2:05 pm - Fri, May 25, 2012

New Urbanism and Conservation Biology needs Stronger Ties

New urbanism serves as a great model for building neighborhoods, communities and towns that embody diversity, walkability, complexity, and diversity.  When done right, as Andres Duany reminds us, they are calibrated to their place, which is often missing in many cookie-cutter new urbanism communities.  While prescriptive, they allow for flexibility and a way to opt out of the process.

The irony here is that these principles and attributes mirror very closely those of conservation biology and restoration ecology; imagine that!  Yet for the most part, new urbanism is practiced in an ecological vacuum.  ‘Open’ spaces (I hate that term, but that’s a discussion for another day) and set aside ‘environmental sensitive areas’ are often plotted with absolutely no science behind their shape, size, distance from one another, or quality in terms of their ability to support native flora and fauna.  In fact, more often then not they probably become sinks of biological & genetic diversity.

As far as I can see, there is no reason why new urbanism shouldn’t fully embrace the concepts of landscape connectivity, species movements and migrations, and habitat conservation, without compromising the enduring qualities these communities provide.  Let’s work together and figure this out. 

- Keith Bowers, http://www.biohabitats.com

11:09 pm - Wed, May 16, 2012

Building a Culture of Bike Safety at CNU

In my career I’ve spent so much time thinking about cars, that I’ve overlooked the bicycle…until now.

After joining Tindale-Oliver & Associates as an urban designer this year I’ve become involved in the Multimodal Transportation Planning Team that designs bicycle and pedestrian master plans. It has been enlightening to understand the technical and data analysis that is required to make sure cyclists can get where they need to go safely. There are many factors to consider, including facilities, context-sensitivity, implementation, funding, and regional and local policies. It is a much more complicated process than you would expect.

Simultaneously, I have been settling into my life in Florida and have found myself for the first time using a bicycle as a form of transportation instead of a form of leisure activity. When I made this shift, my requirements and expectations as a cyclist completely changed. I have felt empowered to have been given the opportunity in certain parts of my city to be able to ride my bike from one destination to the other while feeling safe doing it. However, despite my increased interest in cycling, and my awareness of the detailed planning behind it, there is one gap that I believe still exists in bike planning, at least in Florida: actual safety vs. perceived safety.

This was an issue touched upon some at the CNU20 conference in sessions like “From Balanced Roads to TOD” and “Beyond the Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bike Safety,” but I felt it was not covered quite enough. The concept of perceived safety vs. actual safety  is a concept that filters through all layers of urban design. Similarly, pedestrians might be actually safe walking along a city street alongside lifeless buildings with blank walls. But they probably won’t feel safe because people need other people in close proximity when they are in a public space to feel comfortable. Therefore they won’t walk there. Similarly, while I might be actually safe riding my bike down a collector road in my neighborhood since I have a dedicated bike lane and two 10′ lanes of traffic, I do not feel safe. Therefore, I do not ride.

As it turns out, I am not unique. While cycling has become a big grass-roots movement through organizations like Pro Walk/ Pro Bike and The National Center for Bicycling and Walking, and is becoming a more expected form of transportation, there is an enormous gender gap among users. Nearly all the new riders on the U.S. roads in the last 20 years have been men between the ages of 25 and 64. Considering the demographics of U.S. citizens, that is a relatively small constituency that we are currently designing our streets for. So for all the investment made in making our streets more “complete,” how can we do this in a way that reaches out to more users?

A 2009 article in Scientific American states that there are two reasons for the gender gap: 1) women are more averse to risk than men, and 2) cycling to work will impede on women’s ability to conform to social norms, including makeup, hair, and hairstyles. The second reason is a big bite to chew, so let me concentrate on the first. I will say, however, that there are lots of ponytail wearing women (like me), who would hop on a bike if they felt safe. Jan Garrard, a senior lecturer in planning states, “If you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’—just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female.” I personally can’t remember the last time or if I’ve ever seen a woman on a bicycle on the Tampa streets.

