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

Monday, September 28

More on the hyperdensity of Manhattan

Hudson Yards proposal. Picture from Curbed NYC
Vishnaan Chakribarti visited University of Virginia to give a lecture: "Hyperdensity and the Future of Manhattan." Chakribarti, who now teaches real estate development at Columbia, served as the head of the Manhattan office of the New York Department of City Planning from 2000 to 2005. Through such projects as Hudson Yards and the Moynihan Station around Penn station, Chakribarti would like to see a considerable increase in the density of the island of Manhattan. This would require taller buildings and many more of them, as well as robust transportation infrastructure to move large numbers of people through a small area.
"If you love nature you shouldn't live in it. Instead of driving an S.U.V. to go camping, take the subway to a skyscraper."
In essence, Chakribarti is telling New York that the road to sustainability is not to cut back but to continue doing what it has always done best, grow bigger and bolder. Recession or no recession, grow up instead of out. Mitchell Joachim, another Columbia professor, has a similarly big ideas, to move America's more populous city toward complete self-sufficiency, a strategy ranging from growing sufficient quantities of food in vertical farms to solar energy production on rooftops throughout the city. As provocative as these thinkers are, it's worth remembering how provocative something like the Empire State Building must have sounded in the midst of the Great Depression.

As I expressed last week, I have my reservations about the Manhattan model of density applying widely. Good urbanism has more to do with what happens at the street level, the connections between buildings and the human scale of the living environment, and less to do with the height of the buildings themselves. A certain degree of density is necessary, but it's not the whole show. Besides, central Paris, even with it's height restrictions, is just as dense as Manhattan. Matthew Yglesias and Beyond DC sparked this conversation a couple of months ago from a Washington D.C. vantage point.

While I have an open mind concerning all of the new design prototypes coming out for "eco-skyscrapers", I'd like to see more hard numbers about energy-efficiency (including the embodied energy from construction). I still tend to go back to Christopher Alexanders' famous four-story limit and a human-scale for architecture. Do we learn from traditional practices that evolved during a time when energy had to be conserved or do we forge ahead with technological solutions to environmental problems? Probably both strategies will be attempted, and I'll look to New York as America's laboratory for hyperdensity.

Thursday, September 24

Adapting between the sacred and secular

I stumbled across two images this evening, one right after the other, that create a fascinating contrast.

First, Inhabitat featured this beautiful Dominican church from Maastrict, the Netherlands, adapted into a bookstore:

Then, I found photos of an old railway car adapted into an Orthodox church in Russia on the web site English Russia. (Apparently, there's a whole tradition of turning railway cars into churches in Russia. Who knew.)

These images provoked some thoughts ...

The question of differentiating sacred and secular space generates little discussion in urbanist circles, which is slightly odd because the consecration of some spaces as more sacred than others actually created the first ancient cities. The Priestly class among semi-nomadic people groups fixed themselves in a particular location and built a temple. Pilgrims would visit the temple to pay their dues and seek divine assistance, and it would eventually grow to become the political and economic epicenter of a city.

These pictures tell a different story; not of space intrinsically imbued with divine presence but of the adaptation of different spaces for spiritual or secular purposes according to activities of the community using them. This major shift in the West is actually not the product of modern secularization, but, at least within the Christian church, can be traced right back to Jesus' words in the gospel of John.

"The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth."
This was for Christianity the unmooring of religion from geography - in my opinion, one of the most pivotal statements in Western history, whether you consider yourself a "worshiper" or not.

This is why, as a Christian myself, I'm perfectly content to see wonderful historic church buildings in the center of cities reused as, say, a bookstore or a service center for the homeless. While younger churches are breathing new life into industrial warehouses or burned-out strip malls. From the very first words of Genesis, the Spirit of God wasn't staying in place but was "hovering over the face of the waters." Cities are similarly dynamic.

Wednesday, September 23

Growing kinda cooler or growing really cooler?

I've previously posted on the recent National Research Council report on the linkage between compact development, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and carbon emissions. Now the authors of Growing Cooler, a previous study conducted for the Urban Land Institute, have offered a response.

Both sides agree that the built environment and energy use are correlated enough to necessitate federal, state, and local policy responses in favor of compact development, but the two groups disagree on the magnitude of the effect. The NRC sees a moderate correlation, while the Growing Cooler authors project a much greater environmental impact from development patterns. The NRC report predicts a metropolitan area VMT reduction of 1 - 11% by 2050 from more compact development. Growing Cooler expects 12 - 18% reductions.

