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Guest Post: West Side Story.

19 May

One of the most wonderful things about urban design is that every one of us understands the city, because we live, work and play there. On some level everyone can articulate their feelings about why they love their neighborhood and community, and how it should be transformed or changed for the better. I want this blog to be a platform not just for urban designers and planners, but for everyone to learn about the issues that face our cities today. I have asked my father, Joseph McGirt, who is a  teacher, lawyer, businessman, blogger and long-time Charlottean to reflect on his experience with his home town. Perhaps his story will make you think of your own city stories – feel free to share them in the comment section.

Additionally, as my father is a blogger-extraordinaire and has his own blog based on higher education, called the Academic Exchange. I have written a guest post on his blog as well. Although it is more education related I do discuss how the current education system has and will affect the field of urban design… check it out, here!

West Side Story … with apologies to Leonard Bernstein (and I guess Shakespeare). I have a story of unrequited love, abandonment and neglect, all followed by the passion of reconnection and unity. The heroic catalyst of this narrative is a commitment by my hometown, Charlotte, NC to finally unify the urban communities surrounding its center into the fabric of the city. Specifically I am referring to the notorious West Side of Charlotte, the long neglected and misunderstood neighborhoods at the cusp of the developed town center and the renewal and change created by the Gateway Plaza development in the center city in the early 2000s.

I guess my point of view of this story is shaped by a variety of experiences. It is centered on the experience of my family and myself in connecting to our neighborhood and community, but not to the city I still call home. Over time my perception was shaped by my years in the military, a financial and management career that included real estate development and financing, a legal career interacting with developers, city planning and zoning boards and of course, politicians. My most recent career stop has been all about higher education and the role it plays in improving and enhancing our community. Lately my ideas have included the philosophy of my daughter, Erin Chantry, an Urban design specialist in Tampa, Fl.

I was born in a family residing in West Charlotte almost 70 years ago. Although my memories are generally positive of that experience, I can now remember many issues that confronted our neighborhood. Of course this predated the urban explosion that occurred a bit later, and there were no shopping centers, malls, belt-loops or super highways. If we needed something we could walk to the local grocery or take a bus to the center city, called “downtown” in those days. Everything was in the city and we could reach it all on foot. The serial movies and western heroes were the high spot of my weekly visit, followed by a stop at the dime store and an OJ at Tanners. The city was designed to accommodate bus transit and foot traffic and it was terrific. I loved my trips downtown and all the activities it included.

The Open Kitchen - a landmark restaurant on the West side of Charlotte

The Open Kitchen – a landmark restaurant on the West side of Charlotte

I loved my neighborhood. We all went to the neighborhood elementary school and played in the neighborhood park. We played in the neighborhood during summer evenings until 9 pm with no concern of trouble or crime. Of course we were all poor, but at least we were generally comparable in background and family. But to be honest, our low economic level directly translated to NO POLITICAL POWER. There were no advocates for our community and no one who saw we got our fair share. The infrastructure was not maintained. I remember digging our long drainage ditches because the city would not respond to our request for relief from flooding from the streams. Our Community Center, our Elementary School, our local roads were not maintained to the level as neighborhoods on the more affluent side of town. Visiting one of those schools for an away sports game was an education in how the city and its leadership was shifting resources away from the West Side and into the affluent neighborhoods. This was the basis of my relationship with my neighborhood and city. Over time the disconnect between the City and the West Side grew.

Community retail in West Charlotte

Community retail in West Charlotte

The West Side continued to decline as the income levels and wealth of inhabitants persistently decreased. The small, well maintained cottages deteriorated and the problems with crime began to grow. My family eventually left as the neighborhood became worse. The City’s efforts to help were largely ineffective. As the number of car owners surged and road traffic increased, a major interstate was built through the neighborhood. A major connector was built to enhance the driver’s experience, but did little for the neighborhoods. My old neighborhood became a major crime area. The baseball diamond where I played baseball became a leading site for drug deals. No inhabitants, especially children, ventured out after dark.

Over the years, as the West Side continued its decline, the City of Charlotte was booming as an economic center of the Southeast. The government built roads and more roads, feeding residential and commercial development in all directions, except the West Side. All these sections of the center of town developed high end residential space for the ever growing downtown business community, except the West Side. I remember standing in my wife’s old neighborhood, then mostly run down, slum like buildings, that overlooked a glorious urban skyline. Those views were priceless in other sides of town, but worthless in the West Side.

