Tuesday, February 23

Why Tolkien sold his car

Many people recognize the mid-20th century Oxford university professor J.R.R. Tolkien for his fantasy world of Middle Earth, revealed through the Lord of Rings trilogy and other novels. A little fact that most people do not know is that he sold his car shortly after World War II ended and carried on most of his life by bicycle.

According to a biographer:

"Tolkien became a familiar figure cycling along the Banbury Road, travelling between home and Pembroke College on his extraordinarily high-seated bicycle while wearing cap and voluminous gown."
By itself this may be a curious piece of trivia, but a closer evaluation of Tolkien's belief system begs us (or at least me) to speculate over why he made this choice. The decision to go car free was clearly deliberate. Tolkien bought his first family car in 1931, and in a letter he recalls his first trip into Oxford by automobile in 1911. As a devout Roman Catholic and life-long political Tory, he doesn't exactly fit the contemporary stereotype of the cyclist. What inspired this?

When the editor of the New Republic wrote to ask Tolkien whether Lord of the Rings contained allegories of contemporary England, he declined to draw any precise connections. But he did hint that, as an author, he could not help but write through the lens of his own experience living in Oxford. At one point he responds,
"Though, the spirit of ‘Isengard’, if not of Mordor, is of course always cropping up. The present design of destroying Oxford in order to accommodate motor-cars is a case."
Quick translation: Modor = pure evil; Isengard = corrupted. In his books, Isengard began as a pristine place, but Sarumon (the villain) camped his armies there, cut down all of the trees and soiled the land. Like the ruin of Isengard, the partial destruction of Oxford left him distrustful of modern town planning efforts in general.

(By the way, if you're a Lord of the Rings fan please cut my simplification some slack. I think this is right.)

The idea of disrupting nature for the personal automobile arises in another letter to his son in 1944.
It is full Maytime by the trees and grass now. But the heavens are full of roar and riot. You cannot even hold a shouting conversation in the garden now, save about 1 a.m. and 7 p.m. – unless the day is too foul to be out. How I wish the 'infernal combustion' engine had never been invented. Or (more difficult still since humanity and engineers in special are both nitwitted and malicious as a rule) that it could have been put to rational uses — if any.
It may be tempting to dismiss Tolkien's antagonism toward modernity as a romantic appeal to the pastoral England of his childhood. Yes, he may have been a bit of a Luddite (He didn't like general household appliances much either). Yet from another perspective, his view of human nature as easily corrupted by power can provide a healthy skepticism in the right doses. Not many in the 40's and 50's were questioning the absolute sovereignty of technological progress to solve all the problems of humanity, and most people would agree now with Tolkien that the often utopian promises have fallen far short. There is certainly a place for cautious, if sometimes grumpy, conservatives like Tolkien.

Thursday, February 18

An honest question about minimum school acreage

Many building codes require large sites for public schools. Flickr: Valarie Renee
I heard a story the other day about a major flood that hit Albany, Georgia in 1994. As is usually the case, many of the poorer neighborhoods in the core of the town, set along the river in the low-lying land, were hit the hardest. The U.S. FEMA agency had funds set a aside to help the community rebuild, including the reconstruction of two schools that were completely lost in this neighborhood. However, one of the stipulations was that the new schools had to be placed on at least a twenty acre campus. Naturally, the only suitable parcels were in the outlying suburbs, which happened to be more affluent, so not only did these folks have to get their own lives back in order but they had to start busing their children outside of the community from that point forward.

The obvious question: why a twenty acre minimum? Where did we get this fortress mentality that requires all schools to be set apart on a separate campus?

This brings me to some personal anecdotes about two schools:

Hellgate High School occupies a site very close to the center of Missoula, Montana. It was built in 1908 and somehow managed to not be destroyed in the intervening century. The school is nicely woven into the urban fabric of Missoula, and on any given school day the extensive row of bike racks in the back are filled to the brim. There is very limited motor vehicle parking.

Students are allowed to leave the school for lunchtime, and many of them walk to the local shops and restaurants across the street. I'm sure there are some who worry that the students will engage in the practice of shenanigans while let loose, but, as a nearby worker in downtown, I never saw a problem. What they did get was a half hour to explore the real world everyday in a relatively safe environment, even those who did not yet have their own drivers licence.

