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Posts from the "Urban Planning" Category

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Bill Peduto, Rising Urbanist Star, Wins Pittsburgh Mayoral Primary

He’s a “top urban influencer.” He promoted parking reform in his campaign to become Pittsburgh’s next mayor. And on Tuesday, City Councilman Bill Peduto won the Democratic mayoral primary, making him something of a shoo-in for the city’s highest office. (Pittsburgh hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since the 1930s.)

With the election of Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh streets could soon become much more walkable and bikeable. Image: Post-Gazette

Just to give you a taste of how tuned in Peduto is to what makes a city work for walking, biking, and transit, we pulled some excerpts from a candidate interview he did with Bike Pittsburgh. Sit back and prepare to be envious.

Here’s Bill Peduto on increasing bike and transit mode share: “The best way to achieve this is to make sure that the bulk of new housing development that occurs in the city is transit oriented and is located within reasonable walking distance to a transit hub.” PennDOT has set a goal of 5 to 10 percent of trips by bicycle downtown and 5 percent of all trips under three miles, but Peduto says he thinks “we can do even better,” indicating that he’d like to see bicycle mode share as high as 10 percent. Currently, it’s at 1.4 percent citywide.

Here he is on pedestrian safety and traffic enforcement: “We’re going to get more police officers on bicycles and on foot patrols so they will have a stake in bike/ped safety.” “We also have to revisit our police policies and make sure that all of our officers are trained in bike/ped safety laws and the proper enforcement of them.”

On protected bike lanes: “We need to start to incorporate physically separated bike lanes where appropriate. We need to institute traffic calming measures.”

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A “Movement For Movement” Puts Walking Front and Center

Six weeks after my daughter was born, my midwife asked me if I was getting any exercise. I confessed I wasn’t. I hadn’t figured out a new routine that included exercise, my old activities weren’t baby-friendly, I just didn’t have the time, and I wasn’t up for anything high-impact.

She recommended I try walking for 20 minutes a day.

“Oh that,” I said. “I do that.” As a car-free family with a baby too little to ride a bike, all we ever did anymore was walk – far more than 20 minutes most days. It just hadn’t occurred to me that it counted as exercise.

This “unintentional walking,” as walkability evangelist Chris Leinberger calls it, is the key to getting more people active. At a day-long conference yesterday on pedestrian advocacy, Jane Ward of the George Washington School of Public Health made this sensible point:

We can’t be successful with the majority of the population if walking is something stuck on to a list what people are already doing. I think most people know that they should be getting more exercise, but if they think they have to make time in their already too-busy day, they’re not going to do it.

So, I think to focus on the useful walk, and walking as active transportation that should have equal consideration in transportation planning, with all other modes of transportation, is the way that we will reach the most people.

Yesterday’s conference was sponsored by a diverse group: the health care provider Kaiser Permanente, the American College of Sports Medicine, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, Everybody Walk!, and America Walks. It was held at Kaiser’s DC headquarters, home to a huge, two-sided, interactive digital wall with information on walking.

Walking’s health connection can’t be overstated. “Being physically active is the most important thing all Americans of all ages and weights can do for health,” said Joan Dorn of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We recognize the benefits of all kinds of physical activity, but we picked walking as an area on which to focus because it’s something that almost all Americans can do.”

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Why It Can Be More Affordable to Live in an “Expensive” City

So, how did Washington, D.C. — widely perceived as one of the most expensive cities in the country — end up topping a “most affordable” housing list?

First and most importantly, adjust for average income levels. Then, factor in transportation costs. Using that formula, the D.C. region is tops among 25 American metro areas in a new study from the Center for Housing Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology that looks at the ability of moderate-income households to shoulder the burden of housing and transportation costs [PDF]. The notoriously pricey Boston and San Francisco also make it into the top six.

The joint study came up with some other surprising findings. For example, it turns out it’s more affordable to live in New York City than it is to live in Cincinnati, based on the metrics used. And in general, renters fare better than homeowners in covering their costs of living.

In all 25 cities, middle-class households spent more than half of their incomes on combined housing and transportation costs between 2000 and 2010. Miami had it worst, with housing and transportation eating up 72 percent of the average income.

The study, titled “Losing Ground,” focuses on the disparity between income levels and steadily rising housing and transportation costs. Over the decade, researchers found, for every $1 in income gains, combined housing and transportation costs rose $1.75.

