Tag Archives: urban form

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!

 

June 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • Water-related hazards including flood, drought, and disease have significant effects on economic growth.
  • There were 910 deaths from drug overdose in Philadelphia last year. Interestingly, I started writing a post thinking I might compare that to car accidents, and ended up concluding that the lack of a functioning health care system might be our #1 problem in the U.S.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Tile is a sort of wireless keychain that can help you find your keys, wallet, and those other pesky things you are always misplacing (or your significant other is moving, but won’t admit it).
  • Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • Traditional car companies are actually leading the pack in self-driving car development, by some measures.

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.

Amsterdam

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.