But as the City moved into a new century, a truly transformational decision was made that has completely changed the attitude toward the West Side. It began with strong business and financial leadership. The Bank of America, the biggest lessee of office space in the center city, was expanding its space needs again. The decision was made to move the data processing operation out of the center city towers into a new campus like development on the western edge of the center city. The real estate in the area was underutilized and unattractive for new development. But the bank saw beyond that. The City Urban Planning apparatus joined the effort to became an early partner in the process to build an “outpost” on the West Side and plans came together. The West Side Community Leadership was fully involved as new plans were created and vetted among the players. The Chamber of Commerce moved quickly to step up its recruiting for businesses to become tenants and financial institutions to supply capital. There was an early success, developing a partnership to bring the main campus of Johnson and Wales, a leading Culinary College, to this development, now called the Gateway Plaza. But that couldn’t occur without government assistance in the form of tax relief. This meant that local, county and state officials had to work together to structure a regulatory and taxation benefit program that would close the deal. It happened.

The result? The West Side is now being more fully integrated into the city. Development has continued along the western corridor, with a hotel, restaurants and shopping expanding. The recent recession was a negative blow to the process as it was everywhere, but the tide is now turning. Residential development has seen the rehabilitation of hundreds of classic older homes, modernized for a new generation. My wife’s old neighborhood has been transformed from a slum to a “National Historic Neighborhood”. New housing is being developed and transit service improved.

A rehabilitated house in West Charlotte

A rehabilitated house in West Charlotte

More importantly, I believe, is the further unification of the city. Residents of the West side can finally see their rightful role in the structure and fabric of the City. As more and more activities move to the Center City, like Pro Sports, Fine Arts and museum attractions, the West Side residents are able to reunite more fully with their city. It is a win for the West Side, but a greater win for the Center City.

What is ahead? It’s not hard to see large segments of property stretching out to the West, ripe for development. The international airport is further to the west and is spurring growth back toward the city. It is clear to me that the only way to change our attitudes and vision for urban living is by working together. After 7 decades of hit and miss, it took a concerted partnership among Urban Planners, Developers, Corporations, the Financial Community, Government and political interests, including community representation, to make a real difference and reach success. My fear? We are in a terrible historic period of ideology and philosophical rigidity, which greatly impedes the use of the one catalyst that can bring success – COMPROMISE.

I believe we will rise to the occasion, and avoid the fate we saw visited on the Jets and the Sharks – the only way to avoid the rumble is to put aside our difference and focus on the vision of Urban unification.

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Guest Post: “Invisioning Tampa” Through Public Involvement

7 Jul

Hi everyone! I hope you had a wonderful July 4th holiday. I apologize for being a little MIA this week. I was busy studying for the LEED-ND exam, which I thankfully passed this morning. While I had my head buried in prerequisites and credits, my fellow designer, Garrett Honeycutt wrote a great piece about his experience with a prominent public involvement project funded by HUD in Tampa: Invision Tampa. Enjoy!

Tampa recently began a planning process to create a master plan for Tampa’s city center. The area in consideration stretches from downtown to Ybor and up Nebraska Avenue. This planning process includes a major public involvement aspect, which allows Tampa’s residents to get involved and share their ideas about how to improve the community. The public involvement process includes public meetings at the convention center, neighborhood walking tours, and two websites—one of which is designed to allow the public to share their own ideas.

Invision Tampa area

The Invision Tampa study area. (Image: Invisiontampa.com)

The first experience I had with the planning process began at the main web page, invisiontampa.com, where I watched a video of Mayor Bob Buckhorn speak about the plan and how it would include the public perspective, “…we need your thoughts, your ideas, your experiences, and your voice,” said Bob. So, I perused the website and followed the links to read about the project, and how to get involved. Under the ‘get involved’ link is where I discovered the Mindmixer website. The title reads, “Inspire Your Community Through Virtual Idea Sharing.”

youinvisiontampa.com, the idea sharing website, was created by a company named Mindmixer whose websites are designed to encourage public participation using a points system based on participation. The points are given to users when another person agrees with their idea, when the user posts an idea, when the user comments on someone else’s idea, and when a user seconds someone else’s idea.

As of now, there are 286 users who have shared 455 ideas total on 26 different topics. The ideas people have been posting revolve around transportation, economic development, housing / retail / entertainment development, neighborhood connectivity, parks, and street design. Right now the most popular idea-post in the most popular chat room, under the most popular topic, is about urban design and urban housing. The first couple of sentences from JoAnne F1’s post reads: “If I had a magic wand for Tampa I would wave it twice. Once for more urban housing and revitalized downtown neighborhoods and another to help everyone understand that good urban design must be a priority for our city.”

