Tag Archives: urban form


Here is a book for children as young as 4 about the bicycling revolution in Amsterdam. Here’s the Amazon description:

Pedal Power: How One Community Became the Bicycle Capital of the World

Cycling rules the road in Amsterdam today, but that wasn’t always the case. In the 1970’s, Amsterdam was so crowded with vehicles that bicyclists could hardly move, but moms and kids relied on their bicycles to get around the city. PEDAL POWER is the story of the people who led protests against the unsafe streets and took over a vehicles-only tunnel on their bikes, showing what a little pedal power could do! Author and illustrator Allan Drummond returns with the story of the people that paved the way for safe biking around the world.

I love Amsterdam, It’s not just the idea of bicycling as a major form of transportation, it’s the whole package of getting around by bicycle and on foot, the old world layout, and the active public places and street scenes it leads to. It’s a winning formula that cities around the world could aspire to, and yet almost none are.

The Retail Meltdown of 2017

The Atlantic has an article about “the retail meltdown of 2017”.

There have been nine retail bankruptcies in 2017—as many as all of 2016. J.C. Penney, RadioShack, Macy’s, and Sears have each announced more than 100 store closures. Sports Authority has liquidated, and Payless has filed for bankruptcy. Last week, several apparel companies’ stocks hit new multi-year lows, including Lululemon, Urban Outfitters, and American Eagle, and Ralph Lauren announced that it is closing its flagship Polo store on Fifth Avenue, one of several brands to abandon that iconic thoroughfare…

So, what the heck is going on? The reality is that overall retail spending continues to grow steadily, if a little meagerly. But several trends—including the rise of e-commerce, the over-supply of malls, and the surprising effects of a restaurant renaissance—have conspired to change the face of American shopping.

A lot of people like the car-dependent suburbs because they are perceived to be quiet, safe, and have good public education. But do people actually like sitting in traffic or have they seen that as a necessary price to pay. I like how the Place Shakers blog talks about this:

So what was the motivation [for the rise of auto-dependent retail]? I’d suggest it was (and still is, really) a desire for the easiest possible access to the stuff we want at the time — a desire so strong, it seems to me, that we began structuring our entire built environment around its fulfillment…

That’s why we built bigger arterials which fed bigger chain stores with more of the items we wanted to get our hands on. And why we built malls, where the variety of available goods seemed to increase exponentially. And it’s also why we established hefty parking minimums. Because you’re not effectively delivering on the promise of easy access to goods if you can pave the way to a warehouse full of stuff but leave no space to park within a few feet of the door. And parking within a few feet of the door is a fundamental part of the need being fulfilled.

But what happens when times and technologies change, and new ways of addressing our needs emerge? Suddenly we’re afforded new opportunities to prioritize how we spend our time and money.

In other words, we can get the stuff we want without spending so much time sitting in our cars, and we have figured out that there are other, better ways to be spending that time. I think something very similar is playing out with the trend of a lot of people working from home, at least on Fridays. By saving that commuting time to and from the office, your free up hours of your day for sleep, family, leisure, or extra productivity.

Toronto shoppers arriving by bike

Toronto has done a study of preferences and spending by shoppers in one of its neighborhoods, and the results show that merchants have an inaccurate picture of the demand for driving and parking.

A summary of the findings:

  • 72% of the visitors to the Study Area usually arrive by active transportation (by bicycle or walking). Only 4% report that driving is their usual mode of transportation.
  • Merchants overestimated the number of their customers who arrived by car. 42% of merchants estimated that more than 25% of their customers usually arrived by car.
  • Visitors who reported using active transportation to visit the Study Area visited more often and spent more money per month than those who usually drove or relied on public transit.
  • Visitors to the Study Area were much more likely to prefer a bike lane or widened sidewalks over no change, even if this resulted in the loss of on-street parking.
  • Merchants prefer the current layout of Queen Street more than a configuration where on-street parking is reduced to accommodate expanded sidewalks or a bike lane.
  • A majority of visitors (53%) and merchants (64%) stated that there was not enough bicycle parking within the Study Area.
  • Merchants were more likely than visitors to perceive the amount of car parking as inadequate: 52% of merchants stated there was not enough car parking in comparison with 19% of visitors.

