Tag Archives: Walkability

Hope for the Burbs

Ellen Dunham-Jones

Ellen Dunham-Jones

by James A. Bacon

While urbanists trumpet the resurrection of America’s core cities, the nation’s inner suburbs are seeing a lot of action, too. In fact, the transformation of the burbs may be more radical. While cities are seeing more of the same — gentrification that restores decaying neighborhoods, in-fill development looking a lot like the existing development — real estate developers are reinventing suburban structures from the inside out. Shopping malls surrounded by seas of asphalt are being converted into town centers. Big box stores are becoming public recreation centers. Fifty-year-old shopping centers built over streams are being torn down and the waterways restored as greenways.

This is a time of tremendous opportunity for “suburban” counties that developed since World War II, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architecture professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, co-author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” and a leading light of the New Urbanism movement. What she did not say in her enthusiastic, up-beat speech at Virginia Commonwealth University last night is that it is also a time of peril for counties that don’t embrace a strategy of selective urbanization.

Change is not only desirable, it’s necessary, Dunham-Jones contended. The low-density suburbs consume two to three times more energy per capita than central cities, making them vulnerable to upward spikes in energy prices. Local governments are suffering fiscal stress from the burden of maintaining a sprawling infrastructure. Poverty is an increasing problem as poor people, either immigrants or poor people leaking from inner cities, move into older, run-down suburban neighborhoods. At the same time, housing affordability is becoming a middle-class issue as rising transportation costs kill the old “drive ’til you qualify” housing model. Last but not least, Dunham-Jones cited suburbia’s automobile dependency as a public health issue. Infectious diseases (despite the ebola virus hype) are not a major health hazard in the U.S. The real problem is chronic disease stemming from obesity and sedentary lifestyles, which leads to diabetes and heart disease.

Demographics also are driving the transformation of the burbs. People still think of the suburbs as Leave It to Beaver land of households with school-age children. But a majority of households in the burbs now are childless, said Dunham-Jones, and 85% of the growth in household formation in the U.S. will have no children. Millennials are driving the shift to urban lifestyles. They don’t want to live like their suburban parents. But those parents, Baby Boomers mostly, are approaching retirement differently from preceding generations. YEEPIES (Youthful, Energetic Elderly People Into Everything) aren’t looking for suburban privacy; they’re looking for urban engagement.

While many childless families would love to live in old-style, walkable urban neighborhoods, not everyone can afford to do so because restricted supply has driven up prices. And the reality is, a majority of jobs remain in the suburbs. By default, much of the “walkable” community development will take place in suburban counties where land is cheaper. And that creates opportunity for creative real estate developers who can figure out how to retrofit aging suburban properties and for the counties that will accommodate them.

There is more than enough land in suburban counties to make room for the surge of Americans looking for urban lifestyles in suburban counties without disrupting the lives of people who still want to live in their conventional cul-de-sac subdivisions. One third of all malls are dead or dying, said Dunham-Jones. Thousands of big box stores are empty. Retail as a real estate category is shrinking, probably permanently, as more people shop online. As a result, vacancy rates remain stubbornly high in shopping centers. Meanwhile, as Millennials show a strong preference for working in an urban environment, businesses are less interested in putting their workforce in suburban office parks.

“It’s an opportunity,” said Dunham-Jones. “We get to do a make-over!”

Developers have not yet settled upon a fixed formula for re-developing the burbs. Right now, an extraordinary amount of experimentation is going on. Dunham-Jones and co-author June Williamson have built a database of more than 900 case studies of radical suburban make-overs across the country, many of them in Virginia.

Dunham-Jones said suburban retrofits fall into three broad categories.

From single-use to mixed use. Suburbia is loaded with malls and big-box stores whose retail function is no longer economically viable. Some of these structures are finding a new life by adding new uses. Dunham-Jones cited the example of Hundred Oaks Mall, a dying mall in Nashville; the property still had retail on the ground level but had abandoned the upper level. Vanderbilt University took over the lease for the upper level and installed a medical center. Now the medical center draws patients who otherwise would not have frequented the mall, and patients visiting Hundred Oaks can hang out at the mall while waiting for test results. Patients prefer Hunred Oaks to Vanderbilt’s city facility.

