Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, May 20, 2022

The tension between cities, Departments of Transportation and roads/freeways versus quality places

On the pro-urb list there's been a discussion about the issue of when the main street in a community is also a state highway, and the tension between the locality's desire for appropriate urban form versus the DOT's desire to create high speed roads where motor vehicles are privileged.

This is an ongoing problem.  

As the great urban design writer Inga Saffron just wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer ("Philly spent a decade reconnecting neighborhoods to the waterfront. Widening I-95 is repeating past mistakes") about how PDOT aims to widen I-95 near the Delaware River, after Philadelphia has spent tons of effort and money on maximizing the place value of the riverfront.

A couple decades ago Oregon (Main Street: When a Highway Runs Through It) and Maryland (When Main Street Is A State Highway: Blending Function, Beauty and Identity) created manuals to help communities deal with this, ostensibly with the support of the state DOT.

Separately, I am particularly fond of the Smart Transportation Guidebook, which outlines how to make road design decisions based on land use context, differentiating between community and regionally serving roads.  

But making decisions based on land use context is key, and unfortunately, highway agencies don't do that very much.

Looking north along Bothell Way Northeast’s “multiway” boulevard in downtown Bothell..  Photo: Steve Ringman, Seattle Times.

I did come across an interesting example in Bothell, Washington where they created a "side road" for their main commercial district, functioning as an adjunct community serving road facility within the wide "right of way" of a state road ("An example of using variegated road material treatments in Bothell, Washington").  

But the thread yielded a number of new resources:

-- Colorado Downtown Streets: A Tool for Communities, Planners, and Engineers
-- Small Town and Rural Multimodal Networks, Office of Planning, Environment, and Federal Highway Administration
-- Main Street, California: A Guide for Improving Community and Transportation Vitality, CALTRANS
-- Walkability and Mixed Use - Making Valuable and Healthy Communities, The Prince’s Foundation
-- Making Complete Streets a Reality: A Guide to Policy Development, New Jersey Department Of Transportation
-- A Citizen’s Guide to Better Streets: How to Engage Your Transportation Agency, Project For Public Spaces<
-- Streets as Places: Using Streets to Rebuild Communities, Project For Public Spaces
-- Great Corridors, Great Communities: The Quiet Revolution in Transportation Planning, Project For Public Spaces
-- Rightsizing Streets, Project For Public Spaces
-- Rethinking Streets website

Plus some of my own:

-- "Extending the "Signature Streets" concept to "Signature Streets and Spaces""
-- "From more space to socially distance to a systematic program for pedestrian districts (Park City (Utah) Main Street Car Free on Sundays)"
-- "Why doesn't every big city in North America have its own Las Ramblas?"
-- "Diversity Plaza, Queens, a pedestrian exclusive block"

Motor vehicle throughput versus place value.  But despite such reports, the typical DOT isn't too interested or willing to work with communities on these issues.  Their default position is to maximize motor vehicle throughput.

In DOTs at all scales--city, county, state-- I've advocated that there should be a complementary position to that of "chief engineer," that of "chief of thoroughfare design," using the principles of the Smart Transportation Guidebook

Flawed measures for return on investment.  The way DOTs see the value of economic development is skewed. They prioritize sprawl development, not more intensive development, not transit. 

But I guess that makes sense, because in most places, DOTs are not responsible for roads in cities (I know this isn't true in Virginia, and in Maryland, the State Highway Administration is responsible for most every regionally serving arterial, and likely this is the case elsewhere.) 

Similarly, the same is true for urban planning generally. I argue that the kind of financial analysis of the value of different types of development needs to be incorporated into the economic development element of all city and county master plans.  Such analysis finds that intensive development has a positive ROI, and big box and deconcentrated development doesn't.  DOTs definitely need different instructions for how to measure economic development and the ROI of what they do? 

No incentives for placemaking.  The biggest problem with incorporating placemaking elements, or sustainable modes especially biking and walking into transportation policy and practice, is that while most DOTs and the US DOT say that it is a good idea to do, it's not required, nor are the incentives in funding set up to preference or at least to prioritize placemaking, walking, and biking. 

