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Posts from the "Urban Planning" Category

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Parking Craters Aren’t Just Ugly, They’re a Cancer on Your City’s Downtown

Downtown Hartford

Downtown Hartford’s Phoenix Building sits atop a moat of (what else?) parking. Photo: Brian Herzog, via Flickr

Streetsblog’s Parking Madness competition has highlighted the blight that results when large surface parking lots take over a city’s downtown. Even though Rochester, winner of 2014′s Golden Crater, certainly gains bragging rights, all of the competitors have something to worry about: Cumulatively, the past 50 years of building parking have had a debilitating effect on America’s downtowns.

Streetsblog recently spoke with Chris McCahill of the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Madison, Wisconsin, to learn about his research into how parking affects small cities’ downtowns. Most recently, McCahill and his co-authors have shown how policy makers’ preoccupation with parking not only hollows out city centers, it also decimates the downtown tax base.

McCahill began his analysis as a University of Connecticut Ph.D. student in 2006, choosing to compare the postwar evolution of six small, built-up, relatively slow-growing cities: Arlington, Virginia; Berkeley, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; Lowell, Massachusetts; and New Haven, Connecticut. For each of these cities, McCahill and his collaborators, most frequently professor Norman Garrick, have gone far beyond the usual publicly available statistics and hand-measured the number of parking spaces (both on- and off-street) and the size of buildings from aerial photos.

The resulting analysis shows how three of these cities have diverged from the other three since the base year of 1960. Arlington, Berkeley, and Cambridge went against the postwar grain and chose a “parking-light” approach: emphasizing transportation demand management (TDM) measures, while de-emphasizing driving and in one case even penalizing parking construction. Hartford, Lowell, and New Haven chose a conventional approach, emphasizing that downtown development should provide “adequate” parking based upon standards of the time.

These two paths led these cities to very different outcomes, which McCahill has chronicled in a series of publications. Most recently, he co-authored two papers about how parking has affected the six downtowns’ urban fabric and their tax bases. Parking lots take a big bite out of the conventional cities’ tax bases, which could reap 25 percent more in downtown property taxes had they chosen a parking-light approach instead.

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Trucks and Cities Are Like Oil and Water. Is There a Solution?

This freight truck killed 73-year-old pedestrian Ngozi Agbim in Brooklyn this June. Photo: Daily News via ##http://www.streetsblog.org/2013/06/25/ngozi-agbim-73-killed-by-truck-driver-at-crash-prone-brooklyn-intersection/##Streetsblog NYC##

This freight truck killed 73-year-old pedestrian Ngozi Agbim in Brooklyn this June. Photo: Daily News via Streetsblog NYC

About 350 pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists are killed each year by large trucks in this country. Big freight trucks are incompatible with cities in many ways, bringing danger, pollution, noise, and traffic congestion. They park in bike lanes and have shockingly big blind spots, putting everyone around them at risk. And yet, most cities haven’t found a way to reconcile the need to move goods with all their other priorities.

Meanwhile, as more and more cities prioritize walkability and bike-friendliness, they often neglect the task of reconfiguring freight logistics.

As part of the MAP-21 transportation bill, U.S. DOT convened a Freight Advisory Committee to help inform the creation of a national strategic plan for freight transportation. One of the advisory panel’s six subcommittees focuses on the first mile/last mile problem, but even that one subcommittee is reportedly more concerned with port access than delivery issues at the destination. The interplay between urban freight transportation and smart growth is far from a core focus of the committee.

It should be a top priority for urbanists and complete streets advocates, though. If we don’t help cities plan for freight movement, what we’ll get is unplanned freight movement, and all the chaos that comes with it. About 80 percent of freight in cities is delivered by trucks, and those trucks pose a significant threat to livability.

Loading and unloading slows traffic and takes up street space. When businesses do have dedicated loading docks, they reduce available space for the business and for the pedestrian activity that enlivens urban spaces. Then there’s noise pollution, air pollution, and safety concerns.

And yet, our cities run on the goods these hulking trucks deliver — and the garbage they take away. (Yes, trash pick-up is a freight question too.)

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Robert Grow on Utah’s Decision to Build Transit and Shun Sprawl

In the late 1990s, an organization called Envision Utah brought together a broad spectrum of people to figure out how to plan for major population growth. They started by asking participants to mark out areas that shouldn’t be developed — wilderness, national parks, agricultural land. Then, they had to figure out how to fit future residents in the developable areas that were left. They concluded that the way to do that without massive congestion, soaring public costs, and environmental ruin was to build walkable development with good transit access.