The details of this difference are too numerous and complex to get into here, but it mostly comes down to different predictions about the future. Will 2050 look much like now only further down the same trends, or will changes in energy prices, demographic composition, consumer preferences, environmental consciousness, etc. alter the underlying conditions more substantially?

On this note, Witold Rybczynski says pretty much the same thing with less numbers and more gusto in this month's Atlantic. Check out the Green Case of Cities:

"Being truly green means returning to the kinds of dense cities and garden suburbs Americans built in the first half of the 20th century. A tall order—but after the binge of the last housing boom, many Americans might be ready to consider a little downsizing."

Monday, September 21

The sustainability, and uniqueness, of Manhattan

Two nice articles in the Washington Post over the weekend. Jonathan Yardley reviewed a new book by long-time environmental journalist David Owen, Green Metropolis. Also John Lewis wrote about the Courage of Planning.

1. The tagline of Green Metropolis gets to the heart of the message: "Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, And Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability." Following up on his hit 2004 New Yorker piece Green Manhattan, Owen takes a hard results-based approach to sustainability, giving little credence to green bells and whistles or whatever fashionable solution is currently making the rounds. By the numbers, he shows that New Yorkers, because of the uncharacteristic density of their lifestyles, simply use less energy and land than the rest of us. He revels in the irony that a place with substantial per acre environmental impact, in fact, has the lowest per capita environmental impact anywhere. This should cause those who care about both the earth and humans to take note.

That being said, I question the wisdom of making Manhattan the poster child for urban sustainability. New York is New York. In the U.S., it's an utterly unique city. Statisticians working at the national level tend to dismiss data from the city as an outlier, and I'm afraid the general public may due the same if it is held up as the model. The word "manhattanize" gets 29,000 hits (mostly not happy ones) on Google and even its own Wikipedia page. The Manhattan version of density seems to be more likely treated as a spectre than a savior, fairly or not. On top of that, Manhattan, with its geographic situation and historic pedigree, probably won't be replicable today by even the most concerted act of political will. And it's not as if we can all go move to Manhattan.

But maybe we can extract New York's lessons, conveyed by Owen, without taking the whole city around with us, recognizing that scale and incremental changes will vary significantly from place to place. Fortunately, it really doesn't take the densities of Manhattan to make transit work, provide truly walkable neighborhoods, and conserve energy. I'm not sure what the sweet spot is, but it can't be extraordinarily high. We lived a mostly carfree lifestyle in Montana, which is pretty much not New York.

Photo credit: flickr Davic
2. Roger Lewis paints a picture of an essential dilemma planners often find themselves in:

"Today's planners and urban designers generally share common aims, principles and strategies in shaping visionary master plans at all scales -- county or town, city or suburb. They seek to mitigate the costs of inefficient sprawl; to concentrate denser, mixed uses in areas well served by roads, transit and utilities; to redevelop dysfunctional urban and suburban properties, such as obsolete strip shopping centers and "brown fields"; and to increase affordable-housing opportunities."

Yet he says that much of the actual controversy surrounding plans involves only two things: traffic and density (mostly because it's perceived to induce traffic). Long-range thinking does not enter into the public conversation very often even when the changes ahead are fairly well agreed upon, hence the title of the op-ed, "the courage of planning."

Friday, September 18

Parking space / public space

Cities and towns around the world today adapted parking spaces into places for people. The following is a one-minute video montage of Charlottesville's participation in Parking Day 2009.

Tuesday, September 15

Planetizen readers' top urban thinkers

I'm a sucker for top whatever lists, so I immediately gravitated toward Planetizen's recently unveiled "Top 100 Urban Thinkers." Beyond being an interesting parlor game, I do think it's a worthwhile exercise to evaluate the canon every once in a while to see what kinds of ideas and personalities may be taken as examples for the future. Enough objectivity, let the griping begin ...

Jane Jacobs is, of course, number one. She deserves it. Her legacy has been in the spotlight lately, since Anthony Flint released a book about her epic battles with Robert Moses (#23). Edward Glaeser, himself deservedly ranked #51, wrote in the New Republic that a hybrid between Moses' get-er-done attitude and Jacobs' insight into human nature would be the ideal. Ryan Avent, Glaeser's critic-in-chief, sought to push the balance back in Jacobs' favor. Jane Holtz Kay, who maybe should have made the list herself, wrote a nice panegyric to her last week: "I believe we can now call Jane Jacobs a heroine of history."