Transportation engineers do what they're told, and they're told to focus on cars.  For example, more than 10 years ago I was with a group going to a presentation and one of the guys in the car (we were driving to Baltimore) said "we need to ask Dutch traffic engineers why they do what they do." 

I said we didn't need to, it was obvious. When the Netherlands and Denmark reprioritized sustainable mobility in the face of the 1973 oil crisis, when they realized a mobility system based on automobility left them vulnerable socially, politically, and economically, they made it national policy to focus on sustainable mobility. 

It wasn't optional the way it is in the US. 

It became national policy, and all the various other policies and ways of accomplishing work were reordered accordingly. Including traffic engineers prioritizing walking, biking, and transit. Gas excise taxes went way up. The cost to register a car went way up. The cost for parking went way up. The process for getting a driver's license became more expensive and more difficult. Laws and insurance for cars made motor vehicle operators more responsible for crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists, etc. 

Transit isn't prioritized either.  The same is true of transit. Virginia has its transit function in a different department than the DOT, but I am not sure that it makes much difference. And the Secretary over both the DOT and the Department of Rail and Public Transit still probably cares more about roads. In any case, support for transit waxes and wanes depending on which political party holds the governorship. And even Democrats while supportive of transit are pretty road focused. 

-- "Making bus service sexy and more equitable," 2012
-- "Transit, stations, and placemaking: stations as entrypoints into neighborhoods," 2013
-- "Branding's (NOT) all you need for transit," 2018
-- "Bus shelters as social spaces," 2020
-- "The answer is: Create a single multi-state/regional multi-modal transit planning, management, and operations authority association," 2017

Planning for homogeneous places.  I think about this a lot in terms of what we might call mode homogeneity versus mode heterogeneity. 

For the most part, everything about US transportation policy is about automobility. And like most things, citizens and elected officials take the hammer approach to the nail sticking out--the nail being any transportation paradigm different from automobility. 

There are some examples of cities with decent transit, at least pre covid, and some with better walking environments, and some with better biking environments, but they don't really stand out, and somehow, we work really really hard to ignore them. 

But why can't people see that SF is a great example for streetcars, Portland too plus biking, Davis, Boulder, Minneapolis for biking, Boulder and Burlington for successful pedestrian malls, NYC for increased pedestrian centricity, cities like Chicago, DC, NYC, Boston for transit, Jersey City and Hoboken for transit and walking, Etc. 

But still, the best examples are in Europe. Pedestrian districts. Bicycling. Integrated transit systems in places like most of Germany's major cities, London, and Paris. Streetcar networks in places like Zurich. 

Even in the best of times, it takes decades to finish a transit project.  For example, I first read about the concept of the suburban Purple Line circular line connecting Metrorail in a cover story in the Washington City Paper in December 1987. 

An 18 mile section will finally come on line in 2026. Probably it will take 100 years to make the complete circle, if then. 

My joke about DC and Seattle is that both started looking at streetcars in 2003. Seattle had their first line running in 2007. In DC it was 2016(!), and failures there hurt the suburban Purple Line project and led to Arlington County scuttling its own streetcar program. 

One of my lines about this is that transit professionals have an obligation to the profession to not f*** up, because opponents use those failures to help to scuttle projects elsewhere. 

Mobility systems versus modes.  I really started thinking about this in terms of mobility systems, after seeing a diagram in the 2002 German national bicycle plan, titled "cycling as a system." 

It took 50ish years to build a complete system in support of automobility--roads, signage, maps, gas stations, repair facilities, motels, restaurants, etc. It shouldn't take that long to create complete systems for transit, bicycling and walking, but that's what we need to do, if we want such modes to be competitive, complementary, and successful. 

Automobility is supported by a national road network, freeways, gas stations, repair facilities, directional signage, maps (now GPS), places to eat, places to stay, places to park, etc.

(WRT transit, the best examples of a system of integrated modes are German cities, London, and Paris.)

The two best books.  Everyone should read David Engwicht's Reclaiming our Cities and Towns: Better Living from Less Traffic. And Belmont's Cities in Full. They are perhaps the absolutely best books on this issue -- speaking of the recent threads on the value of density and how it supports placemaking, walking, and transit.

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At 9:20 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

1987! Wow

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