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Posts from the "Congress for the New Urbanism" Category

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Rumor Mill: Safety Overhaul in the Works for the “Boulevard of Death”

Word on the street is that Queens Boulevard could be the first major arterial redesign initiated by Polly Trottenberg’s DOT.

DOT is preparing to launch an effort to redesign Queens Boulevard. Photo: gaspi/Flickr

DOT is reportedly preparing to launch an effort to redesign Queens Boulevard. Photo: gaspi/Flickr

At a Friday panel on transportation equity organized by the Congress for the New Urbanism, architect John Massengale said he is working with Transportation Alternatives on conceptual designs that will spark conversation before DOT hosts workshops about the project. ”The idea is that side lanes on the multi-lane boulevard become much, much slower,” Massengale said. The basic framework he envisions would include wider sidewalks and a protected bike lane next to the sidewalk.

DOT has not responded to a request for comment, but a source familiar with the project confirmed that the agency will soon reach out to elected officials and community boards about remaking what’s long been known as the “Boulevard of Death.” Update: ”Safety on Queens Boulevard is a priority for DOT,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement. “We continue to engage elected officials, community boards and other local stakeholders in the coming months in a conversation about Queens Boulevard safety.”

While fatalities on Queens Boulevard dropped after changes made more than a decade ago, the street still ranks as one of the borough’s most dangerous streets. In May, DOT added Queens Boulevard to its arterial Slow Zone program, but did not lower its speed limit to 25 mph.

Volunteers at TA have spent years building support for a safer Queens Boulevard, with a united front of council members and growing interest from community boards along the street.

Massengale said New York will have to continue breaking new ground on street design to eliminate traffic deaths. “These new arterials, they have cut fatalities,” Massengale said, referring to NYC DOT’s protected bike lane and arterial traffic calming projects. “But this design is not going to get to zero, because the only way to get to zero is to slow the cars way down.” Even recently redesigned streets like Second Avenue, he said, don’t have design speeds that match the city’s impending 25 mph speed limit.

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Sprawl Madness: Two Houses Share Backyard, Separated by 7 Miles of Roads

It would take you more than two hours to walk between these two suburban Orlando houses with adjoining backyards, thanks to the windy, disconnected road system. Image: Google Maps

Just how absurd have American development patterns become over the past few decades?

Behold: Two houses with adjoining backyards in suburban Orlando. If you want to travel the streets from point A on Anna Catherine Drive to point B on Summer Rain Drive, which are only 50 feet apart, you’ll have to go a minimum of seven miles. The trip would take almost twenty minutes in a car, according to Google Maps.

Windy street patterns, full of cul-de-sacs and circles, have become such a ubiquitous feature of the suburbs that they mostly escape remark. But disconnected streets have many insidious consequences for the environment, public health, and social equity.

For one, the lack of a functional street grid funnels traffic onto wide arterial roads — which tend to be the most dangerous places for pedestrians. Furthermore, disconnected streets discourage trips by foot or bike. People who can drive have no incentive to walk or bike anywhere because the trips would be too long and dangerous, while people who can’t drive are effectively trapped in their own homes, or are highly dependent on caretakers.

The Congress for the New Urbanism’s Sustainable Street Network Principles guide outlines seven principles for walkable, safe streets. The number one principle is to “create a street network that supports communities and places.”

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In Philly, Housing in Walkable Places Held Up Better Than Suburban Housing

During the latest recession, housing prices were more resilient in Philadelphia's walkable neighborhoods. That is a reversal of the pattern that occurred in the previous housing downturn. Image: Congress for the New Urbanism

It’s been a bad few years for homeowners around the country, and those in greater Philadelphia are no different. But people who owned houses in Philadelphia’s center city or suburban areas near a walkable town center fared better than others.

According to a new report from the Congress for the New Urbanism, the homes in greater Philadelphia that suffered the steepest losses of the housing crisis were those in the most car-centric, sprawling neighborhoods. That was exactly the opposite of what occurred in the last housing downturn, when larger, single-family housing in disconnected, far-flung neighborhoods retained more of its value, researchers found:

During the first housing downturn of 1989-1995, housing prices declined the greatest in the urban core center (-33.7% in the center city), second-most in the central city of Philadelphia as a whole (-17.6%) and least in the lower-density areas of the suburban counties (-14.3%). But during the most-recent housing downturn of 2007-2012, home price declines have been the greatest in the low-density suburbs (-32.7%), second-most in Philadelphia County (-26.7%) and the smallest in the urban core of the center city (-20.2%).

The study evaluated the urban character of each zip code in the region, using criteria like housing density, transit accessibility, mix of land uses and other indicators. This method was employed to examine the relationship between urban form and the housing market, instead of using crude measurements like the political boundaries between suburbs and the city.

