Thursday, December 31

Miami 21 set to shape the city's future

View from Condo in the Brickell Neighborhood
I've spent the last week staying in downtown Miami and poking around the city. Miami has been in the national spotlight recently because of the the October adoption of the Miami 21 zoning code. After five years of public meetings, the City Council approved a new form-based code that encourages a walkable streetscape to replace the old system that strictly separated uses. Miami is the first big city in the U.S. to make this shift, but Denver and a few others are following closely behind.

Anthony Flint praised the Miami 21 code in the Boston Globe as a "blueprint for sustainable urban form," and many others in the planning community have expressed enthusiastic approval. Last spring, the U.S. Conference of Mayors presented Manny Diaz with an architectural award for Miami 21. Of course, certain elements have been watered down from the original intentions of DPZ, the planning firm leading the rewrite, especially the crucial issue of minimum parking standards around transit stops. However, most of the commenters I've come across think it's a step forward. Even the folks over at New Geography gave some words of approval, albeit couched in skepticism over its implementation.
"New Urbanism won this victory because there weren’t any compelling counter-arguments to their basic argument for urban hygiene. And Miami 21 comes at a time when the city has been egregiously abused at the hands of the free market; its citizens disenfranchised and suffering from an environment of ugliness, traffic and congestion."
Calle Ocho, the Main Street of Little Havana
Not surprisingly, the local reception has been more controversial. Neighborhood groups wanted less intensity, and developers wanted more intensity. Both claim to have been left out of the process. The local AIA chapter opposed the code, claiming it would stifle creativity and put a damper on "world class architecture." This makes a certain degree of sense considering that some mainstream architects have been among the most vocal critics of New Urbanism over the years. Supporters of Miami 21 thought the controversy had been successfuly navigated until the new mayor, who had been the sole opposing vote on Council, was able to pass a 3-month extension on the start date. The can of worms may be opened back up again.

My limited experience with walking around some neighborhoods of Miami revealed to me the need for such a code. The demand for walkable urban living was clearly evident in the recent condo boom, which still clearly has to grow into itself for a few more years. The Brickell neighborhood went from being mostly a financial district to housing over 17,000 people. Local bloggers tell of the dangers of walking in a city oriented around the automobile, but many are trying nonetheless.

The ground-floor urban fabric and pedestrian experience has yet to catch up to this market demand. It's interesting that the public focus during the Miami 21 seems to be mostly about building height restrictions, while the meat of the code deals with what happens on the street level. Some transit is in place, but many of the stops are fronted with empty lots, parking garages with no liner buildings, or stark office towers with little street presence. There seems to be very few mid-rise areas. The downtown is filled with tall buildings that abruptly transition into single-story dwellings throughout the rest of the city.

Whenever the next building boom kicks back in, the City of Miami should be well prepared to shape the new growth into a sustainable and attractive form. And the rest of us have an opportunity to see how it all takes shape.

Thursday, December 17

Public space doesn't matter until it matters

From the Greek Agora to the New England town hall, the public square has always been the place where urban society hashes out its politics and culture. Over the last several decades, the physical public spaces have gradually been chipped away and privatized. The quintessential Main Street has largely been replaced by the indoor mall, and then the lifestyle center. Panera bread and Starbucks have become the primary gathering places of community. The streets are no longer the place to hear and be heard.

There's nothing wrong with Starbucks or commercial establishments in general, but what happens to the activities that get in the way of commerce - the political expression, art and music, religious proclamation, soapbox speeches, private solicitations - all of the messy diversity inherent to democracy? As public as our new third places may feel, they still maintain the legal right to exclusion.

Two unrelated controversies from the Charlottesville area highlight the abiding need for enough truly public spaces in our communities.

The first case is a clash between the ideals of free speech and private property. The congressional representative for Virginia's 5th district, democrat Tom Perriello, has an office near the downtown of Charlottesville. On several occasions, large groups of protesters (yes, tea party) have stood outside his office to make themselves heard. However, since the parking lot is technically private property, and nearby businesses have been impacted by the crowds, the protesters are being required by the landowner to stand 100 feet from the office on the public sidewalk. They have been threatened with a trespassing violation.

The Rutherford Institute, a national civil liberties advocacy group, has publicly asked Perriello to move to a place where he can be petitioned more easily. Founder John W. Whitehead wrote in a letter:

"Unfortunately, it is your choice of office location that has hindered the ability of citizens to effectively communicate concerning issues of the utmost importance to you, Congress and the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia."
Local conservative talk show host Rob Schilling asks for the same thing:
"will the Congressman relocate his office to a “public” site so as not to abridge his constituents’ access to him and his staff?"
But where might this "public" place be?

The second story is less thorny legally, but still important. As we all know, the Salvation Army has a tradition of soliciting for the poor during the holiday season outside of shopping centers. What we tend to forget is that this all happens under the good graces of the property owners of the shopping centers. A few stores in the Charlottesville area have begun to bar the bell-ringers from their property, under the grounds that it disturbs their customers. The space along the walkways that has appeared public all along suddenly becomes obviously not. The local Salvation Army has claimed to take a $22,000 hit as a result.

Charlottesville actually fares better than most places in it's vital public spaces. The car-free downtown mall hosts every variety of speech or musical talent year round and even reserves a special wall to encourage political expression. And, health care debates aside, this era in our country does not happen to be one of extraordinary political tumult. If some people in contemporary Charlottesville are even struggling to be heard, what does it mean for those towns and cities that have long since sold off and moved away from their only public squares.

Friday, December 11

30-second tour of San Diego

My thoughtful wife brought a whole roll full of "the kinds of pictures you would take" back from San Diego with her.

The automatically scaling images are an experiment. I'm not so sure they work.

The San Diego Trolley is a light rail line started in 1980. It has since grown to become the fifth most popular system in the country.

This fountain in Balboa Park seems to be a pretty active public space. I like the waterway running along the side of the path.

The entrance into the Gas Lamp district just draws you in to all of the activity.

Wednesday, December 9

Eminent domain and the scale of development

The incredibly thorny legal issue of Fifth Amendment takings is back in the spotlight. The U.S. Supreme Court is mulling over the value of beachfront property in Florida, and another very different takings case was decided by a New York appeals court against Columbia University. The University wanted to use eminent domain to acquire a few hold-out properties that were in the way of a campus expansion. The court had a problem with the procedure used to determine that the neighborhood was blighted, and thus struck down the prior condemnation of the properties.

Legal questions aside, David Sucher, of City Comforts Blog, has a fascinating response to the Columbia "loss." He's not so sure it's a loss:

"There is an urban design element to this issue which should not be ignored. All that happens (if this decision is upheld) is that Columbia may not be able to build a "campus." It can certainly build on the rest of the land it has already purchased, (much of it however I assume under threat of condemnation which may be a biter pill for those who sold "voluntarily.") It could build on those parcels as if it was just any other property owner.