How do you get people to ride transit? Make it serve their needs. It worked for Utah. Photo: ##http://www.fta.dot.gov/about/region8_3396.html##FTA##

How do you get people to ride transit? Make it convenient, and make it serve their needs.
Photo: FTA

Ever since, Utah has been a national leader in transit-oriented growth, putting into practice the values Utahns articulated during a long and painstaking public process.

I recently caught up with Robert Grow, chair of Envision Utah, to hear how they did it. We published the first part of our conversation yesterday. Here is part two, lightly edited for length and clarity.

I wanted to ask about the building of transit, especially the TRAX light rail. The impression I had was that the Utah Transit Authority was already on that track and doing that separately and that your contribution was more in bringing the public along.

They had a vote in 1992 to fund the first line, and the vote failed. UTA are magicians at finding the ability to get things done; they then were able to scrape together the resources to start that first line. So at the time we did the vision there was a first line underway, but before the vision, a lot of people in Utah were skeptical about rail.

When we came out of the vision, over 80 percent of Utahns — it was the high 80 percent range — were in favor of expanding the system rapidly. Then the public voted twice to fund the system.

So were there plans? Were there lines on maps? Absolutely. In fact, we did a bunch of those lines on maps as part of the scenarios. And then the public saw that if we build a rail system, along with expanding the other transportation modes, their lives would be better off. They’d spend less time in traffic. They’d have choices of how to get around. As the region grew — if you model out 25 years — it becomes more and more obvious you need a multi-modal system.

The result was an attitudinal shift when people saw their values would be served better if we had this multimodal approach. And so, yes, UTA was underway. They were smart, entrepreneurial; they’re great friends. Call up Mike Allegra, who runs UTA, and ask him what got him the money — and he’ll say Envision Utah.

So the last vote, we actually voted to take the entire 2030 system of rail and build it all by 2015. Nowhere else in the country has done anything like that.

It’s one thing to convince people that transit is important, but then how do you get them to actually ride it themselves? A lot of people say, “Transit is great; it makes the roads less congested for me to drive on.” How do you get them to ride it?

How do you get them to ride it? You make it convenient, make it serve their needs, make them realize they can live with one car — or no cars. The fact is 80 percent of the people who ride our rail system have a car in the garage. We’re not a place where people ride it because they have no choice. We’re a place where people ride it by choice.

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Q&A With Robert Grow: How Utah Decided to Embrace “Quality Growth”

Envision Utah didn’t tell Utahns they should build light rail, says Robert Grow. Utahns expressed their hopes and desires for the future, and plans for transit construction arose from those values. Photo: Visit Salt Lake/Eric Schramm

If you’ve ever wondered how a deep-red state like Utah has managed to build some of the most ambitious transit expansions in the country, the short answer is: Envision Utah.

Starting in the late nineties, the non-profit Envision Utah brought together an incredibly broad spectrum of interests, including plenty of people without a specific stake in the process, to explore how the 10-county region surrounding Salt Lake City, known as the Greater Wasatch Area, should cope with anticipated population growth. Organizers showed people what would happen if the region carried on with business-as-usual development, then outlined the ramifications of three other potential scenarios with scientific rigor. The extraordinarily thorough process involved hundreds of public meetings, leaving no one out and turning every participant into a problem-solver. Along the way, Envision Utah pioneered a new approach to regional planning, bringing together transportation and land use decisions in unprecedented fashion.

Robert Grow says he didn't tell Utahns what to do; they told him what their values were and they came up with a plan together, Photo: Envision Utah

Robert Grow. Photo: Envision Utah

It would be fair to say that after this effort, nearly the entire state was on board with the vision that came out of the process: Quality growth with compact, mixed-use development, multi-modal transportation options, and untouched wild and agricultural spaces.

If you have some time, this history of Envision Utah will hold your attention like no other planning document. (If you have a little less time, you can get the basics in this PDF.)

Robert Grow was the founding chairman who guided Envision Utah through its formative stages. He returned to the helm last year as its president and CEO. In the interim, he helped bring lessons from the Envision Utah model to 80 regions around the country. After a recent swing through the East Coast where he shared the Envision Utah story at an event organized by Transit Center, I called up Grow to see what the rest of the country can learn from his home state.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Envision Utah gets a lot of attention for having done this process and instilled these values in a place where people wouldn’t have expected it. You don’t talk about “smart growth,” you talk about “quality growth.” I was curious where that phrase came from.

It came from the fact that this was Utahns deciding how Utahns wanted to grow, and therefore we gave it our own name: “quality growth.”

If you look at many of the goals — transportation choices, housing for everyone, spending infrastructure money smart, preserving water, making sure we have clean air — people across the country have differences, but also have common things they really want. They want to have personal time and opportunity; they don’t want to be stuck in traffic and waste their lives. They want to get home for dinner with their kids or spend time with their friends. The things we value actually drive that quality growth strategy in Utah.

