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Posts from the Urban Design Category


People Won’t Ride the Tysons Corner Metro If They Can’t Walk to Stations

A Tysons Corner Metro station under construction in 2012. Photo: Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz/Wikipedia

A year after the Washington Metro opened the Silver Line in Northern Virginia, apartment rentals are booming and development is roaring ahead. But Martin Di Caro of WAMU reported Monday that the Metro itself isn’t meeting expectations:

Only 17,000 riders board the Silver Line on a typical weekday, a figure that includes more than 9,100 commuters at the Wiehle-Reston East station, the western terminus with a 2,300-space parking garage. The total is even less impressive when you consider roughly two-thirds of Silver Line ridership is former Orange Line commuters.

The Silver Line as a whole is operating at about two-thirds of predicted ridership.

The retrofitting of Tysons Corner’s suburban office park model into a walkable, mixed-use place has been called “the most ambitious re-urbanization project on Earth.” But according to Metro’s own analysis, progress on walking and biking infrastructure is lagging far behind the transit.

People simply can’t get to and from the Metro safely. While the Tysons stations were built for pedestrian access, without park-n-rides, the blocks are still too long, the street grid hasn’t been built out yet, and sidewalks and bike lanes are still lacking in many places.

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The Key Human Factors That Can Lead Any City to Transform Its Streets


Graphic via TransitCenter

How did Portland get to be a national model for sustainable transportation and walkable development? Yes, Mayor Neil Goldschmidt stopped the Mount Hood Freeway from being built in 1974 and began negotiations that eventually led to the implementation of the urban growth boundary. But Goldschmidt didn’t do it alone.

Grassroots activists from a group called Sensible Transportation Options for People (STOP) — which included Goldschmidt’s chief of staff when he was city commissioner — helped him get elected and formed the ideas and policy proposals he embraced as mayor. Goldschmidt, in turn, appointed reformers to key posts in his administration.

Look at other cities that are moving beyond the 20th Century legacy of cars-first planning, and odds are you’ll come across a similar story of grassroots activism merging with political power. In a new report, “A People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation,” TransitCenter’s Shin-pei Tsay tells those stories in six cities.

The Portland story is exceptional in that the state of Oregon worked with the city in the 1970s as a close partner on land use and transportation policy, helping to build the region’s light rail system. But even without state cooperation, cities around the country are showing the way toward a more multi-modal, less car-dependent future. And as in Portland, this progress can be traced to the links between advocates and government.

Take a more recent example: New York’s street transformations under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When people think of changes like the pedestrianization of Times Square and the construction of protected bike lanes, they think of Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan — and for good reason. But these leaders also had the benefit of a deep and increasingly sophisticated advocacy scene, exemplified by Transportation Alternatives, with its roots stretching back to the early 1970s — as well as groups like the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Regional Plan Association (and new arrivals like, ahem, Streetsblog).

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Playable Cities Are Livable Cities

Play is so important to kids’ physical, mental, and social development that the United Nations considers it a human right. But not all cities fulfill these rights equally.

Photo: Baltimore City Recreation and Parks via KaBOOM!

What the nonprofit KaBOOM! calls a playful or playable city, others might call simply a kid-friendly city. While suburbs get most of the glory for having space to play, public outdoor play spaces are even more important in cities where families have little or no yard of their own to play in.

KaBOOM! recognized 10 “playful” cities this week, many of which found success at making their neighborhoods healthier and more dynamic by coupling play with safe streets and sustainable transportation.

Brownsville, Texas, extended their Ciclovia into underserved neighborhoods this year, reportedly attracting 10,000 people. Ottawa, Kansas, is installing play pods along the Prairie Spirit rail-trail. Charlotte, North Carolina, is installing playful art along every stop of the Lynx light rail system. Thomasville, Georgia, installed hopscotch, balance lines, and other activities at bus stops. And Baltimore is targeting vacant lots for resurrection as play spaces — and hosts one of the most joyful bike-centered events on the planet, the Kinetic Sculpture Race, which took place just last weekend.

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Shared Space: The Case for a Little Healthy Chaos on City Streets

Market Square in Pittsburgh, PA: an American model for shared street space. Photo: M.Andersen.

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Dick van Veen is a Dutch architect and engineer at consultancy company Mobycon. This post originally appeared on the blog of The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Imagine yourself in a small town enjoying a coffee next to what looks like a public square. Except there are no curbs, no sidewalks, no traffic lights, no striping, not even a stop sign.

All the same, cyclists, parents with baby carriages, buses and cars — yes, cars — are going about their business guided by the same human courtesy that allows us to form lines and wait our turn at the grocery store checkout.

In the Netherlands, we call this approach to low-stress public space “shared space.”

Before you dismiss the concept as a utopian ideal, take a look at the video below from Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. It shows what can happen when the usual traffic devices are removed, as I described above. Dutch examples abound but this approach is also working in places with emerging cycling cultures like Exhibition Road in London, UK, or Opernplatz in Duisburg, Germany.

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Sign of the Times: Protected Bike Lanes Pop Up in Lego Book

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

“Let me publish the textbooks of a nation and I care not who writes its songs or makes its laws,” the 19th century entrepreneur D.C. Heath supposedly said.

The movement to spread protected bike lanes in the United States has done Heath one better.