The authors attribute the new dynamic to rising energy prices, as well as the revitalization of central city Philadelphia and shifting housing preferences, especially among seniors and young people. The findings are consistent with other studies that have found walkable, transit-accessible places have bounced back stronger from this housing downturn than more car-centric areas.

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Federal Housing Administration Clears Way for More Walkable Development

Over the last five years America has seen an historic housing downturn, but the prevailing trend hasn’t sapped demand for walkable, urban development, especially in many larger metros.

This walkable development in Atlanta was denied FHA funding, under antiquated restrictions, because plans contained too much retail. Photo: Congress for the New Urbanism

Until recently, however, Federal Housing Administration regulations made it difficult for developers to provide the kind of housing consumers are demanding. Now, thanks in large part to the efforts of groups like Congress for the New Urbanism and the National Association of Realtors, the feds are revising outdated regulations that have hampered the growth of mixed-use housing.

Last month, FHA loosened a restriction that forbade government-backed loans from supporting condominium projects that contained more than 25 percent commercial space. New rules will allow credit to flow to projects with up to 35 percent commercial space — or 50 percent in certain cases where the developer applies for an exemption.

“This is one indication that FHA is making big strides,” said CNU spokesperson Benjamin Schulman. “We view this as the first step in this long process to reform the regulation.”

Next CNU would like to see the commercial share threshold raised for multi-family housing projects administered by HUD, he said.

Better Cities and Towns reports that the restrictions on commercial space were grandfathered in from the 1930s, when mixed-use buildings were placed in a higher-risk category. Since then, a “form follows finance” phenomenon, led by federal agencies like FHA, helped turn America into a nation of  suburban, single-family-housing dwellers.

According to the LA Times, the new rules could be a big boost for the nation’s condo market, which has been performing well below expectations.

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12 Freeways to Watch (‘Cause They Might Be Gone Soon)

If you make your home on the Louisiana coastline, upstate New York or the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, chances are you live near a highway that really has it coming. It’s big. It’s ugly. It goes right through city neighborhoods. And it just might be coming down soon.

New Orleans' Claibourne Overpass is this year's Congress for New Urbanism choice for "Freeway without a Future." Photo: CNU.org

Latest week the Congress for New Urbanism released its updated list of “Freeways Without Futures” — 12 transportation anachronisms that are increasingly likely to meet the wrecking ball.

This year’s top finisher was New Orleans’ Claiboure Overpass — a 1960s-era eyesore that replaced a thriving, tree-lined commercial street at the center of the city’s oldest, most culturally vibrant black neighborhood. The teardown for this highway has some real traction; a master plan to remove the elevated portion is expected to be endorsed by City Council shortly, according to CNU.

The Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx is runner up, the same position it held in CNU’s 2008 Freeways Without Futures list. This riverfront disaster was bestowed by the master highway builder himself, Robert Moses. Residents of the Bronx have successfully fought off two separate proposals to expand the Sheridan, which runs right along the Bronx River. A coalition of community groups and advocates called the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance has led the charge to replace the freeway with housing and parks, and a group of cities agencies are now examining teardown scenarios with the help of a federal TIGER grant.

The third-place finisher is New Haven’s Route 34 (the Oak Street Connector), which is slated for demolition. New Haven received TIGER funds to convert the road into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard and local officials are currently haggling over the design details — there’s a chance they’ll opt to replace a highway with a road that feels like a highway.

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New Urbanists Release Principles for Sustainable Street Networks

At the Transportation Research Board’s 91st annual meeting here in DC, it’s hard to miss the booth handing out copies of a bright blue pamphlet filled with illustrations of busy tree-lined streets, where bicyclists and buses work their way through a bustling urban bazaar. The booth is the Congress for New Urbanism’s “occupation” of TRB, and the pamphlet is their new illustrated Sustainable Street Network Principles, a document aimed at explaining in very basic terms what’s wrong with America’s streets — and how to fix them.

The new illustrated edition of CNU's Sustainable Street Network Principles debuted this week. Image: CNU

The goal of the Principles is to promote development patterns that add value to communities. The way to do that, said CNU President John Norquist, is to design streets to play three simultaneous roles: that of a transportation thoroughfare, a commercial marketplace, and a public space. “Typically, U.S. DOT and State DOTs tend to look at roads only in the dimension of movement, and even in that one dimension, their rural-style forms fail in the city,” Norquist says.

The principles are a plain-language counterpart to the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ “Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares,” a collaborative effort with CNU which came out in March 2010 and is written in “engineerese” according to Norquist. By contrast, “the Principles are very readable,” he said, “and can be used to encourage local public works authorities or departments of transportation to do something in cities that adds value to neighborhoods.”

