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Tag Archives: The Congress for the New Urbanism

Clearer Thinking: Urbanism + Transit.

15 May

Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, told us he was at CNU20 to preach a little fire and brimstone:  transportation planner to new urbanist. While I wouldn’t call it brimstone, he definitely spoke passionately about real issues that need to be considered in enriching people’s lives. While I certainly subscribe to most New Urbanist principles, and am a card-carrying member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I appreciated Walker’s candid challenge of the art behind the movement. He began his lecture by saying, “You know all those little people you draw in pastel and watercolor? Well, they are citizens of society, not going where you think they will, but where they want to.” That was a straight shot on the idealistic “if you build it, they will come” mentality that exists among some members of the CNU. Him, you, me…all of us…want to feel in control and active in how we navigate our built environment.

An example of those people we draw who are not going “where we want them to” (Source: Calgary-Canada Lands Comany)

One of the great things about the New Urbanism movement is that its principles are very relevant to many sectors of the built environment and has, therefore, welcomed members with many different views and beliefs. From his delivery, I don’t think Jarrett Walker would call himself a new urbanist, but he and I share the same priorities on transit.

Prior to Walker’s presentation as part of Clearer Thinking: Urbanism + Transit, G.B. Arrington of Parsons Brinckerhoff / Placemaking gave us “5 Things New Urbanists Need to Know about Transit,” which laid a foundation for the rest of the session. Three of them stand out in particular. The five points are as follows:

  1. Transit Is Not What It Used to Be About – Transit is not about the work trip, the relief of congestion, or brief interventions. Transit is now relevant to all trips, all purposes, and community building.
  2. Distance Matters Differently Between Users – Different users are willing to travel different distances using transit before they resort to their automobile. The most connections should be made within 600 feet. Past that, users drop off quickly (between 1/4 mile and a 1/2 mile riders drop by 50%) so placing retail and office uses within this distance is most important.
  3. The Land Use Gap – Built environment professionals are responsible for designing transit-ready neighborhoods based around connected and complete streets. Other built environment professions are responsible for planning the transit system. The gap is that there is no one responsible for merging the two together.
  4. Lifecycles in Planning – The planning cycle for transit oriented development and the planning cycle for a rail system can have a difference of a decade, which is longer than a typical market cycle.
  5. Mode Is Not As Important as You Think – Let the land use/corridor determine the mode. What matters much more is the location, market, and frequency of service.

Built upon this foundation was Walker’s argument:  abundancy = efficiency. What matters is lots of service going where you need it to go and the ability for users to be spontaneous in their use of the system. This is the benefit of the car and it is required of our public transportation system to compete. That is the first and most important requirement in making transit a viable alternative in America.

Walker said that the goal of abundant transit requires thinking about how transit can be useful to many kind of trips, not just a few specialized movements such as downtown commutes or senior citizen needs.  Instead, we need to design services that are useful to many different people at once.  Moving bus stops further apart, for example, imposes some inconvenience on some seniors but dramatically improves the usefulness of service for the city as a whole, by increasing its speed.

Secondly, Walker suggests that New Urbanism is really hung up on rail as the only way to support transit oriented development (TOD), but that where rail’s capacity (passengers/driver) is not required, the most efficient mode of transportation is the bus. Perhaps the reason for the obsession with rail is that the alternative is identified with a huge social stigma in the U.S. Issues of race and poverty overshadow the bus system. We have to change this stigma to be able to use effectively our most abundant and, therefore, efficient mode of transit.

Thirdly, we must combine our modes seamlessly in order to achieve the optimal amount of efficiency. Walker told the story of his experience of using public transit in Germany. When he arrived at the train station in Heidelberg, he was told he needed to take the 32. He found the appropriate platform, which was beside a set of tracks. He expected a streetcar to arrive, but instead a bus pulled over the tracks. He then transferred to a streetcar, where he could not distinguish between the inside of the two. A perfect and seamless integration of the modes meant that it didn’t matter if you were on a bus, streetcar, train, etc. They were all getting you where you needed to go.