“Losing Ground” follows a 2006 study from the same organizations that took the novel approach of factoring in transportation costs to gauge the affordability of different metro areas. Measuring affordable living by looking strictly at housing costs, without including transportation, “tends to mislead people,” said Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, in a teleconference yesterday. Gathering this information comprehensively, he said, “has profound implications for a set of policy choices.”

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Leinberger: Walkable Urbanism Is the Future, and DC Is the Model

Chris Leinberger wears too many hats to count – real estate developer, George Washington University professor, Brookings fellow – but he has one message: “Walkable urbanism is the future.”

Capital Bikeshare riders under DC's Chinatown arch. Photo: DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call

For years now, Leinberger has been preaching the gospel that the postwar era of automobile-oriented “drivable suburbanism” is over – and urbanism is the new wave. He’s even developed his own lingo for it: He now refers to walkable urban places as WalkUPs.

In a report released this week called DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call [PDF], Leinberger explores the six different kinds of “regionally significant” WalkUPs, using Washington, DC as the model. Indeed, he claims DC is the model of walkable urbanism, a pioneer of the trend.

Of the six types of WalkUPs in Leinberger’s framework, three are urban and three are suburban. Cities have the traditional downtown, “downtown adjacent” neighborhoods like Dupont Circle or Capitol Hill, and “urban commercial” areas like Adams Morgan or H Street. Suburbs have their own town centers like Bethesda, strip commercial redevelopment like White Flint, and greenfield development, like Reston.

Most growth over next 30 years will happen in strip commercial redevelopments, according to Leinberger, and at the vanguard is Tysons Corner – “the world’s largest drivable sub-urban concentration of commercial enterprises” — now on its way toward walkable, transit-oriented urbanism.

Indeed, Leinberger’s brand of urbanism largely looks outside central cities. It’s Washington’s suburbs that have really caught his attention. Of the 43 WalkUPs he identifies in the DC area, “a surprising 58 percent are in the suburbs,” comprising 51 percent of the square footage.

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CNU Hones Its Transportation Agenda in Long Beach

CNU Transportation Summit - PWPB 2012

Long Beach engineer Rock Miller, standing beside League of American Bicyclists president Andy Clarke, discussing the first test case of cycle-track facilities in the city with the CNU Bikeway Networks groups.

Preceding the start of the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference this week, the Congress for the New Urbanism met at the Renaissance Hotel across from the Long Beach Convention Center to convene their annual CNU Transportation Summit. At the summit, CNU develops its transportation agenda, including new and existing projects. Having caught the new urbanist bug in Florida at CNU 20, I was eager to have another opportunity to both learn and contribute to their dialogue.

The summit is organized in a manner similar to the “open source” sessions of the full CNU conference each year. Smaller breakout groups, with a leader for each, split off to tackle various topics in a close circle of collaboration. The summit groups included: Transit Networks, Highways to Boulevards, Transportation Reform Modeling, Regional Policy & Functional Classification Reform, Transportation Reform Research Agenda, Street Vitality Index, and Bikeway Networks. Behind many of the big ideas, reports and documents distributed by the CNU and its membership over the years, there were first small groups hashing things out together on note pads. Read more…

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The Projections Fallacy

Cross-posted from Streets.MN.

We spend billions every year in this country on our transportation network, large percentages of it based on traffic projections. This despite the fact that we have a long record of not being able to accurately project traffic. The answer isn’t better projections but a better transportation system, one that is robust to modeling error.

The projections say California's I-710 isn't wide nearly enough yet. Photo: Cameron Bevers / Can Highways

My home town newspaper recently ran the standard repeat-what-the-engineer-says article on traffic projections. Essentially, the report indicated that we’re going to be inundated with traffic. As things continue to “full build out” (it was in quotes so I’m assuming it is an engineering term), traffic is going to increase by 75 percent, an astounding amount since most locals will attest we are already drowning in traffic (we’re not, but most would attest that we are). The recommendation for dealing with all this traffic seems sensible: make some prudent investments today to acquire more land for future road expansion and then, as they are built, oversize the roads to meet this future demand.

A lot of the rationale for these projections — as well as the public’s acceptance of them — comes from the fact that growth has been robust. In fact, if you go back decades and look at the projections that were made for the present time, they are laughable in how dramatically they underestimated the amount of traffic. We projected out based on what our experience had taught us to anticipate, but we were wrong, and it cost the city a lot of money to retrofit all of the places that were inundated with cars.

