2017: The year in urban design and transportation

via Various

There is a bit of repetition here. Sorry, but I have had a really hard time with cars clogging up our cities.

Years ago, Alex Steffen wrote in WorldChanging:

There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.

I thought he had it backward; in fact, how we get around dictates what we build. But no matter, the end result is the same: if you have a world designed around cars, then you are pretty much going to end up driving cars everywhere. That's how we got to where transportation is now the biggest source of US CO2 emmissions. That's why we talk a lot about green building, but if you don't address transportation at the same time, you are not solving the problem. The issues are inseparable, so this roundup is a mix of planning, bikes, and self-driving cars.

Many readers disagree with this position, love their detached houses and their cars. I love mine too, but recognize that they are a problem, so I look at ways to drive less (by using my bike and transit) and live in less space (by turning my house into a multifamily residence). I will be including some of their comments as a counterpoint in italics.

How sprawl was caused by the nuclear arms race, and why this matters more than ever today

miss blacktopWisconsin Historical society/Public Domain
We started the year with a bang, with a look at how it was American strategic policy to get people out of cities and to spread everything out, as defense against nuclear attack.

In 1945, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began advocating for "dispersal," or "defense through decentralization" as the only realistic defense against nuclear weapons, and the federal government realized this was an important strategic move. Most city planners agreed, and America adopted a completely new way of life, one that was different from anything that had come before, by directing all new construction away from congested central areas to their outer fringes and suburbs in low-density continuous development.

This included industry and offices, part of a National Industrial Dispersion Policy, and it had a huge impact on "everything from transportation to land development to race relations" since it was mostly white people who dispersed.

It never ceases to amaze me the lengths treehugger writers will go to push their massively flawed city densification theories. The real facts are people are happy to live in suburbs and are VERY happy to have cars and highways. That was the case then and its the case now. Yes, for sure there are faults with suburban spread but you consistently overstate them and you consistently overstate the benefits of cramming us into cities. More: How sprawl was caused by the nuclear arms race, and why this matters more than ever today

Taking back the streets: Most businesses on urban streets make their money from pedestrians and cyclists

cover study© Toronto Centre for Active Transportation
Whenever there is a new bike lane proposed, or a new transit initiative that affects cars, people, including retailers and restaurateurs on the street, come out and protest how it will kill their businesses. But in fact, when you look at where shoppers actually come from on an urban street, only a small proportion of them drive. This study of a Toronto retail strip was a shocker.
I find it amazing that 96 percent of the traffic on this stretch of Queen Street comes by active transportation or transit, that 72 percent is active. It is troubling that 19 percent cycles and they get worse than nothing. But I find the fact that 53 percent are walking to be the real eye-opener.

Well then, encourage small cross streets to be the walking, biking area, and leave the main drags for cars, as intended. And yes, modern roads are intended for cars. More: Taking back the streets: Most businesses on urban streets make their money from pedestrians and cyclists

A short history of playgrounds

The remarkable thing in Katherine's history of playgrounds is how playgrounds were first created in the late 19th century as a sort of holding pen for street kids, to keep them from harassing adults. Following the Second World War, they evolved into adventure playgrounds in Europe, where they were seen as “little models of democracy.”
Such spaces were thought to provide a new, civic model of society. The idea was that children would learn how to collaborate, because you can’t build on your own. You always need a group to negotiate who uses what tools and materials and for what purpose.

A deeper history of playgrounds would include how parents abandoned their neighborhoods in preference for sterilized spaces located a car ride away. More: A short history of playgrounds

Forget about "balance" with cars; we have to prioritize walking, biking and transit

bike protest Amsterdam© A 1970s protest with upside down cars in the Amsterdam neighborhood De Pijp via the Bicycle Dutch blog. "Car Free" is written on the toppled cars.

This won't be the last you hear of planner Brent Toderian in this post; he is a constant inspiration on the lecture circuit these days. He makes a really important point about "balance" which works about as well in planning as it does on TV news. In his previous gig he was director of planning for the City of Vancouver:

The 1997 Vancouver Transportation Plan didn’t use the word “balance.” It prioritized. Walking first, then biking, then transit, then goods movement, then the single occupancy vehicle or car share. In Vancouver we don’t ban the car. We don’t talk about “car-lite” or any of those kinds of things. We just prioritize them last. And in doing so, we make all ways of getting around better. If you design and build a multimodal city, it works better for everybody, including drivers.