So far, JoAnne F1 has had 20 seconds, and 11 comments from other users around Tampa. A lot of the comments are about the idea of creating minimum density zones in and around the city center in order to create high enough densities to support local business and public transportation, as well as encourage redevelopment in surrounding, low density ,neighborhoods.

Some of the ideas I posted became popular as well, and some are now marked as “Under Consideration.” The idea under consideration with the most Seconds that I posted is titled “Encourage Restoration of Buildings Along Franklin Street.”

It reads: “We should give incentives to renovate historic buildings along Franklin Street and encourage economic diversity in order to continue to create a kind of pedestrian oriented outdoor mall. We should also extend the street-car line up Franklin Street north of the new CAMLS building.”

Historic Franklin Street Tampa

Tampa’s Franklin Street (Image: All Posters)

Another idea I posted, which received a lot of Seconds but was not labeled Under Consideration is titled “Boats Along Bayshore.” It reads, “Sometimes I look out over Tampa Bay from Bayshore Boulevard and imagine sailboats coming in from the Caribbean to port. If Tampa had a youth sailing club and facility, across from Tampa General Hospital where the vacant boat docs are, the already dynamic Bayshore atmosphere would become even more so. Tourist would come from all over to see the longest continuous water front walkway in the world. Lets enhance Tampa’s great atmosphere along Bayshore with a youth sailing club.”

This and the previous idea were just two of the 11 ideas I posted, proving the website to at-the-least, catch my attention.

Boats Hillsborough Bay Bayshore

Boats in Hillsborough Bay along Bayshore (Image: Garrett Honeycutt)

In addition to the websites, the new master plan process reaches out to the community through walking tours. The walking tours were two-in-one public involvement meetings organized around the Tampa Bay area and promoted on the InVision website. The first part being a walk around the area of discussion, and the second being an idea sharing charette about the area in question. These walking tours were created for 8 different neighborhoods around Tampa: Ybor Heights, Tampa Heights, North Downtown, Old West Tampa, the Channel District, North Hyde Park, Historic Ybor, and Seminole Heights.

Personally, I attended the Channel District neighborhood walking tour, which proved to be very useful for collecting the public point of view, but not very effective at answering some of the more nitty-gritty questions. What are the limitations of the new master plan? Would it be possible to develop the land directly on the channel even though it is currently privately owned by the ship yard? Could the city give some type of incentive to convince the port it would be more profitable for them to develop the land into housing and retail than it would be to keep it as a ship yard? Questions like these seemed less interesting to the tour guides than questions about the public realm. Perhaps these ideas would be addressed at the final leg of the public involvement aspect of the InVision Tampa master plan, the Knowledge Exchange meetings.

The Knowledge Exchange meetings were held at the convention center and were designed to alternate between lectures from AECOM staff and table exercises from the audience.

At the Knowledge Exchange on May 30th sitting at a table 15 minutes before the meeting, Pete Sechler, the project manager and a principal at AECOM, asked me what I think should be priority for Tampa’s downtown master plan.

So, remembering my experience at the Channel District walking tour, and how developing private lands seemed to be more challenging than some other opportunities for improvement, I suggested that we should determine how difficult each idea would be to implement, in order to help rank priorities. He must have thought that was a good idea because he mentioned it and our conversation when he spoke to the room. He also spoke generally about how the project has been coming along with the website feedback and he talked about the success of the walking tours , then he said how important it was for us to get the word out and come to the next Knowledge Exchange meeting. The other speakers were very interesting and the table exercise were pointed and engaging.

So, between the news coverage with Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the two websites, the walking tours and the Knowledge Exchange meetings, I feel the master plan process was very successful in hearing the people’s point of view. In all there were 485 ideas contributed, from the Mindmixer site about how to improve Tampa’s city center, virtually hitting every aspect conceivable. I feel the public involvement process was a big success and the Tampa community should feel their ideas were at least taken note of. However, as successful as the process was, there were some frustrating limitations, almost as if the people in charge could not tell us the truth, the bad news, what usually happens with master plans once all the big ideas the public had become hopeful of achieving are spilled out and left in the hands of whoever. What happens next? Are the people who had high hopes for Tampa achieving big ideas through this master plan just getting their hopes up only to be let down?

One of the speakers at the Knowledge Exchange meeting saw Chattanooga Tennessee’s downtown planning process from beginning to end, and he emphasized how much time these things take, it was a common theme in his speech.

