-end rent in a building with no parking comes to $800 a month. Rent in the same unit in a building with the cheapest parking option, surface spots, comes to $1,200—a 50 percent jump. In a building with underground parking, the low-end rent hits $1300, a spike of 62.5 percent.
Of course, more parking in a building doesn’t just mean higher unit rents—it means fewer units, period. Below we chart the rental units that are sacrificed to various parking types. Again, in the no-parking scenario, a building can have all 50 possible units. This time the underground lot actually fares best among the parking options, since it preserves all but 3 units. The surface lot removes 20 potential homes—that on top of whatever commercial development space it might lose on the ground floor.
So we see how parking (especially surface parking) becomes a scourge on a city. Residential lots and spaces make individual units less and less affordable for tenants. They also result in fewer units as a whole, meaning the supply of housing across the city takes a hit. That too jacks up rents over time, as neighborhoods run out of sites to develop, and families run out of places to live.
For decades, cities have required developers to include parking as part of their building plans, a “minimum” standard that’s only now starting to relax in places. That shift in focus does create new challenges: cities must find other places for parking (ideally, shared facilities), or better yet, craft programs that discourage residents from driving in the first place (like Seattle’s). But for metros struggling to make housing more affordable, rethinking parking policy is a clear place to start.
“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.
— Hana (@HanaMichels) March 10, 2016
I’m like 99% certain when you go to hell you just have to find parking in a Trader Joes parking lot for all eternity. 🔥
— Lily Williams (@lwbean) May 24, 2015
When I have some free time I like to hop in my car and just cruise the trader joes parking lot. U know add to the confusion and mania
— Cornell Reid (@CornellReid) January 14, 2016
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.