LOL... yeah let's take civilization back 400 years. Like it or not, we are a far more spread out society than we've ever been before, and most of the transportation between these areas is via automobile. You may want to bundle people up into nice little lumps where mass-transit and walking makes sense, but you are fighting human nature, and that's always a losing proposition. More: Forget about "balance" with cars; we have to prioritize walking, biking and transit

Cities need more "Gentle Density"

Here's two in a row from Brent Toderian, who gives another name to what I have called the Goldilocks Density, Daniel Parolek calls the Missing Middle, and YIMBYs call Density Creep.

Gentle density is attached, ground-oriented housing that's more dense than a detached house, but with a similar scale and character. Think duplexes, semi-detached homes, rowhouses, or even stacked townhouses. In short, it’s “gentle” because the actual impacts of adding such housing choices, if designed well, are minimal – although you wouldn't know that by the controversy that can be raised in some communities.

"...we need a lot more family housing in our cities." Do we? Seems like we ought to let the demand for it determine the amount of it rather than simply requiring or building it. More: Cities need more "Gentle Density"

New study shows that "scofflaw cyclists" don't break the law any more than drivers

Palmerstion AvenueLloyd Alter/ Palmerston Avenue, Toronto, with stop signs every 266 feet to slow down cars/CC BY 2.0
For years, cars would speed up this residential street in Toronto, so they put in stop signs at every intersection to slow down the cars. That works out to a sign every 266 feet. When I am driving, I avoid the street (which was the whole point) but when I am on a bike, I go through those stop signs. I suppose that makes me a scofflaw, but they were put there to control cars, not bikes. This makes drivers insane. But guess what? A study showed that drivers and pedestrians shirked the law as much as cyclists. Everybody does it.

When including driving and pedestrian scenario responses—such as how often respondents drive over the speed limit or jaywalk—100% of our sample population admitted to some form of law-breaking in the transportation system (i.e., everybody is technically a criminal). When disaggregating by mode, 95.87% of bicyclists, 97.90% of pedestrians, and nearly all drivers (99.97%) selected responses that would be considered illegal.

Total BS. I see a biker every single day breaking the law by running red lights, turning without signaling, etc. And that's with one-thousandths the number of bikers on the street compared to cars. More: New study shows that "scofflaw cyclists" don't break the law any more than drivers

Big chains are sucking the life and the variety out of our cities

Brunswick TavernLloyd Alter/ The Brunny is now a Rexall/CC BY 2.0
Where I live, the bars and the clubs are all closing and turning into drug stores. I blame the baby boomers, who want are now more interested in buying Depends instead of drafts like they used to, but it is a bigger issue and is happening everywhere.

I really struggle with this one. I think we're walking a very dangerous line when we start to regulate who can do business in our cities. Sure, in this case the "who" is some faceless corporation, but that doesn't mean the next time it won't be some other group. More: Big chains are sucking the life and the variety out of our cities

There are three revolutions in urban transportation coming down the road

becker automotive© Your typical AV (actually a Becker conversion)
A lot of people are convinced that self-driving cars will be smaller, shared and that there will be a lot fewer of them; I have been concerned that they will actually become big private rolling living rooms with big entertainment systems. A new study from the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) looks at the three scenarios: 1) business as usual, 2) my scenario of rolling living rooms, and 3) the "major shift in mobility patterns by maximizing the use of shared vehicle trips."

I suggested a fourth scenario, None of the Above, based on Horace Dediu's vision of electric, connected bikes. “Bikes have a tremendous disruptive advantage over cars. Bikes will eat cars.”

I think autonomous cars will dominate far before 2040. This will certainly be an exponential growth type of scenario, and most people are caught off guard by how quickly exponential growth occurs. More: There are three revolutions in urban transportation coming down the road

New study looks at attitudes of drivers toward cyclists, and it ain't pretty

Life in the bike laneLife in the "separated" bike lane/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Tara Goddard's PHD thesis is titled Exploring Drivers’ Attitudes and Behaviors toward Bicyclists: The Effect of Explicit and Implicit Attitudes on Self-Reported Safety Behaviors and it's just scary; we are not just sharing a transportation route, it's a war out there.

Roadways are a highly congested (and thus contested), publicly funded space, and both space and funding are a finite and limited resource. This results in the perception and reality of roadway competition as a zero-sum game between roadway users (Aldred, 2012). It may be that this “realistic” competition is a stand-in for social competition; that is, the roadway is a battle ground for social domination, rather than just access to physical space.