Yes, the overall feel would not be of a traditional isolated walled tree-shaded “campus.” It would be much more urban with non-university buildings along the current street grid etc etc. Columbia's building would be interspersed with non-univeristy structures. In fact if the City were smart it would require Columbia to build mixed-use structures so that in appropriate locations there would be commercial uses along the street and Columbia's buildings would be integrated into the neighborhood. That should have been the style of development from the start; there would have been no eminent domain dispute and it have been a much better and safer (in many ways) urban design solution.

Unfortunately most institutional developers think in terms of a nice clean tabula rasa campus and not how the space they need can fit with an existing city. That’s a pity.

In this case Columbia is held hostage to its view that the way to satisfy its space needs (which I do not dispute) is in the form of a “campus” which reads as separate from the surrounding neighborhood. If Columbia could get rid of that antiquated notion it could be under construction immediately as it owns a great deal of land.

Here is another way to look at it: do you want Columbia’s expansion to feel like a Robert Moses “campus?” or a Jane Jacobs “neighborhood?"
Last month the City of New London, Connecticut experienced one of the liabilities of an all-or-nothing urban renewal approach. As an economic development strategy, 8-years ago the city courted the Pfizer Corporation with a brand new office park and plans for surrounding hotels and condominiums. Now the Pfizer Corporation is pulling out and leaving behind the shell of an office park and the still undeveloped land around it. The use of eminent domain from the outset launched the City into the landmark Kelo v. New London Supreme Court case. And they won. Or did they?

The problem with large-scale "tabula rasa" development is that it lacks resilience. One piece falls out and it all comes crashing down. How many communities have bent over backwards for a huge-footprint Walmart or Target, only to be left with the discarded carcass of a building a decade later? Building the kind of neighborhood Sucher is talking about may be a more complicated investment, one not well supported by government policies or the structure of financial institutions, but the long-term payback makes it worth it.

Monday, December 7

Dreaming about magic highways

This blog has been mostly irony-free since the very beginning, and now the storehouse of pent-up sarcasm and glibness is about to break out. Sorry in advance.

Commenter Andrew sent a link to this 1958 Disney promo video, the Magic Highway. I've watched the Futurama video (part 1 and part 2), made for the 1939 World's Fair by GM, but the Magic Highway is surely the reductio ad absurdum of American motoring idealism. It descends one more notch into self-parody every minute it goes on, but it's obviously dead serious and coincides closely with the start of our nation's real era of highway-building.

Watch the whole thing, but my favorite part is the family suburban commute around minute three. Once mother and son are safely transported to the shopping center, father drives into a highway elevator and is conveyed directly to his high-rise office.

"From his private parking space, father will probably have to walk to his desk."
Because having to walk is like eating molten lava.

Ok ... leaving aside the question of the possibilities of technological progress, this vision is not even internally logically consistent. There are no acres of parking lots, no roadway congestion whatsoever. People's muscles have not atrophied, and their waistlines are still oddly thin. The family unit is still intact, even though the entire world is oriented around hyper-individualized convenience. Nobody seems to drive right off the side of the guardrail-free elevated motorways. Energy is infinite and omnipresent, presumably transmitted through the air. Land and materials are infinite, having no pre-existing value. Unless, that is, we conquer cause and effect in the future ...

Why am I picking on a 1950's utopia? Surely only the most ardent highway enthusiast still hold on to this dream. The reason is that the utopias of culture matter, especially the most far-fetched. Even if they are not achieved, what we get is a landing somewhere along the trajectory toward this goal. The vision predicted,
"the shape of our cities will change as expanded highway transportation decentralizes our population centers into vast urban areas."
That's what happened.

In this vision, nature is depicted as exclusively an impediment to human flourishing and economic development.
"In one sweep a giant road-builder changes rough ground into a wide finished highway."
An atomic reactor "makes molehills out of mountains." That's the guiding principle that has stuck.

Finally, the good being pursued here is the fully privatized life, as compartmentalized as possible from messy and unpredictable interventions from other people.

Wednesday, December 2

Overheard in a coffeeshop

Standing in line in a coffeeshop in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia, I overheard two women, presumably fairly well-off, having a conversation behind me.

So, do you live downtown?
“No, I live out in Spotsylvania County.”
Really? So do we, but our house is way to big for us, especially after the children have left.
“Yeah, we feel the same way. A few years ago we actually moved into a 3-bedroom house right down the road from us just because it was smaller.”
We’d love to move too, but I don’t know how to downsize and stay in the same neighborhood. The people are what make the place, you know.”
While this is purely anecdotal, my eavesdropping made me wonder how many people are out there like this – folks who make their housing decisions based on relationships or social standing and merely tolerate having to live in a large house with a large lawn because they perceive this as the only option available to them.

Sunday, November 29

Why children like small things

Presuming that cities are meant to be used by people, it stands to reason that their elements ought to be scaled to human comfort, movement, and legibility.

Rather than attempt to describe what architects define as human scale (or at least how I understand it), it may be quicker to pull out two photos I took in Albany, New York. These two places are a short walk from each other.

Although there are technically humans attempting to coexist with this place, they doubtlessly feel as if they are walking across the canvas of a Piet Mondrian painting, ruining its elegant simplicity with the awkwardness of their human bodies. And it's such a long way to walk with nothing to do.

This alley, on the other hand, is one of the streets that the people who work over there go to voluntarily for lunch. They apparently enjoy being here. It has nothing to do with one being new and the other old. It mostly is a reflection of scale.

The tendency to feel at home in places that are designed to fit our bodies seems to be hard-wired. Children are just as much drawn to spaces that are sized according to their own smaller perspective. Over the weekend I visited the Winterthur estate, the museum outside of Wilmington, Delaware that houses collections from the Dupont family. A couple of years ago, landscape architects created a garden on the property designed exclusively for children called the Enchanted Woods. Like J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world of the Shire, built around three-foot tall hobbits, the Enchanted Forest has many traditional forms whimsically sized to be experienced by short people. A bird's nest is blown up in proportion as a kind of tree fort , while the cottages and benches are shrunken.

I brought this up to my wife, who knows all about small children, and she understood exactly why they love this place. In a world built for adults, the Enchanted Woods is a place where they can navigate forms that are familiar yet still somewhat alien to them in a much more secure way. This is the same reason why they play-act as adults all the time but need to have smaller tools and settings. Check out any toy store for the miniature lawn mower or playhouse. It's the phenomenon of coziness. It just fits.