Regreening. An astonishing number of commercial properties were built in wetlands and flood plains. It was routine practice in the 1950s and 1960s to obliterate wetlands and route creeks through culverts underneath the buildings, said Dunham-Jones. The culverts could handle the run-off from undeveloped land upstream but as that land got built upon and paved over, run-off got worse and flooding became an issue. Today, an increasing number of suburban projects are “regreening” old development — ripping out buildings and culverts and restoring the stream beds. Benefits include not only better storm water management but attractive ribbons of greenery through the suburban landscape

Walkability. People are willing to pay a major premium for walkability, even islands of it in an otherwise autocentric environment, said Dunham-Jones. Perhaps the most spectacular transformations are occurring in plots of land large enough — typically old malls — to allow for a restoration of walkable streets and mixed-use development common to traditional cities. Continue reading

BRT to Nowhere?

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

by James A. Bacon

There’s a whole lot of fuzzy thinking going on. People in the Richmond area are so enamored with the prospect of building a Bus Rapid Transit route through the city that they are saying the most astonishing things.

Bus Rapid Transit can be a great idea if done correctly. But it must be done correctly, or it will create a long-term drain on public resources in the City of Richmond and, to a lesser extent, in Henrico County that neither locality can afford.

In the company of Governor Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and other local luminaries, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Saturday that Uncle Sam will provide a $24.9 million grant toward the cost of the $54 million project, which would run along Broad Street from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. (See the Times-Dispatch story here.) Virginia, flush with transportation tax revenue from former Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase, will kick in $16.8 million toward the project, while Richmond and Henrico will contribute a total of $8 million. (If that adds up to $49.7 million on your calculator like it does on mine, that leaves more than $4 million unaccounted for.)

Local officials touted BRT as a jobs project. “We’re going to make jobs available to people,” said Jones. The bus would shave a quarter hour travel time along the 7.6-mile route, said Foxx. For a person in poverty or without a car, that could mean “the difference between getting a job or not.” Then came this from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd: “BRT will allow thousands of people in the East End of Richmond to apply for jobs in the West End they wouldn’t even think about applying for before.”

Really? At the eastern terminus, the BRT system will be anchored in Rocketts Landing, an upscale, New Urbanist development along the James River — across the railroad tracks from Fulton Hill, home to thousands of poor and working-class African-Americans. Is this some kind of cruel joke? The lawyers, investment bankers and advertising executives living in Rocketts Landing are not the ones who need access to minimum-wage retail jobs in the Broad Street corridor west of town. For the people who need the jobs, it will be a long, long walk to the BRT station.

Moving west along the proposed route, there aren’t many poor people living in Shockoe Bottom, a commercial area lined by the upscale Tobacco Row condos and apartments on the one side and yuppified apartments for the creative class on the other. As the bus route proceeds through downtown, it does pass through the traditional African-American Jackson Ward neighborhood, but that is rapidly gentrifying as more affluent Richmonders seek proximity to the jobs and amenities of downtown. Further west, the route passes through VCU, but college students hardly constitute a downtrodden class (until they have to start paying back their student loans).

West of downtown, the BRT route skirts past the Carver neighborhood with a couple thousand African-Americans. BRT could provide them better access. But the route then passes Scott’s Addition, an old industrial park that traditionally has had little residential, although it is gentrifying now with the addition of apartments and condos designed for middle-class tastes. Near the western terminus at Willow Lawn, the neighborhoods are middle-class.

For the most part, the only working poor of Richmond’s East End whom the BRT will benefit are those who take a local bus downtown and then change routes. That shaving 15 minutes off their travel time makes the difference between those people having jobs and not having jobs, however, is not a proposition that BRT backers have proved.

The other question that no one seems willing to address — at least not in public speeches — is what happens when the poor East Enders get off the bus on the West side of town. On the plus side, they can walk to their destination on sidewalks — yes, there are sidewalks on this part of Broad Street, unlike farther west. On the downside, the sidewalks are not the kind that actually invite people to walk on them, as can be see in the Google Street View atop this post. The Broad Street stroad is designed for cars, not walking. The sidewalks abut right up to streets with cars traveling 35 miles per hour or faster. Crossing the street can be challenging. Visually, the landscape is barren and inhospitable.

