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Book Excerpt: “Dead End,” a Look at Sprawl and the Rebirth of Urbanism

Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism” is a new book by Ben Ross, longtime president of Maryland’s Action Committee for Transit and a frequent contributor to Greater Greater Washington. This excerpt is preceded by a section describing the post-war expansion into the suburbs and the surrender of public space to automobile traffic. Highways proliferated, congestion worsened, children’s play was prohibited in the street and often in the sidewalk, and pedestrians were engineered out of the roadway. 

There was a subtle but profound alteration in the way street corners are built. Curbs no longer meet at right angles; they swing around in broad curves. It became standard even in cities for the curb to start bending back 25 feet from the cross street. On busy suburban roads, the bend begins even farther from the corner. Those on foot must choose between dangerous crossings of broad asphalt expanses and annoying zigzags to where the road narrows. Cars round the turn at highway speed. The simple act of walking down the street is so perilous that pedestrians are sometimes warned to wear reflective clothing, as if they were in the woods during hunting season.

As cars and highways proliferated far outside the city limits,  the roads became increasingly hostile to pedestrians -- especially children playing. Photo: ##http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2009/Aug/27/after-long-span-footbridge/##U-T San Diego##

As cars and highways proliferated far outside the city limits, the roads became increasingly hostile to pedestrians — especially children playing. Photo: U-T San Diego

These changes were no mere whim of car-loving traffic engineers. Behind them stood the lobbying might of the trucking industry.

The truckers had fought for decades to put bigger vehicles on the roads, but they were long stymied by the railroads. A major battleground was Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania Railroad held sway over the legislature and limits on trucks were especially strict. A few weeks before the 1950 election, the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association divided $76,000 between the chairpersons of the state Democratic and Republican parties. It was, the association’s treasurer later conceded under oath, like betting on both teams at a baseball game, but he countered that “nothing was hidden, it was all out in the open.”

The truckers gained ground in the 1970s as their old antagonists weakened. But they still faced strenuous opposition from local governments and the American Automobile Association. Even highway engineers objected; they worried that bridges weren’t built to carry the weight of big trucks. Just before the 1974 election, the Truck Operators Nonpartisan Committee made last-minute campaign contributions to 117 congressional candidates from both parties. Six weeks later, the House of Representatives reversed an earlier vote, and weight limits were raised on interstate highways.

In December 1982, the truckers won full victory. The Reagan administration agreed to their demands in exchange for the industry’s acceptance of a tax increase that hit trucks harder than autos. Weight limits were raised again, and state limits on the length and width of trucks were overruled. Tractor-trailers could have trailers up to 48 feet long; soon the limit in most places was 53 feet.

A key provision, not fully understood by critics when the law was rushed through a lame-duck Congress, legalized the big trucks on many local roads as well as on the interstates. Road-builders had a new justification for designs that encourage cars to speed; pedestrians, ignored when the issue was under debate, were the victims. Lanes grew wider; curbs were pushed back at intersections so that extra-long vehicles could make the turn. And, because it was written into the statute, the neighbors had no way to object.

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How Hartford’s Bet on Cars Set the Stage for Population Loss and Segregation

Since the 1960s, most of the Hartford region's population growth has been in formerly rural towns beyond the inner-ring suburbs. Image: ##http://metrohartfordprogresspoints.org/##Metro Hartford Progress Points##

Since the 1960s, most of the Hartford region’s population growth has been in formerly rural towns beyond the inner-ring suburbs. Image: Metro Hartford Progress Points

Hartford, Connecticut, has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. The urban renaissance that has visited so many cities hasn’t arrived there. Housing is still cheaper in the city than in the suburbs, and although suburban poverty is growing alarmingly fast, it’s nowhere near the levels seen in the city.

There are multiple complex factors that have contributed to Hartford’s woes. But one of them, clearly, is the degree to which the city enabled car-centric infrastructure to proliferate.