I don't think we outgrow this as adults. It just gets a little bit bigger. Many outdoor places today are built around the needs of automobiles, with buildings pushed away from each other and aesthetics meant to capture our attention in 4 seconds as we speed by. In the same vein, they are built for economies of scale or politics of intimidation, such as warehouse shopping experiences that exist for the purpose of maximizing the efficiency of highway trucking networks or the massive squares at the center of every communist bloc city built in the last century. There's a reason why we gravitate away from these places. They just don't fit.

Tuesday, November 24

Emergency response times and sprawl

A study on emergency response times to vehicle accidents from University of Virginia researchers has been published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Here are the results:

"Urban sprawl is significantly associated with increased EMS response time and a higher probability of delayed ambulance arrival following motor-vehicle crashes in the U.S. The results of this study suggest that promoting of community design and development that follows smart-growth principles and regulates urban sprawl may improve EMS performance and reliability"
Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, an author of the paper, discusses:

The medical profession has been paying close attention to the health implications of land use patterns and design in recent years, and this paper's finding adds to the growing body of literature with similar conclusions. Health Impact Assessments are being used by many communities to apply some of these results to specific places.

One of the benefits of the national conversation about health care we've been having for the last six months is that the public is becoming more aware of how comprehensive health care really is. We've come to understand that no strategy for reducing costs can be successful without paying attention to preventative care. Sadly, the most advanced treatments available may not be of any help if the ambulance is 5 minutes late.

Sunday, November 22

The walking paths of Brasilia

The City of Brasilia, conceived and built in the 1950's and 60's, is the exemplar of modernist urban planning. It's got it all: extreme separation of uses, access only by motor vehicle, mid-rise boxy buildings set in vast open spaces, and a conspicuous absence of any history before the mid-twentieth century. There are no traffic lights or sidewalks in the city (at least in the original design), and almost every four-way intersection is a cloverleaf interchange. The design ensures that motorists will never have to inconvenience themselves by stopping, and pedestrians don't mind because they theoretically don't exist. It all fits together like a machine - actually an airplane, by resemblance.

But when the city is viewed from above we can see incursions of organic human life superimposed on top of the plan. The picture below is near the center of the city, where the wings meet the fuselage of the plane. A network of paths are clear evidence that pedestrians have crossed the open field where they are not suppose to.

These rogue pedestrians don't have an easy task. Virtually the only way to access this space is to cross at least six lanes of traffic and then cross another six lanes to exit. The width of the open space is 1/4 of a mile, which is exactly twice the width of the national mall in Washington D.C., and there is no shade or amenities whatsoever. They still make the journey.

Drawing the human use on the map reveals a complex network of activity very different from the plan.

This is the network of function over geometry. The paths are trodden out of convenience, but they also gently meander. Lewis Mumford recognized this unviersal tendency back in 1961, just as Brasilia was under construction.
"the slow curve is the natural line of the footwalker, as anyone can observe as he looks back at his tracks in the snow across an open field."
Not only do the curves shift the field of view slightly offering some aesthetic variation, because of topography they can even be the most energy-efficient route. (Unless, that is, you have a bulldozer to eliminate all preexisting topography.)

Although it's hard to prove conclusively, it looks like safety concerns played a part in determining where the highways were crossed. Several paths seem to converge at points where on-ramps and off-ramps are separated from the main flow of traffic. Crossing at these points allows the pedestrian to have breaks of median before having to make the next step. It looks as if some people have been willing to sacrifice a certain degree of time in order to cross a little more safely at one of these points.

Interestingly, these points of convergence are analogous to the forces that led to the origins of medieval Paris. The only difference being that Paris was formed at the easiest crossing point of the Seine river, where an island reduced the distance, and residents of Brasilia are attempting to cross a river of automobile traffic at a breaking point. If I were in the hot dog stand business (and it were allowed) I'd know exactly where to set up shop.

Lewis Mumford explained further what he admired in medieval cities,
"Organic planning does not begin with a preconceived goal; it moves from need to need, from opportunity to opportunity, in a series of adaptations that themselves become increasingly coherent and purposeful, so that they generate a complex final design, hardly less unified than a pre-formed geometric pattern."
yes, this happens even in Brasilia.

Wednesday, November 18

My working definition of "Planning"

The field of Planning just celebrated its 100-year anniversary last year, but most people, especially planners, aren't really sure what it is. Debates over the most basic outlines of the identity of planning have been ongoing for at least a few decades. A well-known essay was published by in 1973 entitled, If Planning is Everything, Maybe It's Nothing. Lot's of responses have been written with various iterations on this title, including Bill Lucy's If Planning Includes Too Much, Maybe It Should Include More. Orienting the center of the definition has been problematic.

Then there's always the question of whether "Planning" is even the right term, rather than something more specific like "urban planning" or "land use planning." There are certainly problems with using a term that is so generic ("I'm planning on washing my car tomorrow"). Even many of its more specific applications are obviously outside of the purview of the field (financial planning, family planning, wedding planning). However, I'm treating this word as a given because it is already institutionally entrenched and not going anywhere. On the positive side, four of the top five Google hits, our age's arbiter of language, for "planning" fit what I'm thinking of quite well.

How can the word "Planning" be used with enough exclusivity to have meaning yet with enough inclusiveness to follow out enough of it's various tentacles of causality? Not to mention the various ways the word is actually being applied professionally. Although I'm not so presumptuous as to speak for an entire discipline, I'd like to throw out my own working definition of the term here in hopes that it can be somewhat wikified. Does this fit your own conception of the field? Do you think an agreed-upon definition is useful or even possible?

"Planning is working toward the deliberate improvement of the spatial organization and design of human settlement and human movement."

Explanations of the Components

Working Toward. This definition of planning hinges on the intentions of planners, not necessary the actual results in every occasion. The phrase "working toward" implies an ongoing process.

Deliberate Improvement
. The discipline of planning is an applied, not a pure, science. Although original research may be conducted, it will always be intended for incorporation into a teleological framework informing workable practices. The word deliberate implies a rational analysis built upon empirical data, although this may include recognition of the limits of human reason and disagreements over fundamental values.

The word improvement implies values, whether ethical absolutes or preferences of a particular community. Therefore, planning includes the process of discovering these values, whether through ethical reflection or through interactions with the particular public relevant to the improvement in question. Inherent to this discovery process is the job of working toward resolution of conflicts which have always arisen over differing visions of values.

It should be noted that this definition does not conscribe planning to a specific means of achieving improvement. Sometimes rational planning (“from above”) is contrasted with the emergence of systems (“from below”), and planning is associated with the former. It’s seen as the concentration of power into government bodies over and against the dispersal of power into private agents. On the contrary, planning can make use of either of these means or a combination of both to achieve improvement. But planning cannot rely on the self-organization of private actors exclusively.

The word improvement is inherently future-oriented, which does not preclude restoring or building upon traditions of the past. It does necessitate working for a future that is better than the present, rather than maintaining the present conditions into the future.