He saw Chattanooga riverfront development-plan implemented, changed, redesigned and implemented again for over 30 years into what it is today, and again, he said these things take time—information that would have been helpful on the walking tours, and information that should have been emphasized throughout the whole process.

So, I guess, if there is any criticism to Tampa’s master planning process so far, it would be that the public should be made more aware and better educated about how these things work and how exactly change happens. The public should not only know where the funding for the master plan came from, but also and more importantly where the future funding will come from in order to make these grand, but equally necessary, changes to Tampa’s city center into realities. The planning staff should be more informed and equipped to answer these tough questions, or if they are capable of answering the tough question they should not be discouraged to share incite with the public. The walking tours should have been more give-and-take, designed to gather public opinion and inform the public about what types of changes are likely to come sooner through the planning process and which changes would take more time, and how much time different ideas usually take, and what kind of ideas may just simply be out of the question.

If the intent was to inspire the public without discouraging, or discriminating between ideas, I feel the Mindmixer website did a sufficient job in doing this, and that the walking tours should have been a little more informative.

In all, the entire experience was fun and collaborative, but I wish it were a little more informative. I am hopeful and excited to see where the InVision Tampa master plan takes us from here.

Garrett Honeycutt has a Bachelor of Architecture from Florida Atlantic University and works as a designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Team at Tindale-Oliver & Associates in Tampa. 

Guest Post: Stepping Off the Curb and Into the Sunshine

23 May

Let me introduce to you Stephen Benson. I first met Stephen on my first visit to Tampa while interviewing for my current position. I could tell from his suave style and haircut that he was much more than your typical urban planner…and I was right! Please enjoy the following article on Florida’s pedestrian problem.

In recent years, the Sunshine State bore the brunt of national criticism regarding roadway safety due to our alarming record of pedestrian fatalities. While it’s true that we carry the highest pedestrian fatality rate when compared to our population, headlines seem to ignore the fact that this pedestrian safety problem is not unique to Florida. According to the 2011 ‘Dangerous by Design’ report released by Transportation for America, 9 of the top 10 states with the highest pedestrian fatality rates are “Sun Belt” states. The superficial response to this statement is that our beautiful, mild climate is the cause; sunshine and flat terrain promotes recreational demand and increases pedestrian activity. However, while mild climate certainly influences the lifestyles of this region, this conclusion falsely implies that nothing else can be done to improve pedestrian safety. Indeed pedestrian activity is influenced more by culture and the built environment than by the weather. This explains why densely populated northern cities like Seattle, New York, Boston and the District of Columbia have some of the nation’s highest walking, biking, and transit-riding populations, despite their harsh winters and challenging topography. Since pedestrian activity is high, it’s not a surprise that these denser urban centers experience more annual pedestrian fatality counts. But when population is factored into the equation, northern cities fare from low to about average in pedestrian fatality rates, and southern cities and states jump to the top of the list. The real curiosity comes when you consider that even the largest metro areas in the South – Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Miami – are still largely suburban in nature and thus dominated by automobile travelers. This begs the question, how is it that states with relatively low pedestrian activity generate higher pedestrian fatality rates when normalized by population?

The answer lies in the built environment and its impact on mobility. The complex pattern is more evident when approached from a macro perspective. The pedestrian fatality problem can be traced to three primary trends: overwhelming levels of (suburban) growth since the 1960s, large communities of economically disadvantaged citizens with lower educational attainment, and higher proportions of transportation disadvantaged persons (children and the elderly). These land use and socio-economic conditions heavily influence the transportation system – and directly impact pedestrian safety issues.

The vast majority of growth in the South since 1960 has been typically suburban in nature – characterized by an intentional separation of land uses and hierarchical street systems with low connectivity and wide 6-lane (or more) arterial roadways. This type of built environment is simply not conducive to pedestrian travel because walking distances are much farther and wide roadways are more challenging for pedestrians to safely cross. Very often, pedestrians choose to cross mid-block simply because it is easier to evaluate fewer automobile movements at once. Major arterial intersections may be built precisely to engineering standards and possess upgraded pedestrian features, but if a pedestrian feels intimidated by an intersection they will choose to cross elsewhere. Suffice it to say that transportation disadvantaged and economically disadvantaged populations – who rely on transit, walking, and bicycling to get around – are often overwhelmingly present in these areas and are forced to use a system that might not have been designed with their mobility in mind.