Those authorities don’t always have a very good record in that department. For decades now, government transportation policy has been geared toward speeding up long trips, while ignoring issues of walkability and the corresponding value added to neighborhoods. “If one person has to cross the street to get to work, and another drives 25 miles to work in the same building, the government is obsessed with helping the guy who drives, even though the guy who walks contributes more net value [by using fewer resources, spending less time in traffic, etc.]” Norquist told Streetsblog. “If you look at the little blue book, it’s designed to challenge that idea.”

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Moving Beyond the Automobile: Highway Removal

In this week’s episode of “Moving Beyond the Automobile,” Streetfilms takes you on a guided tour of past, present and future highway removal projects with John Norquist of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Some of the most well-known highway removals in America — like New York City’s West Side Highway and San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway — have actually been unpredictable highway collapses brought on by structural deficiencies or natural disasters. It turns out there are good reasons for not rebuilding these urban highways once they become rubble: They drain the life from the neighborhoods around them, they suck wealth and value out of the city, and they don’t even move traffic that well during rush hour.

Now several cities are pursuing highway removals more intentionally, as a way to reclaim city space for housing, parks, and economic development. CNU has designated ten “Freeways Without Futures” here in North America, and in this video, you’ll hear about the benefits of tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx, the Skyway and Route 5 in Buffalo, and the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans.

Streetfilms would like to thank The Fund for the Environment & Urban Life for making this series possible.

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Making Streets for Walking: Dan Burden on Reforming Design Standards

urban_street.jpgA template for an urban street in "Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares." Source: Claire Vlach, Bottomley Design & Planning.

One of the foundational documents in our country's history of car-centric street design is what's known as the Green Book. These engineering guidelines, which have been published in various editions by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) since the 1930s, are only "green" if you're looking at the cover.

"We should take control of our streets. If 85 percent of our motorists are driving faster than we want them to, then we need to redesign the street."
Inside, the Green Book codifies an anti-urban design approach that transportation engineers have followed to disastrous effect in American cities and towns, creating wide streets where cars rule, speeding is the norm, and the greenest modes of travel have no place. While its recommendations are only advisory, the Green Book is often treated as gospel, implanting ideas like the "85th percentile" standard, which dictates that streets should be designed to "forgive" the 15th-fastest driver out of every hundred on the road. In the words of former Maryland transportation chief James Lighthizer, this is like building streets as though "everyone on the road is a drunk speeding along without a seatbelt."

Fortunately, these engineering standards are shifting. One important step is a new report co-authored by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). "Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach" aims to define a more humane engineering language for streets. The report is intended to supplement the Green Book by laying out a set of design standards that make sense in places where people can get around by foot or on a bicycle.

DanBurden.jpgDan Burden leading a walkability workshop in Lepeer, Michigan this February. Image: Michigan Municipal League
If, as U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood recently pledged, walking and biking are going to have equal standing with motorized transport, more enlightened engineering guidelines will have to play a significant role. To better understand how the CNU/ITE report can influence state DOTs and the way they shape streets, we spoke to one of the experts who helped develop it, Dan Burden.

As the founder and executive director of Walkable Communities, Inc., Burden travels the country helping people plan and develop more sustainable neighborhoods. In 2001, Time Magazine named him one of the six most influential civic leaders of tomorrow. Burden spent 16 years as bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Florida Department of Transportation, so he was able to share with us his experience as both an advocate and an administrator.

Here's the first part of our interview:

Noah Kazis: Let's start with that new ITE and CNU report that you participated in. What's its significance?

Dan Burden: A couple of big breakthroughs occurred with that publication. One where we struggled hard, but finally broke free, is setting a target speed for roads. Before, there was always the driving speed, which had to be higher than the posted speed to provide "forgiveness" to drivers. Of course, drivers totally figured that one out, and they'd drive faster than the posted speed. In these guidelines, they're supposed to design the road for the speed that we want to elicit from the driver.

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New Urbanism: Built to Last

As Aaron and Sarah have noted, the Congress for the New Urbanism is in the midst of its annual meeting in Denver. This spiffy short is the winner of this year's CNU 17 video contest. Created by independents John Paget of Paget Films and Drew Ward and Chris Elisara of First+Main Media, "Built to Last," in the words of the filmmakers, "explores the connection between New Urbanism and environmental issues."

Enjoy. And if you're really feelin' it, follow @naparstek and the #cnu17 feed on Twitter for to-the-minute insights from CNU speakers over the weekend.

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Tweeting Live from the Congress for the New Urbanism in Denver

OK. I've finally succumbed to Twitter and I'm using it to keep track of interesting quotes, observations and tidbits at the 17th annual Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Denver. There's a lot of great stuff happening here and plenty of interesting people. I'm not sure how much of that I can convey in 140 character text bursts. But I'm a professional haikuist so let's see what I can do.

You can follow me @naparstek

And you can follow other conference attendees at #cnu17.