Friday, January 29

Cities weighing electric vehicles carefully

Many cities have been looking carefully at introducing electric cars lately. The cars may be private, but they do exert some unique pressures on public infrastructure. Seattle and others have been investing in a set of charging stations with enough voltage to power the cars. Paris set up an electric car sharing system, and London is thinking of following. Today, New York City released a report on how electric cars may be adopted there and how to meet their needs.

Charging station outside of Portland. Flickr: Todd Mecklem
Much of the discussion about electric vehicles centers around energy usage, yet the efficiency question is a tricky one. Ultimately, moving an object of X mass through space at Y velocity will always take Z energy. Strictly speaking, electric cars are not a means of energy conservation but of energy centralization. It's a switch from many fuel-based combustion engines to a few power plants, based on a mix coal and alternative sources depending on the region. Right now in most places in the U.S., concentrating the pollution into smokestacks is typically more efficient than distributing it to tailpipes, even when accounting for the transaction costs, but this is hardly a foregone conclusion.

The picture of an electric car that you probably have in your mind is that of a small vehicle, a "city car," but there is no intrinsic connection between size and energy source. Electric cars can be as large as combustion engine vehicles, and as technology improves the market will likely push electric models toward size equilibrium with other cars.

According to architect Christopher Alexander:
"The fact that cars are large is, in the end, the most serious aspect of a transportation system based on the use of cars, since it is inherent to the very nature of cars."
Size is important because larger cars hurt more when they hit you, fill more roadway and parking capacity, and generally spread things out. It is incorrect to assume that support for electric cars will necessarily lead to smaller or slower vehicles.

But Noah Kazis of Streetsblog gets straight to the most important consideration:
As a sustainability initiative, the merit of the proposal depends on whether trips in these new electric cars will replace trips powered by internal combustion or trips by foot, bicycle, and transit.”
It seems that the easiest way get around the dilemma is to place any incentives for electric cars on the production side rather than the consumption side. The stronger vehicle emissions standards announced by Obama last May will inevitably encourage more electric and hybrid production. Likewise, the $2.4 billion of federal support for EV battery research from the Department of Energy can help producers improve performance and efficiency of their vehicles. On the other hand, consumer incentives such as this year’s $7,500 per vehicle tax credit is a less effective approach. This goes for the myriad of state and local tax credits as well. Producer incentives make cars that would have been built anyway better; consumer incentives may actually lead to a net increase in the total number of cars on the roadways.

The New York study opted to pass on the more expensive subsidies in favor of education and some recognition of early adopters. This makes sense. A change that might to a little bit of good probably deserves some quiet cheerleading.

Thursday, January 28

Shifting the equation of local competition

The New York Times has asked a number of observers to weigh in on the declining national mobility rates. Americans have gradually been moving less for the last two decades, and the rate has taken a precipitous decline in the face of our current recession. Formerly attractive states like Florida are actually losing population. It's interesting to speculate over why this is happening, but what's more interesting to me is how this change may play out in the local planning of communities.

It was fitting that Richard Florida had been invited to contribute, because in many ways his trademark prescriptions for regional economic development are founded upon high mobility. The title of his latest book is "Who's your City?" after all.

In the book, Cultural Creatives are presented with the option to choose a city based on an assessment of the amenities available before moving, and then seek a job and relationships in the location. On the other side of the ledger, localities naturally need to respond by enhancing the kinds of amenities the Creative Class wants in order to attract them. What all of this presumes is not only mobility, but the kind of mobility that is not locked into the best paying, available job (or prior relationship commitments). If these underlying conditions seem to be in question now, do we have to rethink this entire regime of metro competition?

Many have criticized the simplistic formula I've described as over-selling the case for adding some nice amenities to attract the right people, and Florida is presented as a one-show huckster dupping cities into these dubious investments. For better or worse, he has been publicly aligned with his trademark idea, which is usually what happens. However, in this case, Florida does seem to get this trend and is adapting his message to it:

"One consequence of this is a new kind of class divide in America between the “mobile” who have the resources and flexibility to pursue economic opportunity and the “stuck” who are tied to places with weaker economies or where their personal economic prospects are more limited."
"There is also a group I term the “rooted” — more advantaged individuals and families who choose to forgo economic mobility and reap the benefits of remaining close to family, friends, and community."
One advantage of "rootedness" is that residents who stay in a place longer can build stronger ties with a community. Crime goes down, as neighbors become "eyes on the street" for each other (crime rates have, in fact, been down across the country). And families tend to stay together (national divorce rates are also down). Local government participation goes up.

