September 28, 2010

On Density and Pedestrian Planning

Over at Human Transit, a great post about density, its relationship to transit, and its statistical elusiveness.

the perils of average density

I especially want to highlight the post's deconstruction of the statement “the net density of Toronto is ###/hectare.”

  • “Density” in an urban planning context is always some kind of quantified human presence divided by some kind of land area, but it can be residential density (residents or homes per acre) or it can be total development density -- including homes, businesses, schools etc – or it can be an economic density such as the number of jobs in an area.
  • “Net,” as opposed to “gross,” means that the human presence is being divided by a smaller unit of area instead of a larger one. In calculating the area, for example, you might take out undevelopable land, and bodies of water, and the land taken up by streets and highways -- or you might not. There are arguments for or against excluding each of these things from “net density,” and an opinion about each of them is hiding inside the word “net.”
  • “Toronto,” of course, can be the City of Toronto, or the Toronto Transit Commission area, or the whole urban mass of greater Toronto. These obviously have utterly different average densities.
Lies, damn lies, and statistics. Having this much slipperiness built into the very vocabulary is frustrating, and in the absence of rigorous specificity, is a source of many fruitless headaches.

The post engages the topic of density in light of the measurement's prominence in Transport for Suburbia. Author Paul Mees makes the unconventional claim that density is not a necessity for effective transit. Or at least, not density in its sloppier iterations. For example, Mees demonstrates that Residential Density per Metropolitan area (red flag right there) yields unexpected results:

Metro Area Density (pop/ha) Transit mode share for work trips.

Los Angeles 27.3 4.7

New York 20.5 24.8

Las Vegas 17.7 4.1

Vancouver 17 16.5

Los Angeles, you know, the densest of the dense urban metropolises!

Since this post is entirely me piggy-backing and publicizing noteworthy insights of a planning professional, it is fitting to give him the final word:
To me, Mees’s table proves that average density over a whole urban area is the wrong kind of density for understanding transit. The impression you probably have of the densities of these cities is actually closer to the kind of density that matters.
Transit reacts mainly with the density right around its stations. It is in the nature of transit to serve an area very unevenly, providing a concentrated value around its stops and stations and less value elsewhere. So what matters for transit is the density right where the transit is, not the aggregate density of the whole urban area.
The granular details of where the transit is can be quite granular indeed: a footpath through the end of a cul-de-sac, a footpath over a creek. Human Transit gives a more detailed run-down here.

All in all, an excellent reminder that transit and urban planning projects can hinge on what might appear to be insignificant design details.

September 27, 2010

Why Suburban Retrofits Matter, Part II

Earlier I posted a quick list of reasons why suburban retrofits are more than just a matter of taste, and today I turn my attention to the outward migration of jobs and office space, from city to suburbs.

A local example of this shift made headlines earlier this week: Clorox, the Oakland-headquartered cleaning product empire, is moving as many as 700 jobs to a new campus in suburban Pleasanton. Clorox plans to enlarge the campus, formerly occupied by Washington Mutual, by 65,000 square feet, and sell its existing Pleasanton campus. It will also be looking for new tenants to occupy the bottom 12 floors of its Oakland skyscraper, though the company has stated intentions to remain headquartered there. After the shift, both locations are expected to house around 900 employees.

Clorox's suburban migration is not an isolated case. In a 2000 report by the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institute, author Kenneth Lang found significant growth disparities. A picture is worth a thousand words:

Lang goes on to distinguish between suburbs categorized as Edge Cities and those that are more appropriately termed Edgeless Cities.

Edge Cities--like Walnut Creek, CA, or Tysons Corner, VA--are well defined places, always with favorable highway access, usually in proximity to transit to urban cores, that have a successful mix of suburban single family homes ringing a well-to-do business district. In short, they are centralized places at the edge of metropolitan areas. They have boundaries.

Edgeless cities, as the name implies, are more entropic. They are rather like San Ramon: made up of free-standing buildings, office parks, or small clusters of buildings of varying densities. They usually lack a center, and are not considered destinations, though they may meet utilitarian errand-running needs.

With this distinction in mind, here are more data:

As Lang writes, "People increasingly commute from dispersed locations to dispersed locations." I do not doubt this, but it would be interesting to learn more about what metrics tip a city from Edge to Edgeless. In Lang's report, Edgeless Cities are "highly dispersed clusters featuring less than 5 million square feet of space." So cluster of office space greater than 5 million square feet is an Edge City--this seems like an oversimplification.