This reality fits a national trend. My experience is backed up by studies demonstrating that, the higher the functional classification and the larger the traffic volumes, the greater the degree of underestimate. This correlates with work by Patron Saint of Strong Towns Thinking, Nassim Taleb, who has made the same observations of economic systems, governments, etc… (For one example, go to the 5:10 mark of this recent video.)

Amazingly, the fact the we have been so consistently wrong doesn’t make us any less confident today, either in my hometown or nationwide. We’ve “enhanced” our models now and believe we have it figured out this time, revising the data upward to reflect what we have experienced in the “real” world. This is the essence of modeling, and what else could be more rational?

Or more foolish. In these models, we’ve taken something that is unpredictable — driver behavior — and treated it as if it were actuarial science, akin to estimating life expectancy or your odds of drawing a face card when the dealer is showing fifteen. The idea behind our hubris is that, while one driver may be unpredictable, the average driver will react in a predictable way and, thus, we can model based on a normal distribution. These models are failing to account for things like consumer preference, the ability to access financing, overall market growth, cost of construction materials, gas prices, government employment levels, and on and on and on…. We assume all drivers make predictible traffic decisions. They don’t.

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Arizona DOT Study: Compact, Mixed-Use Development Leads to Less Traffic

Image: Arizona Department of Transportation

Does walkable development really lead to worse traffic congestion? Opponents of urbanism often say so, citing impending traffic disaster to rally people against, say, a new mixed-use project proposed in their backyards. But new research provides some excellent evidence to counter those claims.

A recent study by the Arizona Department of Transportation [PDF] found that neighborhoods where houses are closer together actually have freer-flowing traffic.

Researchers compared some of greater Phoenix’s denser neighborhoods – South Scottsdale, Tempe, and East Phoenix — with a few of its more sprawling ones – Glendale, Gilbert, and North Scottsdale. Some interesting patterns emerged.

In the more compact neighborhoods, the average household owned 1.55 cars, compared to 1.92 in more suburban areas. Residents of higher-density neighborhoods also traveled shorter distances both to get to work and to run errands, the study found.

The average work trip was a little longer than seven miles for higher-density neighborhoods; in the more suburban neighborhoods, it was almost 11 miles. Residents of the three compact neighborhoods traveled just less than three miles to shop, while residents of sprawling locations traveled an average of more than four miles. All of this led the more urban dwellers to travel an average of nearly five fewer miles per day than their suburban counterparts.

The density divide also played an important role in transit use. Rates varied from as high as eight percent transit ridership in high-density neighborhoods to as low as one percent in the more sprawling areas.

All of this translated into a reduced strain on roadways in the places that had more people — running counter to one of the strongest objections to mixed-use development. Comparing one suburban corridor to two of the streets in the more dense neighborhoods, the study found that on the more urban streets, traffic congestion was “much lower,” or about half as high (measured by the ratio of the capacity of the roadway to the actual volume of cars on it).

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FRA Guidance on Pedestrian Safety Still Misses the Real Problem

The Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t call people walking near railroad tracks “pedestrians.” It calls them “trespassers.”

True, a person walking on railroad tracks is often, by definition, breaking the law, since the tracks are private property. But the nomenclature gives the impression that the agency might be somewhat less sympathetic than they should be about the 427 people who lost their lives last year walking on or near railroad tracks. And last year was a good year – the FRA estimates the average to be about 500 deaths annually [PDF].

The FRA just issued Guidance on Pedestrian Crossing Safety At or Near Passenger Stations [PDF]. This document deals with “pedestrians,” not  “trespassers,” because it deals only with officially sanctioned crossings, and only those at or near stations. “It’s a guide to best practices in crossing engineering, warning devices, markings, signage, that kind of thing,” FRA spokesperson Rob Kulat told me.

The document was released in compliance with the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which mandated that such guidance be issued within a year of enactment.

OK, so it’s two and a half years late. It’s still a useful resource for the municipalities and states that want to build or improve rail crossings at or near stations – after all, according to Kulat, the FRA isn’t the one responsible for these crossings.

