Ben Adler brings us this story on Sacramento‘s recent decision to reopen the K Street Pedestrian Mall to cars. K Street, as with many similar projects across America, died when it was closed off to vehicle traffic, losing shoppers and gaining criminals. This is actually a great decision and will hopefully reinvigorate the area. Even though I don’t use a car myself, I and many other New Urbanists realize that cars still play a very important role in cities. Most people still travel by car, and if you don’t allow cars at all then you don’t allow a large segment of your population. Cars are good for retail because it allows more people to see street signs and to take part in commerce. It also puts more eyes on the street, reducing crime. Parked cars along streets add to pedestrian safety, creating somewhat of a wall between pedestrians and fast-moving cars. The problem comes when people plan for cars only, allowing them to go at lethal speeds, providing too much parking, and diminishing the pedestrian scale of a place, making it boring and dangerous for people walking or biking. Good communities need to plan both for cars and for people, and to give precedence to people, because as long as they are able, the cars will still come.
Is this wishful thinking on my part? Probably, but at least it’s good to know other people are thinking the same thing. Norman Garrick of Planetizen brings us this story on a possible turn of events away from cars and towards people. On Thursday, the Portland, Oregon City Council voted 5-0 to approve a plan that has the goal of increasing bike ridership in the city from 6%, already the highest of any major city in the country, to 25%. On the same day, the New York City Department of Transportation announced the permanent closing of sections of Broadway to vehicular traffic. These two cities are and have always been on the leading edge of urban planning in America, and their support of alternative modes of transportation sends a strong message to other cities in the country. Garrick makes a point that this trend has spread from blue states to cities like Oklahoma City and Little Rock, indicating that this is growing beyond a political issue to a more general planning one.
There are a number of signs indicating that the car culture is on the decline. The number of vehicles per person has been declining since 2001, and vehicle miles traveled have been declining since 2004. Garrick points out that both of these peaks are well before the most recent economic downturn, which has probably hastened the decline of these numbers. Cities have also realized that it is cheaper for them to cater to pedestrians, bicycles and transit than to the car. Garrick points out that Portland’s fifteen years of bike infrastructure building has cost the same as about a mile of freeway ($60 million). It is also becoming cool to go car-lite or car-free, and areas that are more pedestrian-friendly are attracting tomorrow’s movers and shakers.
With oil floating at $80 a barrel with nowhere to go but up, chances are we are on the verge of a new era. If car companies new what was good for them, they may start getting into the streetcar manufacturing business as cars continue to phase out. Garrick finishes his story with this hopeful message:
The really good news in this story is that this could be a transition to a time when the carnage from motor vehicle crashes will no longer be considered an accepted part of modern life. A time when our urban places will once more be designed for people and not be trashed to accommodate cars. And when the profligate burning for mobility of the earth’s finite store of petroleum will be looked at as a quaint relic of the past. A past not unlike the one now regulated to the movies where people smoked in doctor’s offices and on airplanes. A past that causes us to say: what were they thinking?
Lloyd Alter of Treehugger brings us this story on the final days of the cul-de-sac. He starts by explaining how kids love playing in cul-de-sacs. Even I will admit that the one time I lived on a cul-de-sac I would spend hours sometimes every day playing hockey in the asphalt circle with the other neighborhood kids. However, we weren’t allowed to cross the arterial street that our cul-de-sac connected to, because the high speeds of the cars, lack of crosswalks and sidewalks made it very unsafe. Alter mentions a study from Davis, California, showing that fatal crashes were twice as common in areas built after 1980 than in the old, gridded part of town. In addition, 59% of trips in the old part of town were made by foot, bike and transit, whereas 14% were made by these modes in the newer parts of town.
Municipalities are beginning to realize the high costs of cul-de-sac development. Alter quotes a Charlotte, North Carolina study on fire stations in parts of town with high v. low connectivity (i.e. cul-de-sacs):
The least-connected service areas served 5,700 to 7,300 households; the most-connected service areas served 20,800 to 25,900 households. That means there are dramatic differences in the fiscal efficiency of individual fire stations. The stations in least-connected areas cost $586 to $740 per capita annually; the stations in most-connected areas cost $159 to $206 per capita annually.
Virginia has passed a law in the last year that will make cul-de-sacs responsible for their own maintenance, and a number of cities, including Austin, Portland and Charlotte, have passed or are working on ordinances to discourage cul-de-sacs. I agree with Alter and look forward to the return of the grid in American cities.
Isn’t it beautiful?
Charles McMahon brings us this story of the demolition of the Parade Office Mall, the “ugliest building” in Portsmouth, NH. It will be replaced by a LEED-certified, four-building complex which will include residences, retail, office and a hotel. Parking will be relegated to an underground garage. The development will include a private street that will function to complete a pedestrian loop through downtown and will be a site for outdoor seating and other pedestrian amenities. It has recieved a 2009 Urbanism Award from the New England chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism. The first project, which should take about a year, will be a 128-room Marriott hotel with retail and restaurants on the ground floor. I think this is a very exciting project, and in a real New Urbanist tradition, a great way to replace an old, ugly mall.
Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote this review in the New York Times about the recent closing of Times Square to vehicular traffic. He says that there are both pros and cons to the development. It does allow for more room than the pedestrian-clogged sidewalks used to, and it allows for a better idea of what the City looks like than the sidewalk, but the way it is currently set up it lacks a feeling of permanence and it took many years to successfully implement this model in Copenhagen, and New York City may just not be that patient. But hopefully the City will work to make the plazas more attractive and the residents will be willing to wait for a better tomorrow.
John Sharp reports on the State of Illinois’ ruinous ruling on Peoria‘s plans to lower the speed limit on all residential streets to 25 miles per hour. City officials, residents and business owners wanted the speed limit lowered to make it safer to walk, thus promoting pedestrian activity. The state, however, who requires that all local streets have a speed limit of 30 mph, said that a city-wide limit of 25 mph “was not enforceable.” Their argument probably stems from the fact that people often don’t pay attention to speed limit signs, they just drive at whatever speed they feel safe. With wide, treeless roads in our country’s subdivisions that were designed so that a drunk going 50 mph wouldn’t get into an accident, even our local streets are often unsafe for pedestrians. So in Peoria’s case, the speed limit change would have to be one step of many: they would have to start allowing on-street parking; narrow their roads and widen their sidewalks; add trees, benches and other pedestrian amenities to attract walkers; and create a mix of uses so that people actually live within walking distance of something worth walking to. But they are trying desperately to take that first step, and some people aren’t stepping down. From Sharp’s article:
[Traffic engineer Nick] Stoffer said the only way to move ahead with changing the residential streets at once is to have a change of the speed limit on the state level. He said the city could approach the Illinois Municipal League to seek support in having the speed limits reduced on a statewide level to 25 mph.
If you live in or near Peoria, call the Public Works Department at 494-8800. If you live somewhere else in Illinois, or are just interested in making your street more pedestrian friendly, contact your local representative and let them know that you want safer streets with lower speed limits for cars.