The implications of these shifting trends are hard to enumerate in a satisfying way. What's clear is that while central cities are still growing, most growth is spreading outward. But instead of far-flung housing developments that retain established centers as their point of reference, the new office developments fold the system outward in unexpected ways.

My takeaway is that suburbs are increasingly trapped between the use their design would predict--bedroom communities for an urban core--and what they are increasingly used for--a source of employment and whatever kind of civic life can be found. The outward spread of office space, especially in such a dispersed manner, makes transportation planning more difficult and traffic patterns more multi-nodal. With increased auto dependency comes greater segregation of uses, fewer public gathering places, and fewer occasions for pride in or ownership of one's built environment. If there's nothing there worth identifying with ... then what?

I think the rootlessness of these places is what gets to me the most, but what's a planner to do? Dispersed office growth just makes planning well-used and well-liked areas that much more challenging. The former destroys density, the latter needs it. My worry is that it seems condescending for a planner to say, "sure your development is functional, but here's are some changes you should make to improve your quality of life." It seems more reliable to stick to "improve your tax base/traffic patterns/air quality."

Which is my way of saying that I wish Lang's report had quantitative data about the effect of suburban office growth on tax bases/traffic patterns/air quality, rather than leaving me to surmise about the qualitative unsavoriness of living in one of the ascendant Edgeless Cities.

September 24, 2010

San Ramon Plans for New Urbanist Infill Project

The City of San Ramon has an ambitious plan. I'll frame it, hit some key design points, show a few maps, a few stumbling blocks, and some parting thoughts. All information is from the September 23rd Staff Report on this page.

The Frame

Today the city of San Ramon hosted a public comment session on its North Camino Ramon Specific Plan (NCRSP). The planners are speaking a language I did not expect to hear in this rather conservative, automobile-embracing slice of of suburbia. From the online staff report:

The North Camino Ramon Specific Plan seeks to facilitate the redevelopment of the Specific Plan area and strives to meet sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction goals as the plan area transforms from an automobile-dominated, low-density commercial area to a transit- and pedestrian- oriented neighborhood that will be a community focal point with a mix of uses.
As a nearby resident and frequent patron of existing stores who assumed that the garbled vomit of retail surface parking megablocks surrounded by clogged arterials would never change, I'm ... stunned.

Key Design Points

  • The adoption of General Plan 2030 would re-designate all properties within the Specific Plan area not currently designated “Mixed Use” to “Mixed Use.”
  • The preliminary draft calls for displacing 2,650,000 sq ft of retail, and adding in 4,325,000 new sq ft. 1500 dwelling units (1,650,000 sq ft) are also planned.
  • A street loop will create new frontage for multi-level mixed use retail, restaurant, office, and residential uses, and enclose a linear public park: "a well-designed gathering place with site amenities and quality landscape features."
  • The Transit Center, currently hidden in a commuter's only spot in the heart of Bishop Ranch, will relocate to the southern end of the street loop.
  • Shared parking. Sounds boring, but this is a lynch-pin. Developments like these that have separate parking reqs for each tenant end up with a sea of duplicated parking. When each store has its own lot, drivers are encouraged to drive from place to place, rather than park once. Under such conditions, parking once would also be plain inconvenient; parking lots on foot are boring, unsafe, and take a long time to traverse.
  • A broad landscaped path will link the Iron Horse Trail to the Commons, Transit Center, and will be designed to assist capture and filtration of runoff. The development at Camino Ramon and Sycamore in Danville completely failed at connectivity with the IHTrail, and it abuts the darn thing. Big plus here for ped and cycling connectivity.
  • Secondary Streets. A Jane Jacobs-approved attempt at street gridding and connectivity that gives circulation options to people on foot. And increases street frontage lots for sale.
  • Bishop Ranch Consolidation. "Relocation of the existing Bishop Ranch office space from other parcels within the Specific Plan area will be encouraged to allow more intensive development of other commercial and residential use." How they plan to entice/move existing office buildings around is beyond me.
  • Diversified housing options. "Loft units, apartments over retail stores, apartment and condominium buildings, townhouses, rowhouses, and live/work units" for young professionals who like to be near commercial areas and possible employers.

A Few Maps

A bird's eye view of the North Camino Ramon Specific Plan.

The write-overs I did underwhelm in the legibility dept, so from the top down: CC Road, Norris C (Road), and "Red arrows = the only existing through streets."

