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Posts from the "Urban Planning" Category

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Trading Cars for Transit Passes “in the Middle of the Corn and Soybeans”

The Champaign-Urbana managed to boost walking, biking and transit rates. Photo: Wikipedia

The Champaign-Urbana region managed to boost walking, biking, and transit rates. Photo: Wikipedia

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

If Champaign-Urbana can make it easier to leave your car at home, any place can. That’s what local planner Cynthia Hoyle tells people about the progress her region has made over the last few years.

With great intention and years of work, this region of about 200,000 has reversed the growth of driving and helped get more people biking and taking transit. Since 2000, Champaign-Urbana has seen a 15 percent increase in transit ridership and a 2 percent decrease in vehicle miles traveled. The percentage of the population biking to work is up, and the percentage driving alone is down. Champaign-Urbana tracks its progress toward these goals on a publicly available report card.

“What I tell people is that if you can do it out here in the middle of the corn and soybeans, you can do it too,” said Hoyle, a planner with Alta Planning + Design who helped lead the process. “Everyone thinks this kind of stuff just happened in places like Portland.”

Hoyle outlined a few key steps along the region’s path toward more sustainable transportation:

1. Coordinate between government agencies to create walkable development standards

Champaign-Urbana’s sustainable mobility push began with the adoption of a long-range plan in 2004. The plan was part of a collaborative effort by local municipalities, the regional planning agency, and the local transit authority.

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De Blasio Housing Plan Meekly Suggests Parking Reform

Parking policy is one area where the de Blasio housing plan doesn’t go all out to achieve greater affordability. Photo: Office of the Mayor

There’s a deep connection between parking policy and housing affordability. The more space New York devotes to car storage, the less space is available to house people. And yet, 50 year old laws mandating the construction of parking in new residential development persist in most of the city, driving up construction costs and hampering the supply of housing.

The housing plan released by the de Blasio administration Tuesday could have announced one simple but major step to align parking policy with the city’s affordability goals: the end of parking minimums. Instead, the plan is strangely passive about parking reform, even though it plainly states that parking mandates contribute to the high cost of housing in the city.

Aiming to add 80,000 subsidized units and 100,000 market rate units to the city’s housing supply in 10 years, de Blasio has laid out more ambitious housing targets than Michael Bloomberg did before him — though not by much. An across-the-board elimination of parking mandates is the kind of measure you’d want to see from an administration that has basically pledged to use every lever at its disposal to keep rent increases in check. It would lower the cost of construction, and it could be used as a tool to extract more subsidized housing units from developers when they build new projects.

But the plan released Tuesday only says City Hall will “re-examine parking requirements.” And the specific parking minimums the plan puts in play won’t touch all development.

The good news is that the plan calls for housing development to be coordinated with transit and street safety improvements, and it does put parking reforms on the table in three respects. It proposes lower parking mandates in subsidized housing near transit, in commercial development that can also support housing, and in housing for seniors.

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Lakewood, Ohio: The Suburb Where Everyone Can Walk to School

The inner Cleveland suburb of Lakewood (population 51,000) calls itself a “walking school district.” Lakewood has never had school buses in its history, and kids grow up walking and biking to school.

Mornings and afternoons are a beehive of activity on streets near schools, as kids and parents walk to and from classrooms. You can feel the energy. The freedom of being able to walk and socialize with friends is incalculable.

According to city planner Bryce Sylvester, Lakewood strives to design neighborhoods so that all children are within walking distance of their school. These decisions have paid off financially, saving the city about a million dollars annually, according to Lakewood City School District spokesperson Christine Gordillo.

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The Problem With Prescribing “Access to Cars” in the Fight Against Poverty

It goes without saying that the mass suburbanization of the past 60 years has been very bad news for people who can’t afford cars, and it’s getting worse as poverty levels rise in the suburbs.

Every additional car on the road means a slower trip for bus passengers. Photo: Mark Harrison/Seattle Times

In nearly every place America has built since the 1950s, owning a car is a prerequisite for participating in the economy. In The Geography of Nowhere, James Kunstler wrote that we had created a built environment which divides society into two classes of people: “those who can fully use their everyday environment, and those who cannot.”