As Payton reported last week, Hartford tripled its downtown parking capacity between 1960 and 2000 while squeezing everything else onto 13 percent less land. Avert your eyes if you have a weak stomach:

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Apple Transportation Program Stuck in the Past

Tom Fairchild is the director of Mobility Lab. This article was originally published by METRO Magazine.

Apple

Apple’s new Cupertino HQ will force its thousands of employees into long commutes, many of which will undoubtedly be made by driving alone. Photo: Chris/flickr

As an avid iPhone user, I have bought into the sense that Apple could literally peer into the future and deliver me technology that I never realized I would so desperately need.

For years, Steve Jobs and company seem to have been our reliable guides to a better tomorrow. For new technology, Apple’s vision towards the future seems nearly flawless. But for corporate responsibility? Well, that’s a different story.

Apple’s decision to build a mammoth new headquarters in Cupertino, California — miles from public transportation and adequate housing — amounts to a corporate denunciation of sustainability and a giant corporate shrug to Mother Earth.

Leadership for the tech giant maintains that the new campus will offer “a serene environment reflecting Apple’s values of innovation, ease of use, and beauty.” But the simple fact is that many of Apple’s 13,000 employees will now be commuting to an isolated location 45 miles south of San Francisco.

This reality seems a world apart from Apple’s corporate communications, which state:

Our commute programs reduce traffic, smog, and GHG emissions by providing incentives for biking, using public transportation, and reducing the use of single-occupancy vehicles.

How exactly is this possible when the new headquarters is being built on a location without any existing public-transportation options?

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How to “Build a Better Burb”: Advice From Author June Williamson

The suburbs are changing. As cities grow in population and the poverty once associated with urban areas becomes more widely dispersed, even the meaning of “the suburbs” is evolving in the popular consciousness.

June Williamson is a leading expert in suburban design solutions. Photo: OWA

Architect June Williamson has studied suburban evolution and adaptation for more than a decade now. She was co-author, with Ellen Dunham-Jones, of “Retrofitting Suburbia.” Her new book, “Designing Suburban Futures, New Models From Build a Better Burb,” draws on her experience leading the “Build a Better Burb” design competition, which engaged top urban thinkers and designers in strategizing to revitalize greyfield spaces around Long Island.

We caught Williamson by phone recently to ask her what she learned about successful 21st century suburbs through the competition and the process of writing her new book.

Angie Schmitt: What are some of the factors that are compelling change right now in American suburbs?

June Williamson: The need to combat climate change and high carbon footprints that are more typical of suburbanites than urban or downtown dwellers. Increased acknowledgement of the eventual approach of peak oil conditions. The need to not only reduce demand for energy, but also find more renewable resources. A third might be the demographic change in suburbia that is happening because of longer lifespans and the aging of the baby boomers, which is leading to a decreased percentage of the population comprised of households with children. You have a large supply of detached houses and a shrinking supply of households with children to inhabit them. There’s also the proliferation of immigrant suburbs or ethnoburbs combined with the recent rise in suburban poverty.

And I think these are all things that are contributing to change happening, whether people desire it or not. And then there’s the aging of the physical fabric of, especially, the post-war suburbs. The areas that were all built out 50 or 60 years ago. And a lot of them, especially the commercial structures, were relatively cheaply built. They weren’t built to be durable. That is also creating conditions for change but also opportunities for physical transformation.

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Suburbs Take Center Stage Among Bicycle Friendly Communities

Ferguson, Missouri: new bicycling powerhouse. Photo: Bike League

Where are the newest Bicycle Friendly Communities? Many of them are in the ‘burbs.

As we mentioned a few days ago, more suburban-style communities received the League of American Bicyclists’ BFC honor this week. That’s a shift from previous years. “The national boom in biking has officially found a pedal-hold in a previously unlikely place: the suburbs,” writes the League’s Liz Murphy. “Urban centers aren’t the only areas making biking better for millions of Americans.”