So we did not, quote, “instill” those values. Those values are the ones Utahns already had. So the goal was to understand not how to manipulate or push people toward an outcome but to listen to them in a way that we understand what they really wanted. And then to show them, through the scenarios, the choices.

Envision Utah has absolutely no authority. So we just show people, if you choose this, this is the outcome, but if you choose this, that’s the outcome.

What other language changes or thematic adaptations did you have to make when taking on a quality growth mission in a place where people are deeply skeptical of government, deeply skeptical of planning, deeply skeptical of urbanism?

I’m not sure they’re skeptical of all those things. Their values are their values. When they see choices and they choose how to grow, those strategies may look like strategies other places but adopted by Utahns. We used the words that Utahns used.

This values study approach which we used is not a poll. It involved almost 100 multi-hour interviews, laddering people — and laddering is a term I could describe but essentially saying: What are the attributes of living here? How does that affect your life in a functional way? What is the emotional quotient of that — how does it make you feel? And how does that attach to your values?

By value laddering you learn what people want, but you also learn why they want it. And knowing why they want it and the words to describe it, when you present scenarios you can present them in Utah words. And so Utah is here to keep Utah “beautiful, prosperous, neighborly and healthy” for future generations. We added “healthy” a few years ago. Those were Utah’s words for a prosperous economy.

Those are Utahns’ words for things you might say in completely different words somewhere else. But we didn’t pick the words. Utahns picked those words.

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New Software Lets You Virtually Stroll Down Streets That You Design

Folks across the blogosphere are geeking out over this new software created by Spencer Boomhower at the Portland firm Cupola Media. “Unity3D Visualization” lets users manipulate the features of a street and then evaluate the changes in an immersive animated display.

The software uses video game technology to help people understand how different designs will “feel.” Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns and Michael Andersen at People for Bikes think it has the potential to revolutionize the public planning process.

In the past, Boomhower combined his background in video game design and interest in transportation issues to create this amazing video explaining the folly of Portland’s CRC highway boondoggle. Boomhower told Streetsblog that the video game model can let people visualize transportation decisions in meaningful new ways:

Before this I had done a number of animated videos explaining issues relating to transportation and how it impacts places, but what I always wanted to do was make it interactive. When I build a virtual place in a 3D application I want to explore it, not look at it in a pre-rendered video. And I want to see it come to life with people and vehicles in motion. These are things you can do with video game tools.

Boomhower said he hopes the technology will enable people to become more engaged and empowered in the public planning process:

Game engines are designed to make dynamic places that can be explored from any point of view. Apply that to a street redesign: Want to see how a new curb extension will feel from the perspective of a slower-moving person on foot making that crossing? It’s just as easy as showing the perspective from the person approaching that intersection in the driver’s seat of his or her city bus.

You can try it out for yourself here. Right now the program is still in beta, Boomhower says, so you might encounter some glitches.

Happy Thanksgiving from Streetsblog Capitol Hill. We are off to enjoy the holiday and will be back publishing regularly on Monday. 

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Talking Headways: A Streetsblog Podcast, Episode 3

This week, Jeff and Tanya take on the Atlanta Braves’ terrible, no-good, very bad decision to move their stadium to Cobb County, Georgia. We discuss cities that are (and are not) shaped like wedding cakes, and whether that means you need to smoosh your spouse’s face in it. Tanya makes a pedestrian-rights argument against high-heeled shoes (and Jeff abstains from taking sides). We parse the differences between “shared streets” — without marked-out space for cars, bikes, and people on foot — and vehicular cycling.

In between, we speculate on what DC would look like without height limits, make fun of neighborhood parking bullies, pity the mega-commuters, and most importantly, shame the transit riders who fail to cede their seats to those who need them because they have their heads stuck in Angry Birds.

By the way, if you don’t subscribe yet to Jeff’s daily headline roundup, The Other Side of the Tracks (also known as The Direct Transfer), you’re missing a lot. Sign up here.

And PS — I promised we would have an iTunes RSS feed available for you by now and we are this close. Soon, I promise.

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“If/Then”: A Review of the Broadway-Bound Musical About City Planning

IdinaMenzel_National-TheatreWhat rhymes with “waterfront redevelopment plan”?

I wondered that after recently reading that the storyline of an upcoming musical whose plot revolves around a 40-ish city planner moving to New York. Clearly a musical needs a larger audience than 40-something women with city planning degrees, but as the bulls-eye of their target demographic, I felt a certain obligation to go see it.