Spatial Organization and Design. Planning is built upon geography, and thus all planning activities relate in some way to the spatial relationships between people and places. Space, for planners, can be conceived in a variety of scales involving human use, from a neighborhood to the whole world. However, relatively small scales intended for exclusively private ownership and use are not within the purview of planning.

The word organization references the analysis of spatial data, whether economic, political, sociological, or environmental and how the data will impact the human use of space. In this sense, planning functions as an applied social science, making use of the scientific method and empirical observation to achieve improvement in spatial organization. Among other factors, the spatial distribution of socio-economic and racial differences among a population will figure into the overall analysis.

The word design references the aesthetic and functional properties of specific constructed spaces. Design cannot always be easily quantified and measured, and will typically be valued subjectively. Like architects and landscape architects, planners engage with the human experience, as well as the material reality, of constructed space. Planning is distinct from architecture, landscape architecture, and other design fields in that it only functions on scales larger than places of exclusively private ownership and use.

Human Settlement and Human Movement. The word human distinguishes planning from the natural sciences that study and apply ecological processes outside of human intervention. Although environmental planners will draw heavily from the natural sciences, environmental planning will always deal with the spatial interface between humans and the rest of an ecosystem. Even if the purpose is to minimize human intervention through land or water conservation, it is still the human intervention that remains the focus for planners.

The word settlement references the use of land, specifically those uses that are constructed or legally committed and therefore involve a certain degree of permanence and investment. Movement references transportation of people or goods for human use. These two spheres are intertwined and effect each other with feedback loops, so planning must analyze both as a whole.

Because of the overlap between many other fields, planners will inevitably function as generalists, helping to translate between the different professional languages and build institutional connections between them. At the same time, they will be specialists in one or more of the elements of the definition.

Sunday, November 15

What will a recovery look like?

The Urban Land Institute and PriceWaterHouseCoopers has released their 2010 real estate forecast, a market analysis considered by many to be the most reputable in the industry. The first line gives a good impression of the tone of the report:

"More investors recognize massive losses—value declines will eventually total “40 to 50 percent” off market highs, propelled by lagging impacts of the deep recession."
Other descriptive words from the first page: "savaged," "debacle," "even worse," "enveloping gloom," "doom," "anemic demand," "carnage," "comatose," "mammoth value busts." (I didn't see "apocalyptic" but I didn't read the whole thing). You get the picture.

However, some smart growth advocates are seeing a silver lining in the fact that urban infill and redevelopment projects have shown to be more resilient than the typically housing on the exurban frontier of metropolitan areas. Kaid Benfield pulled out this quote from the report:
"Next-generation projects will ori­ent to infill, urbanizing suburbs, and transit-oriented develop­ment. Smaller housing units-close to mass transit, work, and 24-hour amenities-gain favor over large houses on big lots at the suburban edge. People will continue to seek greater convenience and want to reduce energy expenses. Shorter commutes and smaller heating bills make up for higher infill real estate costs."
On the one hand, I see this as a hopeful sign for movement toward a more sustainable economy. On the other hand, I'm a little reluctant to cheer too loudly during a recession. The million dollar question, in my mind, is not what the best investment bets are during the low period (could these not simply be inferior goods?) but what kinds of development will usher us out of the recession entirely and into a new economic paradigm.

The news media is filled with pundits prescribing a way toward "recovery": by which they usually mean resumption of the status quo - getting our savings rate back to zero, pushing the Per Person Vehicle Miles Traveled back onto its upward climb, getting the average square footage of houses back onto the upward trend (and by implication the average screen size of the televisions, so you can see them from across the room). But I don't think this is the only shape economic growth can take.

Jane Jacobs differentiates between "expansion" and "development",
"Expansion and development are two different things. Development is differentiation - new differentiation of what already existed. Practically every new thing that happens is a differentiation of a previous thing. Just about everything - from a new shoe sole to changes in legal codes - all of those things are differentiations. Expansion is an actual growth in size, volume, or activity. That is something different."
Development for Jacobs is the "creative destruction" of innovation, taking the raw materials of what we already have and making it better. In many ways the analogy of exurban expansion and urban infill fits these two models of economic growth very well. Instead of growing outward in size, consuming new land and leaving the internal remnants of a disposable core, a sustainable economy would continually augment the developed land. This is not a "steady-state economy" or some other fictitious narrative. The economy would be an organism that evolves, not simply to grow in size and energy consumption, but to grow intelligently to adapt to the conditions of its environment.

I understand that values are not normally welcomed in a discussion about economics, but Wendell Berry lays out the contours of such an economy with the succinct language of a poet,
"We must learn to prefer quality over quantity, service over profit, neighborliness over competition, people and other creatures over machines, health over wealth, a democratic prosperity over centralized wealth and power, economic health over 'economic growth'"

Tuesday, November 10

Safety for all street users

Over the past several decades, transportation engineers have been able to introduce scores of automotive safety provisions, from roadway clearance measures to elements of the vehicle design itself. Street trees are removed from the sides of roads to prevent collisions. Families have long since traded up their station wagon for a larger, safer SUV. Some of these improvements have likely slowed the annual increase in traffic fatalities, and with a little help from the recession the total number of driver deaths even dropped in 2008 to 35,000. The Wall Street Journal declared last month that "driving a car has never been safer." (this statement is true only if you ignore the fact that Americans today are forced to drive more miles than they have been before).

Amidst the constant ratcheting up - faster cars and wider roads necessitate safety improvements which lead to faster cars and wider roads - there is a constant, external variable that often gets left out of the equation: that is, people. Pedestrians do not have airbags or anti-lock brakes installed. They are not now, nor ever have been, enclosed in steel.

Transportation For America just released a new report, Dangerous By Design, assessing the nature of pedestrian deaths in U.S. metropolitan areas. 76,000 people have been killed while walking along or across American roadways in the last decade and a half. According to the report:

"These deaths typically are labeled “accidents,” and attributed to error on the part of motorist or pedestrian. In fact, however, an overwhelming proportion share a similar factor: They occurred along roadways that were dangerous by design, streets that were engineered for speeding cars and made little or no provision for people on foot, in wheelchairs or on a bicycle."
While pedestrians make 9% of all trips in the country and comprise 11.8% of the traffic fatalities, less than 1.5% of all federal transportation funds are spent on improving safety for walking. It should comes as no surprise that the highest proportion of these deaths, in urban areas at least, occur on major arterials, roads designed exclusively to carry large volumes of cars quickly. 41% of all deaths happen in places where no crosswalk is even available.

While some people choose to walk, many others do not. They are either too young to legally drive or too old to be behind the wheel. They don't have enough money to buy a car. They have epilepsy or they are in a wheelchair. What does it say about us as a society that the most vulnerable road users, and those least able to inflict harm upon others, are not cared for to the same degree as the rest of us.