As you can see, super blocks engulfing parking engulfing retail/offices. It's possible to traverse most of this area in your car without ever leaving a parking lot.

Got that spatially mapped? Here's the tentative plan, screen-captured from the Staff Report pdf.

I really wish they had done this with transparent color coding--seeing the existing built environment would be much more useful. After some tedious split screen comparing (and heck, I know this area really well), I was able to see a few stumbling blocks.

A Few Stumbling Blocks

1. The street loop/mixed use core/linear public park bisects an existing supermarket. Now as much as I'd like to see a complete street routed down the snack food aisle of my local Lucky's, this seems improbable. And if not Lucky's per se, the street might cut through Big 5 Sporting Goods, or Ruggies, or Thrifty. I don't think they'd be keen either. I'm curious whether the City can tell either a) the store, b) the developer who owns the property or c) both, "clear out, we're putting a retail, sidewalk, parking, street, sidewalk, public park, sidewalk, street, parking, sidewalk, retail sandwich right through the property you have prosperously occupied for, I don't know, at least as long as the author of this blog post has been breathing. Eminent domain? Does the City actually own that land? Can they force them out? Mmm ... property law and contract law would be useful here ...

There's also a big hunk of 24 Hour Fitness where the #10 #3 #7 triangle is on the above map. I'm sure there are more examples, but for the sake of length I'll move on. Let the record show that I cannot wait to see how they will re-build the built environment.

2. The secondary streets won't create blocks as small as downtown Danville's, which will be the reference point for just about all future users of this future "downtown" space. Smaller blocks = more walkable and browsable, but I suspect stumbling block #1 above is the reason why more streets are not going in.

3. By far my biggest stumbling block is looking at the existing land use, and reading their plan, and saying "impossible." If you've used this area, you know that this plan is the diametric opposite of everything you associate with the space.

Parting Thoughts: Visualizing the Transformation, Difficultly

I'll be back with some ground level pictures tomorrow, but I'll leave you with a closer look at the sense of impossibility I feel.

A closer look at the northwest corner. The "w," "m," and "ng" in "Crow Canyon Commons Shopping Center" mark the new street + park + retail loop route. And you can see there is very much a building in the way, and more beyond it.

All three of the secondary cross streets will be on this parcel. Hard to imagine with so many buildings in the way! I think one of the secondary streets (the one just north of "#1" on the above plan) will intersect the new street + park + retail loop by running along the line of green that demarcates the parking lot border between the clusters of office buildings south of the CC Commons Shopping Center, and north of the 24 Hour Fitness (the dark gray rectangle partially cut off by the lower frame). The other two will go north and south of that one, though how they will finagle the right of way is beyond me.

And please, please note the oceans of underperforming asphalt parking. Can't wait to see them repurposed.

September 23, 2010

Segregation and cities

One area of urban planning that I have both read a lot about, in the sense that it exists, but have not read anything about, in the sense of what a planner can/should do about it, is segregation.

h/t to Ms. AK from Seattle for the link to these illuminating population maps. Just goes to show how far a good visual can go. I've posted three, but a few more are here.

Red/pinkish dots = white people, blue dots = black, green dots = asian (presumably east asian, judging by the Chinatown clusters, unknown how much of Asia is included though), and yellow = hispanic/latino.

San Francisco - lots of white people in north and central SF. Interesting integration in what looks to be either downtown Oakland or Berkeley, can't quite tell. It's one of the few places on any map where all colors can be seen mixed together.

Detroit - the 8 mile road is like the Berlin Wall. Wow. Inner city is black, outer ring, white.

New York City - the famous neighborhoods. Little thises and thatses, and boy are they concentrated. Notable that Central Park and Prospect Park, the two best known (and used) parks, are pretty much surrounded by white people. Assuming I've noted the correct location for Prospect. I guess that shouldn't really come as much of a surprise.

These maps = me looking forward to learning GIS.

September 21, 2010

Traffic Safety: Damned with faint praise

h/t to Systemic Failure ...