This cycle track is a less-risk-averse way to travel by bike. (Source: Monica Bradley) The second picture shows a woman cycling to work despite her need to comply with professional norms. (Source: kilthebird via Grist)

The first step is to substantially lower the risk of cycling, which will be done mostly through a change in infrastructure. Cycle tracks like the above example in New York City are becoming more popular in certain cities across the country. Because of the complete physical separation from the threat of cars, all users will perceive a lower threat to their safety. The problem besides the constant challenge of funding, is finding the right-of-way to accommodate them, especially in a car-centric culture like Florida. There will have to be evidence of a high enough level of ridership to justify cutting out a lane from a congested street. What we have is a chicken and the egg conundrum: there is not the required ridership now because a majority of 50% of the population doesn’t feel safe. A good compromise to this is allowing room for a physical separation between a one way bike lane and car traffic. Creative medians and plantings used in Denver is one example of this, and simply placing parallel parking between car traffic and the bike lane is another. (See photos below) And then, of course, there is the hope that as towns and cities go on the increasingly popular “road diets,” that they will provide scope for these facilities in addition to placemaking and pedestrian elements. With the right-of-way space to spare, hopefully these can serve as good evidential examples for more congested cities that are hesitant to turn that car lane over.

Examples of safe cycling infrastructure in the right-of-way (Source: Live Downtown Denver, Streetsblog.org)

Many might say that building a bike culture is more than just infrastructure. And they would be right. But Billy Hattaway from the Florida DOT said to me this past week that infrastructure is an integral piece, and if we don’t improve bike lanes to cater to a larger part of the population, we might lose the justification to have bike lanes at all. I agree with him.

The second step is to get more riders. In “Beyond the Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bike Safety,” with Wesley Marshall from the University of Colorado, he showed that evidence proves that the more cyclists there are, the more safe it is to bike. There is a belief by some transportation planning engineers that more cyclists and users in the road will make it unsafe, but “safety in numbers” is true. This is for a couple of reasons: 1) people feel more comfortable doing an activity that they see other people doing, and 2) drivers are more aware of cyclists since they see them more often, in other words, they are on the lookout for them. Of course, infrastructure supportive of biking culture will play a part in this, but Marshall argues what’s even more important are land use patterns.

This takes us to the third step. Land use is instrumental in making cycling or walking a viable and efficient transportation choice for users. First of all, people will only choose cycling as a mode of transportation if it is convenient and efficient. Ridership in parts of the city without mixed-uses and with low density will be low compared to more urban areas with many commercial/residential/institutional uses nearby and close together. Riding to a local grocery store to get a gallon of milk is realistic. Riding to a Wal-Mart for your weekly shopping is not. But Marshall’s research showed that the biggest aspect of achieving bike safety is the intersection density. The more intersections there were in a development, the safer it was for riders. At first thought this might go against common sense because intersections are the sites of many crashes, but more connectivity = slower speeds = more awareness. Connectivity also allows for more mixed-uses and higher densities. Many cities put their resources into developing recreational cycling trails. While this is very admirable, as a “wanna-be” cyclist, I’d be a proponent of putting those funds into street design instead. Putting the infrastructure on routes where people go in their everyday lives, will lead to the most increase in ridership.

And the fourth step, although, I happen to think it’s the least important, is encouraging people to cycle by making it a pleasant experience. I mention this only because William Lindeke, a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, summarized his research quickly in the session “From Balanced Roads to TOD” as part of the CNU20 conference. When he interviewed regular cyclists about their favorite thing about choosing cycling as a form of transportation, their responses were: “I like to see how long I can go without holding the handlebars” and “I love the sound of my tires crunching acorns beneath my tires.” I will add to that by saying my favorite thing about riding my bike down Bayshore Blvd. is feeling the wind hit my face when it’s hot outside. Many people ride for many different reasons. This research is definitely worth being aware of when planners design cycling infrastructure.

So there are a lot of factors that need to come together to increase ridership and bridge the gender gap in cycling. As someone who would love to ditch my car in favor of my bike on my daily commute, the risk aversion holds me back. I think Billy Hattaway’s warning is very relevant in the future of bike/ped planning. Providing the lane along the side of the road is not enough: we must examine the evidence and psychology behind riding in order to make it a real choice for the majority of the population or we will find ourselves losing the justification to provide them at all.