Given all that, the findings from a recent Urban Institute study are utterly unsurprising. Researchers studied 12,000 low-income families in 10 cities around the United States. And they found that car ownership is linked to several indicators of well-being.

Housing voucher recipients with cars were able to secure places to live in stronger housing markets, with “higher social status” and lower health risks. They were also twice as likely to find employment and four times as likely to remain employed, the study found. (By the way, this isn’t a new finding — studies have shown this kind of effect dating back to at least the 1990s.)

These results demonstrate just what a deep disadvantage low-income, carless families face in the United States, and make a seemingly straightforward case for a better transportation safety net: more compact land use, abundant transit, and safer biking and walking connections.

But that’s not what author Rolf Pendall wanted to get across in a post on Atlantic Cities. Pendall made the case that “access to cars” should be a higher priority for policy makers in the fight against poverty. One of his suggestions is that specially tailored car sharing might be part of the solution for poor families. He also says it’s worth considering how welfare programs can facilitate car ownership. In a follow-up piece by Emily Badger in the Washington Post, Pendall acknowledges that cities need to be built differently, but he also says that “we need to add car access to the list of things to do.”

He’s not arguing that cars are a better long-term solution than better transit, just that, given how deeply car-dependent we have become, giving poor people cars produces a bigger immediate improvement in their life prospects than the hard, piecemeal work of building a more equitable transportation network. Basically, Pendall is saying that helping individuals is faster than fixing the broken system.

It sounds reasonable, but what about the families left behind? Part of the problem with subsidies for cars is that they reinforce the pattern of exclusion that results from building places around cars in the first place. Every additional car on the road adds to traffic congestion and slows down buses. Every additional parking space spreads destinations farther apart, making places tougher to traverse on foot. Giving a poor family a car might help that specific household, but it would harm others at the same time.

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Smart Growth America: Sprawl Shaves Years Off Your Life

Want to live a long, healthy, prosperous life? Don’t live in sprawlsville.

These cul-de-sacs will kill you! Photo: ##http://indiemusicfilter.com/tag/sprawl-ii##Indie Music Filter##

These cul-de-sacs can kill you! Photo: Indie Music Filter

Atlanta, I’m looking at you. Nashville, you too. Southern California’s Inland Empire: ouch. Meanwhile, break out the bubbly if you live in Atlantic City, Urbana/Champaign, or Santa Cruz — which all rank close to giants like New York and San Francisco as some of the most compact and connected metro areas in the U.S. That compact development brings a bounty of benefits you might not associate with those places.

That’s the lesson from Smart Growth America’s new report, “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” an update of their 2002 report, “Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact.”

A team of researchers gave a development index score to each of 221 metropolitan areas and 994 counties in the United States based on four main factors: residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs, and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network. These are the essential buildings blocks of smart growth.

Based on those factors, the most compact and connected metro areas are:

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

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Q&A With Jason Roberts, the Brains Behind “Better Blocks”

The Better Block project, founded less than 10 years ago in Dallas, Texas, is not only changing streets for the better — in many ways, it’s changing the urban planning process.

Jason Roberts (right) was working as an IT consultant in Dallas when he started wondering why a particular part of his neighborhood was in such bad shape. Image: Pegasus News

Better Block brings “pop-up,” temporary businesses into abandoned buildings, creates temporary bike lanes with chalk and cones, turns underused parking spaces into outdoor cafés, and generally celebrates the awesome potential of ordinary urban places. The strategy of using temporary installations — a prime example of “tactical urbanism” — allows people to reimagine their neighborhoods while circumventing time-consuming and potentially hostile regulatory and political processes.

At the CNU 21 conference in Salt Lake City, I had the chance to sit down with Better Block’s visionary founder, Jason Roberts. Here’s his inspiring call to action:

Angie Schmitt: What is the history of the Better Block project?

Jason Roberts: The Better Block project started in April 2010, in Dallas, Texas. I had a series of blighted buildings in my neighborhood and a street that was really wide. I started trying to figure out why they were boarded up.