Jarrett Walker’s Journey Heidelberg

Jarrett Walker’s Journey in Heidelberg: Bus 32 acted as a streetcar in a seamless multimodal transportation network. (Source: Jarrett Walker)

Geneva Rail For The Valley

Efficiency in abundancy and the seamless integration of modes. (Source: Rail for the Valley)

Most importantly, Walker makes the point that transit needs to become more transparent, efficient, and functional so that people can take responsibility for where and how they live. He has developed a software tool that shows from any location in Portland where you can get within a certain amount of time on transit systems. The results are blobs on a map in varying degrees of hues, representing periods of time. Not surprisingly, the blobs are bigger and darker the closer the location to the city center. Reproduced for the entire country and made accessible to all, similar to the effect of providing nutrition facts on food packaging, people will be able to make responsible transit decisions that will give them greater control of their mobility.

These achievements in transit will allow people to live freely, abundantly, and spontaneously, which in turn will enrich our lives and our communities. While I believe there is value in making transit use enjoyable, pleasant, comfortable, and even fun, I believe more strongly in Walker’s opinion that more than the “color of our seats,” we care about getting where we want to go faster.

This post can also be found at Tindale-Oliver & Associates.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.
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CNU20: The New World in West Palm Beach.

29 Apr

In 9 days, a lot of us will be traveling to West Palm Beach in Florida for the CNU20 conference to celebrate and learn more about New Urbanism. I have been invited by CNU to attend as a member of the press. I will be there to represent my blog and my employer, Tindale-Oliver and Associates. Honored and excited, I will be posting live throughout the week on the Plenary and Breakout sessions I attend daily. To get updates from CNU20 as I post them, please sign up for email alerts on the right hand side of this page. Also check me out on Twitter @helmpublicrealm. I will surely be tweeting a lot that week. I can’t wait to get writing and share what will no doubt be an exciting time with you. For those new to this blog, catch up on my previous posts by selecting a topic on the right or click the title at the head of the page to visit the home page.

Below are the sessions I will be writing about daily:

Plenary Sessions:

Looking Forward: New Urbanism and the New World with Andres Duany, Peter Calthorpe, and Others

Friday Night Plenary with Richard Florida

Saturday Morning Plenary Featuring Leon Krier

Break Out Sessions:

Space, the First but Not Final Frontier: Analyzing Space, Uses, and Transportation

Why Did We Stop Walking& How Do We Start Again? The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City

From Balanced Roads to Transit Oriented Development

Florida Mobility Policies: Regional Rail to Enhance Mobility

Clear Thinking: Urbanism + Transit

Functional Classification: The Least Interesting Policy That Dominates Most Everything

Realizing Streets for Everyone, and Getting Someone Else to Pay for Them: Funding, Designing and Implementing Complete Streets

Beyond Bike Lanes: Building a Culture of Bicycle Safety

You might notice the sessions I am attending are mostly transportation oriented. There are two reasons for this: The first, and most straightforward is that I am an urban designer at what traditionally has been a transportation planning and engineering firm in Florida. As the planning demands and expectations for a more sustainable built environment have shifted, it is undeniable that transportation planning and land use design are required to be more integrated. Secondly, and most importantly, the last few years of my career have made it clear that a real change in behavior from people requires public transit. Without it, it is unlikely that you will be able to peel us away from our cars and large parking lots. The result will continue to be devastating. Therefore, it is my commitment as an urban designer to become as knowledgeable as I can about how to make public transit a reality throughout the entire country. I want every individual to easily be able to access a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, light rail, a streetcar, or safe cycling lanes (and I want them all to be connected to one another), in my lifetime. Let the challenge begin…

My regular readers out there will know that I am a fan of the Congress for the New Urbanism, because unlike many of us, they have figured out a way to market (and even make trendy) traditional urban design principles, sustainability, and my favorite: connectivity. They did not reinvent the wheel, they did not come up with huge new ideas. They took traditional urban design principles that every place was built around before the introduction of the automobile, and repackaged them to make them relevant for our modern-day challenges. In short: genius. Often built environment professionals try to figure out the difference between TOD, TND, New Urbanism, mixed-use developments, etc. My answer is: not much. They are all variants on introducing the same age-old traditional urban design principles to the way we develop land today. What all these movements have done is brand themselves around that slight variant. Power to them, and anything that makes traditional urban design principles popular and easily understood, I am in support of. So  in short, yes, I have officially jumped on the CNU bandwagon.