This article can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Teamwith Tindale-Oliver & Associates.With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

11:09 pm

Reflections on “Clearer Thinking: Urbanism + Transit”

Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, told us he was at CNU20 to preach a little fire and brimstone:  transportation planner to new urbanist. While I wouldn’t call it brimstone, he definitely spoke passionately about real issues that need to be considered in enriching people’s lives. While I certainly subscribe to most New Urbanist principles, and am a card-carrying member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I appreciated Walker’s candid challenge of the art behind the movement. He began his lecture by saying, “You know all those little people you draw in pastel and watercolor? Well, they are citizens of society, not going where you think they will, but where they want to.” That was a straight shot on the idealistic “if you build it, they will come” mentality that exists among some members of the CNU. Him, you, me…all of us…want to feel in control and active in how we navigate our built environment.

An example of those people we draw who are not going “where we want them to” (Source: Calgary-Canada Lands Comany)

One of the great things about the New Urbanism movement is that its principles are very relevant to many sectors of the built environment and has, therefore, welcomed members with many different views and beliefs. From his delivery, I don’t think Jarrett Walker would call himself a new urbanist, but he and I share the same priorities on transit.

Prior to Walker’s presentation as part of Clearer Thinking: Urbanism + Transit, G.B. Arrington of Parsons Brinckerhoff / Placemaking gave us “5 Things New Urbanists Need to Know about Transit,” which laid a foundation for the rest of the session. Three of them stand out in particular. The five points are as follows:

  1. Transit Is Not What It Used to Be About – Transit is not about the work trip, the relief of congestion, or brief interventions. Transit is now relevant to all trips, all purposes, and community building.
  2. Distance Matters Differently Between Users – Different users are willing to travel different distances using transit before they resort to their automobile. The most connections should be made within 600 feet. Past that, users drop off quickly (between 1/4 mile and a 1/2 mile riders drop by 50%) so placing retail and office uses within this distance is most important.
  3. The Land Use Gap - Built environment professionals are responsible for designing transit-ready neighborhoods based around connected and complete streets. Other built environment professions are responsible for planning the transit system. The gap is that there is no one responsible for merging the two together.
  4. Lifecycles in Planning – The planning cycle for transit oriented development and the planning cycle for a rail system can have a difference of a decade, which is longer than a typical market cycle.
  5. Mode Is Not As Important as You Think – Let the land use/corridor determine the mode. What matters much more is the location, market, and frequency of service.

Built upon this foundation was Walker’s argument:  abundancy = efficiency. What matters is lots of service going where you need it to go and the ability for users to be spontaneous in their use of the system. This is the benefit of the car and it is required of our public transportation system to compete. That is the first and most important requirement in making transit a viable alternative in America.

Walker stated that the first step in reaching transit abundance is for the local government to believe that transit is a necessity for everyone, not a service to a few. Providing rides for the elderly, the disabled, and the poor (a.k.a., providing a social service) will completely dictate the ability for transit to compete with the car. In this case, for example, bus stops are very close together out of necessity, which inhibits efficiency.

Secondly, Walker states that New Urbanism is really hung up on rail and transit oriented development (TOD), but that the most efficient mode of transportation is the bus. Perhaps the reason for the obsession with rail is that the alternative is identified with a huge social stigma in the U.S. Issues of race and poverty overshadow the bus system. We have to change this stigma to be able to use effectively our most abundant and, therefore, efficient mode of transit.

Thirdly, we must combine our modes seamlessly in order to achieve the optimal amount of efficiency. Walker told the story of his experience of using public transit in Germany. When he arrived at the airport, he was told he needed to take the 301. He found the appropriate platform, which was beside a set of tracks. He expected a streetcar to arrive, but instead a bus pulled over the tracks. He then transferred to a streetcar, where he could not distinguish between the inside of the two. A perfect and seamless integration of the modes meant that it didn’t matter if you were on a bus, streetcar, train, etc. They were all getting you where you needed to go.

Efficiency in abundancy and the seamless integration of modes. (Source: Rail for the Valley)

Most importantly, Walker makes the point that transit needs to become more transparent, efficient, and functional so that people can take responsibility for where and how they live. He has developed a software tool that shows from any location in Portland where you can get within a certain amount of time on transit systems. The results are blobs on a map in varying degrees of hues, representing periods of time. Not surprisingly, the blobs are bigger and darker the closer the location to the city center. Reproduced for the entire country and made accessible to all, similar to the effect of providing nutrition facts on food packaging, people will be able to make responsible transit decisions that will give them greater control of their mobility.