This area must already be pretty safe and accessible by foot and bicycle. In most U.S. cities, I doubt we would find results like these. But if not, the lack of shopping by bicyclists could easily be a self-fulfilling prophecy if there are no bike lanes to begin with. The other critical factor, I am pretty sure, is whether people actually live in or near the shopping district. There are examples of U.S. cities that tried downtown pedestrian concourses that ultimately failed, but in the case of Philadelphia at least I am pretty sure they failed because nobody lived nearby.

self-driving cars, sustainability, and urban form

The debate about the likely impacts of self-driving cars rages on. This article suggests they will “kill the desire for better public transport, and wipe out the jobs of current drivers, plus many other jobs in the transportation system.” I think these charges may be true, but I think the overall impact will depend on the community. I have oriented my life around the idea of taking most of my daily trips for work, shopping, education, and social events on foot. I’ve been doing this for about 15 years, but the advent of ride sharing and mainstreaming of delivery services has made me a lot more comfortable doing it, and has made me comfortable doing it with a young family. There are other people like me out there. On the other hand, I am sure there are also people who live car-dependent lifestyles now who will be even more car-dependent in the future, and if that lifestyle choice becomes even more dominant, it could lead to even less demand for walkable cities in the future. Remember though that most cars are parked most of the time, so even if vehicle miles traveled stay the same or increase, any decrease in demand for private car ownership could have some positive effect on land use for more productive and sustainable uses other than parking (in other words, almost any uses at all).

So I just don’t think we know. I think cities should double down on livability and walkability, but not fight this technology which is probably inevitable. In fact, I think they should treat the technology as inevitable and think about how they can use it to develop more flexible, adaptable public transportation going forward.

best cities for living without a car

We’re number 5! Well, that might not sound so good, but in a country where there just aren’t many practical living choices that don’t require a car, I think it’s pretty good. I also found this graphic (is this a “bump chart”?) from Redfin interesting.

Source: Redfin.com https://www.redfin.com/blog/2017/02/the-best-cities-for-living-without-a-car.html

optimal city block length

This article in Harvard Gazette is about the optimal block length for walkability. The basic conclusion is that small is generally better, but there is some minimum below which pedestrians are spending too much time crossing streets. If I were laying out a city though, I would want to err on the side of smaller because it is much easier to close streets to vehicle traffic than to create new streets where there previously weren’t any.

10-Minute Neighborhood Analysis

This article from Kirkland, Washington describes in detail an interesting scoring scheme they applied to all of their neighborhoods. They have a good run-down on why walkable neighborhoods are good.

The ability to retain, create, and enhance 10 minute neighborhoods has benefits for users of the neighborhood and benefits for the community as a whole.

  • Health. Residents who walk or bike regularly are healthier and therefore walkable communities make it easier to live healthy lifestyles.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people living in walkable neighborhoods get about 35 to 45 more minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week and are substantially less likely to be overweight or obese than people of similar socioeconomic status living in neighborhoods that are not walkable

  • Traffic. Residents with convenient access to local goods and services are less likely to drive.  If they do drive, they have a shorter travel distance.  The 10 minute neighborhood acknowledges the value to Kirkland’s transportation system of every trip not taken and every mile not driven.

  • Transit.  Better access to transit equates to more transit users.  Regional data show that people who live within a half mile of a transit node commute less often by single-occupant vehicle (SOV) with a higher percentage using transit, carpooling, and walking or bicycling to work .

  • Demographics.  21 percent of the population aged 65 and older does not drive – and that segment of the population is projected to grow significantly .  Older non drivers need options so they remain engaged with their communities.

  • Clean Air.  Less traffic means cleaner air and less greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Social Connectivity.  Pedestrian activity and local gathering places help build social cohesion and eyes on the street help people feel safer in their communities.

  • Market Forces.  Recent surveys indicate that a majority of Americans want to live in walkable neighborhoods served by good transit .  Those numbers are significantly stronger for younger Americans and those who plan to move in the future, a strong representation of the future real estate market.

  • Stronger Retail.  A local customer base is good for local businesses.

social interaction in cities

Here’s an interesting article from the University of Bern, Switzerland, on social interaction in cities. The engineer in me likes to see some hard data and theory applied in the social sciences.