U.S. traffic fatalities are at an all-time low! But a study by the International Transport Forum offers perspective:

Road deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2009:

Malaysia – 23.8
Argentina – 18.4
Greece – 13.8
Cambodia – 12.6
Korea – 12.0
Poland – 12.0
US – 11.1
Lithuania – 11.0
New Zealand – 8.9
Belgium – 8.9
Czech Rep – 8.6
Slovenia – 8.4
Hungary – 8.2
Portugal – 7.9
Italy – 7.9
Austria – 7.6
Luxembourg – 7.2
Australia – 6.9
France – 6.9
Canada – 6.3
Spain – 5.9
Denmark – 5.5
Ireland – 5.4
Iceland – 5.3
Finland – 5.3
Germany – 5.1
Japan – 4.5
Switzerland – 4.5
Norway – 4.4
Israel – 4.2
Sweden – 3.9
Netherlands – 3.9
UK – 3.8

Why Suburban Retrofits Matter

Not just because it's a "fashionable/elitist/patchouli-munching lifestyle choice" as some would deride it. Check out this post over at Smart Growth America. Highlights:

In a new study, the American Lung Association in California has thrown its support behind that state’s plans for more smart growth communities because of the striking positive health implications.
The study conservatively estimates that if the state of California realizes Vision California goals to decrease driving and create more walkable, mixed-use communities by 2035, the state will avoid:
  • $1.66 billion (yes, with a “b”) in pollution-related heath costs
  • 140 premature deaths
  • 260 heart attacks
  • 215 acute bronchitis incidents
  • 95 cases of chronic bronchitis
  • 2,370 asthma attacks
  • 101,960 other respiratory symptoms
  • 205 respiratory ER trips and hospitalizations
  • 16,550 lost work days
  • 132,190 tons of criteria pollutants

And those are just the physical health benefits. Streetsblog leads with an article about driving related stressors, and the mental leaps and assumptions through which we turn cars and their automated mobility into expectations. And get all bent out of shape when reality gets in the way of our self-involved worldview. I wrote here about how cars facilitate me-first kind of thinking.

September 20, 2010

On Wishing Joyful Prosperity to East Bay Public Transit

Today Annie and all others who have sung about the promise of tomorrow found their promises bear fruit. Ah, the bounty of the difference a day's time makes!

Got to an 8:45 meeting at 8:44--CCCTA got me to BART right on time, and BART to Montgomery.

After work, took BART back, and then the bus to the Danville library. Sweet. After tutoring my young charge, I walked to the bus station, expecting to wait 20-30 minutes. No sooner had I about-faced to keep wary lookout for my 40-foot steed, than did I be-spy its approach. Sweet nectar beauty pure.

Debut of East Bay HOT Lanes

From the SF Chronicle: New express lanes create confusion, congestion

Image stolen from Transbay blog

Interstate 680 has unveiled its new market-priced toll lane: instead of a free carpool lane, anyone who wants to pay the toll can drive in the lane. First catch: you need to have a Fastrak transponder. Second catch: from the looks of the article, there's gonna be a learning curve. In this case, an extra 3 miles of traffic. Officials seemed confident that by the end of the week, improvements would manifest themselves.

The toll ranges from 30 cents in off peak hours to a maximum of $4-6 dollars. In other words, whatever it takes to keep the flow moving. I'd love to hear more about how they shift the price: do they have some chap watching the live video feed? Are electronic sensors good enough to compute changes in the speed of traffic and increase the toll electronically, instantly, and deduct corresponding amounts from computer chips whizzing underneath them at 60mph? And what are the ratios--does a 5mph drop in speed = a 50 cent rise in price? An interesting economics case study on what people will pay ... and in social equity and in reinforcing divides between haves and have nots. High-Occupancy Tolls may boost efficiency, but the inequality counterargument is an interesting one. Do all citizens have the right to automobile convenience? No, but all citizens have the right to mobility. 

Sans effective public transit (and land use that supports transit) we have Impasse.

A little more detail over at Transbay.

The Parking Lot Movie

I went to a free screening of this in SF, in a parking lot (natch), and it totally blew me away. I was expecting a screed, and instead I got Clerks. The documentary tells the story of The Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, VA, and the hyper-educated oddballs who work there. 100% comedic gold.

I just cannot communicate how hilarious, and how charming this documentary is.

September 19, 2010

On Wishing Death to East Bay Public Transit

Today, I wish death, blight and pestilence on East Bay Public Transit.

BART fared me well when I boarded at 16th and Mission. I had a 2:45pm bus to catch in Walnut Creek, and had finally caught a train that would assuredly deliver me on time. The driver/intercom voice was peppy, and enthused that we would be going full speed through the Berkeley Hills tunnel.