Bringing up Robert Moses raises an interesting question about the list. Does "top" refer to sheer influence or does it imply that the influence was good. One can certainly admire Moses' ability to cut through red tape, but surely New York would be better off today if he were a little less capable of a power broker. Le Corbusier (#26) may have been quite avant garde and visionary, but did his visions lead to good places for humans to inhabit? The same can be said for mall developer James Rouse (#38) [I didn't realize he did some cool developments later in life] or residential developer William Levitt (#92). To clarify, these aren't necessarily evil people. It's just hard to see how their legacy has had a positive impact on cities. Thomas Jefferson somehow made the list (#48) even though he saw cities only as a source of corruption, pestilence, and immorality. And I love Wendell Berry (#63) but ...

Then there are some real travesties. Raymond Unwin is ranked #76 when he really should be in the top ten. Not only was he the one to actually design some of Howard's Garden Cities, his Town Planning is Practice provided much of the original substance behind the Traditional Neighborhood Design we know today. There's always a bias toward the contemporary in these lists, but that's a little too far. On that note, Alberti and Palladio from the Italian Renaissance probably deserve a mention.

Peter Hall is a historian who rightfully made the list at #37, but where is Kenneth Jackson or Witold Rybczynski? Then there were those who contributed to the "decade of participation" in the 1960's, which changed urban planning from something that was, for the most part, done to the public, especially the poor, to something that the public could guide themselves. Paul Davidoff is a measly #75 and Sherry Arnstein didn't make the cut. More recently, John Powell and David Rusk deserve more credit for their work on disparities between suburbs and central cities.

As far as architects go, there are some interesting antagonisms here: Leon Krier (#8) and Rem Koolhaus (#65); Prince Charles (#71) and Richard Rogers (#81). Fred Kent (#46) made it but Frank Gehry didn't. Without personally wandering in to the ceaseless debate between modernists and traditionalists, I'll just note that the traditionalists are the clear favorite of Planetizen readers (then again, the modernists have always known the masses lacked a developed sense of taste). Andres Duany is notably in the #2 spot.

There are lots of people on this list I've never heard of and some particularly arcane philosophers I had to read in college whom I may as well have never heard of. So I can't comment on everything, but all in all, this is a pretty good list. I'm surprised I don't have more to complain about.

Monday, September 14

Runoff is (mostly) a transportation problem

Over the last decade, some much-needed attention has been directed at the problem of stormwater runoff in metro areas. Heavy rains rush down hard surfaces eroding stream banks, intensifying flooding, burying aquatic biodiversity, and carrying every variety of pollutant and unwanted nutrient into our waterways. While the nature of the problem has been studied very thoroughly, we're still in the process of figuring out how to manage it well, both at the level of regulation and individual practice. I think we'd do well to remember Bruce Ferguson's words in his classic Introduction to Stormwater from 1998:

"The runoff and pollution from a contemporary city result not so much from the number of human beings, as from the lavish support given to their automobiles in land use and land development."
"A given population can reduce its needs for pavement by reducing its dependence on the automobile. Development that provides for non-automotive transportation has compact mixed of land use, where many of people's everyday needs can be met within small distances, and safe, convenient paths for biking among the various neighborhoods. When people are not using cars, there are no emissions and there is no demand for parking pavement when they arrive at their destination."
There a couple of lessons to draw from this. First of all, rooftops are less important than pavement, particularly in urban areas where multiple floors of activity can occur under one roof. Green roofs and rain barrels get lots of press for a good reason. They can promote food production, help conserve water for human use, and are just cool. But as any glance at Google Earth will confirm, parking lots and roadways create far more impervious surfaces (up to a quarter of all land used in metro areas), and importantly more interconnected impervious surfaces, than rooftops. Rooftops also do not generate or convey pollution like ground-level impervious surface does.