I don't know if this will change what kind of infrastructure cities choose to invest in, but it could certainly change their reasoning for doing so. Instead of building, say, a bike lane to woo a hypothetical young biotech engineer, they may build the bike lane because a bunch of active residents have asked for a bike lane. Cities may become diverse from each other, not because of marketing strategies to adopt a niche brand of local "authenticity," but because of a genuinely unique culture that swells up from the people who live there.

Thursday, January 21

Toyota's vision "beyond cars"

This month's Atlantic has some fine articles, including one about the Orange County Walmart I posted on a few months ago, but I'd like to bring up the advertisement on the back cover: "Toyota, We See Beyond Cars."

From Toyota, Beyond Cars
This is part of an ongoing campaign Toyota has initiated with television commercials, print ads, and a user-created web site, all geared toward imagining a world "beyond cars." I have to say this entire concept is intriguing. It reminds me of those Abercrombie and Fitch billboards filled with attractive, half-naked young people. Why would seeing a guy without a shirt on make me want to buy a shirt? You'd think I would want less clothing. But I'm sure some high-level marketing executives have a good answer to that question.

Toyota is using the same strategy here. The town depicted in this ad is probably as close as it gets to the idyllic American small town, the kind of place survey respondents have in mind when they constantly mark "small town" as an ideal living preference. There is a sharp boundary between the town and countryside, with three-story buildings running directly up to open forests and plains. The scale is small enough to be easily walkable, allowing each of the residents to have access to all town services as well as natural amenities on foot. The development is nestled right up to the hills with no mountaintop private estates (overlooking their fiefdom), and lush street trees blanket the town. All of this is symbolically envisioned through the lack of a Toyota Highlander smack in the middle of picture. Interesting.

Incidentally, I'm not sure where this picture is taken. The ad mentions Princeton, Indiana, where a Toyota factory is located (3 miles outside of), but the topography in the picture does not match Princeton. I would guess somewhere in Vermont or New Hampshire.

Here's a television commercial in the same campaign:

It also portrays the conspicuous absence of a vehicle set in an attractive American place. This downtown, like the previous place, was undoubtedly built during a time when "Ford" was what you did when you reached a river and didn't have a boat. Toyota would have been completely foreign to you. These kinds of places have slowly been withered away by businesses and homes that require ample parking ... in other words, in part at least, by Toyota. Yet Toyota knows its audience still wants this to be the kind of America we live in.

It's hard to tell what Toyota is doing with this. Are they signaling a wish, or at least an openness, to move beyond manufacturing cars to other forms of transportation? Or do they realize that most of us have no choice but to own a car, and they want to position themselves as the least-like-a-car car company on the market? The Mrs. and I do happen to own a Corolla, and until Toyota's vision of a nation beyond cars comes into being, we'll probably replace this one with another Corolla once we've driven it into the ground..

Wednesday, January 13

The Detroit transportation industry

flickr credit (via infrastructurist)
Amidst all of the media hype and congressional soundbites surrounding the Detroit Auto Show, Robert Reich, a regular commenter on NPR's Marketplace, drops a heavy dose of reality:
"The world auto industry -- including GM, Ford, and Chrysler -- will have to rationalize, consolidate, reduce capacity. Bailing out GM and Chrysler, bailing out GM's finance division, giving cash for clunkers, hoping the American auto industry will bounce back, throwing another big auto show in Detroit. All this is irrelevant to the real challenge.

And that challenge is getting new, good-paying jobs for all the auto and auto-parts workers who will continue to be laid off, even when the U.S. economy is fully recovered. And helping Detroit and other auto communities create new industries that move people from place to place at minimum cost, with minimum carbon.

This is what the Detroit Auto Show ought to be about. Not more cars."

And if current market conditions are not enough to compel the Detroit transportation industry to diversify its portfolio, today's announcement by Ray Lahood about new criteria for federal transit funding may strengthen the case. Insiders are hailing this as a big shift in federal priorities. Cost effectiveness for transit projects will no longer be determined only on the basis of speed, but other "livability" factors will be considered as well - spurring development, limiting congestion, reducing carbon output, and in Lahood's words "how it makes our communities better places to live." If we're going to be buying more streetcars and rail equipment, it would be nice if Americans could make it.