These achievements in transit will allow people to live freely, abundantly, and spontaneously, which in turn will enrich our lives and our communities. While I believe there is value in making transit use enjoyable, pleasant, comfortable, and even fun, I believe more strongly in Walker’s opinion that more than the “color of our seats,” we care about getting where we want to go faster.

This post can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Teamwith Tindale-Oliver & Associates.With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

12:35 pm

Reflections on “Clearer Thinking: Urbanism + Transit”

Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, told us he was at CNU20 to preach a little fire and brimstone:  transportation planner to new urbanist. While I wouldn’t call it brimstone, he definitely spoke passionately about real issues that need to be considered in enriching people’s lives. While I certainly subscribe to most New Urbanist principles, and am a card-carrying member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I appreciated Walker’s candid challenge of the art behind the movement. He began his lecture by saying, “You know all those little people you draw in pastel and watercolor? Well, they are citizens of society, not going where you think they will, but where they want to.” That was a straight shot on the idealistic “if you build it, they will come” mentality that exists among some members of the CNU. Him, you, me…all of us…want to feel in control and active in how we navigate our built environment.

An example of those people we draw who are not going “where we want them to.” (Source: Calgary-Canada Lands Company)

One of the great things about the New Urbanism movement is that its principles are very relevant to many sectors of the built environment and has, therefore, welcomed members with many different views and beliefs. From his delivery, I don’t think Jarrett Walker would call himself a new urbanist, but he and I share the same priorities on transit.

Prior to Walker’s presentation as part of Clearer Thinking: Urbanism + Transit, G.B. Arrington of Parsons Brinckerhoff / Placemaking gave us “5 Things New Urbanists Need to Know about Transit,” which laid a foundation for the rest of the session. Three of them stand out in particular. The five points are as follows:

  1. Transit Is Not What It Used to Be About - Transit is not about the work trip, the relief of congestion, or brief interventions. Transit is now relevant to all trips, all purposes, and community building.
  2. Distance Matters Differently Between Users - Different users are willing to travel different distances using transit before they resort to their automobile. The most connections should be made within 600 feet. Past that, users drop off quickly (between 1/4 mile and a 1/2 mile riders drop by 50%) so placing retail and office uses within this distance is most important.
  3. The Land Use Gap - Built environment professionals are responsible for designing transit-ready neighborhoods based around connected and complete streets. Other built environment professions are responsible for planning the transit system. The gap is that there is no one responsible for merging the two together.
  4. Lifecycles in Planning - The planning cycle for transit oriented development and the planning cycle for a rail system can have a difference of a decade, which is longer than a typical market cycle.
  5. Mode Is Not As Important as You Think - Let the land use/corridor determine the mode. What matters much more is the location, market, and frequency of service.

Built upon this foundation was Walker’s argument:  abundancy = efficiency. What matters is lots of service going where you need it to go and the ability for users to be spontaneous in their use of the system. This is the benefit of the car and it is required of our public transportation system to compete. That is the first and most important requirement in making transit a viable alternative in America.

Walker stated that the first step in reaching transit abundance is for the local government to believe that transit is a necessity for everyone, not a service to a few. Providing rides for the elderly, the disabled, and the poor (a.k.a., providing a social service) will completely dictate the ability for transit to compete with the car. In this case, for example, bus stops are very close together out of necessity, which inhibits efficiency.

Secondly, Walker states that New Urbanism is really hung up on rail and transit oriented development (TOD), but that the most efficient mode of transportation is the bus. Perhaps the reason for the obsession with rail is that the alternative is identified with a huge social stigma in the U.S. Issues of race and poverty overshadow the bus system. We have to change this stigma to be able to use effectively our most abundant and, therefore, efficient mode of transit.

Thirdly, we must combine our modes seamlessly in order to achieve the optimal amount of efficiency. Walker told the story of his experience of using public transit in Germany. When he arrived at the airport, he was told he needed to take the 301. He found the appropriate platform, which was beside a set of tracks. He expected a streetcar to arrive, but instead a bus pulled over the tracks. He then transferred to a streetcar, where he could not distinguish between the inside of the two. A perfect and seamless integration of the modes meant that it didn’t matter if you were on a bus, streetcar, train, etc. They were all getting you where you needed to go.