Even more grievous is the fact that Richmond and Henrico need to zone for higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development along the corridor. Zoning for greater density is the easy part. The hard part is coaxing property owners not to build a new generation of the same old low-rise schlock that aligns the corridor. Another issue that neither jurisdiction has answered — not in public statements, at least — how much it will cost to build “complete street” streetscapes that accommodate people and bicycles as well as cars and BRT buses.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t escape the feeling that the state, the feds and the localities have gotten ahead of themselves. They’ve got the money, so they’re going to build the project, regardless of whether they have put other elements of a corridor-revitalization plan in place. Current estimates say the BRT will cost $2.7 million a year in ongoing subsidies to operate. That could be a modest price to pay if the project stimulates a transformation of the Broad Street Corridor along the lines of Cleveland’s Healthline Bus Rapid Transit system, which has been cited as an example of what Richmond can accomplish. But that transformation will not occur in a vacuum. The job does not end with construction of the BRT line. It will take decades of follow-up to the community that arises along it.

The Simple, Lovable Sidewalk

sidewalk By Peter Galuszka

Forever humble, the simple sidewalk is becoming an issue in land planning and transportation.

In densely-populated populated urban areas, sidewalks have been a staple of living since the time of the Ancient Greeks. They were classics in the familiar grid plans that marked most American towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It all changed after World War II when thousands of veterans came home with access to cars and cheap mortgages and builders started constructing car-centric neighborhoods. The cookie-cutter plan included big subdivisions with only one or two access points, lots of cul de sacs and long streets and wound around until they emptied into the few access roads.

You couldn’t walk anywhere. The feeling was, with the complicity of such car-centric bodies as the Virginia Department of Transportation, that you didn’t need sidewalks because the kids could play in the cul de sacs and anyone could drive.

This started to change a decade or so ago as pe0ple wanted to walk more to the library, the store or to visit a neighbor. Suburban planners are taking this into consideration and are “encouraging” developers to put in sidewalks.

A couple problems here:

First, although the Tim Kaine administration changed VDOT policy to advocate more intersecting streets in new developments along with sidewalks, the policy has been watered down under pressure from the development industry.

The other problem is that while it is a simple matter to put sidewalks in new projects, retrofitting them in older ones is tough. It is expensive, there are rights of way issues and sometimes the terrain doesn’t lend itself to them. And, when sidewalks are put in, they merely connect with gigantic feeder roads where one might have to walk a half a mile to a stoplight just cross safely, as is the case in one instance in Chesterfield County.

For more, read my recent pieces in the Chesterfield Monthly and Henrico Monthly.

The Rise of Walkable Urbanism and “the End of Sprawl”

foot_traffic_aheadby James A. Bacon

The Washington metropolitan region is the national model for “walkable urbanism” in the United States — more so even than metropolitan New York, according to the findings of “Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros,” a report released this morning by LOCUS, an organization of smart-growth real estate developers, and Smart Growth America.

The study identified 558 WalkUPs — regionally significant activity centers characterized by a high level of walkability — in the nation’s 30 largest metros. Forty-five of them are located in the Washington region, about half in the District of Columbia and half in surrounding Virginia and Maryland jurisdictions. The overall walkability exceeds even that of New York. While Manhattan is the single-most walkable place in the United States, it accounts for only 0.3% of the New York metro region’s land mass, and outer jurisdictions dilute its overall walkability, explained Christopher B. Leinberger, LOCUS president  and co-author of the report, during the LOCUS annual conference.

Washington’s lead in developing “walkable urbanism,” in contrast to the “drivable suburbanism” that dominated U.S. growth and development between World War II and the Great Recession of 2007-2008, should stand the region in good stead as it faces an economic future made insecure by the retrenchment of its main growth industry, the federal government. Walkable urbanism is closely correlated with the presence of a highly educated workforce, and a highly educated workforce is closely correlated with faster economic growth. While correlation does not necessarily mean causality, an argument can be made the the desirable attributes of walkable urbanism make it easier to attract and retain educated workers who, in turn, contribute to economic growth.

The report findings suggest that there will be future demand for hundreds of millions of square feet of walkable development over the next generation, said Leinberger. “This is likely the end of sprawl.”