Newark High School in Delaware is where I attended school. The school abandoned its urban site in 1954 for a more spacious modern building further out of town. Although it is still relatively close to downtown Newark (we're talking 1950's after all), the site is designed for driving only. It's set back from the street, fenced off on two sides, and accompanied by a large parking lot.

When I was there, school administrators were not willing to risk the liability of letting students out for lunch, but many of us did anyway. Because teachers took turns patrolling the borders, we literally had to run out the door, cross a four-lane divided highway, and trek through a strip mall parking lot just to get to an Auntie Anne's fast food joint. I look back wondering why we were will willing to exert so much effort for a pretzel. I don't think we were being deviants for the sake of deviancy; I think we just wanted to act like adults.

The one student in our class who did die during school hours perished when his automobile rammed into a tree. He was running late for school in the morning. The self-contained fortress school design may be able to keep students sheltered while they are on its premises (that is, while the school district is legally liable for their safety), but all of those cars in the parking lot have to arrive from somewhere. In reality, all other threats of accidental harm are negligible in the shadow of teenage driving fatalities.

It turns out that Newark High School may have to move further yet out of town. Delaware has updated the school building codes, now requiring a minimum of 25 acres for the school site. Newark is in non-compliance, and some are starting to complain about the lack of parking.

Again, what is the reasoning behind requiring larger and larger lots?

Tuesday, February 16

City: Rediscovering the Center

University of Pennsylvania Press has done a great service by reprinting William H. Whyte's classic text City: Rediscovering the Center. I consider this book to be part of the core of the American urbanist canon, alongside Death and Life if Great American Cities, A Pattern Language, and The City in History.

William Whyte was the foremost empiricist of cities in the 20th century. He sought to turn the planning and design process on its head - to start with detailed observations of how the smallest scale of an urban place is used by people and work outward from there, designing places and writing codes accordingly. City: Rediscovering the Center begins with lessons drawn from sixteen years of meticulously recording plazas, streets, small parks, and marketplaces with time-lapse video and scientifically parsing out the patterns of behavior. Once the basic observations of human nature have been identified, he launches into an evaluation of the health of downtowns in their entirety.

What jumps out right away from Whyte’s study is the attention he pays to the most basic human needs. How does the provision of food impact the life of a place? Where do people use the bathroom? How can one find light on a cool day and shade on a sunny day? In other words, he doesn't travel very far up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which I find to be a refreshingly humble and practical disposition toward the power of physical space in our lives. He never reaches for transcendence by design; that’s reserved for what happens in these places.

This leads to Whyte’s most important insight of all, one that really underscores each chapter of the book, that is: people want to be around other people. We are inherently social beings. As simple as this insight seems, it actually ran head on against the prevailing notion in planning at the time that people want as much space for themselves as possible. Whyte noticed that not only did friends clump together when sitting in a plaza, but even strangers tended to take seats in reasonable proximity to each other rather than evenly disperse themselves throughout the space. Well-used places were safer, both in perception and reality. People who stopped for conversation on sidewalks would typically not step out of the way, preferring to be in the center of movement. Parks and sidewalks that were outsized for their activity tended to swallow up its life and repel visitors. People like to be crowded, but not too much.

Whyte’s design principles are simple and flow naturally from these foundations:

  • People want places to sit. Steps are the best way to provide this, and there are specific proportions that can either encourage or detract from their use. Movable chairs offer a flexible counterpart to steps, and they won’t get stolen if they are cheap enough and locked up at night.
  • People want things to look at. Storefront facades have to be designed to pull in onlookers with entrances that form a seamless transition between the street and building. It’s good for business and good for the city. Street trees, the larger the better, are terrific implants of nature into the heart of the city. Playful art is the best public art.
  • Exclusion leads to unintended consequences. Impromptu street theater and music, illegal vendors and eccentric characters all add to the life of the street rather than detract from it. Attempts to discourage “undesirables” (his name for the indigent population), such as using spikes to prevent sitting, end up making the place inhospitable to everyone. Defensive enclosure does more to keep criminals in and well-hidden than it does to keep them out.
  • Places are used differently at different times. Because of the movement of the sun, outdoor places will be used more during different times of the day depending also on the season. The city should protect its light from tall and wide buildings, but buildings can also be used to reflect light if placed well. The cycle of the traditional work day and home life will dictate the primary hours of use.
  • Places need ongoing management. Although most people will walk a reasonable distance before throwing away trash, there will always need to be regular cleaning. Special events should be arranged, particularly to fill in time slots that are underutilized.
  • Separation of vehicles and pedestrians usually favors vehicles. Skywalks and underground concourses force pedestrians either up or down a level and can suck the life out of a street. They can be useful in cold climates, but only as a complement to the street. Pedestrian malls are usually too wide or too long to be successful.
The latter half of the book is much more sporadic but that’s alright. He’s developed his model and now he applies it to a variety of problems contemporary to 1988. Each chapter raises a different debate over the future of cities in the United States, and he weighs in quite resolutely for a particular position.