Efficiency in abundancy and the seamless integration of modes. (Source: Rail for the Valley)

Most importantly, Walker makes the point that transit needs to become more transparent, efficient, and functional so that people can take responsibility for where and how they live. He has developed a software tool that shows from any location in Portland where you can get within a certain amount of time on transit systems. The results are blobs on a map in varying degrees of hues, representing periods of time. Not surprisingly, the blobs are bigger and darker the closer the location to the city center. Reproduced for the entire country and made accessible to all, similar to the effect of providing nutrition facts on food packaging, people will be able to make responsible transit decisions that will give them greater control of their mobility.

These achievements in transit will allow people to live freely, abundantly, and spontaneously, which in turn will enrich our lives and our communities. While I believe there is value in making transit use enjoyable, pleasant, comfortable, and even fun, I believe more strongly in Walker’s opinion that more than the “color of our seats,” we care about getting where we want to go faster.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Teamwith Tindale-Oliver & Associates.She is also the author of the blog "At the Helm of the Public Realm."With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

3:17 pm - Mon, May 14, 2012

Form-Based Economic Development on Main Street

Form-Based Economic Development on Main Street

A common misconception is form-based codes are used primarily to improve the look and aesthetic feel of places. The Friday session at CNU 20 entitled “Form-Based Economic Development on Main Street” was eye-opening as to just how compelling the argument is that form-based codes are also a tool to create economic value.

Scott Polikov, president of Gateway Planning, and Monte Anderson, a broker and developer in the Dallas area, presented a case study on a project they are working together on to revitalize an aging commercial corridor in Duncanville, Texas, a southern suburb of Dallas.

Over a decade ago, Monte Anderson began buying and repurposing buildings near the intersection of Center and Main, an aging strip in Duncanville. He started with two buildings, bringing in a pet groomer and a community outreach center. In 2004, Main Station was developed, a 22,000 square foot mixed-use building with 14 loft units above retail space that includes two restaurants and a spa. Additional projects include two lots no more than a quarter acre in size that will add nine more apartments and 4,000 square feet of retail space.

A key to these incremental urban infill projects is a form-based code that rebuilds the busy suburban arterial road in to a more urban street, with a Parisian-style slip lane, on-street parking and sidewalk. The form-based code also unites the appearance of future buildings in to a more cohesive whole.

The primary reason for using a form-based code is that it provides incremental value back and forth from property to property. Polikov explained that, whereas, conventional zoning is about buffers, the predictability between parcels is valuable, which provides potential investors and developers a measure of certainty conventional zoning cannot.

The proof is in the development that has already occurred. For example, the two most recent projects, albeit small, increased in value from $130,000 to $1.8 million. Retail rents have risen from $6 per square foot to $16, and market rate rents are $1.20 per square foot where no market rate units existed previously. This is value is leveraged by the form-based code, as the developer and lenders are assured of the form future projects around his/her buildings will take. It is important to note that the regional planning authority, NCTCOG, granted $1.5 million to the project, partially matched by the city of Duncanville. So whereas there are a lot of moving parts, the public sector is willing to be a partner as they see the additional value created by the process as well. A little up-front investment ought to leverage long-term added value.

This is as incremental as urbanism gets, but because it is united by a form-based code, it delivers both good urbanism and economic development. That is something cities ought to take note of.

Sam Newberg

#cnu20

2:45 pm
1 note

The Value of Urban Grocers

A number of grocery store concepts are taking advantage of opportunities in urban infill locations, turning the conventional idea of a full-service grocery store fronted by a sea of parking on its head. At Friday’s CNU 20 session “Designing and Developing Walkable Urban Grocery Stores,” we learned that across the United States, grocery stores, many covering a fairly substantial footprint, are being wedged in to and amongst other uses, adding value to their surrounding community.

Despite an urban setting, parking is typically still critical. Sometimes the parking is underground, like at Ralphs in downtown Los Angeles. Sometimes it is at grade but the store is elevated to the second story, and sometimes parking is even on the roof. Rarely is parking less than five spaces per thousand square feet except in very dense urban areas. However, David Taulbee, Architectural Manager of Publix, notes that parking at many of their urban stores is full only at peak times, so that sacred parking ratio of five per thousand is called to question, particularly if the store has other parking options nearby like shared, on-street or bicycle parking.