A clear sign of shifting market preference is the 74% premium the market is willing to pay for office space in WalkUPs compared to space in Drivable Urbanism.  That’s the reverse of 30 years ago when suburban office parks enjoyed a marked advantage, Leinberger said. Even excluding the New York market, which skews the results, WalkUps enjoy a 44% edge, he said.

While Washington was the star metro, some surprising regions have been coming on strong thanks to dramatic shifts in development patterns in the post-2008 development cycle. Metropolitan Atlanta, which only 20 years ago was the poster child of sprawl, has concentrated 50% of its development in WalkUP districts comprising only 1% of the region’s land mass. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Detroit has seen similarly focused re-development in downtown, midtown and a handful of urbanizing suburbs.

Leinberger attributed Washington region’s success to five main factors. First, the region has the highest overall education level of any metro in the country, Second, the region has been aggressively expanded its Metro rail system; 80% of the WalkUPs in the region are, or soon will be, served by Metro. Third, for the most part local governments put in the right kind of zoning around their Metro stations, encouraging walkable, mixed-use development. Fourth, the region’s real estate industry has mastered the discipline of developing WalkUPs, which are inherently more complex and expensive than green-field development. And fifth, the public sector has done an exceptionally good job of “place management” — creating quality walkable places.

While rail transit gives a big boost to walkable urbanism, said Leinberger, it is not essential. One out of five WalkUPs in the Washington region are not connected to the Metro. Also, many small cities and towns have walkable places. “It sure does help but it is not required.”

Emerick Corsi, president of Forest City Enterprises Real Estate, agreed. “Walkable can be built anywhere,” he said. He cited the example of a town miles outside of Los Angeles where his firm is converting an old shopping center into 2 million square feet of new buildings with the capability to expand a lot more by going “totally vertical.” There is no transit but the development will be highly walkable, he said.

Leinberger predicted that real estate development in the foreseeable future will be driven by the desire to meet the demand for walkable urbanism. The process won’t necessarily be smooth. Some metros — San Antonio, Kansas City, San Diego — have continued to sprawl. Providing affordable housing in the most desirable areas will be a challenge. But if Leinberger is right and the most walkable regions prove to be the most economically dynamic regions, the success of metros like Washington, Boston, New York and even Atlanta and Detroit will be clear for all to see.

Want to Combat Noise Pollution? Measure It

I’m a big fan of city life but I’m the first to acknowledge that there are drawbacks to crowding and congestion. The foremost of those is noise. Cities are noisier than the burbs and the countryside. The older I get (I’m 61 now), the larger the noise factor looms in my consideration of things. Even in suburbs, it doesn’t take much commotion to jangle my nerves. In the early morning birds can drive me crazy with all their chirping and cawing and twittering. As for children, don’t get me started. The noise-oblivious little monsters can be worse than freight trains. If it sounds like I’m turning into a cranky old man… yes, I believe that’s exactly what’s happening.

As a rule, cities are even noisier than the burbs. People are more densely packed in urban areas, so there are more people — more drunks, more wife beaters, more backyard dogs, more buses, more sirens, more jackhammers, more big, honking HVACs — generating sound waves within hearing distance. Cities also have more concrete and masonry that reflect sound and less in the way of trees, bushes and vegetative mass to dampen it. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), problems resulting from too much noise include poor work and school performance and even cardiovascular problems. Clearly, in the battle for livability, the noise factor favors suburbs, small towns and rural areas.

How does a city combat that disadvantage? Ordinances can limit excessive noise from construction, honking horns or barking dogs. Transportation officials can build sound walls along highways. Aside from such obvious measures, one useful place to start is to measure decibel levels to visualize where noise is the worst. Thanks to the increasing ubiquity of smart phones, the practice of noise mapping is spreading around the world.

In 2010 the Sony Computer Science Lab in Paris released an app, NoiseTube, that anyone can download and use to record decibel levels wherever they go. Users can tag particularly obnoxious noise sources and display them on Google Maps. The data can be aggregated to create noise maps accessible to researchers and city officials.

Sony appears to have neglected its website. NoiseTube.com claims to have data from 509 cities worldwide (including Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Richmond, Scottsville and Lynchburg) but the data doesn’t upload to my PC. Regardless, the code is open source, and anyone is free to improve upon it. Creating regional noise maps sounds like a cool community project to undertake. I’d volunteer to participate.  If there are any civic hackers in Virginia looking for a project, let me know.