I perhaps carried it a bit too far when I inferred:

Cars are like guns. They are lethal and they give power to one group at the expense of everyone else. The greater the degree of lethality, the more popular they are, which probably explains why everyone is driving big pickup trucks, which are the AR-15s of the road. They are vehicles of intimidation. It's no wonder that cyclists and pedestrians feel threatened by cars; the system is designed to do exactly that.

No wonder it got 206 comments. It's really not that hard to understand. First, regardless of whether it was wise, current roads were built and designed for cars, period. Second, adding bicycling infrastructure takes away room for cars. Third, cyclists are an infinitesimally tiny minority of road users compared to drivers. Why then would we possibly expect the average car driver to be happy about giving up space and having to slow down for what seems to them to be some privileged fringe group? More: New study looks at attitudes of drivers toward cyclists, and it ain't pretty

20 things you can’t get from a dumb Bodega pantry box

BodegaTech News/Twitter/Screen capture
Who would have guessed that a dumb idea for a glorified vending machine would become one of the big urban debates of the year, about the role of small business, about community, about interaction. I mean, most readers probably didn't know what a bodega even was (I didn't), but we learned fast. Melissa wrote:
Seriously, is nothing sacred?! I’m neither a city planner nor an urbanist by vocation, but as a long-term Brooklyn resident, I am a life expert in bodegas. And the idea is maddening to me. It’s such an insult to the bodega – to suggest that a dumb box full of junk could replace a community staple like the corner store feels so out of touch.
It started a wonderful debate about the nature of cities, and cats.

I remember the Corner store in the town as i was growing up. still hasn't changed and the owners still say hello to me whenever I pass by when visiting my parents. More: 20 things you can’t get from a dumb Bodega pantry box

Is Uber killing transit?

changes in transit© UC Davis Study, Disruptive Transportation
This is becoming a big deal; roads are more congested and transit is suffering because people are switching. Angie Schmitt of StreetsBlog worries, as I do:
The implications for transit riders are troubling. More affluent people are opting for ride-hailing because it’s faster and more reliable than transit. This creates a vicious cycle where additional ride-hailing trips cause more congestion, which slows down transit…People who can’t afford an Uber fare are left with even worse bus service.
I appreciate Mr. Alter's thoughtful articles discussing and promoting mass transit. Notwithstanding, it really bothers me that proponents of mass transit never squarely address that there is a large percentage of the population that is deeply uncomfortable with random strangers having close access to their personal space. Women, in particular, are routinely harassed and sexually assaulted by strangers on mass transit. More: Is Uber killing transit?

Cities chasing Amazon's headquarters should be careful what they wish for

Amazon headquarterLloyd Alter/ Amazon under construction /CC BY 2.0
It was appalling, watching what cities were doing to attract Amazon's new second headquarters. It is a company that has changed the retail environment, destroying local economies; there is not an independent business on the continent that isn’t having its lunch eaten. Why they even want a company that has done so much damage to our cities is beyond me.
It’s almost abusive. After shipping all their retail dollars and after years of losing jobs, sales taxes and so much else to Amazon, cities are lining up to say hit me, hit me again! Amazon demands incentives to offset the initial costs and ongoing costs, tax credits, relocation grants, fee reductions. They want a “business friendly tax structure.”
Amazon didn't put brick and mortar stores out of business, brick and mortar stores put brick and mortar stores out of business. The dominance of Amazon despite the handicaps of delayed gratification and lack of first person inspection just demonstrates how poorly brick and mortar stores are run. Ever go to a Sears lately? No wonder they're going out of business. More: Cities chasing Amazon's headquarters should be careful what they wish for

Why we don't need electric cars, but need to get rid of cars

I think that as the year has progressed, I have become more radicalized about this issue, that going electric may give us cleaner air but it is really tangential to the problems of our cities. But as my commenter notes, perhaps I am getting repetitious about it.