I found out it was zoned for light industrial, it wasn’t zoned for retail. The original reason these buildings exist was no longer allowed.

We looked at the streets and said, “Why can’t we get bike infrastructure in the area?” At some point I said, “Couldn’t we make this into our dream block, the blocks that I love in European cities or other places I’ve seen that are filled with flower shops and bakeries and cafes and bike infrastructure and landscaping and people sitting outside and eating and drinking?” I got together with some friends and we decided to do a guerrilla installation.

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Rewriting the Manual: How Safe Streets Will Be the Rule, Not the Exception

From left, NYC DOT Policy Director Jon Orcutt, University of Connecticut civil engineering professor Norman Garrick, David Vega-Barachowitz of NACTO, and Laura MacNeil of Sam Schwartz Engineering talk street design last night at the Center for Architecture. Photo: Stephen Miller

Cities and towns have been leading the charge for safer streets, incorporating design elements like protected bike lanes and sidewalk extensions. But design guidance from state highway officials often gets in the way when agencies don’t have the technical or political heft to deviate from “the rules” that have long held sway in the field of street engineering. Last night, a panel of experts discussed how progressive best practices can be codified and included in the guidelines that shape decisions about street design across the nation.

The panel at the AIA-NY Center for Architecture, sponsored by the Congress for the New Urbanism’s New York chapter and moderated by NYC DOT Policy Director Jon Orcutt, featured David Vega-Barachowitz of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Laura MacNeil of Sam Schwartz Engineering, and Norman Garrick, a University of Connecticut civil engineering professor.

“You can’t ignore the triumvirate of the Green Book, the Highway Manual, and the MUTCD,” Vega-Barachowitz said, listing the dominant street design guidelines produced by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials and the Federal Highway Administration. These documents, which many transportation engineers rely upon when making decisions, are often faulted for emphasizing motor traffic throughput instead of creating safe, pleasant places that serve everyone who uses the street.

In recent years, forward-thinking planners and engineers have started to produce a new generation of design guidance. In 2006, Garrick worked with CNU and the Institute of Transportation Engineers to produce a set of standards that would be compatible with the existing highway-focused guidance while still meeting the needs of town centers and urban areas.

The engineers and planners who worked on the project first met in 2005. ”I’ll never forget that meeting. There was a lot of shouting,” Garrick said. “We didn’t even have the same language to discuss what we needed to discuss.” Despite the initial divisions, the end product has been used by many engineers who trust ITE’s imprimatur.

But this “context-sensitive” approach has its limitations. “A lot of times that just means slap down trees in the median, as opposed to reallocate space,” Vega-Barachowitz said.

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Making Your City More Walkable? That’s Not “Zoning”

In last week’s Washington Post, Roger K. Lewis, an architect and professor at the University of Maryland, wrote an intriguing column suggesting that it’s time for a big rethink of the concept of zoning, which he says is a relic of the early 20th century:

Zoning traditionally served to separate businesses from residences. Image: Ann Arbor Chronicle

Zoning conventions are no longer conventional. Land-use regulation is still needed, but zoning increasingly has become a conceptually inappropriate term, an obsolete characterization of how we plan and shape growth.

Zoning laws were first conceived at the outset of the industrial era. At the time, the economy was dominated by factories churning out noxious byproducts of all kinds, from sludge to foul fumes to loud noises. The original zoning laws sought to segregate homes from businesses that might be nuisances — a legacy that American cities and towns are still living with:

Traditional zoning first took hold in the early 20th century with a clearly logical intent, as the word implies: to establish and keep apart discretely delineated areas of land use within counties and municipalities. Single-purpose zones ensured separation of incompatible uses such as dwellings and factories.

But that’s not what “zoning” is all about anymore. Lewis’s example — Washington, D.C. — is examining and revising all kinds of long-standing regulations, from minimum parking requirements to its famous height restrictions. These reforms seek to change cities in a way that’s completely distinct from segregating uses. The intent of reducing parking requirements, for instance, is to make places more walkable and reduce housing costs.