– JAB

Safer Streets Require Less Traffic Engineering, Not More

by James A. Bacon

A week or two ago, I lamented the disparity between the high cost of traffic accidents in Virginia and the paltry resources devoted to reducing their number. But to say that insufficient attention is being paid to the issue is not to say that no attention is being paid. According to Virginia’s 2012-2015 Strategic Highway Safety Plan, traffic deaths in the state fell 23% between 2006 and 2010. We are making progress.

Since my blog post, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRPTO) published its own regional safety study. The HRPTO did a number of worthy things. It mapped the location of accidents across the region and honed in on the worst freeways and intersections that offered the best prospects for improvement. The planners asked a critical question: Which improvements offer the best benefit/cost ratio? As Brian Chenault with the HRPTO summarizes the range of possible solutions: “Recommendations run anywhere from restriping pavement, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, optimizing signal timing, adding additional lanes, trimming vegetation, reducing speed limits, adding extra signage/signals, etc.”

As untutored as I am in the arcana of traffic engineering, it strikes me that the HRTPO has identified a number of projects that will provide considerable bang for the buck, at least as measured by traditional traffic-engineering criteria. Some of the tactics it advances are ideas that I have championed, such as making better use of roundabouts and traffic light synchronization. Its recommendations undoubtedly would amount to a net positive for the people of Hampton Roads — and I hope readers will view it in that light even as I discuss its shortcomings.

The problem with the study is that the authors approach the safety issue from a traffic-engineering perspective. Not surprisingly, every traffic-engineering challenge has a traffic-engineering solution. Indeed, for some safety problems, traffic-engineering solutions are entirely appropriate. But for many, they are not. In many instances, the best solution is precisely the opposite of what traffic engineers recommend.

mercury_boulevard
For purposes of illustration, let us look at the intersection of Mercury Boulevard and Power Plant Parkway, as shown above. (Click for larger image.) This particular intersection averaged 43 crashes per year between 2009 and 2012, the second most of any intersection studied. The HRTPO’s analysis attributes the high accident rate to a variety of micro-factors, which can be summed up by noting that the traffic patterns here are highly complex, leading to a high number of rear-end crashes and side-swipes. The report makes three recommendations:

  • Add a painted triangle yield line with YIELD pavement markings
  • Relocate stop bars
  • Add a flashing “signal ahead” sign
  • Add a pedestrian signal and crosswalk with ladder striping

What’s the common denominator here? It’s the expectation that more signage and clearer road markings will induce drivers to drive more safely.

Now, let’s take a radical leap. At the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism conference last week, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, an English consultant who specializes in reconciling traffic movement with quality public spaces, showed a clip of San Francisco street traffic filmed days before the 1906 earthquake. There were no marked lanes. There were no turn arrows. There were no traffic lights. There were no street signs. Pedestrians, trolleys, horses, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, pull-carts and automobiles shared the street. At first view, it seemed like chaos. People were jay walking and standing around in the middle of the street. Cars weaved between lanes. Vehicles made U-turns. It was a traffic engineer’s nightmare. But no one — at least not in this 12-minute film clip — experienced a mishap. Watch the clip. It’s mesmerizing.

Undoubtedly, some accidents did occur in those days and people did get hurt. Such incidents provided the pretext for the traffic engineers to step in. In the 1920s and 1930s, they segregated vehicular traffic from pedestrian traffic — roads became the domain of cars, and people were relegated to the sidewalks. Not only would this arrangement create safer streets, it was thought, keeping people off streets would allow cars to travel faster, thus increasing the carrying capacity of streets and reducing congestion. That is the path cities have traveled for some 80 years now, with the result that contemporary Americans cannot imagine any other way of doing things. Today, the traffic-engineering solution to every problem is more signs, more lane markings, more signals, more information overload. Continue reading

The Cost of Automobile Crashes

accident

Traffic accidents: a bigger problem than congestion by a factor of four.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia transportation policy is driven overwhelmingly by a desire to mitigate transportation congestion and, to a lesser degree, to promote economic development. Rarely does traffic safety enter into the discussion of which transportation improvements we finance.

