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Will Montgomery County Botch the Streets in a Model Suburban Retrofit?

Old Georgetown Road in White Flint today. Photo: Dan Reed/flickr via ##http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/24343/how-a-road-in-white-flint-is-like-a-ski-area/##GGW##

Old Georgetown Road in White Flint today. Montgomery County doesn’t want to add safety improvements for biking and walking until people change their travel habits. Photo: Dan Reed/Flickr via GGW

Four years ago, White Flint, a neighborhood of North Bethesda, Maryland, most known for its shopping mall, caught the attention of urbanists around the nation with a proposal to reimagine car-oriented suburban streets as a walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhood. Montgomery County adopted a plan for the town that would narrow its wide arterial roadways and make them safe and accommodating for transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians. It was hailed as a model for other suburbs around the nation looking to become less sprawling and more walkable.

But now, the county is quietly trying to undo much of the good work in the 2010 plan — namely, the street designs. The most recent design shared by the Montgomery County DOT showed a reversal of previous promises. Rather than bring Old Georgetown Road down from six car lanes to four, adding curbside bike lanes on each side as well as a bike/pedestrian path that fits into a larger trail loop, the new plan would actually make the road wider by adding turn lanes for motor vehicles. The bike lanes or shared-use path are scuttled as well.

Ramona Bell-Pearson, assistant chief administrative officer with the Montgomery County Executive, assured Streetsblog, “Everything that’s required in the master plan for Old Georgetown Road is what’s being designed.” But the plan specifies that that segment of the street will be four lanes wide and have bike lanes and a shared-use path. Bell-Pearson wouldn’t confirm that those elements will be in the final plan.

The county insists that the master plan is still under development and that the street design recently shared with stakeholders is far from final. Meanwhile, county and state officials say that the land use changes have to precede any overhaul of the streets. State Highway Administration studies say the wider configuration is still needed to avoid “Christmas-time traffic backup.”

Andy Scott, director of the Maryland DOT’s Office of Real Estate, grew up in nearby Rockville. He says a lot of White Flint still looks like it did in the eighties, when he was in high school, working at an Erol’s video store in a strip mall on Old Georgetown Road. To grab a bite across the street, he had to traverse “acres of asphalt parking lot and cross a busy highway.” He tried it on foot one time, and it was so unnatural he never did it again. The redevelopment will change all that.

Scott says the concern about Old Georgetown Road is just a “hiccup,” a miscommunication in what’s otherwise a visionary project. The streets will change, he says, but in a certain sequence. ”There’s a balance in building out the transportation infrastructure and the development that’s going to shift people to walking, biking, transit ridership — but it doesn’t happen overnight,” Scott said. “It was carefully phased both on the development side and the transportation infrastructure side.”

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Turning a Suburban Retail Bus Stop Into a Place People Want to Go

Pittsburgh's new super-stop on opening day. Photo courtesy of Lynn Manion, ACTA

Pittsburgh’s new “super-stop” on opening day. Photo courtesy of Lynn Manion, ACTA

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

Last week, Pittsburgh got its first suburban bus stop makeover. And the results were beautiful.

The new IKEA “super-stop” lies in a shopping center along an interstate highway, surrounded by surface parking, between a TGI Fridays and an Office Max. It has a Walk Score of 37: “car-dependent.”

This is what the IKEA bus stop used to look like:

The "before" picture. Photo: ACTA

The “before” picture. Photo: ACTA

But then the Airport Corridor Transportation Association set out to rethink the stop. “We wanted to make the stop inviting enough that people who weren’t riding a bus would still want to come and use the bus stop,” said Lynn Manion of ACTA. They wanted tables and benches, shelter from the elements, and a big enough setback from the curb to make people feel that they weren’t right in the middle of the roadway.

ACTA and its partner, the architecture firm Maynes Associates, realized that in order to encourage ridership, they’d have to change perceptions about the bus stop. They needed to focus on placemaking in order to make that bus stop more appealing — and to make riders feel less isolated.

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The Regions With the Most Potential to Build New Walkable Development

To get the economy humming again, America’s metro regions need to build more walkable places, according to a new report from a coalition of real estate developers.

The report from LOCUS [PDF], a group of developers and real estate investors who specialize in building walkable projects, examines which regions are seeing the fastest growth in walkable urban places, which the group calls “WalkUPs.” These places can be in cities or suburbs – political boundaries make little difference when it comes to walkability.

These 10 metro areas have the most potential for walkable development in the coming decades, the analysis finds. Image: LOCUS

These 10 metro areas have the most potential for walkable development, according to LOCUS.

WalkUPs account for just 1 percent of total land area in the 30 metros LOCUS examined, but they have captured 48 percent of new rental housing, retail, and hotel development since 2009, according to the study. Unlocking the potential of these areas is the key to getting the real estate market and, in turn, the American economy, back on track, LOCUS says. The group believes that in the next few decades WalkUPs could capture as much as 80 percent of new development.