The second observation to make is that stormwater management is as much a part of an interconnected system as transportation is. Evaluating nutrient load on a site-by-site basis makes as much sense as considering only the transportation needs internal to a proposed development when assessing its impact. Often a residential subdivision can get a gold star for using low-impact development techniques to virtually eliminate on-site runoff, but if it's still auto-dependent and generating a significant number of vehicle trips the problem is only pushed somewhere else. What roadways are these motor vehicles using? Where are the three parking spots for each vehicle going to be located?

My intent is not to downplay all of good techniques being developed to mitigate the impacts of our transportation system, but let's not lose sight of simplicity when thinking about regulations. The best solution is to create and promote the kinds of places where driving is less necessary in the first place.

Wednesday, September 9

The federal government and particular places

Last month the White House issued a short memo suggesting a shift in federal budget priorities for the next fiscal year toward more "place-based policies." Earlier in the summer, cooperative overtures between the federal HUD, DOT, and EPA on sustainable communities received considerable attention. This August memo indicates a next phase in the progression. Now that land use, transportation, and sustainability are considered integrated spheres, and their respective institutions are in the process of integration, the White House would like to evaluate how implementation can be more targeted geographically. All federal agencies have until next week to submit their own policy proposals, following the guidance of the memo.

Of course, place-based policy at the federal level is nothing new. Cynics would argue that projects designated for particular areas are always the product of congressional earmarks stuffed into legislation, pandering to local constituencies. Sure, but that's not where this memo is going. The goal here is to adopt a systematic policy analysis for allocation of place-based funds, which, in theory at least, should minimize the ersatz motivations of pure political expediency. And help get rid of redundant and inefficient efforts.

Planners, who have read their Jane Jacobs, may want to step very carefully into this transition. After all, the era of urban renewal was spearheaded by ambitious and context-insensitive federal policies in transportation, housing, and economic development. We all know where that ended. On the other hand, less ambitious policies such as the various iterations of Empowerment Zones and other targeted economic development programs throughout the years have shown more success with less unintended consequences. For me it comes down to whether urban renewal failed because of the content of its philosophy (modern life requires homogeneous living arrangements centered around the automobile) or because of the method of its implementation (top-down federal action). The memo does try to address these concerns by emphasizing a wish for collaboration between all players:

"Change comes from the community level and often through partnerships; complex problems require flexible integrated solutions."
One initial question jumped to my mind after reading the memo: don't we already have place-based levels of government and institutions that are equipped to deal with place-based issues? State and local governments will inevitably be nimbler and more locally-focused than a larger institution. While resources may not be evenly distributed between States, large-scale redistribution of resources across whole regions seems to me out of the purview of the Livability Principles expressed by the interagency partnership.

There's a decent response to this as well. Planners have long been vexed by the mismatch between jurisdictional boundaries and the more organic boundaries of economic regions, ecosystems, and transportation systems. True regional governance has proven to be very challenging to establish institutionally, not for want of trying over many decades, and it would have to be adaptable to future changes anyway. Perhaps there is an important federal role here: "Federal investments should promote planning and collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries"

Kansas City's Green Impact Zone, a recipient of stimulus funds, offers a glimpse of where we may be headed. HUD secretary Adolfo Carrion highlighted this program last week during a stop on his "listening tour,"
"The Green Impact Zone will improve housing conditions through the rehabilitation and weatherization of the entire 150 block area neighborhood, develop a green workforce through the training of residents from the urban core in green technology, and invest in sustainable transportation through a green bus rapid transit system."
While there is federal money involved, the efforts are coordinated regionally through the non-profit Mid-America Regional Council, and an array of private and public partners are used on the ground. The old destroy-and-replace mentality is gone; the urban fabric is expected to stay intact throughout improvements. Each housing improvement is approached as an individual project. The Bus Rapid Transit line will be placed down the central Troost Ave., and according to the DOT secretary blog, "This means the folks living in this zone will finally have access to convenient, affordable public transit." The initiative also appears to include some stormwater management elements. Seems like a comprehensive approach to me.

If the Green Impact Zone continues to be hailed as a success, especially as the measurable indicators start to emerge, we can expect more of this model to come around the country.