No matter where my journey as an urban designer has taken me I have always met some critics of the movement, and let me address those here before we get this CNU20 party started.

Some of the most famous examples of New Urbanism: Seaside, FL; Celebration, FL; Kentlands, MD: Mesa del Sol, NM

(Source)(Source)(Source)(Source)

One of the most popular criticisms of CNU is that the developments appear as if they are stuck in the past, and not addressing what is contemporary and relevant. This trait is mostly identified by the very traditional architecture that in some cases shadows the true beauty of historic styles. The argument: shouldn’t a movement that is addressing the most critical and relevant concerns appear to be modern? My response: Yeah, that’s a totally fair argument.

Another criticism is that some of the big thinkers of the movement do not properly understand the economic impact that the design of New Urbanism developments can have, or at the very least, there is not a clear correlation between physical design and economic impact. They are accused of not realizing that mixed uses are extremely difficult to achieve in some locations, that the development’s “town centers” are often way to small and cannot grow and adapt over time, and commercial uses are often located where they are promised to fail. My response: Once again, I can see this point and in some cases it is warranted.

Finally, one of the last criticisms of New Urbanism developments is that they’re often being built on greenfield sites. This wastes more land instead of retrofitting the acres and acres of suburban wasteland. Umm….yeah, this is partly true.

But here is my response to all of those, and it is very simple. The urban design process is built on layers, the first being the most permanent, the last being the most transient. The first layer (the Underlying Landscape) is the terrain that we have been given. While it can be morphed through some expensive engineering work, it for the most part is very permanent and rarely changes. The second layer (the Street Network), often lasts for centuries. Many of the most used streets in Europe were built by Romans. Of course they have been modernized, but the actual route was first determined by the Roman Empire. When we build roads, we lay very expensive and complicated infrastructure. In reality, the street network we build will always be there. The third layer (Plots), is the way we divvy up the blocks made by the street network. These get tied up in legally and don’t change a whole lot. However, developers come along all the time and acquire lots for their projects. Compared to the first two, plots can change much easier. The fourth and fifth layers (Buildings and Public Spaces) can change comparatively easily and all the time. While we cherish our historic buildings, the average structure has a lifespan of only 40 years. So when we build that buildings that kills the life of the urban realm all around it, don’t worry it can be knocked down, and it often is.

I take the time to explain this, because a lot of the New Urbanism criticism is hung up on the fourth and fifth layers. My point is, is that we have so royally screwed up the second layer and in some cases the third, that we have bigger fish to fry. The connectivity and design of our street network is SO important in creating social and economic opportunities, not to mention allow a public transportation system to run efficiently, that we have to get that right. I love New Urbanism because it makes connectivity, grids, and perimeter blocks trendy. And in almost all the cases New Urbanism developments are very connected with beautiful streetscapes. I honestly don’t really care about the buildings that are being built within them. Because in 100 years they’ll probably all be gone, but that street network will still be going strong.

And yes, it’s not so great that greenfield sites are still being rampantly developed, but this is not New Urbanism’s fault. Development along highway exits will happen in this free market society until there is an enormous shift, it might as well be connected, permeable, and not a bunch of cul-da-sacs. One day when we sort out our public transportation, New Urbanism developments will be able to adapt and therefore be more successful than auto-centric developments.

So there are my two cents on New Urbanism. It ain’t perfect, but what is? The part that is done right, is the most important. I can’t wait to get to West Palm Beach and hear the biggest fore-thinkers in our profession speak. It will be a huge joy to write about it and hopefully see this blog turn into a place for lively discussion. I am honored to be in attendance, and I will no doubt leave as a better designer….and with a suntan!

West Palm Beach – the location of CNU20. Tough life right!? (http://miamiagentmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/west-palm-beach.jpg)

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not represent those of Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Inc.

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