Cities and the Structure of Social Interactions: Evidence from Mobile Phone Data

Social interactions are considered pivotal to urban agglomeration forces. This study employs a unique dataset on mobile phone calls to examine how social interactions differ across cities and peripheral areas. We first show that geographical distance is highly detrimental to interpersonal exchange. We then reveal that individuals residing in high-density locations do not benefit from larger social networks, but from a more efficient structure in terms of higher matching quality and lower clustering. These results are derived from two complementary approaches: Based on a link formation model, we examine how geographical distance, network overlap, and sociodemographic (dis)similarities impact the likelihood that two agents interact. We further decompose the effects from individual, location, and time specific determinants on micro-level network measures by exploiting information on mobile phone users who change their place of residence.

And here’s a more touchy-feely article in Vox on how the U.S. suburban development pattern discourages social interaction.

the key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That’s why we make friends in school — because we are forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows…

This kind of spontaneous social mixing doesn’t disappear in post-collegiate life. We bond with co-workers, especially in those scrappy early jobs, and the people who share our rented homes and apartments.

But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere.

I buy this about 75%. I am lucky to live and work in a highly walkable urban neighborhood, and I do have a lot of friendly spontaneous interactions with people around the neighborhood. I have a “scrappy” job where I bond with my co-workers, like soldiers in the trenches. I am also a middle-aged family person and somewhat of an introvert. Part of the reason I don’t have a lot of close adult friendships outside of work and family is that between work and family, I have all the human interaction I can really handle. If I have 15 minutes free on a given day, I would rather spend it alone than interacting with yet another person. I suppose this could change when the kids get a little older and/or when I don’t have to work so much, assuming I live long enough for these things to happen. So I’m just saying there are family pressures, financial and career pressures, and personality differences that influence these things alongside urban form.

Back to the first article, it suggests that high school, college, band camp, and even most workplaces might not be the best model of the most fulfilling and productive social interactions that can develop among adults in the best cities. In high school and college we tend to form small, tight-knit groups where most people in the group network only within the group. The first article above, if I am interpreting it correctly, describes a case where not only are individuals interacting frequently within a social network, but relatively open social networks themselves are interacting with each other as individuals within them interact in random and freewheeling ways. It’s wonderful. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to sit on my couch for a little while, watch some TV, unwind and recharge so I can handle the social interaction that will be thrown at me tomorrow.

September 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • The U.S. and Russia may have blundered into a proxy war in Syria. And on a loosely related war-and-peace note, Curtis LeMay was a crazy bastard.
  • The ecological footprint situation is not looking too promising: “from 1993 to 2009…while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%. Still, 75% the planet’s land surface is experiencing measurable human pressures. Moreover, pressures are perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.” Meanwhile, as of 2002 “we appropriate over 40% of the net primary productivity (the green material) produced on Earth each year (Vitousek et al. 1986, Rojstaczer et al. 2001). We consume 35% of the productivity of the oceanic shelf (Pauly and Christensen 1995), and we use 60% of freshwater run-off (Postel et al. 1996). The unprecedented escalation in both human population and consumption in the 20th century has resulted in environmental crises never before encountered in the history of humankind and the world (McNeill 2000). E. O. Wilson (2002) claims it would now take four Earths to meet the consumption demands of the current human population, if every human consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant.” And finally, 30% of African elephants have been lost in the last 7 years.
  • Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 24. The obsession with car seats may not be saving all that many lives, while keeping children out of cars as much as possible would be 100% guaranteed to save lives. And one thing that would be guaranteed to help us create more walkable neighborhoods and therefore save children’s lives: getting rid of minimum parking requirements in cities once and for all. And yet you don’t hear this debate being framed in moral terms.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • Monsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
  • Some people think teaching algebra to children may actually be bad. Writing still seems to be good.
  • There have been a number of attempts to identify and classify the basic types of literary plots.

minimum parking requirements

Here’s a short, visually engaging video about the problem with minimum parking requirements. Apparently, this worked in Ottawa. I don’t want to be cynical, but I am not convinced the residents, politicians, and bureaucrats of my town would respond similarly to such a logical argument. I would love for everyone to prove me wrong.