Thursday, September 3

Selected bits from congressional transportation report

The report Driving and the Built Environment: The Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use, and CO2 Emissions was released on Tuesday by the National Academy of Sciences. Congress commissioned the study four years ago, and a wide range of transportation experts have been putting this together. The Transportation Research Board is a pretty noteworthy bunch, with representation from FHWA, FTA, many major universities, many state DOTs, AASHTO, and even a Walmart executive. The Chair of the committee tasked with writing the report is José Gomez-Ibáñez, Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Measuring the effect of the built environment on Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) is tricky, because socioeconomic factors and self-selection tend to skew the results. Do the surroundings cause less driving or do residents of compact, mixed-use neighborhoods just happen to have disproportionately less automobile access? Or perhaps people who prefer not to drive as much choose to live in such places. Even when controlling for these variables, the findings do confirm what smart growth advocates have claimed (although with perhaps less bluster),

Both logic and empirical evidence suggest that developing more compactly, that is, at higher population and employment densities, lower VMT.”
But there is a caveat, and this is something that Kaid Benfield has been stressing lately. Density alone is not enough. We only focus on it, because it happens to be so easily quantifiable.
Doubling residential density alone, without also increasing other variables, such as the amount of mixed uses and the quality and accessibility of transit, will not bring about a significant change in travel.”
So what are the other variables? The report lists them as the five D’s:
  • "Density: Population and employment by geographic unit (e.g., per square mile, per developed acre).
  • Diversity: Mix of land uses, typically residential and commercial development, and the degree to which they are balanced in an area (e.g., jobs-housing balance).
  • Design: Neighborhood layout and street characteristics, particularly connectivity, presence of sidewalks and other design features (e.g., shade, scenery, presence of attractive homes and stores) that enhance the pedestrian and bicycle friendliness of an area.
  • Destination accessibility: Ease or convenience of trip destinations from point of origin, often measured at the zonal level in terms of distance from the central business district or other major centers.
  • Distance to transit: Ease of access to transit from home or work (e.g., bus or rail stop within 1/4–1/2 mi of trip origin)."
Each of these factors may individually have at least some impact on driving amounts, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

In terms of actual case studies, Virginia’s own transit-oriented development along the Arlington corridor was one of two success stories featured in the report.
Like Portland, Arlington County demonstrates what can be done through a combination of land use plans and transit investment to promote development and at the same time reduce automobile travel. The county’s success can be attributed to leadership and early recognition of development potential; good planning and design, including rezoning of land adjacent to metrorail stations to allow high-density development; a healthy economic base; and above all, the foresight to take advantage of massive investment in a new regional transit system to channel development.”
Is a shift to higher densities actually feasible in the marketplace of many metro areas? The study echos what groups like the National Association of Realtors have been saying recently: the consumer demand for compact, mixed-use developments is outpacing the current supply. There are, however, usually regulatory impediments facing developers who wish to tap this market.
A population that is aging and includes more immigrants and young adults with urban preferences is likely to be more inclined to live in more compact developments, own fewer automobiles, drive less, and use alternative modes of transportation. Should they occur, sustained higher energy prices would reinforce these trends.”
So what’s the bottom line for those who need a quick answer:
Recommendation 1: Policies that support more compact, mixed-use development and reinforce its ability to reduce VMT, energy use, and CO2 emissions should be encouraged.”
(The other recommendation is: keep studying this)

See also last month's Moving Cooler report, led by Urban Land Institute, for a similar analysis with some more specific policy proposals.

Tuesday, September 1

Great Place for a Bike Box

Probably the most important bottleneck in Charlottesville for cyclists is the intersection between McIntire Rd. and West Main St. This point is the gateway to downtown from the west and a critical transportation link between the University of Virginia and the downtown mall. 45% of cycling accidents happen at intersections, and high-volume signalized intersections are the most dangerous. It seems reasonable that a spot like this should be the primary focus of any safety improvement effort in the city.

McIntire/Main adds an extra level of unpredictability, because it is a five-way intersection. Consider the case of a cyclist traveling east on Main into the intersection (a very common occurrence) and stopping at a red alongside motor vehicles. As soon as the light turns green, automobiles may go straight or veer right onto South St. There is no way for the cyclist to gauge this in advance, and it's difficult for motorists to communicate their intentions. The X marks a potential contact point between a turning vehicle and a cyclist going straight.

Bike boxes, technically called an Advanced Stop Line, would set back the line for motor vehicles by a certain distance (recommended 5 meters) and allow cyclists to get a head start on green. Once the cyclist is in full view of motorists, especially larger trucks that have a blind spot for close-up objects beneath them, the chances of a collision are minimized.

The bike box pictured here is from Portland, Oregon.