As evidence that congestion is one of the state’s foremost pressing concerns, elected officials can point to the annual Urban Mobility Report, which documents the cost of congestion in the nation’s metropolitan regions. In 2011, according to the 2013 report, congestion cost the nation $121 billion in lost time and wasted gasoline. But consider this: The economic cost of motor vehicle crashes amounted to $277 billion in 2010, finds a new study by the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, “Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010.” If you include the economic value of lives snuffed out — and why wouldn’t you, considering that the Urban Mobility Report counts the value of time lost sitting in congestion — the cost soars to $871 billion.

Think about that — the economic value of traffic accidents outweighs that of traffic congestion by four times but the overwhelming share of public transportation resources is funneled to relieving congestion. The question Virginians should ask themselves is this: Why are we spending billions of dollars to build new roads, highways and mass transit facilities and spending mere millions on making our transportation systems safer? By any rational measure, we have a twisted sense of priorities.

One can’t help but wonder why that is. The answer, of course, is political. I see two dimensions. First is popular perception. Nearly all of us experience the frustration and aggravation of traffic congestion to some degree. That means everyone can relate to the desire to tame congestion. By contrast, only a fraction of Virginians experience traffic accidents, and those incidents are by their nature episodic rather than chronic. Moreover, we tend to think of congestion as something that can be addressed by building more stuff, while we attribute traffic accidents to human frailty. It is less obvious to people how we can build safer roads that can protect us against, say, drunk drivers, distracted driving or road rage.

The second dimension is that traffic accident victims are not organized as a political force. By contrast, developers, construction contractors, labor unions, architects, engineers and an array of special interests stand to gain financially from expenditures on roads and mass transit justified on the grounds of traffic congestion. Through linkages to business organizations such as the chambers of commerce, these self-interested groups are able to mobilize the broader business community behind their initiatives.

Thus, the real estate/construction industry has donated $10.5 million in 2013-14 to Virginia political candidates, the largest of any group excepting the financial industry. Not a single traffic safety-related group appears in the Virginia Public Access Project’s list of miscellaneous, single-issue contributors. Environmental groups have contributed $4.8 million in 2013-14 but traffic safety ranks way down on their list of priorities compared to global warming, the Chesapeake Bay and uranium mining.

Perhaps another reason that safety warrants so little consideration in the Old Dominion is that the economic loss from traffic accidents in Virginia is lower than in most states. Traffic accidents cost $5.7 billion (in 2010 dollars), for an average cost of $713 per person or 1.6% of personal income. Only four other states (Hawaii, California, Minnesota, Oregon) experienced lower costs as a percentage of income. Be that as it may, the $5.7 billion toll is horrendously high compared to the level of public attention it receives.

As a practical matter, what could Virginia do to make streets and roads safer than they already are? First, take a look at where the traffic accidents occur. The NHTSA study indicates that intersection crashes resulted in 8,682 fatalities, 2.2 million injuries and 10 million damaged vehicles in 2010 — more than half of all crashes, a quarter of all fatalities, 50% of all economic costs and 45% of all societal harm.

I would hypothesize, subject to verification, that a disproportionate number of accidents take place in a relatively small sub-set of roads — typically commercial corridors that combine relatively high speeds (45 miles per hour) with lots of traffic signals, cut-throughs and driveways creating complex traffic patterns where cars collide at relatively high speeds. Many accidents could be remedied by better street design — turning our stroads (street-road hybrids) into Complete Streets that accommodate buses, pedestrians and cyclists intermingling at lower and safer speeds.

The other big killer category is “roadway departure crashes,” in which people run off the road. This accounted for 18,850 fatalities, 795,000 injuries and 2.4 million damaged vehicles, accounting for 26% of all economic costs and 35% of societal harm. Many of these accidents take place on windy, two-lane, undivided roads. Surely it would be possible to reduce the number of these accidents through such measures as road-straightening projects, wider shoulders and better marking in the most accident-prone stretches. Continue reading

Re-Thinking the Sidewalk

tree_rootsby James A. Bacon

The vast majority of sidewalks in my home town, Richmond, Va., are made of concrete slabs. Concrete materials are inexpensive and the sidewalks are easy to install. But in a burg like Richmond, where people dearly love their trees, concrete pavement presents a problem. Tree roots lift or crack the slabs, creating hazards for pedestrians. Replacement can get costly — as much as $35 per square foot in Los Angeles.