Facebook’s corporate home of Menlo Park, California, which neighbors Palo Alto, moved up to Silver status in this round. (Facebook itself is Gold-level Bicycle Friendly Business.) Ferguson, Missouri, on the outskirts of St. Louis, gives free bikes to local youth with its Earn-a-Bike program, and is making other bike- and pedestrian-friendly improvements. And Murphy reports that in the Chicago ‘burbs, Elmhurst, Illinois, “has so many children who bike to school — between 10 and 20 percent — that they recently had to install hundreds of additional bike racks [at] local schools.” The town has been going after BFC designation for four years.

Maybe it shows the mainstreaming of bicycling across the country. Or maybe it’s just that all the usual suspects have been on the League’s list for years already and now the org is looking to the second tier.

We wanted to hear more about this suburban bicycling renaissance, so we checked in with the League’s Bill Nesper, director of the Bicycle Friendly America program. He said suburbs often have more work to do than bigger cities to become bike-friendly because of the challenges implicit in their land use. “Places that don’t really have the density, the average trip distance might not be as short as in a place like New York or Chicago,” said Nesper, “but that isn’t stopping them from making improvements to make bicycling easier for everybody.”

In many places where the car is king, you often hear people saying, “My child’s school is so close we can see it from our house, but the streets don’t connect,” or “you have to cross a six-lane highway,” or “there’s no sidewalk.” So it’s not all about distance. Sometimes all that’s needed is a retrofit. Nesper said when these communities create pedestrian cut-throughs in cul-de-sacs or calm traffic to make busy streets friendlier for people walking and biking, that can go a long way. Some also draw attention to quiet, bikeable streets with signage and “bike boulevard” designation.

A simple striped bike lane that might be sufficient on a narrow city street with slow-moving traffic might be inadequate on a suburban arterial, and the League takes those differences into account. Nesper notes that their evaluations of BFC applications aren’t just by the numbers. “We rely on local reviewers who are in the field to say, ‘This bike lane is substandard,’ or ‘This road is not a low speed street,’” he said. In those places, a buffered bike lane might be called for.

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Arlington Strikes Walking Gold in a River of Highways and Pentagon Sprawl

Urbanists have long told tales of the success story of Arlington, Virginia. Named a gold-level walk-friendly community by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, this Washington, DC suburb made the smart decision in the 70s to develop along the metrorail line. Because of that, Arlington workers drive alone at a rate 25 percent lower than the region as a whole and take transit more than twice as much. With 11 Metro stations in its jurisdiction, Arlington has more transit ridership than the rest of Virginia combined. Five percent walk or bike to work and carpooling is at three times the regional rate [PDF].

Wikipedia uses this picture of Ballston to illustrate its entry on transit-oriented development. But the Pentagon City neighborhood presents more challenges to walkability.

But it wasn’t written on the clouds that Arlington would develop this way. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a community with more obstacles to overcome on its way to smart growth — and yet, it’s doing it.

Arlington County, at just 26 square miles, is the smallest and densest county in the nation. But it’s far from homogenous. The main-street-style Arlington with wide brick sidewalks, cute cafes and indie bars — the part people are usually thinking of when they’re lauding the city for its smart development — exists along the orange line in the dense, mixed-use neighborhoods of Rosslyn, Clarendon, and Ballston. These neighborhoods have taller apartment and office buildings than are allowed in DC, creating a lot of density and a semi-urban feel — even though those tall buildings line wide arterial streets with lots of fast-moving traffic.

The parts of Arlington just south of the Pentagon, on the blue and yellow Metro lines, don’t get as much “walking-gold” spotlight. The Pentagon is the country’s largest office building, and it’s a fortress, disconnected from the community by a mess of highways. The “community” on the other side of those highways is a constellation of shopping malls on either side of a wide arterial road. Still, Arlington’s Director of Transportation Dennis Leach said this area has the best mode split in the county, with 20 percent car-free households, and is making more major infrastructure changes than any other part of the county — against all odds.