Since the way we design and regulate cities is changing so quickly, Lewis suggests that maybe it’s time we had a new word too:

Dropping the word ‘zoning’ necessitates using an alternative vocabulary. It’s time to talk less about zoning restrictions and limits and more about visionary plans, urban design goals and architectural aspirations.

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Study: Shorter Blocks May Be the Key to Cutting Traffic in Small Cities

It’s well-established that density and mixed-use development reduce driving. Right? But strategies like those don’t work the same way everywhere, according to new research published in the Journal of Transport and Land Use. While in major cities, denser development is linked to lower rates of driving, researchers found that in smaller cities it might not have much effect at all. The research suggests that for smaller cities, a focus on reducing block sizes and improving street connectivity may be the most effective way to cut down on driving, though the authors caution that more research is needed to draw universal conclusions.

According to new research, block sizes help explain why some people drive less than others in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Joey Sheely, Wikimedia

The research team, sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration, sought to drill down and identify how urban characteristics affect driving levels in different types of places. They looked at four different case studies: Seattle, WA; Richmond-Petersburg and Norfolk-Virginia Beach, VA (grouped together as one case study); Baltimore, MD; and Washington, DC. Using travel surveys and land use information, they modeled the impact on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) of five factors: residential density, employment density, mixed-use development, average block size (which they use as a stand-in for “measuring transit/walking friendliness”), and infill development (or distance to city center).

While the authors knew from previous research that these five factors all contributed to reducing VMT, they found that the Virginia regions didn’t follow the same patterns as the other three. In the smaller urban areas of Richmond-Petersburg and Norfolk-Virginia Beach, they found, mixed-use development did not have a significant impact on reducing driving.

“This is probably because in smaller urban areas, even those living in neighborhoods with well mixed land development may still need to travel far to reach work and non-work destinations,” the researchers write. “In other words, mixed development areas are less likely to be self-sufficient in smaller urban areas.” Mixing uses proved to be a good way to reduce driving in the larger metros.

These findings would seem to show a major weakness of New Urbanist-style “town centers” developed in otherwise suburban areas. A small walkable area isn’t enough to actually spark a real shift in transportation habits – the urban area has to be big enough that most people’s needs can be satisfied without a car. But lead researcher Lei Zhang said the findings don’t warrant that conclusion. “The paper has a small sample size,” Zhang said. “I wouldn’t want to generalize the results to other places.”

Zhang and his team are working on another paper that broadens the scope of their analysis to 20 urban areas. They hope this bigger data set will help planners evaluate land-use plans and how those decisions affect driving rates in different types of places.

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Will Cities Hold on to Younger Residents as They Have Children?

Many American cities are proving to be more resilient than suburban areas thanks in part to the shifting preferences of today’s young people. But as USA Today reported in a talked-about article earlier this week, the cohort that has flocked to cities is now reaching a stage of life which, historically, has been more closely associated with suburbia.

Photo: Giggle Gab

The oldest “millennials” — a generation that is larger than the Baby Boomers and many degrees more urban — are turning 30 this year. Many will begin settling down and having children — and their priorities will inevitably change.

Smart cities are doing what they can to prevent these folks from moving “upward and outward” like the generations that came before, USA Today’s Haya El Nasser reports. According to the sources USA Today consulted, this transitioning generation will be looking for good schools and recreational opportunities, but they’ll still want strong transit and walkability — a key advantage of city life over the suburbs.

Places like Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Oklahoma City are looking at ways to help young families stay. Denver been mapping “day care centers, preschools, grocery stores and jobs” to see how well-served they are by transit. Cities like Charlotte, Anaheim, and Dallas are looking at ways to provide larger, more family-friendly housing choices within smaller urban lots. The school reform movement and the push to improve the quality of public education is another major piece of the puzzle.

There’s a lot at stake for all the residents of these cities, El Nasser points out: “Hanging on to residents as they age, make more money and have kids is a plus for cities because it strengthens and stabilizes the tax base while creating an involved constituency.”

Richard Florida told El Nasser that he expects 60 or 70 percent of millennials to move to the suburbs when they start families, compared to about 95 percent of their predecessors.