Reader Amber Dallman alerted us to this book, Cool City, by independent Lego artist Sean Kenney:

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Lousy Neighborhoods, Not Lax Zoning, Make Sunbelt Houses Cheaper

The middle class is getting priced out of liberal cities, while red-state urban areas remain affordable. Does that mean our cities should be less like tightly regulated San Francisco and more like permissive Houston? It’s a common argument — but it doesn’t fit the facts.

Modesto: It’s not quite San Francisco. (And it’s a whole lot cheaper.) Photo: Carl Skaggs/Wikipedia

To start with, Houston is hardly a paradise of deregulation. In practice, local experts explain, the city limits new building with a heavy hand. Zoning (thinly disguised as a special form of deed covenant) is in some ways even tighter than elsewhere — a subdivision can downzone itself by vote of its homeowners, even when a minority objects, and the elected city government has no power to override neighborhood decisions.

If the Houston housing market is no freer than San Francisco’s, what explains the lower prices in Texas? Supply and demand set house prices, and demand (the lack of which makes housing so affordable in Detroit) is strong in Houston.

These price comparisons have a buried conceptual flaw. They look at the average of all houses in the region, new and old. But the added supply that demand calls forth (what economists refer to as “at the margin”) consists of new houses alone. A shortage of supply should show up, most directly, in the price of new houses.

In American urban areas, most land is reserved for single-family houses. Close-in locations fill up first, so the marginal unit of supply is a newly built detached house on the exurban fringe.

How much does that new house cost? The table below shows the asking price (from Zillow) for a minimally featured new 3-bedroom, 1750-square-foot house on the outskirts of some major cities, along with the median sale price of single-family houses throughout the area. Affordability is measured by the ratio of house price to the metropolitan area’s median household income. The areas were selected to have around the same population, so that the commute (a painful one in all cases) would be a comparable deterrent to living at the fringe.

Metro area Median house price (000) Ratio to median income Fringe location New 1700 sq ft house price (000) Ratio to median income
Boston 398 7.5 Manchester NH 280 5.3
Houston 204 4.6 Cypress 185 4.1
Phoenix 199 4.4 Goodyear 169 3.8
San Francisco 770 12.2 Modesto 260 4.1
Washington 403 7.0 Charles Town WV 210 3.7

These figures will surprise many. The choice of fringe locations is certainly open to discussion, but there’s no question that the affordability of new single-family houses varies among cities far less than the average house price. If you insist on a brand-new house and don’t mind a long commute, San Francisco is as affordable as Houston.

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Talking Headways Podcast: That Indie Flick You Were Looking For

podcast icon logoIf you’re a Netflix member, you’re part of the downfall of the brick-and-mortar video store. There are all kinds of reasons to be sad about that, but we look at its implications for urbanism and transportation. Besides, now where will you find esoteric foreign films to impress your friends? There are reasons to believe a few hardy indie-shop survivors could keep hanging on for a while (and we encourage you to bike to them).

Next, we shift gears to talk about how Vision Zero is unfolding in New York City. Streetsblog has called attention to the need to go beyond grand policy pronouncements and do the dirty work of changing the very culture that surrounds mobility. Specifically, the police need to stop forgiving deadly “errors” by drivers and start taking death by auto as seriously as other preventable deaths.

And then we called it a day because really, that was a lot.

Tell us about your favorite video store, or your least bike-friendly cop, or whatever you feel like telling us, in the comments.

And find us on iTunesStitcher, and the RSS feed.


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

Old Georgetown Road in White Flint today. Photo: Dan Reed/flickr via ##

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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Fixing a Blank Wall Streetscape With Storefront Retrofits

Every city has places where the buildings present a blank face to the sidewalk. A dark, recessed arcade deadening the pedestrian environment or a soulless concrete wall fronting a windswept plaza.

Consultant Brent Toderian, formerly the planning director for the city of Vancouver, pointed out a cheap and easy solution to this problem. He calls them “blank wall retrofits,” storefronts that can be inserted over blank walls to add sidewalk-facing retail. He tweeted this great example in Calgary, Alberta: 

This retrofit fits between the lobby and plaza of the brutalist Westin Calgary and the sidewalk.

“It’s a great technique for dealing with fundamentally flawed architecture that presents blank walls to streets and public places,” Toderian says. “Unlike ‘make-up on a pig’ — e.g. murals — this fundamentally changes the street edge condition. The pig is no longer a pig. It potentially changes un-urban to urban.”

We reached out to our readers to find more success stories. Here’s what they sent us.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Poor Door Von Spreckelsen

podcast icon logoIn this week’s podcast, Jeff and I take on the infamous New York City “poor door,” designed to keep tenants of affordable units segregated from the wealthy residents that occupy the rest of the high-rise at 40 Riverside. In the process, we take on the assumptions and methods that cities use to provide housing, and by the time we’re done, we’ve blown a hole in the whole capitalist system.

Then we investigate the reasons behind the assertion that “restaurants really can determine the fate of cities and neighborhoods.” We determine that food is mostly a proxy for other needs people have related to where they live, but we do love a good pupusa.

And finally, we wrestle with the paradox that if we love nature, we should live in cities.

Argue with our take on urbanism, economic justice, and burrito justice in the comments. Subscribe on iTunesStitcher, or our RSS feed.