So, the race is on to re-think the humble sidewalk, reports the Atlantic City Lab. Is it practicable to use other materials? Can sidewalks be integrated into storm water management systems? Can they be used to generate energy? Is their sole function to enhance walkability?

Some locales have run underground tubes carrying hot water under sidewalks to keep them clear of snow and ice. Others are tinkering with ways to convert the kinetic energy of footsteps into electricity, which can be used as an off-grid power source. Yet others are replacing concrete with recycled, hard-rubber mats that bend and buckle under tree roots without cracking. One English university is working on a self-healing sidewalk.

Senior Land Use Planner Eric Selbst at the site of the walkable solar paneled pathway. Photo credit: GWU.

Senior Land Use Planner Eric Selbst at the site of the walkable solar paneled pathway. Photo credit: GWU.

Another cool experiment is taking place in George Washington University’s Loudoun County, Va., campus. In 2013 the university completed what it billed as the first walkable, solar-paneled pathway in the world. Under ideal conditions, the sidewalk between Exploration and Innovation halls generate enough electricity to power 450 LED pathway lights below the panels. The university hired a Spanish company, Onyx Solar, to install the solar sidewalk. The installation generated dozens of  headlines — “Walking on Sunshine” may be the best —  but the media has been remarkably uninterested in following up.

My questions: What was the cost to install such a sidewalk? How much money will it save by eliminating the need for lighting? How well have the solar panels held up? What happens when tree roots grow underneath? What are the ongoing maintenance costs?

While scientists and engineers dabble with new materials and technologies, the more important question may be to ask what sidewalks are for. Do they serve a purely utilitarian function of allowing pedestrians to get from Point A to Point B? Or should we take a broader view of sidewalks as critical elements of the public realm? Sidewalks help define the public space along a street. Wider sidewalks create space for benches, restaurant tables, planters, trash receptacles and other public furniture. A well designed sidewalk can make a place inviting, a poorly conceived sidewalk can ruin a place.

We take sidewalks utterly for granted. They deserve a lot more thought and consideration than we give them.

Suburbs Regain Their Appeal! But the Definition of “Suburb” Is Changing

suburb
by James A. Bacon

“Suburbs regain their appeal!” shouts a headline for an article in the Wall Street Journal today accompanied by a quarter-page aerial photograph (shown above) of a cul-de-sac subdivision in Chicago. The editor’s treatment of the story, which is based upon research findings by Brookings Institution scholar William H. Frey, is highly misleading. While the article does say that population growth in major cities declined slightly between 2012 and 2013 and population growth in the suburbs rebounded incrementally, the differences are small and the larger narrative — that urban core jurisdictions are gaining, not losing population, while suburban growth remains subdued — still holds true.

Indeed, the article quotes Frey as saying that it remains unclear “whether the city slowdown signals a return to renewed suburban growth.”

The issue is important because it bears upon the debate over the future of metropolitan development. Urbanists, who support more compact, walkable, mixed-use development, have cited the changing growth patterns since the 2007-2008 recession as evidence of a fundamental shift in the kinds of communities people want to live in. The suburbanists argue that the trend is temporary and that pre-recessionary growth patterns will reassert themselves. The headline and photo suggest that urbanism is losing momentum. In fact, the article provides no such evidence at all.

Indeed, the article touches not at all upon a trend that renders suspect any analysis based upon comparisons between population growth in “urban core,” “suburban” and “exurban” jurisdictions. That trend is densification and re-development. Some unknown percentage of “suburban” growth can be attributed to re-development initiatives occurring in places such as Tysons, in Fairfax County. That so-called “suburban” jurisdiction is fostering higher-density, transit-oriented development around five soon-to-open Metro stations. In effect, the dense, mixed-use land use patterns typical of the urban core, in Washington, D.C., are transforming the “suburbs.”

By proclaiming that “suburbs regain their appeal” and displaying a photograph of a low-density, cul de sac subdivision outside of Chicago, the headline suggests that the pattern of metropolitan growth that prevailed between 1945 and 2007, commonly called “suburban sprawl,” has reasserted itself. That’s just plain wrong.

In all likelihood, the population rebound of urban core jurisdictions will slow from its recent boom. The reason will not be due to changing consumer demand for walkable urbanism, which is running unabated, but the inherent difficulty increasing housing supply, especially in the most desirable urban neighborhoods where NIMBYs thwart proposals to build at higher density. The constraint on population growth in the urban core is one of insufficient housing supply, not insufficient demand.

