Following (or not) the latest fashionable way to revive urban spaces

Blair Kamin dismisses a proposal to create a High Line like park along LaSalle Street in the Loop in part by appealing to history:

In 1979, as America’s downtowns struggled to meet the challenge of suburban shopping malls, the flavor of the month was the transit mall. Make cities more like suburbs, the thinking went, and they’ll be able to compete. So Chicago cut the number of traffic lanes on State Street from six to two— for buses only — and outfitted the ultrawide sidewalks with trees, flowers and bubble-topped bus shelters…

A recently issued study of the central Loop by commercial real estate brokers Cushman & Wakefield floats the idea of inserting a High Line-inspired elevated walkway through the heart of LaSalle Street. But unlike the High Line or Chicago’s 606 trail, which exude authenticity because they’re built on age-old elevated rail lines, the LaSalle Street walkway would be entirely new — more wanna-be cool than the real thing…

The pathway would combat the perception that LaSalle is a stuffy, “old school” street lined by intimidating temples of finance, the study claims. “With thoughtful modification,” it goes on, “LaSalle Street can become the live-work-play nucleus of the Central Loop.”

Kamin summarizes his proposed strategy:

In short, the way to confront the central Loop’s looming vacancies is to build carefully on existing strengths, rather than reach desperately for a hideous quick fix that would destroy one of the city’s great urban spaces.

A few thoughts in response:

1. Kamin cites two previous fashions – transit malls, linear parks – and cautions against following them. But, certainly there are other fashions from the urban era after World War Two that could be mentioned including: large urban renewal projects (often clearing what were said to be “blighted” or slum areas), removing above ground urban highways (see the Big Dig, San Francisco), mixed-income developments (such as on the site of the former Cabrini-Green high rises), transit-oriented development, waterfront parks, and more. Are all of these just fashions? How would one know? Certainly, it would be difficult for every major city to simply copy a successful change from another city and expect it to work in the same way in a new context. But, when is following the urban fashion advisable?

2. How often does urban development occur gradually and in familiar ways versus more immediate changes or disruptions? My sense is that most cities and neighborhoods experience much more of the first where change slowly accumulates over years and even decades. The buildings along LaSalle Street have changed as has the streetscape. But, the second might be easy to spot if a big change occurs or something happens that causes residents and leaders to notice how much might change. Gentrification could be a good example: communities and neighborhoods experience change over time but one of the concerns about gentrification is about the speed at which new kinds of change is occurring and what this means for long-time residents.

3. As places change, it could be interesting to examine how much places at the edge of change benefit from being the first or in the beginning wave. Take the High Line: a unique project that has brought much attention to New York City and the specific neighborhoods in which the park runs. As cities look to copy the idea, does each replication lose some value? Or, is there a tipping point where too many similar parks saturate the market (and perhaps this would influence tourists differently than residents)? I could also see where other cities might benefit from letting other places try things out and then try to correct the issues. If the High Line leads to more upscale development and inequality, later cities pursuing similar projects can address these issues early on.

Freeway revolts had a point: evidence from Chicago regarding the problems with highways

Two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia looked at the effects of building highways and found a number of negative effects for Chicago neighborhoods near the highways :

FreewayRevoltsWorkingPaper

The literature criticizing urban renewal and highway construction in major cities after World War II has made a similar point: the construction of highways broke up established neighborhoods and encouraged urban residents to leave for the suburbs since they could easily access the city via highway.

At the same time, it sounds like this working paper suggests highways themselves are not necessarily the issue. The bigger problem may be that the highway is located on the surface and creating negative local effects including acting as barriers. Sometimes, this may be intentional such as when the Dan Ryan Expressway on Chicago’s South Side had the intended side effect of separating black and white neighborhoods. Other times, the highway could bisect what was a connected neighborhood and sever it. But, if the highway was underground, perhaps everyone could win: there would not be a 6-12 lane barrier, local neighborhoods would not see or hear the highway in the same way, and suburbanites could still access the city center. While it is hard to imagine, picture the Eisenhower headed into Chicago underground with parks, surface level streets, social and business activity, and a CTA line above it. Local residents could still have access to the highway without having to live right next to it.