I was there last week on a walking tour as part of the National Walking Summit. Several Arlington planners were on hand to tell us about the streetcars, green bike lanes and café seating we’d soon be seeing along Hayes Street, but for now, it’s a car-centric hellscape. We stood outside a metro station with covered bike parking, yelling over the engine noise of an idling charter bus sitting outside the Fashion Centre shopping mall. Planner Kate Youngbluth admitted the multimodal project in Pentagon City is still in its “ugly duckling phase.”

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Stop Fretting About Whether Millennials Will Stay in the City

More than 9,000 babies have been born in each of the last five years in Washington, DC — but will their families stay in the city as these kids grow up? A recent study by the real estate company Trulia found that there was just one zip code in DC’s city limits where backpacks outnumbered strollers. Wealthy, west-of-the-park Chevy Chase has more kids in the 5-9 age group than 0-4. Every other part of the city has more babies and toddlers than school-age kids.

Even if cities still have too few backpack-age children, the urban revival will continue. Photo: World Vision

This trend is repeated in big cities around the country, according to Trulia. Young parents are happy enough to stay in the city with a little rugrat around — but once those rugrats need to go to school, those parents often start house-hunting in suburban school districts.

We’ve had a vibrant discussion here on Streetsblog recently about whether parents will really find what they’re looking for by leaving the city – and whether this trend will continue.

Improving urban schools is a challenge of huge national significance, especially for parents who don’t have the option of moving away. But Shane Phillips of the Better Institutions blog points out that it might not have much influence on cities’ ability to maintain recent population gains.

Phillips brings a useful perspective when he reminds readers that “Millennials aren’t the last generation in America.” There’s no sign that the declining interest in driving is going to reverse. If some parents move to suburbs, young people will still continue to migrate into cities.

But perhaps more importantly, Phillips writes, when Millennials move to the suburbs — as undoubtedly some will — they’ll demand better suburbs than the ones they grew up in. They’ll want the urban amenities and transportation options they got used to in the cities. That could put them on the front lines of retrofitting suburbia into a less car-dependent environment.

Snap a picture of city living with kids for the chance to win fabulous prizes! Details about the Streetsblog/Alliance for Biking & Walking Back-to-School photo contest here

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Crawlable Urbanism: Cities Are for Kids, Too

All of a sudden, I feel like all anyone is talking about is whether it’s a good idea to raise kids in the city. I’m raising a kid in the city. I feel great about it when she has a blast on the back of the bike, or makes friends on the bus, or gets excited about pressing the beg button at the corner. I feel a little less certain when we toddle down the sidewalk and come upon guys peeing on the dumpster or passed out on the stoop. When I look at the test scores for our neighborhood schools, I get a knot in my stomach.

You knew I was going to post a picture of my kid in this story, didn't you? There's Luna at the fountain in Columbia Heights.

A few days ago I visited my friends’ new home in Potomac, a wealthy, second-ring suburb with enviable schools. Their new house sits on two acres with a pool and a basketball court. After a few hours sipping beer in their landscaped yard and watching our children frolic in the pool, I had to do some mental gymnastics to remind myself why I didn’t pick this path for myself.

This City? Childless?

But the fact is, despite its obvious allure, that path is being chosen by fewer and fewer people. Even among families with kids, many who could afford 5,000 square feet with a pool are increasingly opting for a smaller house, a pool club membership, a shorter commute, and transit access.

In the current issue of City Journal, Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres pretty much erased this reality — my reality, mind you — with their silly article, “The Childless City”:

Even the partial rebirth of American cities since [the 1960s] hasn’t been enough to lure families [with kids] back. The much-ballyhooed and self-celebrating “creative class” — a demographic group that includes not only single professionals but also well-heeled childless couples, empty nesters, and college students — occupies much of the urban space once filled by families. Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history.