Uses can mix, but Neal Payton, Principal at Torti Gallas, cautions against a wide range of issues. For one, grocers are very special retailers with unique needs. Not only is sufficient parking important, but so is truck access, with several deliveries each day. As well, each major grocer has its own store layout that affects column spacing. Because column spacing does not always match the spacing of residential space above, creativity is required. In the CityVista project in Washington, DC, for example, this problem is avoided by placing the residential tower above liner retail instead of the ground floor Safeway store. 

One key issue addressed is just how many households are required to support a store and within what proximity? David Taulbee was coy about how many households Publix requires to build a new store, but noted that it varied by many factors, including density, access and existing competition.

The bottom line for CNU members is the additional value a full-service grocer can provide an urban neighborhood. John Given, Principal of CIM Group, notes that when Ralphs opened in 2007 as part of a mixed-use project in South Park in downtown Los Angeles, it was nothing short of transformative. He noted there were thousands of new housing units in the area but no reason to walk anywhere. With an urban grocer, there now is.

Sam Newberg

#cnu20

2:01 pm - Sun, May 13, 2012

Saturday Night Closing Plenary

The Saturday night closing plenary just wrapped up, marking an end to the 20th Congress for the New Urbanism. Victor Dover started out the ceremony that gave a well-deserved thanks to all those who made this Congress possible, especially the hard-working CNU staff. Highlighting the success of various components of CNU 20 such as Art for the Urbanism, the Open Innovation Tract, and the many motivational Plenary Sessions demonstrate the strength of this great collective of urbanists. The theme of moving forward with New Urbanism while not forgetting to look back was clear in Dover’s discourse, leaving a new feeling of hope and inspiration for the continual growth of CNU in regards to members, advocacy, and implementation of New Urbanist design principles. There is no doubt that as we move along to CNU 21 this dedicated group will continue to thrive.

Dr. Richard Jackson was the main speaker throughout the plenary and spoke directly on his thesis on healthy communities. Alluding to the notion that infrastructure and design are central to facilitating healthy citizens and that our past ignorance surrounding industrial pollution and auto-centric developments are to blame, Jackson discussed the current state of public health in the U.S. and that the situation is dire. His solution – utilizing various New Urbanist principles in future community plans and developments – will help to control this epidemic and allow for a healthy future of citizens that can continue to better the mistakes of the past. The passionate presentation was sympathetic to those who already suffer from the current situation and had the audience in applause numerous moments with support for his ideas, plans, and guidelines to make our country healthier, safer, and overall, a better place to live.

After Dr. Jackson, Ellen Dunham-Jones and Stefanos Polizoides gave inspiring speeches highlighting the success of CNU, and the work that is still to be done for CNU 21. 

- Mike Jersha

2:00 pm

Reflections on “Why Did We Stop Walking & How Do We Start Again?”

As you may know, the CNU20 conference was organized around tracks which allowed you to focus on your particular interest and how it related to New Urbanism. I spent most of my time on the “Mobility and Walkable City” since that is where my concentration lies. There is no doubt that the best breakout session of this track was “Why Did We Stop Walking & How Do We Start Again? The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City” presented by Eric Dumbaugh, Richard Hall, and Peter Norton.

I came into this session with a heightened awareness of this topic after concentrating on Tom Vanderbilt’s series, The Crisis in American Walking in Slate magazine last month. I wasn’t expecting to learn much more. I mean, what was there to learn? We started building our streets around the car because more people started driving, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong. As it turns out there was a blatant social, economic, and political shift that taught us to change the way we used our streets. This was not a natural change in priorities, but a direct result of media propaganda.

Now, we always hear that we can’t blame our problems on our past. Our choices are ours alone. If we choose to get into our automobile and drive to the grocery store instead of walk this afternoon, its our own responsibility. Yes, there is truth in that. But just as we might discover in a personal therapy session that there are reasons we make the choices we do in our every day lives, this session enlightened me into why Americans behave the way they do.