Indeed. In our post What would our cities be like if all our cars were electric? I quoted electric car expert Zach Shanan about how our air would be cleaner, our cities would be quieter. But it doesn't change sprawl, congestion, parking or safety of pedestrians and cyclists. It doesn't change the fact that in a crowded city, putting a single person in a big metal box is just silly.
Going back in the history this is the 4th article on getting rid of cars (october - december) Agenda much? I worked hard for my vehicle, it takes me from my driveway to my exact destination and back again. Im a Trekkie, I want a socialist (not communist or capitalist) green, agrarian, zero currency world, I hate currency based economics, capitalism and planed obsolescence...but ill be damned if I am dictated to that I cannot own a personal vehicle and share public transport with possible criminal and those who dont stay home when they're ill. More: Why we don't need electric cars, but need to get rid of cars

Ban Cars

After a recent mass shooting, there was a rash of tweets like this: A lot of people responded by suggesting that it is a good idea. They kill more people than guns. They do not belong in our cities.
I have been half-hearted about this, suggesting first that we should ban SUVs and, after the New York attack, pickup trucks. But it's time to stop being wishy-washy and recognize that we have to go further. Private cars simply do not belong in cities and should be banned. Terrorism experts talk about cars having been "weaponized", but for people who walk or bike, cars have always been instruments of terror. They have always been bad for the health of the people around them, and we are learning how bad they are for the people in them.
You might as well be talking about a ban on freedom for all the good that talk will do. You'll get responses like 'you'll have to pry my gun from my cold dead hands....'. Driving should be considered a constitutionally protected right. Personally, if someone tried to take my car away, I would ram them with it. More: Ban Cars

On Elon Musk, the Boring Company, and public Transit

I love so many things that Elon Musk is doing; he is amazing, changing the world with his cars and his rockets and his batteries. I am not so sure about his tunnels and his ideas about transit, which he thinks "is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end?" More in Why Elon Musk hates public transit. He then got into a twitter debate with transportation expert Jarrett Walker which did not go well, with Musk calling Walker a santimonious idiot, because Walker has no time for elites who think that the world should run just for them:
Traffic congestion, to take the obvious example, is the result of everyone’s choices in response to everyone’s situation. Even the elites are mostly stuck in it. No satisfying solution has been found to protect elites from this problem, and it’s not for want of trying. The only real solution to congestion is to solve it for everyone, and to do that you have to look at it from everyone’s perspective, not just from the fortunate perspective.
Then Brent Toderian jumped in, asking people to tweet about what wonderful things have happened to them on transit, which was a lot of fun all round. Finally, Jarrett Walker responded in Citylab, discussing how transit can be made useful and comfortable, and I wrote Absolutely the last post about Elon Musk, public transit, and "Liberty Machines" But you can't win in a debate with Elon Musk. Elon Musk is a rare genius who puts money where his mouth is. To improve traffic in Southern California he thinks that underground tunnels are better, he actually started the "Boring Company" and start digging some test tunnel. What the heck did Jarrett Walker ever did ? Did he start a company to improve urban traffic ? Talk is cheap and anybody can, doing the work isn't.

How hard is it to walk in American suburbs? Worse than I imagined

Walkability in HartfordGoogle Maps/ yellow is jaywalking to dinner, red is crossing against a red light returning to hotel./CC BY 2.0
In which I walk the walk, and it was very scary, running across the street midblock and then crossing against the red light because I thought it was safer.
And the real lesson of this is that the next time someone is killed and they blame the victim for jaywalking, look at where it happened. Is there a place to cross? And the next time they say the victim crossed with a red light, check out whether there is actually any way to cross with a green.
You were being a "foodie" snob. An easy walk to Burger King just around the corner would have taken you there and back without the need for a sidewalk or walking against the light. More: How hard is it to walk in American suburbs? Worse than I imagined

And finally...

It’s time to start thinking of driving like smoking

smoking adSmoking used to be sexy. Can you imagine this today?/Promo image
Perhaps all my talk about banning cars is silly and unproductive, it is never going to happen. Perhaps we should learn from the attempts to ban smoking: incremental steps, fewer places you can do it, making it more expensive and difficult, making it socially unacceptable to many.
People still smoke, but it is controlled and expensive and those who do it are looked down upon by those who do not. People were told that smoking was sexy and fun and even good for you. We learned the truth and changed; it is time to do the same with cars. Driving is not a morally neutral act.
This is political extremism to the left that is no different than Roy Moore's political extremism to the right. America rejected extremism last night in Alabama. You may want to adjust your crazy positions on banning vehicles. More: It’s time to start thinking of driving like smoking

Perhaps I have been too extreme about banning cars, and will adjust my crazy positions. After all, I really just want to get from A to B on my bike without getting squished, to walk on a decent sidewalk where there is enough room to actually move and cross the street without taking my life into my hands, to take decent transit that is clean and fast and not too crowded, and to breathe air that isn't going to kill me. If I could do all that, I could be cool with sharing the road with cars.

Related Content on Treehugger.com