The Infrastructurist has been beating the drum for a revived American train industry for a little while now, with an interview with Michael Dukakis, an interesting series on global train manufacturers, and an announcement from Michigan's governor over the summer.

Tuesday, January 12

Where is the front door?

Albemarle County Office Building, formerly Lane High School. flickr credit
If you were to approach this building for the first time, where would you suppose the entrance is? If you guessed the large, prominent doors at the center of the axis of symmetry for both the building and formal gardens in front, you'd be wrong. Those doors are locked. The only public entrance is from the parking lot in the back.

At some point a decision was made to convert the Albemarle County office building from a pedestrian-serving building to a motorist-serving building. Given the changing context over the last century, one can hardly blame them. The adjacent roads have been widened, and the entire neighborhood to the south was destroyed in the 70's and replaced mostly with parking lots. The highly attractive facade of this building is an historic accident reminding passersby of a different kind of city.

Architects I've spoken with describe the front door problem as one of the most challenging design dilemmas they face. Most commercial and civic establishments can only have one public entrance, whether for security reasons or quality control (one information desk, for example). Automobiles, by virtue of their size, require an amount of space that deters pedestrians from passing through. This forces a stark either/or dichotomy over transportation systems: cars or people, but not both. The new design of another Albemarle County building, the Crozet library, was recently
flickr credit
approved with a parking lot main entrance. Some elected officials were frustrated with this decision, considering the placement of the building was intended to enliven the town center of Crozet. But it was eventually conceded that, at least in the short term, most visitors would arrive by car.

Even studied attempts at a balance between cars and people have reverted to the dominant system in time. The well-known planned suburb of Radburn, New Jersey had each home designed with two faces, one facing the cul-de-sac and the other facing a network of walking paths. In time, residents have mostly closed up the walking entrance in favor of the driving entrance.

I know that bloggers are supposed to have an answer for everything, but I don't for this one. There's only so much influence a single building can have on the travel patterns of its users, so form should follow function. Yet the face of a building does convey a powerful symbolic gesture to the public realm, especially when you consider them all together. Are there any creative ways to address this that have worked well?

Monday, January 4

Two (very different) planned towns in Maryland

Passing through the D.C. metro area yesterday, we decided to visit two classic planned communities in the Maryland suburbs. Both were planned and built from the ground up and both contain around 2,000 households. Otherwise, they could not be more different. One was entirely created by the federal government, the other by private developers. One was born in the depth of the Great Depression, the other during boom years of the American economy. One has a current average home sale price of around $160,000, the other $800,000. One is exclusively modernist in style, the other highly traditional both in planning and architecture.

Anyone who seeks to pigeonhole planning into one ideological camp or the other may want to take a look at these two very different models. While there are certainly arguments to be made either for or against each of these, it seems pretty clear to me that they fit into different economic niches and lifestyle preferences. The overall metro area is that much richer for having both of them.

Greenbelt, Maryland

Central business area, built in rounded International Style.
Our first stop was in Greenbelt, Maryland, the largest of the three garden-city inspired towns built during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Agricultural economist Rexford Guy Tugwell convinced the president that settling a displaced rural population into new towns outside of major cities was more preferable to a back-to-the-land approach, and the U.S. Resettlement Administration was created for him. While Tugwell originally conceived of 3,000 distinct mostly self-sufficient communities around the country, congressional wrangling, legal battles, and a ticking clock whittled this down to just three. Greenbelt, with the help of avid personal support from Eleanor Roosevelt, was the most complete.

One of many playgrounds tucked between apartments and townhomes
The town is designed in a crescent shape around a central community and business area, which is within walking distance of all dwellings. Many of the businesses are still functioning as community co-ops, although the federal government has long since left the picture. On the cold Saturday we visited, the New Deal Cafe and the Co-op grocery store seemed to be doing brisk business. The Community Center, originally the town school, contains a whole floor of artist studios, gathering places for seniors, an adjacent library, a gymnasium, and a small museum. We got the impression that this still serves as the communal heart of the town.

Pedestrian underpasses are used to connect this central area with the trail systems weaving throughout the superblocks of surrounding residences. The planners were certainly intent on strictly separating cars from people. Although there is an obvious symmetry and geometric orderliness to the plan, the abundant use of green space and scattered trees still gives it an informal feel. True to the name, natural amenities were an integral part of the plan.
The Community Center feels like an art deco college campus
Although much of the green belt that originally surrounded the town has been sliced up with major highways or sold off for development, the amount of unprogrammed green space is still unusually high for the area.