Also, in all likelihood, population will continue moving into the so-called “inner suburbs,” especially those that support re-development of aging commercial districts into walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods — sometimes supported by heavy or light rail, sometimes not. Thus, a county like Fairfax, which is mostly built out, will continue to see in-migration and population growth. But that growth won’t consist of single-family dwellings in subdivisions. Most of it will be apartments, condos and townhouses.

Bacon’s bottom line: Measuring population growth in jurisdictions defined as “urban core,” “suburban” and “exurban” doesn’t tell us much at all about what is happening in America’s major metropolitan regions. The spread of walkable, mixed-use development into so-called “suburban” counties makes a hash of the traditional categories we use to analyze population trends.

Save Lives: Treat City Streets Like City Streets

dangerous_by_designby James A. Bacon

In the decade between 2003 and 2012, more than 42,000 pedestrians died on American streets and roads. That’s more than 16 times the number that died in earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. While natural disasters attract national attention, pedestrian fatalities are buried in the back pages, if they’re noted at all, even as the incidence of pedestrian deaths has spiked in recent years.

Pedestrian accidents are far from inevitable, however. Thousands of fatalities along with untold injuries can be mitigated by street design adapted less to the needs of automobiles and more to the needs of people, contends the National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of Smart Growth America, in a publication released Monday, “Dangerous by Design 2014.”

Vehicle speed was a major factor in the pedestrian fatalities. “Where the posted speed limit was recorded, 61.3 percent of pedestrian fatalities were on roads with a speed limit of 40 mph or higher,” states the study. “This figure compares to just 9 percent of fatalities that occurred on roads with speed limits less than 30 mph.”

Sunbelt communities top the list of the most dangerous places to walk in the country. “These places grew in the post-war period, mostly through rapid spread of low-density neighborhoods that rely on wider streets with higher speeds to connect homes, shops and schools — roads that tend to be more dangerous for people walking.”

Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville and Miami-Fort Lauderdale — all Florida metros — nail down the top four spots in the study’s ranking, which compares the number of pedestrian deaths per 100,000 population and adjusts by the percentage of people who walk to work. Among the 51 largest metro regions in the country, Richmond scored the 19th highest Pedestrian Danger Index, with 1.32 annual pedestrian deaths per 100,000 in 2003-2012. Washington ranked 35th and Hampton Roads 36th.

“We can build and design our communities to protect us while walking,” said Stefanie Seskin, deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition in a conference call releasing the report yesterday. “Treat city streets like city streets, not like highways. … Auto-oriented streetscapes are not only uninviting and uninspiring but downright dangerous.”

richmond_fatalitiesLocal government officials need to distinguish between streets, which function as public spaces accommodating people, cars and bicycles alike, and roads, which function mainly for the movement of cars at higher speeds. The greatest threat to pedestrian safety occurs in street-road hybrids (stroads), typically commercial strips where people intermix with cars traveling at fairly high speeds. The map of the Richmond region at left shows the concentration of pedestrian fatalities in the region’s major stroad corridors: Broad Street, Midlothian Turnpike and Rt. 1. The peculiar mix of retail, restaurant and office activity along these corridors induces people to walk across streets ill suited to pedestrian traffic with frequently tragic results.

The same pattern prevails across the state. Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, cited the example of an elementary school principal in Loudoun County who was killed last year trying to cross a four-lane, 35 mph road. “As more people make the sustainable and healthy choice to leave their cars at home, we are unfortunately seeing more tragic crashes,” he said in a press release yesterday. “Decades of car-oriented design has made it hazardous in many of our communities simply to walk to school, work, or shopping.”

What public policy approaches are available to curb the incidence of pedestrian deaths? One option, pursued most vigorously in Florida, is to step up education and police enforcement of speed limits and laws that require cars to yield at crosswalks. A less authoritarian approach is to alter street design. There is a pervasive body of thought that wide roads, wide lanes and the absence of visual cues induce motorists to drive faster than posted speed limits. Proper design discourages pedestrians from attempting to cross high-speed roads and encourages cars to drive much slower on people-friendly streets. Continue reading