The report recommends four federal policy actions to reduce the number of preventable deaths:
  1. A national Complete Streets policy, a piece of legislation that is already included in a proposed transportation bill reauthorization package
  2. Increase in the current Safe Routes to School program
  3. A Fair share of federal funds given to pedestrians for safety
  4. Federal accountability measures to ensure that states spend funds as they are intended

Thursday, November 5

Planning has come a long way

While rummaging through the municipal recycling bin the other day, I happened to come across an old textbook from 1991: Contemporary Urban Planning, Second Edition. Remembering that reusing is one notch better than recycling, I grabbed it and skimmed through some of the chapters. Chock full of photos of gleaming skyscrapers and various megaprojects, the textbook is a relic of a different age when the modern motor city was expected to wipe out traditional urban fabric altogether. I had to doublecheck the date to make sure this was really 1991, only 18 years ago. Planning has come a long way since this was written.

The chapter on transportation is fantastically bad. The following words are not in the chapter at all: bicycle, pedestrian, neighborhood, beauty, human, love, happiness. Instead, it's declared that "adequate circulation [of automobiles] is and traditionally has been a major planning goal" and the bulk of the chapter describes the models used to plan roadways to facilitate optimal traffic flow. What happens next to the lanes of fast-moving vehicles is inconsequential. Environmentalists get a little shout out, but only as obstructionists who thwart the rationally optimal siting of new highways. There's a couple of paragraphs on public transportation tacked on to the end, mostly to describe how it's unsuitable for suburban densities and thus must be "heavily subsidized" to exist. On the other hand, "the fact is that in a direct sense automobile transportation is paid for by those who use it."

The chapter on growth management lays out the tensions of limiting growth on suburban fringes quite well, but the idea of allowing more density in some areas to relieve the pressure in others never crosses the radar screen. The mantra "separating incompatable land uses" is sprinkled throughout the book, showing up in a chapter on urban design, another on community development, and in the introductory what-is-planning-anyway paragraph. Jane Jacobs' ideas of diversity are given a brief reference but she is drowned out by sheer volume. The chapters on history tell the story of urban disintegration and suburban triumph, ending with the notion that technology may be making cities obsolete altogether.

What distinguishes this era from our own? First, the New Urbanism movement had not influenced planning yet. Compact, mixed-use, and walkable neighborhoods were still something planners should be replacing, rather than preserving, or even creating. Second, global climate change and a focus on sustainability have pushed energy efficiency issues from the periphery into the center of planning.

Reading through this book gives me more insight into some of the negative perceptions of planners that are floating around certain circles. If that's where you are, just pick up any copy of Planning magazine or skim through Planetizen for a while. I think you'll see a very different picture.

Wednesday, November 4

Getting to the bottom of Vélib vandalism

The New York Times takes a rather pessimistic view of the future of bike-sharing in Paris:

"Just as Le Corbusier’s white cruciform towers once excited visions of the industrial-age city of the future, so Vélib’, Paris’s bicycle rental system, inspired a new urban ethos for the era of climate change."
That is: an idealistic vision that has come crashing into reality ... the problem of vandalism in this case.

The reasoning behind this indictment is not the popularity of the program - it attracts between 50,000 and 150,000 trips a day depending on the season - but the costs dealing with the vandalism and theft. Thousands of the bicycles have been damaged, including 80% of the initial stock of 20,600 bicycles. Apparently, dispossessed residents of the Parisians suburbs have come to view these bicycles as symbols of the glamorous lifestyle of central city that they are barred from. This leads to resentment.

A couple of responses:

First of all, the Le Corbusier analogy is off. Vélib promoters may have been overly-optimistic about human nature in the implementation of the program, but the radiant city was a terrible idea at its core that was disastrous to the extent that it was successfully implemented.

Second, the 80% destruction figure is less shocking then it may seem. The Vélib program was initiated in July of 2007, meaning the initial bikes have been in constant circulation for over two years. Surely, one would hope for a life span of more than two years from most of the bikes, but a certain number would need to be replaced anyway based on wear and tear from hundreds of different individuals.

Third, while the Times reports that these bicycles are treated as "accoutrements of the 'bobos,' or 'bourgeois-bohèmes,' the trendy middle-class," this isn't inherent to the technology of bicycles by any means. Motorists in the early twentieth century were pejoratively known as "joyriders" because they were typically affluent and out on a recreational drive. As motorcars became more democratized in use, and older vehicles could trickle down to poorer households, this image has somewhat faded. Paris has recently expanded the program to 29 surrounding towns with 4000 more bicycles. There is no reason the image problem could not be change in time as the program is expanded to a broader cross-section of the public.

Paul Demaio sees one solution to Vélib's troubles in drawing those who are most angry into the program itself,
"Instead of ad campaigns telling people to respect the bikes, JCDecaux and the City of Paris should be using the bikes to respect the people, if they aren't already. The very same individuals who are damaging the bikes should be employed by JCDecaux to repair them. Until the super high unemployment rates decrease, the social unrest will continue and bike-sharing as a representative of the City will be a pawn in their battles."
Sure, a bicycle-sharing program cannot solve French unemployment, but it could be a catalyst for positive social change beyond the direct function of proving low-cost transportation. And even a gradual shift in the image of Vélib could go a long way in resolving the vandalism issue.

Wednesday, October 28

A piece of Lawrence Halprin's legacy

The landscape architect Lawrence Halprin died on Sunday, leaving behind some of the best-loved public places in America. This news has prompted me to think about the Charlottesville Downtown Mall, a public space that Halprin designed in 1976.

I feel like I live in a luxurious house, because the downtown mall is my living room. The fact that I share the room with thousands of other people only makes it a better place to live. This picture was taken this morning on my walk to work, when the place is relatively quiet. A few patrons sit outside with cups of coffee to read the morning news before work, and a homeless man finds a seat under the trees. Some people seem to just be out on morning walks. Then the mall becomes an entirely different place in the evening, when the hundreds of cafe seats are filled with friends having a drink or a meal. It's the high school hang out and a place for their grandparents to walk around and take in all of the excitement at the same time, not any easy thing to accomplish.

It would be wrong to say that the mall was simply the creation of a master designer. It had to be grown and nurtured by a community, city planners, businesses and developers. It has taken steady reinvestment and the perseverance through a period of stagnation, when it could have been just another failed experiment in urban design. Instead, the design has grown into itself just as the trees have grown and reached out over the buildings. Yet nothing gets started without a vision, and Lawrence Halprin laid the groundwork for a truly remarkable place.

Tuesday, October 27

What kinds of homes are we buying?

The Senate appears to have agreed to extend the federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers. It's not very surprising that federal stimulus programs have taken the form of providing money to buy homes and cars, the two essential components of the conventional American Dream. What is surprising, to me at least, is that there has been no discussion about what kinds of houses we would like to be promoting as a nation through the subsidies.