This solution would likely not satisfy everyone. If the goal of countering highways is not just to protect neighborhoods but also to limit driving and promote mass transit, burying the highway is not enough. The eyesore may be gone but the larger problem still looms: Americans like driving and the associated lifestyle and too many cities are subservient to cars rather than to pedestrians and community life.

Playing SimCity, becoming an urban planner

Building a city on a computer screen led to a future career for some SimCity players:

Thirty years ago, Maxis released “SimCity” for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by “SimCity 2000” in 1993, “SimCity 3000” in 1999, “SimCity 4” in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, “SimCity: BuildIt” in 2013 and an app launched in 2014…

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

“I used to draw maps of cities for fun. I had no idea it was an actual career,” said Nicole Payne, now a program official for the National Assn. of City Transportation Officials in New York City. When she was 10, a librarian saw her drawings and told her there was a video game she should try…

In more than a dozen interviews for this article, people who went from “SimCity” enthusiasts to professional planners talked about what they liked about the game: The way you can visualize how a single change affects a whole city. The ability to see how transit, livability and the economy are all connected. The fact that no one likes to live near a landfill.

This could be my story too: I enjoyed drawing cities as a kid, reading about cities, and visiting Chicago. I discovered SimCity during elementary school, playing for the first time on a green monochrome monitor. It opened up new possibilities, particularly as the game evolved. I spent endless hours creating cities and, like some of the people interviewed in this story, trying to make them pristine as well as based around different principles. We played Simcity as enrichment time in middle school and I probably trailed off in playing by early high school when I was more taken by Civilization II and franchise mode of sports games. All of that SimCity playing did push me to think about urban planning and serving in local government.

At the same time, as this article notes, SimCity likely shaped how I thought cities worked. SimCity is not neutral in its planning philosophy. At the least, it presented the idea that a planner from above could shape everything, even down to the terrain. The speed at which it could happen was also impressive: a mouse click could add residences or take them away while the game speed could be paused or sped to impressive speeds (usually to add money to the coffers if one was not playing with the cheat codes). Cities and communities do not work this way; even powerful leaders usually need at least a team of elites to get things done and significant urban projects often take a long time.

Resist the social engineering of mass transit but ignore the social engineering of suburbia

Mass transit in the suburbs is hard to accomplish but one of the biggest advantages of establishing mass transit now is that it can help shape future suburbia. Yet, a number of commentators mass transit efforts are folly even as they ignore how the suburban decentralized landscape came about. Example #1:

That was my first up-close encounter with the Cult of Transit. There is nothing wrong with expanding bus service and building new rail lines—provided they actually enable people to get where they are going. However, urban planners’ fixation on transit stems more from social engineering than transportation engineering. The latter develops projects that enable people to get from Point A to Point B. The former builds projects designed to change the public’s behavior—prodding them into getting around in ways the planners believe is best…

I think of my attempts to take transit to go from my exurb to downtown Sacramento. It would involve driving to a station 20 minutes away, paying for parking, buying a ticket and waiting for a train. It would take longer and cost almost as much as just driving downtown directly and parking. That train might make sense in the urban core, but not in the outlying areas, yet officials love to lecture us about our supposedly unsustainable reliance on driving.

This highlights the real problem with transit. Planners, not consumers, drive it. Real private enterprises—as opposed to firms receiving taxpayer-funded subsidies to build government-directed projects—would never build a rail system based on an “if we build it, they will come” model. They would build systems that meet customer needs rather than fulfill wishful fantasies.

Example #2:

Some propose to redesign American cities to serve obsolete transit systems: forcing more jobs downtown, building high-density transit-oriented developments in transit corridors, and turning highway and street lanes into dedicated bus lanes. Yet huge changes in urban form are needed to get a small change in transit usage, and the benefits are trivial. Transit isn’t particularly green, using more energy and producing more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average car.

Seattle has done the most to reshape itself into an early twentieth-century city. Draconian land-use policies and tax subsidies increased the city’s population density by 25 percent since 2000 and increased the number of downtown jobs from 215,000 in 2010 to 281,000 in 2017. These policies came at a terrible price: housing is no longer affordable and traffic is practically gridlocked. The urban area gained 58,000 transit commuters since 2000, but it also gained 190,000 auto commuters.