I settled in my seat for If/Then, which opened November 5 at Washington’s National Theater, with both anticipation and trepidation. By intermission, though, I couldn’t stop babbling about how much I loved it.

The heroine, played by Idina Menzel, got a PhD in city planning, married a grad school classmate, and moved to Phoenix. In her late 30s, unfulfilled in her career, in a loveless marriage, childless, she leaves that life behind to return to New York.

Yes, you read that right: The main character of a Broadway-bound musical has a PhD in city planning. She’s a wicked smart woman who loves data (stuck in a subway car, she rattles off statistics about transit use), doesn’t believe in accidents (like any street safety advocate, she notes they’re correctly called “collisions”), and whose dream is to help shape New York City.

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Streetsblog’s Brand-New Podcast: Episode 1

Behold, Streetsblog’s brand-new podcast! In what we aim to turn into a recurring feature, Reconnecting America’s Jeff Wood and I recently chatted about the week’s news in livable streets, urbanism, and sustainable transportation. The topics are drawn from Jeff’s excellent daily compendium of transportation and planning links, The Direct Transfer, and from stories we’re tracking at Streetsblog Capitol Hill. It’s a treat for me to get back to producing audio — I was a radio reporter before joining Streetsblog.

This podcast is still very much in beta — we haven’t even settled on a name for it yet (suggestions welcome). But we want to share it with you and get your feedback and ideas about where to take it.

This week, Jeff and I discussed whether regional planning matters, the odd timing of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s decision to reject federal high-speed rail funds, and drawing fantasy maps for the transit and bike infrastructure your city needs. Have a listen, let us know what you think, and join the conversation in the comments.

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Jeff Speck: America Has So Many Problems. Walkability Solves Most of Them.

In the ineffable way of all TED talkers, urban planner Jeff Speck, author of “The Walkable City,” has made a concise, urgent, and oddly charming argument for walkability. In just under 17 minutes, Speck has articulated the economic, epidemiological, and environmental arguments to end automobile dependency and start using our feet again. It’s worth a watch (and a re-tweet). A few highlights:

  • The worst idea America has ever had is suburban sprawl, and it’s being emulated — like many American values, both good and bad — around the world.
  • We’ve doubled the number of roads in America since the 1970s — and the proportion of our household income we spend on transportation.
  • Portland went against the grain of suburban sprawl and highway expansion and has been a magnet for college-educated young people who want to live in a city that prizes biking and walking. Portland’s VMT peaked in 1996, with each person driving 11 minutes less per day now.
  • One out of three Americans is obese, a second third is overweight. “We have the first generation of children in America that are predicted to live shorter lives than their parents,” Speck said. “I believe that this American health care crisis that we’ve all heard about is an urban design crisis and that the design of our cities lies at the cure.” Studies show that obesity correlates more strongly to inactivity than to diet.

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Richard Florida: Seniors Want Vibrant, Livable Cities Too

Image: Atlantic Cities

When he settled on Miami as his designated spot to escape Toronto winters, urbanist Richard Florida said he expected “all young people with a lot of gel in their hair.” What surprised him was finding a pocket of baby boomer urbanites from cities like Washington, DC, who came to Miami for its arts, diversity and walkability.

“Everyone said the same thing: We want a little bit of warmth, but we don’t want the warm, traditional Leisureville. We want an exciting community with arts and culture and mixing,” Florida said Thursday at the AARP-hosted “Conversation on Generations,” with Atlantic editor Steve Clemons.

The wide-ranging chat between the Atlantic guys (Florida co-founded Atlantic Cities) explored the trends boomers could follow as they age — and how governments should get ready.

Right now, “too many leaders are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach,” said AARP’s Nancy LeaMond, in her introduction. Half the country’s jurisdictions, she said, aren’t preparing for the so-called “silver tsunami” of aging boomers. And that can’t be very smart when over 10,000 Americans are turning 65 every day.

Florida’s take on his peers (born in 1957, he’s on the cusp of boomerhood) is that they don’t want to live in isolated homes or communities. On a fundamental level, that means seniors are choosing to live close to good airports, quality healthcare services, and, increasingly, the homes of their children and grandkids.

But there’s more to it than that. Florida and Clemons talked about an aspect of “cool” that hasn’t been traditionally associated with aging, with boomers in many ways replicating the trends of younger generations. Florida sees a craving “for a more experiential community … with coffee bars and restaurants and music clubs and street-level vibrancy,” and a diversity of ages. Losing steam is the notion that older adults only want to venture downtown for evenings at the opera.

Boomers also seem to get that walkability is key not only to creating this “interactive potential,” he said, but also to ensuring healthier lifestyles that promote longevity.

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