One of the stated purposes of the Cash for Clunkers program over the summer was to encourage the purchase of more energy efficient vehicles. An independent report last month concluded that costs of the program exceeded benefits by about $1.4 billion, or $2600 per car, and many people wouldn't have minded a free bike or transit pass thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, at least a cursory attempt to encourage the consumption of cars that are more within our national interest was made. As far as I can tell, the same reasoning is not even on the table for home purchases.

Could we not ask for a certain degree of energy-efficiency in home purchases? This would have to be measured in objective terms, but it could cover both the costs of heating and cooling the space and the locational efficiency of traveling between the home and other activity centers. I understand that some economists don't like meddling with the "purity" of subsidies to achieve desired outcomes, as if these forms of government intervention were not already interfering with the market. That doesn't make sense to me. If we're pitching in for these homes, we should have some say in how they function.

Monday, October 26

Whole Earth Discipline: from the land back to town

"Cities are probably the greenest thing humans do."

This quote comes from the man behind the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, in an interview with NPR's Marketplace. As a luminary for the back to the land movement from the 1970's, he wrote the original catalog to provide the tools necessary to live self-sufficiently. However, it was only a few years after adopting the rural lifestyle before he and many others in the movement went "back to town." He has now published a new book Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto to, among other things, disabuse his fellow environmentalists of the notion that surrounding oneself in greenery and mimicking a primitive way of life is sufficient for meeting global environmental challenges.

Brand's version of environmentalism seems to be about the opposite of that of Thoreau and his followers. Instead of passively folding ourselves into the ecosystem and trying to interfere as little as possible, Brand sees the human role as much more active. We have the responsibility of being gardeners (more aptly geoengineers in his parlance) and we ought to avail ourselves of whatever tools we can. You see the general industriousness and reason from the Whole Earth Catalog, only magnified to a much larger scale. Cities just happen to be the best tool for energy and resource efficiency around.

Brand is quick to point out that humans don't have to be forced to live in cities; we generally want to. He notes that this is as true for Bismarck, North Dakota as it is for Lagos, Nigeria. The ongoing trend toward urbanization has gone on unabated. He has a special appreciation for the squatter cities evolving on the periphery of every city in the developing world. Formerly rural families want to better their lives by moving closer to the dynamic wealth-creation agglomerations while still shaping their environment as independent agents. They naturally form vibrant, walkable, mixed-use communities with both strong social ties and personal liberty.

In terms of design and development, he falls firmly on the side of self-organization over rational planning.

"To a planner’s eye, squatter cities look chaotic. To my biologist’s eye, they look organic."
I've wrestled with this question here before and mostly believe this laissez-faire approach is less helpful for the fully modernized West than it is for the developing world. But Brand doesn't see much of a future for the aging residents of the West, hence the scant attention.

Not that he has to cover ever single issue in one swing, but this would seem to be an oversight. Much of the world's consumption will still be in the West into the foreseeable future, and, as he notes, the slums will only gentrify in time raising the same issues. Then there's the fact that almost everyone reading this book will be from affluent nations. Knowing that sustainable and prosperous slums are emerging somewhere else doesn't strike me as particularly ecopragmatic in terms of managing our own challenges.

The Whole Earth Discipline seeks to slay several sacred cows of environmentalism. I can't speak to any of the others, but it is certainly refreshing to hear a person who has been a figurehead for romantic ruralism endorse vibrant human settlement so unequivocally. The first line of the book could easily be read as commentary on Genesis 1:26 (with emphasis on the "as"):

"We are as gods and have to get good at it."

Stewart Brand offers cities as a helpful tool toward meeting this responsibility of stewardship.

Thursday, October 22

This year's great places in America

The Squares of Savannah are a Great American Public Space
The American Planning Association has released this year's Great Places in America awards. This is a wonderful program, now in its third year, that recognizes the practice and preservation of good urbanism in a positive way. (Sort of the other side of the James Howard Kunstler coin). Every one of the winning neighborhoods foster a vibrant community with walkable scale and design. Each one of the great streets are multimodal and have more purpose than simply conveying vehicles from one place to another quickly.

Rob Goodspeed previously noted that the 2007 and 2008 selections give the impression of what he calls a "New Normative Planning":
"For a profession long maligned for a lack of clear identify or vision, the group of winners from 2007 and 2008 form a remarkably coherent group. Including such iconic places as Philadelphia's Society Hill and Washington, D.C.'s union station, but also more obscure sites like Cleveland's West Side Market and downtown Sheridan, Wyoming. In general the winning neighborhoods, streets, and public spaces are resoundingly urban and historic. None of the winners are strip malls, 1970s planned unit developments, or conventional suburban residential neighborhoods."
The 2009 awards certainly continue the trend, only with noticeably more attention given to smaller cities and towns than before. Places I had never heard of, like Bath, Maine and Charlevoix, Michigan, find their place on the map. Not only does this give some deserved attention to communities that have worked hard to become highly livable places, but it underscores the notion that urban design principles are not just applicable to big cities.

I'm remembering this list for the next time I travel and need a place to stop in and visit.

Monday, October 19

New Localism without traditional towns

I can't help but respond to Joel Kotkin's idea of New Localism from a Newsweek piece and his blog post today. He presents statistics showing that Americans are moving less than they had been in the past and suggests this could be an a sign of enhanced local identity and stronger social capital. I can honestly say that I want to agree with Kotkin's overall premise for increased rootedness in place, but he weaves so many inconsistencies into this story it leaves me wondering how he intends to fit it all together.

The reader is drawn into this Norman Rockwellesque world of small town charm, only it is transplanted directly into the modern metropolitan context of low-density, high-mobility lifestyles. It's not clear to me how suburban localities can simply make community identity happen without addressing the scale of transportation and economic realities, or the shape of the built environment itself. He dismisses the whole idea of walkable neighborhoods ...

"Nor will our car-oriented suburbs replicate the close neighborhood feel so celebrated by romantic urbanists like the late Jane Jacobs."
... yet he wants drivers to feel a strong sense of community with each other as they gaze through the windshield while waiting for a green light on their way to the office park. And they're supposed to shoot the breeze with the cashier at the local big box store, which is still dominant in Kotkin's story. I'm getting some cognitive dissonance here.

His real point is to advocate for a Tocquevillian sense of local governance, except airlifted into this thoroughly modern metropolitan context:
"The majority of Americans still live in a patchwork of smaller towns and cities, including many suburban towns within large metropolitan regions. There are well over 65,000 general-purpose governments, and with so many "small towns," the average local jurisdiction population in the United States is 6,200."
What he doesn't reveal is that very few of these suburban "small towns" are actually small towns in any sense of the word. They are lines on a map that differentiate one housing subdivision and strip shopping center from another with no cohesive identity. Just a quick glance at the commuting patterns reveal that most residents either only sleep or only work in this particular jurisdiction. What Tocqueville appreciated about New England towns was that the governance was closely aligned with a self-contained and functioning community. This is worlds apart from the fragmented patchwork of local special interests spread across the typical metro area.

