Tag Archives: urban form

Oslo vs. cars

Oslo had a plan to go car-free, but “conservative” politicians are pushing back.

One big idea: ban cars from the city centre. If pulled off, the plan would see Oslo become the first major European city to have a permanent, complete no-car-zone, racing ahead of a long list of cities seeking to do the same…

“A Berlin Wall against motorists,” declared one conservative party politician. “Car owners feel ‘bullied’ in Oslo”, blared an English-language news site.

The biggest backlash, however, came from the city’s trade association, the Oslo Handelsstands Forening (OHF). It said it feared the plans would create a “dead town”, and a “poorer city [with] less life”.

That’s silly, of course. When pedestrian-only streets have failed in the United States, it is because nobody lived there to begin with. Pedestrian-only environments work just fine where people live, work, and shop all within easy walking distance.

What is it about the “conservative” impulse that loves cars so much? “Conservatives” come in many stripes, but what they seem to have in common is a belief in some kind of natural social order. Whether it is based on race, religion, nationality, business success, family wealth, or whatever, if it benefits you, a “conservative” mind set allows you to mentally justify the existing social order that benefits you, and to justify “conserving” and strengthening it, sometimes even by force. And you don’t have to be at the top of the ladder to have the “conservative” impulse, all you have to be is not on the bottom rung of the ladder, so you have someone to look down on and a vested interest in the existing social order. This mindset is complemented nicely by a lack of imagination – if you perceive that the social order as it exists benefits you, you can convince yourself that it exists for a reason, and you will find ways to rationalize any change to the existing order. You end up opposing anything new and different, whether it is immigrants, religions other than your own, bike lanes, renewable energy, a functioning health care system, or the idea that humans have wrecked Earth’s atmosphere to the point of no return. The people higher on the ladder than you are very good at manipulating and exploiting these impulses for their own benefit, of course, but although you do not lack raw intelligence you are now too closed-minded to give a new idea like that any consideration.

street violence

A man was run over and killed by a car on the sidewalk just outside my office building recently. Not only was it a tragedy, but there was some small irony because he was a prominent local safe streets activist.

Here is what the Mayor of Philadelphia had to say:

My administration, through its Vision Zero initiative, remains committed to preventing all traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries by 2030, and the death of Peter Javsicas is a stark reminder of the importance of that mission.

Tacky. People are dying from violence on our poorly designed streets every day, and if anything is being done about it the pace of change is imperceptible to me.

Here is what the Philadelphia Police had to say:

A police captain on Tuesday afternoon said he didn’t expect charges to be filed because the crash was an accident. It was not immediately clear Wednesday, after the pedestrian’s death, whether charges were being considered.

Because people being killed on the streets of Philadelphia every day (and this was not even the street, it was the sidewalk) is not the kind of thing the police are paid by us taxpayers to take an interest in. Now, I want to say the Philadelphia Police have been there for me when I have experienced other types of crimes, and have always treated me courteously (yes, I am a white male just in case you were wondering), so I don’t necessarily blame individual officers. But there is a whole institutional and political culture that does not treat reckless driving and traffic violence as serious crimes, when they are killing people just like any other type of crime, and they are disproportionately deadly to children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

Here is what the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia had to say:

The circumstances of the crash — a vehicle encroaching on the sidewalk, sacred space for people on foot — is easily preventable. A parking protected bike lane on the north side of JFK Boulevard would have eliminated the right lane, providing a space cushion of nearly 15 feet from the between the sidewalk and the travelway.

Instead of running into people on the sidewalk, the driver would have smashed into parked cars. Secondly, bollards on the sidewalk: this exposed street corner could have also absorbed the impact of the crash. Bollards were cited recently in saving many lives last month in Times Square.

Is this tacky, trying to score some advocacy points off the man’s death? Just from what I have read about him, I don’t think he would think so. And I wouldn’t think so either if it were me. And it could easily have been me. Or my wife and our baby daughter. Or my son’s entire kindergarten class out for a lunchtime walk.


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.