It is time to stop thinking that transit is somehow morally superior to driving and that it deserves the $50 billion in subsidies that it receives each year. Ending the subsidies would lead to a variety of private transit alternatives where people will use them and allow cities to concentrate on relieving congestion and making roads safer and cleaner for everyone else.

The suburban landscape based on driving and single-family homes did not come about organically or naturally; it was the result of government support (presidential statements, highway construction, socialized mortgages) and American ideologies. And it developed in nearly a century and a half from railroad suburbs to streetcar suburbs to mass-produced suburbs accessible by car.

Thus, I find the arguments against mass transit spending a bit strange. The suburbs occurred at least in part through direct intervention (what could be called social engineering) and over a long period of time. If planners and others wanted to change suburbia for the future, the elements of time and intervention would also be necessary. Mass transit construction in suburbs today may be much less about current results and instead about setting up an infrastructure that enables more suburban density and mass transit possibilities in the future.

All of this does not necessarily mean that planners and others want to destroy everything about suburbs. Higher densities in suburbs do seem attractive to a number of communities and residents as it allows for more housing options, more street life, and using less land. Suburban mass transit will likely not replace driving but it could enable some households to go from two to one car or provide new options and possibilities.

Trying to predict future suburban patterns is always difficult. My own research suggests planners, officials, and residents in the postwar decades had a difficult time envisioning significant growth. But, if we are looking toward the suburbs of fifty or one hundred years from now, is it so unreasonable to think some suburban areas will be denser and certain mass transit decisions made today helped guide some of those patterns? Wouldn’t we want to try to act with the future in mind rather than simply saying Americans prefer driving and sprawl now so that is the way it will always be?

The case for a social problem: over 49,000 pedestrian deaths in the US 2008-2017

A new report addresses pedestrian deaths in the United States:

Harrowing data showed that between 2008 and 2017 the number of annual pedestrian deaths in the U.S. increased by 35.7 percent. A total of 49,340 died in that 10-year period. That’s more than 13 people killed per day or one person every hour and 46 minutes…

“Why is this happening?” authors of the report asked. “We’re not walking more and we’re only driving slightly more than we were back in 2008. What is happening is that our streets, which we designed for the movement of vehicles, haven’t changed. In fact, we are continuing to design streets that are dangerous for all people.”

Federal and state transportation policies, blueprints and funding are stuck in the age of the automobile, when sprawling growth patterns — especially in the Sun Belt — led to wider roads, longer blocks and street engineering that prioritized high speeds for cars over safety for people on foot, on bikes or using mass transit, the report says.

Among the victims, death rates are disproportionately high for the elderly, minorities and people walking in poor communities, data showed. Older adults are more often struck at an intersection or in a crosswalk than younger victims. In San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, residents organized marches, flash mobs and 20-second performances in crosswalks to campaign for longer signal times for elderly and disabled people.

The numbers are likely shocking for many readers: that many people died over a 10 year stretch from walking? The cause for many a social problem is advanced by such figures which reveal to the average person the scope of an issue they rarely consider.

But, put those figures next to those that died in car accidents and they pale in comparison. Are the two numbers combined – both primarily the result of an automobile dependent culture – more valuable? Or, are they simply what Americans are willing to do for the sake of driving?

To me, the next step is to ask what it would take to reach a critical mass of Americans to push against a car dominated society and press for better options for pedestrians and other non-vehicles on streets and roads. This is not an easy task; diverting resources and attention away from roads and highways is difficult.

Americans fight for the right to have cheap or free parking

One columnist uses a story of obtaining a parking ticket on vacation to argue Americans like cheap parking:

I finally paid my parking ticket last week, but only because my wife reminded me. The ticket arrived unbidden on my windshield while we were on vacation. I parked too long in what I should have recalled but didn’t was a one-hour zone. I had no defense and sought none. As one who tries to be a good citizen, I stuck the small manila envelope above the visor on the driver’s side of the car, planning to pay up as soon as possible … and immediately forgot its existence. We arrived home from vacation with the ticket still hidden above the visor…

Indeed, the fact that the city increased the fines by only $5 helps illustrate the uneasy relationship between drivers and urban planners. Planners hate cars; drivers love them. Drivers have more votes than planners, so parking stays cheap…

Which brings us back to my parking ticket. Nobody has more status and power than the state, so why didn’t I pay my ticket at once? Because the state’s status and power are not strongly signaled. The face value of the ticket was relatively low — $20 — and paying late increased the fine only by $5. Now imagine increasing both by a factor of 100. Were the fine $2,000 and the late fee $500, most of us would pay on time. As a matter of fact, we’d go out of our way never to be ticketed. We might even forego our beloved cars and turn to public transportation.