Kotkin wants the traditional feel of a small town where neighbors all know each other, which also happens to be what the majority of Americans have consistently identified as their home locational preference. Only he remains committed to the economies of scale, radically individualized land development, and high levels of personal mobility inherent to the 20th century suburban lifestyle. How that leads toward New Localism, I'm not sure.

Friday, October 16

Visualizing 3D Cities one building at a time

Philadelphia Skyline from Google Building Maker

The folks at Google have set for themselves the ambitious goal of modeling every building on earth. Rather, I should say that we have been given this challenge. On Tuesday, Google launched a new tool, Google Building Maker, that allows users to create a simple three-dimensional outline of structures and map aerial photos onto it. If Sketch-up is the powerful modeling tool, this is the quick and dirty method of populating the world's cities with complex texture. From the looks of Philadelphia this evening, only three days into it, these cities will be growing quickly. I modeled the Philadelphia Museum of Art pictured in the foreground, but someone else beat me to it. Many of the individual houses in the surrounding neighborhood are already completed.

The tool isn't perfect. Trees that obscure the sides of buildings get mapped onto the structure itself. Complex buildings with ornamentation are difficult to capture. However, Building Maker integrates nicely into Sketch-up, allowing these inconsistencies to be improved with time.

Thursday, October 15

Manhatta Project presentation

Eric Sanderson delivered this fantastic presentation at the TED international conference and it was posted a few days ago. The Manhatta Project he has been working on uses historic and ecological research to recreate what Manhattan would have looked like when Hudson first sailed into the bay. An online map allows users to explore the island down to the individual blocks and compare the natural ecology with its current urban function.

In the last two minutes of the presentation, Sanderson takes the message in a different direction than you may expect. The implication is not that the pristine natural state is superior to human civilization, but that they mirror each other. They are both "interconnected, based on diversity, and having resilience." He imagines a world where a more compact city, traversed by bicycles and pedestrians, would be interspersed with the natural world.

"This is the future we need, a future that has the same diversity, abundance, and dynamism of Manhattan but learns from the sustainability of the past, the original ecology of nature with all of its parts."
I'm hesitant to say that global cities like New York are the only kind of place we need, but certainly his overall idea of blending the natural ecology of a place with human needs would be pretty universally relevant.

Tuesday, October 13

The three responses to congestion

David Owen, whom I referenced a few weeks ago, opened up a major can of worms with a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal: "How Traffic Jams Help the Environment." As the title suggests, he argues that congestion compels drivers to shift to alternative modes, and therefor there is no reason to attempt to alleviate it. Randal O'Toole, of the Cato Institute, jumped in right away, seeing confirmation of his long-held suspicion that the "anti-auto" crowd are really only interested in making life as miserable as possible for the greatest number of people. Finally, Ryan Advent also joined in criticizing Owen, only from an entirely different angle. He favors congestion pricing as a way to encourage efficient use of the existing roadways. To me, these three posts create a very instructive framework to view the issue.

Breaking the problem of congestion down into the most simplistic terms, I can only think of these three ways to deal with it. They strike at an age-old dilemma in political philosophy, concerning the distribution of any scarce resources (think health care, for example).

  1. Build more Supply – This is O’Toole’s preference, to keep paving until adequate automobile mobility is achieved, presumably in perpetuity. In dense cities, this would require large government expenditures and liberal use of eminent domain (a strange position for a self-professed libertarian to take). Of course, the more you pave the more demand you create, thus the more you pave …

  2. Manage Demand through Queuing – This is Owen’s preference, to distribute the scarce resource of urban roadways by requiring that users wait in line to use them. This has the advantage of egalitarianism. The BMW and rusty, old Ford Escort wait in the same line. But it's not very efficient, either economically or environmentally. The engine is still running while the driver sits in traffic, and she's late for work.

  3. Manage Demand through Monetizing - This is Ryan Advent's preference. As an economist, he sees a price point at which the use of the roadway can be optimized to carry enough traffic to justify its existence but not so much as to generate congestion. There are equity considerations that must be faced with essentially auctioning the resource to the highest bidder, but presumably transit expenditure or other safety net programs can help mitigate this problem.
Contrary to O'Toole's characterization, most advocates for livable streets support congestion pricing (and similar policies, such as performance parking). Letting congestion increase is not some nefarious plan that urbanists whisper to each other behind closed doors, I can assure you. Frankly, it's mostly the journalists who are drawn to these kinds shocking idiosyncrasies ("Chocolate is actually good for you!"). Most of us really mean it when we aspire to enhance transportation options for everyone.

Monday, October 12

Remembering Urban Renewal

Almost every community has their own stories from the urban renewal of the 1960's and 1970's, when a combination of federal policies and local action lead to clearing whole neighborhoods of urban fabric in order make room for the modern, motorized city. Charlottesville has Vinegar Hill, which still conjures up deep memories of racial divisions. In this case, not only were hundreds of residents displaced and moved into public housing, but the area chosen for demolition happened to be the heart of the black community.

A couple of researchers have put together a website that explores this history: Vinegar Hill, memoryscape. For this project, a timeline of aerial photos is narrated by newspaper clippings, which give an explanation of the step-by-step process and aftermath of the change. We see how much of the land that was expected to be redeveloped actually sat vacant for over a decade, with only a brand new high-volume roadway cutting straight through. Even today, the majority of the land serves as surface parking lots, something the grand schemes of urban renewal often conveniently left out.

One thing that would be a great addition to these maps and pictures would be audio recordings of stories people have told from living in Vinegar Hill and seeing their community being renewed. I know an archived recording was made in the early 1980's, but I don't know if it's still around anywhere.

Wednesday, October 7

Not really cars, not really transit, what is it?

I generally do not indulge in high-tech fantasizing, mostly because I believe that an expectation of technological salvation too often substitutes for doing the best with what we have right now. Traditional ideas and machines (bicycles, passive solar design, organic growing) have evolved specifically to be energy-efficient and they're cheap solutions. But I'm going to now break that rule.

The Boston Globe published a nice overview of the the resurgence of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), a concept that has floated in and out of vogue for the last fifty years. For those unaware, the idea is to construct a system of individual pods, like cars, that will drive themselves between various nodes on the network. The occupant need only submit a destination and let the computer sort out the route. The pods would be powered electrically, and they would be equipped with sensors to coordinate movements with other pods. Because a new system is set to open in Heathrow Airport and a few others a being proposed, PRT is starting to raise eyebrows.