I encourage you all to read Fighting Traffic by Peter Norton to get all the gory details, but for me the brainwashing media campaign that two generations before me suffered, culminated in the TV show Merrily We Roll Along, narrated by Groucho Marx, as part of the weekly series DuPont Series of the Week, in 1961. While the campaign against the pedestrian started forty years prior, it was this show that coined the phrase “American’s love affair with the automobile.” In it, Groucho Marx narrated that we love our cars and would do anything for them. Essentially, we can’t help any destruction or negative impacts they leave in their wake because we love them too much. The analogy was made between cars and women, i.e. “we can’t live with them, we can’t live without them.” Man was the driver, the car was the woman. Americans were helplessly in love.

And what a surprise! Pierre DuPont had a controlling stock in GM (General Motors) from 1914 to 1957 (until he was forced to sell to keep from monopolizing the market as part of the Clayton Antitrust Act), was the GM board chairman for a significant amount of time, and was appointed president of GM in 1920. Americans didn’t decide they had a love affair with the automobile, the DuPont family and Groucho Marx did, and we have believed it ever since.

Of course the media campaign by the car industry started way before in the early 20s. Peter Norton showed us a picture similar to this one taken in Detroit, “The Motor City” in 1917:

(Source: Learning from London)

In one of the busiest intersections of this big city, all users are sharing the street. Pedestrians and streetcars navigate around each other carefully. This was normal and nothing was thought of it. The street belonged to people and it was completely safe to let your children play in the street. Shift to 1923 when the number of automobile fatalities increased to 15,500 from 5oo in 1907, most of them children 4-8 years old. People were in an uproar at cars, drivers, and the automobile industry. Sensing a threat to their growing business, the industry went into a high gear (no pun intended) “educational,” or I might say, brainwashing, media campaign. “Jaywalking,” which wasn’t even a word in the American dictionary, was invented and then associated with a ridicule of anyone who did. Clowns were hired to dress up like buffoons, or “jaywalkers,” and then ridiculed in public on the streets. The auto industry realized the power of social norms, and used them.  In Cincinnati, when the local government tried to cap car speed off at 25 mph on any streets. This was the media response (see here.)

The ordinance failed.

We all know the destruction that the automobile has caused in our relationships with community and the environment, but the media shift to loving the automobile is still very much alive today. I wrote about the Raquel Nelson case last month (read it here). In case you are not familiar, this woman was charged for the death of her own son when he was struck by a drunk driver crossing a busy arterial in Marietta, Georgia. This was not the first time this has happened. Peter Norton made the case that streets now belong to the car, and anyone that gets in the way of the car is at fault. His point was made clear when he presented data collected by transportation departments in monitoring safety. The data list the reasons for pedestrian deaths in a manner that inherently blames the pedestrian, ie: “death due to disability.” As if this person could control the fact that they were disabled. While many people think that this is absurd, the shift back to streets belonging to people has simply not happened. The AASHTO guide clearly equates higher car speed with safety. Higher speed = street design for the automobile = life threatening conditions for anyone else trying to use the street.

Holy cow, knowing this made me so sad. It would be one thing if the destruction we had caused to our built environment was a natural progression of ignorant behavior, but it was due in large part from bullshit of the corporate media. Heartbreaking. It makes me feel helpless, because it shows how easily our human nature is swayed. GM held our hands into what could be argued as one of the most destructive relationships of the 20th century: man and car. Who knows what long-term destruction will be caused by the manipulation of the media today.

But then Eric Dumbaugh made a very opportunistic thought: this media campaign worked once, it can work again. We were so easily influenced to believe that the death of our children was worth our “love affair” with the car. This is evidence that convincing people of anything is possible. Of course behind the media campaign of the first half of the 20th century was a multi-million dollar industry. Just like the tobacco industry that followed in its footsteps, its influence was motivated by profit, not the betterment of mankind. So this is our challenge: who will take the lead this extremely expensive media campaign when the government is has just pumped $27 billion dollars into GM?

Eric Dumbaugh also made the point that we need to know our past to understand our future. All built environment professionals need to read Fighting Traffic to fully understand how to move forward in reclaiming our streets. Thanks to Peter Norton for his extremely enlightening research into why we are the way we are today. So much has been explained, the enlightening result will help move forward to building streets where our children can play again.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. She is also the author of At the Helm of the Public Realm. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

5:27 pm - Sat, May 12, 2012

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