At Orinda station, the time was 2:25 and I was blissfully reading when Mr. Intercom Voice announced that due to track repairs, we would hold at Lafayette station for 15 minutes. Snap--that's gonna make it tight, but we should still arrive at 2:40. Pulled out of the station at 2:40, and halfway to WC we came to a stop. Construction debris on the tracks. Mr. Intercom Voice gave us the color commentary as the train powered down to let workers onto the track to clear the shiz out of the way.

"The workers are right in front of me ... we should be up and running soon ... Sorry the AC is off, folks, but we had to power down so they can clear the debris ... It's about halfway cleared ..."

Question 1) Can't they do this track maintenance at night? You know, when no trains are running?
Question 2) You're doing track maintenance, which is a good and worthy thing (PG&E, take a bow), but you need a place to put, I don't know, brush that you've cleared, or extra concrete trench plates: why in the blue blistering blazes would you put that junk on the set of working train tracks?

I missed the bus. I grabbed my transfer, and walked into Walnut Creek to get some grub. I returned to the nearest bus stop at 3:40, sat down, and took out my book. After each paragraph I glanced up to look for the bus, and maybe the 15th or 16th time I did this, I looked up to see the bus drive past.

As Gob Bluth would say, "C'MON!"

I ran about a block, but without my bike I was neutered, powerless. The bus hit a green light and was gone.

Steaming, I walked to the next bus stop and sat down and read for another hour. This time I stood and was waiting for the bus so there would be no mistake. I boarded, and gave the driver my pass and my transfer card.

"Sorry, this is no good."


"Transfers are only good at the BART station."

"But I walked here from BART! Look at the time, 2 hours ago!"

"Well, you'll have to give them a call to tell them that."

What a ridiculous policy.

Days like these are why any sufficiently-salaried person in their right mind drives. Transit riders shouldn't have to put up with this garbage.

September 17, 2010

What We're Reading: Retrofitting Suburbia

Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs is the full title, and totally encapsulates the tome's intent.

What's been most interesting so far are the market forces it describes. To authors Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, the financial incentives for retrofitting are present and only gathering more steam.

To wit:
  • Reduced percentages of suburban households with children
  • Growing market for multiunit housing in suburban locations
  • Continued growth in percentage of jobs in suburban locations.
  • First-ring suburbs that are aging and depopulating, and becoming comparatively central thanks to newer, farther-flung developments
And here's a quote that stood out for multiple, perhaps paradigm shift-related reasons:

"The future promises to alter our relationship to place as we continue to shift from an industrial to a postindustrial economy and society. This economy is digitally enabled to be less dependent on geography, making the qualities of individual places matter more in locational decisions ... a primary goal is to build and support an identifiable, durable place to which people will be attracted."

At first I thought, you ninny, we are obviously post-industrial. Then I remembered that I am 24, and the author could be double my age. I've never even really lived in an industrial economy, so acknowledging post-industrialism feels calling my music habits post-vinyl.

My second impression is that her assessment of our evolving geography is on point. A knowledge economy is, at least comparatively, a movable feast. In determining where to look for jobs, or where I'd like to live, I determine my shortlist exclusively by quality of place. After that cut, other factors dominate (well, just one, really--employment), but I hadn't really considered the implications of such radical mobility. With the power of the internet fueling national and international job searches and instant information gathering, the barriers to getting a job in x place because it seems like the get lower and lower. And let's get tighter: even moving to x neighborhood, or x street. It seems more people than ever have* the kind of choosing power and information re location and place that is traditionally reserved for appliances and car stereos. A more powerful customer can certainly shift the old demand curve ...

*Or do they? Having a family with a stable financial background and a college education seem completely essential here. And those are two big caveats. As suburban places improve and diversify their land-use in desirable ways, I wouldn't be surprised if traditionally marginalized groups get priced/elbowed out into the newly least desirable spaces ... actually I kind of expect it. Keeping the less-mobile in mind will be critical to ensuring that the boon from these market forces (better places) are equitably available.

September 13, 2010

Jacobs Distillation

Having finished Death and Life of Great American Cities, I have now, just now, located a convenient summation. Some chap has typed up a bunch of JJ notable quotables. Thanks, hivemind!

Here's the real clincher:

The generators of diversity
"To generate exuberant diversity in a city's streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable:
1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common. 
2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition; including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
4. There must be sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentrations ... of people who are there because of residence.
The necessity for these four conditions is the most important point this book has to make. In combination, these conditions create effective economic pools of use" (151).