Except that we wouldn’t. We’d rise in revolt instead, demanding a return to cheap parking. We’d be wrong, but we’d win.

For many urbanists, the car is the antithesis of urban life. To have thriving street life, the sort of streetscape described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, people need to be walking rather than seeing places go by at 30 mph and above. Perhaps cars should be banned all together in some places. Reliance on the car ends up shifting resources to having wide and efficient roads rather than the traditional style and walkable neighborhoods New Urbanists tout. The sprawl of the suburbs is only possible because cars enable wealthier residents to leave the city and its residents behind for the night.

On the flip side, American love cars. Arguably, the suburbs are the prime illustration of a life built around and enabled by personal vehicles. The federal government largely funded interstates, allowing more workers to move to the suburbs. The new shopping malls of the postwar era included many indoor stores at once but also free parking. Communities, both suburban and urban, fought over whether to compete with the shopping malls with free street parking or continue to use parking meters. If owning a car is expensive enough, does the average user want to also have to pay for parking?

Outside of the densest areas in the United States, such as Manhattan where parking can go for a premium, parking will likely remain rather cheap. It would be interesting to see one or two cities really try to go after cheaper parking to push mass transit or other transportation options. Could places like Seattle or Austin get away with it? Maybe but even there many people in the region need a car. Perhaps significantly raising parking prices would have to go hand in hand with constructing and pushing transit options to truly change behaviors.

Walkable + suburban = desirable “surban” places

Homebuyers may still desire to live in the suburbs but they now may want a different kind of suburbia: a walkable, denser, vibrant place.

No longer are McMansions, white picket fences and sprawling square footage topping suburban buyers’ most-wanted list. Instead, proximity to a suburb’s downtown and easy access to restaurants, schools and parks are priorities. For many, walkable suburbs reign supreme…

The shift toward more walkable suburbs started over the past two decades, thanks to planning efforts concentrated on creating mini-downtowns to revive traditional suburban centers, said Kheir Al-Kodmany, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs…

A 2017 study by the National Association of Realtors found that walkers span the generations. Sixty-two percent of millennials and 55 percent of those born before 1944 prefer walkable communities and brief commutes, even if it means living in an apartment or town home. And 53 percent of Americans would give up a home with a large yard in exchange for a home with a smaller yard that’s within walking distance of the community’s amenities, according to the study. That figure is up from 48 percent in 2015…

A 2016 study from realty site Redfin seems to support Dunne’s point. The study took into account more than 1 million home sales between January 2014 and April 2016 and found that homes with higher walk scores tend to have higher sales prices than comparable homes in less walkable areas. One walk score point can increase a home’s price by an average of $3,250. In Chicago, the study found an increase of one walk score point can bump a home’s price by $2,437.

I intentionally cited the broader data from the article (and not just the anecdotes from buyers, realtors, and local suburbs) because there should be an open question involved with this article: do we have a certified trend toward more walkable suburbs? Do we have clear population data showing people moving to walkable suburbs rather than other places? For a variety of reasons, including enhancing local tax bases and environmental concerns, this has indeed been an emphasis in a number of suburbs across the United States in recent decades. But, I would also guess that it is primarily in suburbs that have more traditional downtowns and mass transit options. In the Chicago region, this means the “surban” experience is easier to create in communities founded before World War II and along the major passenger railroad lines.

This possible shift also does not fit easily into the common narrative that suburbs and cities are locked in mortal combat and there are clear winners and losers. What if in the long term Americans want some of both city and suburban life: a little less density, a single-family home with a yard, a smaller town or city where they feel they can influence local government or organizations if need be, and also walkable and not just a bedroom suburb? Arguably, this tension has been behind the American suburbs for over a century: Americans want a mix of urban and country life. A denser suburbia may just be the newest manifestation of this ongoing balance.