I'm not exactly sure why the tracks have to be elevated, other than adding some futuristic cache and avoiding current roadways, but that seems to add some unnecessary expenses and aesthetic problems. Otherwise, leaving aside the issue of feasible implementation, this does seem to match many of the positive attributes of transit with benefits of cars. Since the stations would be fixed, you'd think the land use effects would be more like transit than automobiles, promoting walkable density around the cores. Furthermore, eliminating the need for parking is an incredible benefit to facilitating transit-oriented development around stations.

The energy consumption would probably be similar to light rail. On the one hand, you have lower capacity cars. On the other hand, you only have to run them in proportion to fluctuating levels of demand. Apparently, someone secured a grant to study the potential of building solar panels into roadways, but it's difficult to provide protection from heavy trucks. Perhaps the idea of a solar-powered roadway would be more suitable for PRT. The power would go directly into the pods themselves.

Safety seems like a potential concern, but I'd have to defer to the engineers on that one. It couldn't be any more deadly than highways currently are.

And, of course, the convenience of not having to wait for departures and the ability to travel directly to any destination station cannot be underestimated. Unlike owning an automobile, PRT users would not be able to display their social status through the type of vehicle they drive, although I'm sure that human nature will be able to adapt to that hurdle with, say, very expensive clothing.

I'm not an convert yet by any means, just batting around the idea. Do you think PRT would work in certain metropolitan areas?

Monday, October 5

Charting the reinvestment in central cities

The 2008 American Community Survey data was released a couple of weeks ago, and the analyses of trends are starting to come out. One of the big stories is the notable increase in bicycle mode share in several cities, including huge one-year increases in the two leading cities: 42% in Portland and 78% in Minneapolis. Others have teased out the preliminary results of the recession from this data.

An ongoing trend of reinvestment in central cities is evident as well. After several decades of decline, central cities in the U.S. have, on average, been rebounding for the last several years. Bill Lucy has been tracking indicators of this trend for quite a while. He and David Phillips published Confronting Suburban Decline and Tommorow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs, and a forthcoming publication from APA Planner's Press under the working title of Foreclosing the American Dream will continue observing the shifting fault lines between cities and suburbs.

The 2008 numbers reveal a steady continuation of the reinvestment in the cores of metropolitan areas. Lucy charted the differences between a sample of central cities, as defined by traditional political boundaries, and their metropolitan areas for a number of indicators: per capita income, median home values, and income of non-hispanic whites (to account for racial variations).

The money is still flowing outward in a few formerly industrial metropolitan areas, but most metropolitan areas are swinging in the other direction. Washington D.C. has, for the first time in decades, arrived at income parity between the city and its suburbs. The relative housing values in the District jumped between 2007 and 2008, making them now considerably higher than home values in the suburban counties. Other cities have also shown a notable reversal in recent years.

Hiking through Arlington County

Last weekend I hiked along the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah National Park, and this weekend I hiked the Arlington corridor, outside of Washington D.C., from Ballston to Rosslyn. These are both beautiful places in very different ways.

It seems like everyone in the country is watching Ken Burn’s series on the National Parks. It really is a remarkable homage to some of the most spectacular pieces of natural landscape our country has and the ideas that have developed to conserve them. I’ve lived for two summers in a national park, and I don’t take for granted the fact that these places have been preserved. Yet there is also something a little sad about locating our culture’s primary experiences of transcendence so far away from where most of us live our regular lives. Attributing to wild nature god-like qualities, means that god is always “out there,” only reachable by getting in the car and driving away on vacation.

John Muir was a great naturalist, but 300 million people cannot, by definition, live the John Muir lifestyle. It’s a self-defeating ethic when pushed to universal proportions. Many people have pointed to an urban aesthetic as well as the natural, one that celebrates not the absence but the presence of other people and their artifacts. This why we need Jane Jacobs, the Muir of cities, to give description to this other form of beauty:

The order of the city is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance – not a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”
I picked up a brochure in Arlington County for "walkabouts," short, self-guided tours that allow residents and visitors to explore streets and neighborhoods. Any national park visitors' center would supply trail maps, why not Arlington County?

Wednesday, September 30

The secret life of a bus-riding movie producer

A funny little anecdote popped up in the Wall Street Journal this weekend that raises interesting questions about transit. Travel writer Stan Sesser decided to be a tourist in LA for a week taking nothing but public transportation between the sites. He noticed how few Angelenos seemed to be joining him by choice:

"I did meet one Angeleno who prefers public transit to a car—a movie producer who lives in West Hollywood next door to my friend's house, where I was staying, and he agreed to talk only on the condition of anonymity. "It's a preconceived idea that if you take the bus, you're a failure," he said. He ticked off things he likes about the bus. "I can read, I can get up to date on my iPhone, I can watch videos on my iPod. There's a lot that can be done with someone else driving." He warned me repeatedly not to reveal his name. "In the entertainment business, if they knew I took the bus they'd never talk to me," he said, explaining that he hires a car and driver when going to a studio."
LA Times blogger, Patrick Goldstein, enjoys this story and points out the strange inconsistencies of Hollywood culture.
"Sadly, until TMZ captures Leonardo DiCaprio hopping on the 305 bus to West Hollywood, it looks like status consciousness trumps eco-consciousness every time."
This seems about right. When Will Smith reached the point of complete destitution in the film The Pursuit of Happiness, I distinctly remember the chapter of the movie being titled "Riding the bus." Once he had to give up the car, he may as well have been homeless, even in New York City, I guess. And I'm sure this message gets pounded home in plenty of other films. I just pulled that out one of my head.

Where did our culture get this almost universal aversion to riding the bus? In my experience, it's a uniquely American phenomenon. In Argentina, I've ridden posh double-deckers between Buenas Aires, Cordoba, and Mendoza with the full range of professionals and families. The lively Argentine bus depots felt more like airports than Greyhound stations.

I have this theory that's a a completely non-scientific piece of pop psychology, but I'll say it anyway. We all have deep-seated memories of having to wake up and begrudgingly bump along in a school bus every morning. By high school, the cool kids started to, one by one, get their own cars. The rest of us could only wait until the government dispensed to us a driver's license, and we solemnly sweared, if only subconsiously, to never return once we got out. This could be at least a factor, right?

Beyond being a fun piece of social commentary, these status cues do bring up a whole range of important policy questions. Are cities better off working toward a distinctively cooler light rail system than trying harder to get people on to buses? Will Bus Rapid Transit still carry this cultural baggage or will it be different enough to move beyond it? New intercity services like Megabus and Boltbus, wifi-equipped and eschewing stations altogether, are giving some indication that erasing this stigma may not be impossible. And, of course, it's worth remembering that those who have no option but to ride the bus deserve attention too. Public transportation isn't just for movie producers.

Photo credit: flickr user Waltarrrr