Downtown Danville has points 1, 2, and 3, and notably, is a major asset to the town region--a justifiable magnet for folks in the suburbs radiating around it who get bored by all the dullness. Apart from Walnut Creek, it is probably the only town center on the 680 corridor built for pedestrians. Maybe parts of Pleasanton and Livermore would take offense at that. Though I cannot speak for its brethren, I know Dt Danville was laid out before the car. Hence, the short blocks and sidewalk building frontages.

Pretty much everything else around it is chain retail behind acres of parking. Progress!

September 12, 2010

Quick hit: Bike parking

Leave it to the Japanese to find a compact way to store hundreds of bicycles. From what I've read, this is just in Tokyo for now, though the vid says the company is looking to expand to other metropolitan areas.

September 7, 2010


A frustration with suburban sprawl is that there just doesn't seem to be anything that can be done about it: origins and destinations are spread out, cars are obligatory, there are no public spaces. And it all seems so permanent, so ... built. The experience of walking in such an environment makes me feel like an afterthought--the lonely consequence of a planner who hedged his bets: "Well, no one will want to walk in a place like this ... but I better put in some sidewalks, just in case."

You have to throw pedestrians more than a bone to get walkability, and that's exactly what this really sweet entry in the Re-urbia Suburban Design Competition does. Take a look:

Infill development has the potential to gradually transform suburban sprawl into spaces that can support additional uses. I extra extra love these ideas because no raze n rebuild is needed; the new blends in with the old. The big developments that result from clearing large swaths of land always feel less than real, a bit ... sterile. Like plots of mixed use simulacra. Better to go incremental, though incremental, by definition, is slow.

Here are the rest of the finalists. Definitely worth a peek.

Update: the person who submitted this portfolio to the competition did not disclose her affiliation with New Urbanist titans Duany, Plater and Zyberk et al., but apparently she is one of the principals. Still great work, just not quite the diamond in the rough it once seemed!

Automobile Attrition v. City Erosion

In her famous Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs asserts that priority of automobiles in urban planning creates one of two realities: automobile attrition or city erosion.

The latter is the accumulated result of many individual decisions to boost drivers' convenience: a road widened here, a curb corner softened to allow for faster right turning traffic flow, removing parking meters, and so on. Individually these seem fruitful--I can imagine an engineer pleasantly surveying his handiwork with his hands on his hips, secure in contributing to expedited travel. The aggregate, however, is a city slouching toward automobile dependency, less friendly to pedestrians and bikers, and thereby lacking the foot traffic and density to sustain vibrancy. Developments grow outward because ever more room is needed for automobiles. And a city is eroded.

Automobile attrition works in the opposite direction. Sidewalks in high ped traffic areas are widened. Buses get signal prioritization. Zoning doesn't require a mandatory minimum number of parking spaces, street parking is priced, and parking lots are behind stores, rather than separating the would-be window shoppers from their window quarry. Note that these policies are not knee-jerk anti-auto policies: they work toward a definable, positive goal. This is different from, say, shutting down a street to cars and turning it into a pedestrian mall. Unless skillfully done in the right location, removing cars doesn't do much of anything. In fact, such a move can be quite deadening. Eugene, Tampa, Boston and others learned the hard way that ped malls are tricky to replicate.

All this push/pull about the issue of cars in cities brings me to this conundrum:

At 1111 Lincoln Road in Miami, Herzog and de Meuron have built a parking garage with ground floor retail, a penthouse, and additional retail space on the 4th floor. And a distinct visual style, to say the least.

I've been torn on this for a while: I dislike that it's a monument to automobile culture, and I somewhat dislike the concrete aesthetic, though I've rarely seen concrete wielded with anything approaching this dexterity (usually you get this and other Le Corbusier knock-offs). I also worry that it might start a trend, and I fear that its less artful progeny will just be big and blocky deadspaces. Like most parking garages.

On the other hand, I love that it adds real identity to its location--it's a destination, justifiably. It nicely encloses the pedestrian promenade, and the wall-less parking levels make a usually claustrophobic space open and nearly vertiginous. As Andres Duany, king of New Urbanism, says in the above clip, it is a form of civic activism that expands a parking garage from a cramped afterthought into a public space capable of bringing people together. A parking garage as plaza--I bet architects can push that angle in neat ways, but again, I fear the less-skilled imitators (Benches and potted plants do not a plaza make, and I think the wall-less-ness only works when there's a killer view, like here).