Joel Kotkin's idea of city life. Woo-hoo! Photo: Splash News/Corbis via City Journal

“The Childless City” is illustrated with a picture — I’m not kidding you — of “the casts of The Real World and Jersey Shore party[ing] it up at a New York nightclub.” That, to them, illustrates the modern city.

I’d like to take Joel Kotkin on a child’s-eye tour of Washington, DC, a city emptied out a few decades ago by crack and riots and mayhem. Talk about a rebirth.

I’d bring him along to the bilingual story hour at the local library, which is walking distance even for my toddler. I’d show him parents taking the bus with their kids down to the National Mall to see dinosaur skeletons and war planes in our world-class museums. I’d encourage him to play in the fountain in the plaza of the transit-oriented neighborhood of Columbia Heights along with scores of wet, shrieking children of all colors and incomes. And after he got his soak on, I’d even buy him frozen yogurt, Chilean empanadas, vegan cupcakes, or Central American fried chicken from the establishments lining the plaza.

All of these child-friendly urban amenities are invisible to Kotkin. “We have embarked on an experiment to rid our cities of children,” he declares. The rent is too high, the yards are too small, the schools are too bad, the neighbors are too sketchy.

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Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn: Why Suburban Growth Is a Ponzi Scheme

Chuck Marohn cofounded the non-profit Strong Towns in 2009. Since then he has steadily built an audience for his message about the financial folly of car-centric planning and growth. The suburban development pattern that has prevailed since the end of World War II has resulted in what Marohn calls “the growth Ponzi scheme” – a system that isn’t viable in the long run because it cannot bring in enough revenue to cover its costs.

Last year, interest in the Strong Towns message surged and Marohn, in high demand, traveled to towns and cities all over the country delivering “curbside chats” about the need to build places differently. In this Streetfilm we provide an overview of his thinking about street design, land use, and transportation funding. For more Chuck Marohn, visit the Strong Towns blog and check out their podcast.

One of my favorite pieces of commentary from Chuck is this video walk-through of a “diverging diamond” interchange in Springfield, Missouri. As usual he pulls no punches, and he delivers the critique with a biting sense of humor.

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Suburbanization of Poverty Isolates a Growing Number of Americans

Poverty is no longer a predominantly urban problem — and the suburbs are no longer the refuge of the upper classes. There are now almost 3 million more poor people living in suburbs than in cities, according to a new book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution. While cities still have a much higher poverty rate, poverty in the suburbs is growing twice as fast: Between 2000 and 2011, the suburban poor population grew by 64 percent, compared to 29 percent in cities.

That means more people living without cars in places designed exclusively for cars. In the suburbs, destinations are farther apart and getting to many places involves traveling on wide, high-speed roads where walking or biking is especially dangerous. Transit access is spotty and infrequent, where it exists at all. And providing transportation services to the poor in spread-out areas is less efficient and more expensive than in compact cities.

“Overall, in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, 700,000 households do not have a vehicle and are not served by public transit of any kind, and 95 percent of those households are suburban,” the authors write.

Kneebone and Berube tell the story of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, which used to be a middle-class bedroom community for workers at the Westinghouse Electric Company and other thriving businesses in the Pittsburgh area. Diminished employment opportunities have reduced the population by more than a quarter and increased the poverty rate from 8 to 11 percent:

Low-income residents of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, often can't afford to buy or maintain cars -- and the community lacks effective transit service. Photo: City-data

Among the more pressing problems facing the growing low-income population in Penn Hills is access to transportation. The suburb covers nineteen square miles, has more than twenty distinct neighborhoods, and is traversed by an interstate highway, a few major state roads, and a series of local roads with only a few sidewalks that wind their way up and down the hilly terrain. Infrastructure in some parts of the township resembles that of a rural community more than a major metropolitan suburb. More often now, residents must navigate these byways without a car. By 2008–10, almost one in ten (about 1,700) Penn Hills households lacked access to a vehicle, notably more than three decades earlier, when the local population was much larger.

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