Remarkably, he happens to get almost all of his predictions correct (at least in my opinion):
  • He notes the “corporate exodus” to the suburban office park in the 80’s but insists that the most creative firms will still not be able to live without the vitality and constant interactions of the city.
  • Five years before Joel Garreau wrote Edge Cities, Whyte describes the phenomenon with at least as much precision and insight. He calls them “Semi-cities” (I'm not sure why the strange term “edge city” was the one to stick). He predicts that they will need to be shaped into the form of a traditional town, with a strong center and opportunities for walking. This is exactly what Tyson’s Corner is moving toward now.
  • He compares the two transit movements of the 80’s: light rail and the people-mover. He sees much promise in light rail, but not people-movers. He considers the overhead structures to be cumbersome. When was the last people-mover installed?
  • He forsees the predictions that communication technology will bring about the “the new geography,” allowing everyone to living in isolation in the suburbs or rural areas. He concludes that face-to-face contact will be as necessary as ever. This decentralization forecast was popular in the 90’s but reality has gone the opposite direction.
  • He warns against downtowns competing with the suburbs on suburban terms, by building self-enclosed megastructures in the heart of the city. He tells cities to play to their strengths of street life and integration.
  • Well before The High Cost of Free Parking, Whyte points to parking as the single most destructive force in the life of cities. He advises municipalities to switch from requiring it in large amounts to limiting it and allowing the highest and best use for downtown parcels.

Friday, February 12

An historic day for Broadway

New York City mayor Bloomberg has announced yesterday that the Broadway public space experiment through Times Square and Herald Square will, after an eight month trial period, be made permanent. From the press conference:

"I think the issue is, are the roads for multiple uses – everybody, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists – or are they just for motorists? And in this day and age, if you go around the world, all the other great cities have already tried to reduce the number of cars on their streets and convert some of the open spaces into space for other people."
Janette Sadik-khan, the city DOT commissioner, expressed the intent to "transform the plazas into iconic spaces worthy of their iconic setting."

To show how historic this decision is, I've dug up a couple of Times Square illustrations from previous decades. The first drawing of Times Square is from the the 1974 book Pedestrian Revolution. The source is not cited, so I assume it is the vision of authors:

This 1981 drawing of Times Square is from NY Office of Midtown Planning:

Finally, the illustration released by NY DOT last year:

Thursday, February 11

A walkable grocery thought experiment

Randal O'Toole has proposed a thought experiment that he uses to "debunk the smart growth myth" of the ideal walkable neighborhood grocery store.

"For smart growth to work, then population densities must be high enough for businesses to have enough customers within walking distance to keep them going. Smart growth won't work if businesses in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods must attract hordes of auto drivers from other areas in order to survive. A modern large supermarket needs to draw patrons from a community of about 40,000 people. This is known as the trade population for this kind of store.

Joel Garreau says that, as a rule of thumb, 'the farthest distance an American will willingly walk before getting into a car' is 600 feet. However, 'if you do everything you can to make casual use of the automobile inconvenient at the same time that you make walking pleasant and attractive, you maybe, just maybe, can up the distance an American will willingly walk to 1,500 feet'...

The population density required to place 40,000 people within 1,500 feet of a grocery store is almost 124,000 people per square mile. That's about two-and-one-half times the density of Manhattan."
Therefore, smart growth won't work. QED.