Ultimately I'm siding with Duany on this one. I don't think automobile accommodation can be termed city eroding when it clearly adds diverse uses and visual pizazz while creating a defined a pedestrian mall at its base.

All cities need parking; 1111 Lincoln Street shows us that sating this need can also create dynamic public spaces. I hope the vibrancy sticks after the buzz wears off.

September 5, 2010

PARKing Day is coming!

September 17th, a Friday. The premise is to turn a parking space into a park, or whatever your imagination can turn a 9'ish by 18'ish curbside space into. From their website, the goal is to:

make PARK installations honest gestures of generosity and civic engagement, and to support creativity, cultural expression, socializing and play. PARK(ing) Day is about offering the casual passerby a place to just sit, relax, casually interact with folks, or just sit and do nothing.

There are instructions for how to make your own PARK, and maps to facilitate PARKing tourism. Check it out!

The CCCTA joins the internet community

With a serious upgrade. I'm almost disappointed I didn't get to formally critique their old website. It was a piece of work--really reminded me of the days when I would ask my parents' permission to "surf the web." You know, 28.8 modems and all.

The new site is a big step toward being taken seriously.

Unsurprisingly, it does not link to their teen outreach video. Probably for the best.

September 4, 2010

Carless in Suburbia: Reflections

With 3 exceptions* I have not used a car since I moved to Danville on August 12th, 3 weeks ago.

CCCTA service: the morning bus to BART arrives within 2-3 minutes of its stated arrival time, and gets to Walnut Creek around 8 minutes after its scheduled terminus--but for a late morning/late rush hour service, that's pretty good. The MBTA buses in Boston rarely followed the schedule, and only a few buslines had headways small enough to make simply showing up at the bus stop a viable option. You still had to check the schedule.

However, on 4 separate occasions I have had to chase down buses. That's about 25% of the bus trips I've taken. Only one of these was the driver's fault; I detailed this here. While that driver just never stopped, the other 3 occasions came from cutting my BART commute home a bit too close. As in, my BART train arrives at 6:10. Delays of 2-3 minutes, coupled with the afternoon rush hour mass exodus, and sometimes with that pesky addfare, usually mean I arrive in time to see the 6:15 bus pulling out of the bus bay.

Two days ago I ran behind the bus, arms flailing. A week and two days ago I had my bike, and even though there was no bus in sight, I pedaled like the dickens and caught it at its 3rd stop. Two weekends ago I biked alongside the bus and hopped on at its first stop.

My first takeaway: it helps to be young and fleet of foot. Second: there are significant convenience trade-offs. I enjoy adding an extra half hour to my commute to snooze or read, but that's how much longer the bus takes. Convenience trade-off corollary: missing the bus = 30 minute wait. Hence all that durned bus chasing.

*Driving my sister to Oregon for her senior year of college, family trip to visit grandmother in Mountain View, and picking up two large deep dish pizzas. Bike rack will need some mods before I'll trust it to safely handle the divinity of Zachary's Pizza.

Rural Transit

The Kings County Area Public Transportation Agency (KCAPTA) has achieved a difficult feat in the world of transit: a successful public transit system in the lowest of low density areas. From Way2Go:

KCAPTA oversees the Kings Area Rural Transit system (KART) and the Agricultural Industries Transportation Services, which includes more than 380 vanpools and 23 rural bus routes stretching from Kern to Madera counties.  The system connects agricultural workers and correctional officers to work every day, provides critical access to medical services for the elderly, and ensures that low-income residents have a way to get to colleges that are spread throughout the area.

Kern to Madera county: that's a big stretch of land. Kern county alone is over 8,000 square miles, and has only 660,000 people. Efficient transit is tricky when the average density is 81 people per square mile.

Yet KART has managed to thrive under such difficult conditions. Rather than spending millions on the capital outlays for light rail or even your typical 40 foot bus, KART relied on state grants to purchase a van fleet originally intended to aid commutes for day laborers. The service expanded as popularity and revenue increased: what began in 2002 with 28 vans now has over 230 vanpools serving nearly 4,000 people. The day laborer program now has its own umbrella, Agricultural Industries Transit Service (AITS), and state employees (mostly of the multiple prisons in the area), teachers, and students utilize KARTvanpool to register their own vanpool.

Talk about low risk expansion: simply gather riders with a shared destination, make sure one has a DMV-approvable driving record, and call the Kings County Area Public Transit Agency.

The kicker: all operational costs are covered by rider fares.