The nuclear family was the essential building block of the design, not to mention the overall experiment in New Deal social engineering. Almost all of the original residents were young families (this was clearly intentional, since only 900 of 5,000 applicants were admitted). Small playgrounds are located all over, but one gets the sense that the entire town is built as a comprehensive playground for children. The size of the homes was allotted according to family size; apartments for married couples with infants that could be traded up for townhouses as the family grew.

Cars and pedestrians, never the twain shall meet
Today, the community gives every impression of being incredibly multi-generational. The same goes for racial diversity. Blacks were, sadly, excluded from the first government settlement, but now comprise around 40% of the population. Given the affordable housing options, there is also a reasonably broad range of income levels in the town. Large signs now welcome visitors into the "inclusive community" of Greenbelt.

According to historian Peter Hall, this globally unique experiment in federal planning collapsed under the weight of an ensuing public outcry against socialism. Sure enough, some of the inspirational engravings lining the community center do give off a downright Soviet vibe, even if they are depicting the U.S. Constitution. According to Hall:
"There is a slight irony in that it all happened in the United States, which is almost the last country anyone would expect it to happen. And there, it is hardly surprising that it failed."
Although the initial experiment did undoubtedly fail and many of the design decisions were deliberately anti-urban, in many ways the contemporary Greenbelt community seems to have matured into a more complex, if less ideologically pure, expression of some of its original ideals.

Kentlands, Maryland

Building to the sidewalk encloses the street and caters to the pedestrian
The Kentlands neighborhood is well known among planners and architects as the first true example of New Urbanism in the United States. The entire development follows a colonial style of architecture, reminiscent of Georgetown or Old Town Alexandria, although that, in and of itself, is hardly unusual for contemporary residential development. What set Kentlands apart from the other subdivisions surrounding it is the incorporation of traditional town elements such as a connected street grid, narrow streets, minimal setback and yard sizes, ample sidewalks, a mix of uses (at least in some cases), and scale to encourage walking. Anyone who's read more than two posts on this blog should be pretty familiar with these concepts.

I recall one time hearing Andres Duany, whose architecture firm was behind Kentlands, explain that a neighborhoods need to stew in its juices for a while like a good soup before it reaches its fullest design expression.
A colonial style is clearly evident throughout the neighborhood
Well, Kentlands has had over 20 years to grow into itself and the maturation shows. Even in the winter, well-placed trees create a perfect natural accent to the fairly dense residential areas. Residents over time start to settle in and lend a place their own character while still staying within the initially conceived order. We were surprised to stumble upon both a Jewish Synagogue and a Mormon church tucked between the homes.

I'm aware of criticisms lodged against places like Kentlands. In fact, being immersed in academia for the time being, I'm very aware of these criticisms. Kentlands was built on a greenfield on the fringes of a metropolitan area with little access to transit. Although the variety of housing options is quite diverse - this is something the neighborhood does well - moderate to lower-income households are still mostly priced out. Marxist geographer David Harvey may have been a little hyperbolic when he declared that it,
"builds an image of community and a rhetoric of place-based civic pride and consciousness for those who do not need it, while abandoning those that do to their 'underclass' fate"
A vertical mix of uses is challenging to pull off
When you consider the context, it seems forgivable to me that the physical form of one development is unable to achieve large-scale social upheaval or the unraveling of regional agglomeration economies. The commercial center of Kentlands actually folds into a conventional regional shopping plaza with giant parking lots lurking behind, which speaks to the current economic realities that still needed to be considered to make it viable in the marketplace. The proper comparison to Kentlands is what would have been there otherwise, not a theoretical utopia or even New Urbanist ideals themselves. Any real world positive and lasting change has to be incremental.

It's also not hard for me to imagine some of the more trenchant criticisms dissipating in time. The Gaithersburg metro station to Washington D.C. is only a 4 mile bus ride away. A little tweak in the price points of automobile travel may facilitate a more transit-oriented adaptation in the future. And housing stock typically becomes more affordable in time, which may take the edge off of claims to exclusivity. In a fast-changing world it can be tough to remember that well-built places will last for a century or more. They can only truly be judged in view of the entirety of their lifespans.