Neighborhood design has a direct impact on pedestrian safety and the overall pedestrian experience. One of the most important factors lies in crossing distances – generally the fewer lanes a pedestrian must cross, the better. With each additional travel lane comes higher auto-travel speeds and a greater crossing distance for a pedestrian. This translates to a higher safety risk. If a protected median is not present to provide a safe place to pause when crossing, pedestrians must evaluate and avoid automobile traffic traveling in both directions – a task that is often impossible to do while crossing one hundred feet of asphalt on a 6-lane (or more) roadway. In the South, these wide suburban roadways are far more common than in the North, and southern suburban development patterns provide fewer alternate routes along safer “side streets” more common in the street grids of northern cities. Most northern metro areas were built out well before 1950, and their built environments are uniquely characterized by denser development patterns – mixed-use zoning and gridded street systems. While at the heart of some southern cities lay pockets of relatively dense street grids, these southern pre-industrial neighborhoods are quite small, and usually house a miniscule proportion of metro populations. Southern metro areas were built out much later in the 20th century – at the height of suburbanization – and are largely characterized by these development patterns. Even in the small dense urban centers of the south, we have worked tirelessly to redesign existing urban transportation infrastructure to meet new suburban roadway design standards – widening to eleven-foot travel lanes, busting curbs to increase turning radii at intersections, installing continuous right-turn lanes, etc. Only recently have transportation professionals begun to consider “context sensitive” roadway design solutions and develop standards for implementation.

Pedestrian Crossing Not At Intersection

Pedestrians often perceive crossing mid-block as safer than crossing at an intersection no turning movements and no intersecting roadway. (Source: CURBED) Would you feel safe crossing the street at this location? Would you allow your child to? (Source: Steve Roos)

According to a 2010 report released by Brookings on ‘Suburban Poverty,’ over the last decade poor populations in major American metropolitan areas increased by nearly 6 million and the vast majority of that growth occurred in suburban areas. Furthermore, over the last few years the metro areas with the highest increases in poverty rates were “Sun Belt” cities throughout Florida and California. It’s no coincidence that Florida and California are also the top two states for pedestrian fatality rates. Indeed pedestrian safety is not only a transportation problem, but a fundamental social justice issue. The passing of the American’s with Disabilities Act adopted national standards for pedestrian mobility in the name of civil rights. It is our responsibility as planners to recognize the significance of pedestrian mobility and safety in our daily work.

The long-term solution lies in the way we plan, design and redesign the built environment. This calls for a reevaluation of fundamental land use and transportation principles that have guided development patterns for the last half-century. Indeed, denser mixed-use areas with smaller roadways and more street connectivity have societal benefits from many perspectives – public health, urban design, public utilities and services, and affordable housing. But, these places also tend to be safer for pedestrians. Ensuring that new development follows these pedestrian-friendly guidelines will be the challenge of the future.

The short-term solution to pedestrian safety requires a holistic approach that reaches across many professions and disciplines. The first step begins in identifying the top five corridors in your area that carry the most severe-injury pedestrian crashes and fatalities. The challenge is then to implement aggressive educational outreach, law enforcement activities and innovative engineering strategies to reduce pedestrian crashes based on the individual crash patterns on these corridors. Every community has unique safety challenges and a sustained, coordinated multidisciplinary approach is the best strategy to solve these problems. However, nearly every community has a handful of roadways that combined carry the majority of the pedestrian crashes. Focus on making the largest impact on these corridors.

Good planning and good design includes planning for a safe pedestrian environment.

Good planning and good design includes planning for a safe pedestrian environment. (Source: Greater Greater Washington and Urban Review STL)

Florida’s pedestrian safety problem is not simply another statistic to lament over, or a problem for “the engineers” to fix, and it’s certainly not a side-effect of too much sunshine. As planners, we are guided by the AICP Code of Ethics: “We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration. We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.” Addressing pedestrian safety should serve as another opportunity for us to promote building better communities that truly serve everyone. It is not simply our job to plan for the needs of society, but it is our duty to take action, be proactive, and do everything within our ability to ensure these needs are fulfilled.

This article was originally printed in the Winter 2012 issue of Florida Planning Magazine, published by the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association.

Stephen is a transportation planner for Tindale-Oliver & Associates in Tampa, Florida. He holds a BA in Geography and a master’s degree in Urban & Regional Planning from the University of South Florida. His expertise includes transportation safety and planning for bicyclists and pedestrians. He is currently interested in examining the relationship between transportation safety and land use patterns, and identifying coordinated multidisciplinary strategies to mitigate the consequences of urban sprawl.