O'Toole has asked a worthwhile question but plugged in the wrong numbers to answer it. Out of curiosity, I'd like to take a closer look at this hypothetical scenario to see how feasible the walkable grocery may really be.
Customer Base. O’Toole uses the concept of trade population, but this is begging the question. His trade population number is generated assuming an automobile-oriented environment, which is exactly what the proposed scenario is an alternative to. The more objective measure is the actual pool of customers a large grocery draws from. To get a feel for this I counted all of the food sources that serve the Charlottesville-Albemarle area. I came up with 14 large "modern grocery stores," between 30,000 and 60,000 sq. feet. This does not include:
  • medium-sized full-service grocers
  • about a half dozen health food stores
  • specialty ethnic food stores
  • big box stores like Target that sell food
  • dozens of small convenience stores
I'm only counting the kinds of places O'Toole considers an unreasonable sacrifice to do without.

Taking the combined service area's population to be 134,086 from current ACS data (Charlottesville and Albemarle County), this breaks down to about one large grocery store per 9500 people. APA has determined the average customer base for a supermarket in the U.S. to be 8,412 , but I’ll just stick with my more conservative 9500.

Modal Split. O'Toole, as usual, characterizes the smart growth position as something far more extreme than anyone would actually propose: a 100% walking grocery store, as if bicycles, transit, and automobiles do not exist at all. The term walkable means able to be walked to, not only walked to. Every smart growth proponent I know would actually hope to see a multimodal balance to allow an array of transportation options. For the sake of this scenario, let's suppose our store has 50% walkers (with some cyclists included in here), 25% transit users, and 25% drivers.

Walking Distance. If you ignore Garreau's snarkiness, the 1,500 foot number is an alright estimate for typical behavior in a pedestrian-friendly environment. Walking 600 feet will seem intolerable if it's between the Best Buy and the Bed, Bath, and Beyond through a parking lot and grass berm, but Charlottesville's downtown pedestrian mall is 2,100 feet long and people will regularly walk its length for an errand because it is so enjoyable. A more objective way to go about this would be to fix the travel time. Apparently, the average drive to the grocery store currently takes about 20 minutes, including the walk from the parking lot. At a leisurely pace, the average walker could traverse about 3,000 feet in 20 minutes. I'll stick with the 1,500 foot number, noting that this will cut the travel time in half even for the furthest walkers.

Needed Density. Considering all of these conditions, a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that this grocer could be supported with a population density of 18,885 people per square mile surrounding it. This is about half the density of Brooklyn. If this still seems unreasonably high, it should be noted that this is only the density for one quarter of a square mile area. In theory, it could be surrounded by a greenbelt of parkland and have no effect on the calculation.

Charlottesville's new Market Street Market serves a walkable neighborhood
The more important question that I have not addressed is whether easy access to a “large modern grocery store” really adds much to quality of life. Granted that more choices are usually better than fewer, but is a whole wall of ketchup options that much more preferable than one or two choices. Psychologists for a while have been pointing to the phenomenon of too many choices, leading to customer confusion and even anxiety, so much so that major retailers have begun simplifying their selections and stepping up quality control. New corporations like Trader Joes are mastering this market.

There’s no reason why a medium-scaled grocer could not carry almost anything the average household would want on a much smaller footprint. And rather than singling out a one-size-fits-all shopping location, whether you're preparing Thanksgiving dinner or picking up milk, it's easy to imagine a full spectrum of grocery stores organized between convenience and selection. Walk to the neighborhood store twice a week; take a longer trip to Costco every two months.

Monday, February 8

Los Angeles from a different angle

Movies about Los Angeles have been about cars to the point of caricature. Whether it's James Dean's 1949 Mercury Coup or the drive-by shootings from Boyz n the Hood, we are led to believe that life in LA happens from within a car. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen's character Alvy whines the whole time he's in LA:

"Hey, don't tell me we're gonna hafta walk from the car to the house. Geez, my feet haven't touched pavement since I reached Los Angeles."
Steve Martin also joked about the LA and NY comparison in LA Story:
"Whatever you do, don't get dumped in L.A. I mean, it's not like New York, where you can meet someone walking down the street. In L.A. you practically have to hit someone with your car."
And then Mulholland Drive and Crash explore the darker side of the ubiquitous driving culture.

A still from 500 days of Summer
A still from 500 Days of Summer
Having only been to LA on a couple of occasions, and briefly, I've basically had to swallow the popular culture stereotype as the full truth of the matter. That is why last year's film, 500 Days of Summer, stood out to me as a unique portrait of the city - a heartfelt homage to a place that is entirely different than I've been told about. The main characters, Tom and Summer, bounce all around downtown LA - from cafes, to theaters, to museums, to work, to karaoke bars, to city parks, and to their apartments - all on foot or by transit. They take a light rail trip out to the countryside for a wedding. An old car only shows up for a quick two minute segment.