By measuring the share of development that goes toward walkable places, as well as the price premium that type of development commands, LOCUS rated the potential for walkable growth in each region (right).

“What we’re seeing here is a trend that is a structural trend,” said Chris Leinberger, president of LOCUS and co-author of the study. “The last structural trend was in the 1940s when we left the central cities.”

But there are many obstacles to walkable development: zoning laws and car-oriented transportation infrastructure, to name a few major ones. And some places are doing a better job of capturing that growth.

“We think this is going to take at least 10 to 20 years to catch up with the trend,” said Leinberger.

Here’s what LOCUS learned from its examination of 558 WalkUPs in 30 metro areas.

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Pew Survey: Liberals Want Walkability, Conservatives Want a Big Lawn

Image: Pew Research Center

Image: Pew Research Center

Americans are increasingly sorted along ideological lines. There is less diversity of opinion among the people we associate with, in the media we consume, and even where we want to live. That’s according to a new report from Pew Research Center studying political polarization in the United States.

Image: Pew Research Center

Image: Pew Research Center

Perhaps most interestingly, the report found stark differences in preference for city versus rural living among people from different sides of the political aisle. People identified as the most consistently liberal were far more likely to say they prefer living in walkable place, while the most conservative people overwhelmingly said they preferred to live in a rural area or a small town.

The dynamic reinforces Nate Silver’s observation after the 2012 elections: “if a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican.”

Among those who identified as most conservative, 75 percent reported they’d prefer to live in a place where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away.” Only 22 percent said they’re prefer to live in a place where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance.”

The situation was reversed for the most liberal class of respondents. Among this group, 77 percent said they preferred a smaller house, closer to neighborhood amenities. Only 22 percent would opt for the larger, more isolated house, Pew found. The proportions were roughly reversed for conservatives.

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Will This Be the Decade of Big City Growth?

William H. Frey is an internationally regarded demographer and senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. This article was originally posted by the Brookings Institution.

Figure 1: Large City Growth*

For the first third of this decade, big city population growth continues to outpace the rates of 2000 through 2010 while suburban growth continues to lag behind, according to new data released by the Census Bureau. It raises the question: Is this city growth revival here to stay? Or, is it a lingering symptom of the recession, mortgage meltdown and the plight of still-stuck-in-place young adults? The new statistics, which update city populations through July 2013, give some credence to both theories.

On the positive side for urban boosters, the numbers show that many cities have gained more people in the three-plus years since the 2010 Census than they gained for the entire previous decade. This includes three of the five largest cities, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago (which lost population in the previous decade). Among the 25 largest cities, nine are already ahead of their previous decade’s gains, including Dallas, Denver, Memphis, San Francisco, San Jose and Washington, D.C. (See table)

Still another positive indicator for big cities is their growth rates. For each of the last three years, cities with populations exceeding 250,000 grew at rates exceeding 1 percent — far higher than their average annual rate of 0.49 percent over the 2000-2010 decade (Figure 1). Among the fastest growing, with rates exceeding 2 percent, are Seattle, Austin, Charlotte, Denver, and Washington D.C., each with new knowledge-based economies and high-amenity downtowns.

Yet, despite the overall gains, growth rates slowed in the most recent year for 45 of the 77 cities over 250,000 in population, but for the most part, the growth rate declines were less than 0.5 percent

In the city-versus-suburb realm, the new numbers once again affirm a reversal that counters decades of suburban-dominated regional growth among metro areas with more than 1 million people. Now, for three years running, primary cities are growing faster than their suburbs (See Figure 2).

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Omaha Developer Sells “Walkable Main Street” of Parking Lots

This development in Omaha is being as a "walkable" "Main Street." Image: Lockwood Development via Strong Towns

This development in Omaha is being billed as a “Main Street.” The white space is parking. Image: Lockwood Development via Strong Towns

As the downside of sprawling development becomes better understood, some developers are getting better at greenwashing sprawl.

Here’s a pretty great example from Omaha, Nebraska. Charles Marohn at Strong Towns came across a story about Lockwood Development’s new office park in the Omaha World-Herald. And he was so taken aback by the disparity between the rhetoric and the actual design, he had to write about it:

It uses all the current buzz words….

Mixed use. Redevelopment. Independent living. Walkable. Main Street.

Do those words mean anything? Sadly, Omaha’s Sterling Ridge Development – a so-called “Main Street” concept — is not even a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a wolf in wolves’ clothing.

My favorite quote from the article, where words are simply objects with no real meaning, is this one: “The architects said the idea is for the multipurpose campus to be a walkable community where people work, live, play and worship.”

How quaint.

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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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