Guest Post: Meditations on Mobility in England

11 Feb

I am happy to introduce a new guest post series on this blog. It’s my goal to create a place where lovers of the built environment can share their thoughts, observations, and passions. Please let me know if you’re interested in writing!

My choice of first guest blogger was an easy one. I first met Franny when I was 16: we lived across the hall from each other at boarding school. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would both become urban designers and planners. After losing touch for over a decade, we recently reconnected through social media and a mutual friend. She moved to England at the same time I left England. It’s been a joy to share thoughts, build my blog, and enter a design competition with someone who shares a trans-Atlantic knowledge of planning. Enjoy the post and please check out her blog, Ink and Compass, here.

I spent the last two years of my life in Cambridge, MA, which is notorious in the US for being one of the least car-friendly cities in North America. There are one-way streets, roads that double back on themselves, lots of no-left-turn signs, and lots of pedestrians, buses, cyclists, and other cars. Even though I had a car while I lived there, I loathed to drive it anywhere but the grocery store.

When I moved to Cambridge, UK, I left my car behind. The city is small and compact. The terrace house architecture means that few houses come with dedicated parking spots, and on-street parking is hard to come by. Although most streets are two-way, they are so narrow that they can accommodate a car and a cyclist, if both slow down and pass carefully. When two cars meet going opposite directions, an elaborate dance happens.

A friend tried to drop me off at my house last night, but even after four months here, I was foiled by the labyrinth of dead-end streets in my neighborhood, which I have only navigated on foot. We finally gave up when she got me within a few minutes’ walk of my house.

In short: you have to be nuts to want a car in my neighborhood. Of course, people still have them, and car ownership is still an aspirational thing in England, as it is elsewhere. People feel strongly here, as they do in the US, that policies that discourage car ownership are an infringement on their freedom.

And yet: in 2008, the UK had only 525 cars per 1000 people, while the US had 828. What are the fundamental differences in our cultures that the US has 60% higher car-to-resident ratio?

The most obvious thing is the built environment. Below is a map of my neighborhood. I’ve included the most efficient route between my house (point A) and the nearby commercial strip, Mill Road, in a car. Some of the streets are one-way, but most are bisected by cute little cut-throughs. Most allow for emergency access. The streets are also so narrow that driving and parking can be extremely unpleasant; see below for a typical street.  And there are all sorts of very small ways in which the design of streets is more accommodating to cycles (without making things worse for automobiles). My favorite is that many of the old homes have hitching rings that have been re-purposed or replaces as cycle lock-up site.

Cambridge has also invested heavily in keeping cars out of the city center. While this is partly to do with pollution, congestion, quality of life, etc, I think it mostly has to with the fact that there is simply not space for all the cars. The city has five park-and-ride locations outside the city. There is a centrally-located bus depot and a brand-new bus rapid transit line with accompanying cycle path.

Courtesy railforthevalley.com

Which brings me to my next point: the UK also has an extensive off-road bike network. Although in many places it is not well-lit, which makes year-round use a problem, it does provide a sheltered and safe means of transport for people who are not confident sharing the street with cars. I did my friend Lauren’s 10 mile commute in December, just for an adventure, and I was amazed by how much of the route was on dedicated paths.

Because of the urban design considerations, and the difficulty driving, many people elect to cycle where Americans would throw in the towel. In my neighbourhood, it is common to see two or three children strapped to their parents’ cycles, or riding in a cargo trailer.  I personally like the ones that have a front cabin for children; I’ve written about ways to encourage riding with childrenat Ink & Compass.

Of course, urban design is not destiny. There is also the fact that the UK has no domestic source of oil and no major car manufacturers to howl about petrol prices, so the cost of car ownership is higher here. The bus system is privatized and covers more territory because of the need to serve small villages, reducing the isolation of people who live in rural or quasi-rural areas. And while I am new to the country, it seems to me that buses have less stigma – less association with poverty – than in the US.

There are many occasions, both here and in the US, where car ownership is necessary or practical, but in England, people do not suffer from dramatically decreased mobility despite having far fewer cars per capita. There are all sorts of lessons that the US could take from the UK to begin to move toward less dependence on personal cars.

Franny Ritchie, of the planning & geography blog Ink and Compass and is a recent graduate of MIT’s urban planning program.  She moved from Cambridge, MA to Cambridge, UK this past October, and she’s thrilled to be the first guest blogger at At Helm of the Public Realm.

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