This deeply urban portrayal of Los Angeles is embedded within the characters and storyline as well. Tom's true passion is to be an architect, and he loves walking around downtown and appreciating the life of the sidewalks and historic buildings. He takes Summer to a downtown park to point out the cityscape, noting that the only blemish is two parking lots. Summer asks him to draw a picture on her arm of how the city can be infilled with more buildings.

Of course, in retrospect it's ridiculous to assume that a city of almost four million would have no urban fabric whatsoever. 500 Days of Summer does the service of telling the rest of us that it really does exist.

Wednesday, February 3

From a mobility to an accessibility orientation

Over at the Planetizen Interchange blog, a fascinating debate has been brewing over the fundamental purpose of transportation. Todd Litman, Sam Staley, Michael Lewyn and a handful of commenters are involved. When debating transportation, we often jump right to the question of automobile vs. transit, but the more interesting dividing line lies beneath whatever technological tool we prefer. The tool of choice will arise inevitably out of what we intend to do with the system.

A mobility-oriented analysis, the conventional approach taken by transportation planners throughout the 20th century, is represented by Sam Staley. In his aptly titled book Mobility First, he defines this simply as:

"The ability to travel where you want when you want"
Working toward higher levels of mobility, for Staley, is a necessary condition for economic development and the maintenance of a high quality of life for Americans. This requires a combination of building sufficient capacity to meet travel demand and the efficient use of the capacity. For capacity, Staley calls for an aggressive government road-building regime, with thousands of miles of tunnels and multi-level expressways. For efficiency, he proposes a pricing system based on peak usage and levels of congestion.

In a mobility-oriented analysis, success is measured in terms of vehicle miles traveled - the more movement, the better. This position naturally leads Staley to hold the private automobile up as the ultimate mode of travel:
"Cars provide the automobility people want, fusing speed, flexibility, and adaptability into one travel technology. In a service-based economy faced with global competition, cars provide the most efficient, effective, and productive transportation alternative."
An accessibility-oriented analysis shifts the primary goal up one level. Instead of simply attempting to maximize the total amount of movement, this approach places primacy on the ability to reach a chosen destination. Todd Litman represented this side of the debate, and he has covered it more thoroughly here. His definition of accessibility:
"The ease of reaching goods, services, activities and destinations (together called opportunities). It can be defined as the potential for interaction and exchange."
It's a subtle difference with major implications. I've assembled a simplified flow chart to represent what I take to be the essential contours of an accessibility approach:
(In reality, there are overlaps and feedback loops between these categories. This just shows a hierarchy of goals.)

In this approach, mobility is not an end itself but a means to the end of improving access to destinations. Granted there are a few exceptions, such as joyriding, walking the dog around the block and other recreational activities, but, for the most part, users of the transportation system are concerned with reaching their destination. This interaction is also what truly drives economic and social health. Mobility no longer holds the trump card in an accessibility paradigm, but it must compete with land use arrangements and other alternatives to movement in a cost-benefit analysis. Litman again:
"Just as automobiles are machines that provide mobility, urban environments - villages, towns and cities - can be thought of as machines that provide accessibility by minimizing the distance among people and their desired goods, service and activities (shops, schools, jobs, neighbors, etc.)."
When mobility was considered the only game in town, the costs, however large, had to be shrugged off as a necessary evil. On top of all of the money poured into car-based infrastructure already, Staley claims "we probably need to spend at least a trillion dollars more on transportation over the next decade than we expect in revenues if we want to keep up with growth in travel and goods movement." (my italics). This is a significant chunk of the U.S. GDP, and it doesn't even count the costs of manufacturing and fueling the vehicles. He would like to slowly shift this immense burden from government to private citizens, which will surely add to the growing expense American households are already pouring into transportation.

Of course, there are the environmental costs, social equity costs and the costs in human lives. Roadway fatalities per capita have remained remarkably steady since 1960, even as medical care and general quality of life have improved significantly. Even in the most efficient system, there are the costs in the time it takes to move over longer distances. All of this needs to be figured into the equation.

There are immense benefits to mobility too, in all of its forms. None of this suggests that we can grind the world to a halt and still maintain the economic vitality we enjoy. It, however, does suggest a more holistic strategy - a full toolbox to respond to a broader challenge.