What the document doesn’t do is give guidance about when and where crossings should be added to prevent injury and increase mobility. In a 2008 fact sheet [PDF], the agency explicitly says, “The FRA’s focus is on preventing rail trespassing, not enabling it by making the behavior safe.” The safety document released this month features a wide range of recommendations for enabling safe crossings, but only where they’re currently sanctioned. The people who cross the tracks to get to school or their aunt’s house or the post office are still just trespassers whose injuries are their own fault.

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LOS and Travel Projections: The Wrong Tools for Planning Our Streets

Gary Toth is director of transportation initiatives with the Project for Public Spaces. This post first appeared on PPS’s Placemaking Blog.

Would you use a rototiller to get rid of weeds in a flowerbed? Of course not. You might solve your immediate goal of uprooting the weeds — but oh, my, the collateral damage that you would do.

Yet when we try to eliminate congestion from our urban areas by using decades-old traffic engineering measures and models, we are essentially using a rototiller in a flowerbed. And it’s time to acknowledge that the collateral damage has been too great.

Image: Andy Singer

Image: Andy Singer

First, an explanation of what I call the “deadly duo”: travel projection models and Levels of Service (LOS) performance metrics.Travel projection models are computer programs that use assumptions about future growth in population, employment, and recreation to estimate how many new cars will be on roads 20 or 30 years into the future.

Models range from quite simplistic to incredibly complex and expensive. Simple models deal primarily with coarse movements of vehicles between cities, while complex models deal with the intricacies of what happens on the fine grid of urban areas. To be truly accurate, growth projection modeling can be expensive. Therefore, absent compelling reason to do otherwise, most growth projections tend to be done using less expensive techniques, which usually lead to overestimates.

Levels of Service (LOS) is a performance metric which flourished during the interstate- and freeway-building era that went from the 1950s to the 1990s. Using a scale of A to F, LOS attempts to create an objective formula to answer a subjective question: How much congestion are we willing to tolerate? As in grade school, “F” is a failing grade and “A” is perfect.

Engineers decided that LOS “C” was a good balance between overinvestment in perfection and underinvestment leading to congestion. In urban areas, a concession was made to accept LOS D, representing slightly more restricted but still free-flowing traffic. LOS is commonly (actually, almost always) calculated using travel projections for 20 to 30 years into the future.

Using basic traffic models and LOS C/D to plan and design the interstate system was a no-brainer in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. When deciding how many lanes to build on a freeway connecting major cities, a sensitivity of plus or minus 10,000 trips a day could be tolerated, and the incremental difference in cost to plow through undeveloped land was relatively insignificant.

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When “Old and Blighted” Development Beats “Shiny and New” Suburbanism

There are plenty of hidden costs to auto-oriented development: increased levels of air and water pollution, safety risks posed to pedestrians and cyclists. But as Strong Towns Blog points out, some costs are hardly hidden at all.

The authors of the comprehensive plan for Brainerd, Minnesota (pop: 13,590) probably thought they had a great idea: Take the properties along busy Highway 210 in the east part of town, an assortment of run-down or vacant storefronts, and encourage their replacement by “highway-oriented businesses.” The plan bases this strategy on the idea that “having a strong highway commercial area… provides for a healthy downtown.”

“The problem,” writes Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, “is that ‘strong’ and ‘highway commercial’ are – in almost all cases – mutually exclusive terms.” Furthermore, the “fast food restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations and other auto-oriented businesses“ promoted by the comprehensive plan are actually worth less to the city than the marginal establishments that are there already.

Marohn compares the “old and blighted” development on one block — the kind of development the town would like to get rid of — to the “shiny and new” development down the street, a fast food joint with lots of surface parking:

The eleven old and blighted lots [above left] — some of the most undesirable commercial property in the city — arranged in the traditional development pattern along the incompatible, major arterial of Highway 210 have a combined tax base of $1,136,500.

To compare, the Taco John’s property [above right] — the one that is not only shiny and new but configured precisely as the city of Brainerd desires the old and blighted properties to someday be — has a total valuation of only $803,200.

At its nastiest and most decrepit, fighting the negative auto traffic speeding by and the absence of pedestrian connectivity, lacking all natural advantage from the neighboring land uses that would ideally accompany a traditional neighborhood design, the old and blighted traditional commercial block still outperforms the new, auto-oriented development by 41%. [emphasis his]

The city is shrinking its own tax base by encouraging businesses to turn their backs on traditional Main Streets in favor of busy arterial highways. A cheaper way to maximize these parcels’ value, according to Marohn, would be to restore connectivity to the nearby residential area.