Tag Archives: New Urban

Bumpy rides a thing of the past, again.

          

Does a driver exist who actually likes speed bumps and humps?  If not, what are these road skin inflammations doing at mid-block or at intersections?

 It seems ironic that we paved bumpy, dirt roads to ease our trip and then, some half a century later, we purposely create bumps that turn it unpleasant. It’s also strange that at intersections, our three natural options for continuing on are often curtailed to two or just one; surprised and stuck with no choice! These changes sure look like embarrassing afterthoughts.

Bollards turn a 4-way junction into 3-way. Landscaping offers a relief.

We normally do renovations to systems that no longer meet requirements which stem from a new understanding of health, safety or efficiency concerns. We change steep stairs to prevent falls or upgrade an electrical service to power more home appliances.

But why remodel streets? After all they have functioned for hundreds of years.  True, but in the last hundred much has changed in them that slipped in unnoticed.

First, speed on the streets increased from a leisurely 5 km/hr to a hurried 30 and up to fifty; a six-fold increase at least. Then the size of their occupants increased from about a four square feet, a man’s footprint, to a driver’s of 200 square feet; a 50-fold increase. In addition, noise levels climbed from the human chatter of 50 decibels to the truck and motorcycle clatter of 75 decibels, more than a 100-fold increase in ear pressure.  And finally, a subtle existential angst pervades the streets; a wolf has found its way into a sheep’s pen; risk is lurking at every corner. These entirely new urban conditions call for remodelling; and remodelling we did and it will be going on for a while.

Take the cross intersection for example, a relic from the past. When people come to it, it’s a meeting place, but when cars reach it, it turns into a conflict zone. There are 32 ways that cars can collide in it. Unless the intersection is signed or signalized, every driver naturally believes in his right to act and move first.  Stats show that 4-way intersections have much higher frequency of collisions than the 3-way alternative.  The lesson learned, neighbourhoods started to remodel their 4-way junctions. One approach is to close one of the crossing streets at the intersection, promptly turning it into a 3-way.  Bollards, a clump of trees or planters make the closure an attractive feature. The second means is to install a traffic circle in the exact centre of the intersection. From a driver’s perspective, this addition has the effect of turning the crossing point into four virtual3-way junctions; direct forward movement is not an option. As with the closure, the circle can host shrubs, flowers, or a tree improving the street ambiance. Closures and traffic circles are just two of many ways of adapting the old network to the traffic it did not anticipate.

When remodelling or designing neighbourhoods for traffic, two goals are uppermost:  Safety and flow and in that order. 

What can traffic circles do for safety? Seattle’s traffic safety program, starting in the 90s, evaluated the impact of 119 traffic circles on accidents and injuries. It showed a whopping 90 percent reduction in both. And when counting all costs related to accidents, the installation proved convincingly cost effective. Five hundred more installations followed.

 Vancouver did its own renovation and remodelling of certain streets. It included street closures, traffic circles, diverters, curb extensions, and extra traffic signs. A study, that looked at the before and after frequencies of collisions and injuries in the entire district, found that there was a general reduction of accidents by 15 percent and, within neighbourhoods, of about 25 percent.

A small circle, provides a great safety bonus

But do traffic circles improve flow? Surprisingly, yes. Even though drivers slow down to negotiate the circle and other cars, the total network flow performance improves.

The lesson: neighbourhoods can do without the old four way intersections and improve safety to boot. Traffic circles are smarter bumps that cars drive by not over, recapturing the comfort of a smooth drive.

 These renovations bring welcome improvements to an antiquated network system.

New neighbourhoods can use the lessons from these upgrades and provide a safe and well functioning network from the start. The techniques are easy to apply:

a)      Avoid intersections entirely within a neighbourhood; unimaginable but possible.

b)      When junctions are necessary, use the 3-way version

c)      Use turns, not curves or bumps,  to slow down cars

d)      On streets surrounding the neighbourhood use traffic circles at the intersections

With these features in place, bumpy rides can be a thing of the past, again.

Ref: Seattle’s traffic safety program: http://www.usroads.com/journals/rmej/9801/rm980102.htm

 

Green them and they will walk – How to get people on a healthy path

Planners feel uncomfortable when reading the stats on the prevailing trends in travel:  Car ownership is growing steadily, personal driving is rising, walking and bicycling are declining, and fewer children walk to school. Also discomforting are the stats about increasing levels of obesity among adults and children and the growing number of cases of lung and other complications due to poor air quality.  This unease propels a strong drive to change how communities are planned and built.  Can different planning techniques stall or reverse these trends?

black to green grid
The uniform car grid morphs into a pedestrian haven

Take air pollution for example, some 18% of which stems from personal driving. For their first 80 years in the city, cars were running without catalytic converters; the unhealthy result was inevitable but also unsustainable.  In comes the “cat-con” car in the 80s that reduces smog dramatically; a simple, inexpensive, regulated device with an enormous positive effect; same city, more cars, more driving but far fewer noxious gases. Planners and developers had little to do either with the problem or its solutions. Looking fifty years ahead, fuel-cell, full electric and hybrid cars, now in production, will send fewer or no gases out the exhaust pipe; same city, no pollution.  When driving must be done, improved technology could make it healthier for people and the planet alike.

But rehabilitating the tailpipe still leaves parents, children and everyone else stuck in their cars driving to nearby or long destinations; an unhealthy routine, particularly for children.  Can people be enticed out of their cars and on to their bikes and feet? What do we know about habits, inducements and their influence? What can a developer do about less driving in a new subdivision?

We know that travel to work accounts for about 40% of all driving and understand that shifting it to other means is a long shot. A CMHC study (2010) showed that there was no difference in the use of transit among eight suburban neighbourhoods (at a mere 9%) even though four were designed to be transit-friendly. Evidently, the decisive factors lie outside the developer’s subdivision plans.

Neighbourhood Opportunity

But at the neighbourhood scale, the developer can have an influence. We know increasingly more and with greater accuracy about design features that could lead to more walking in the neighbourhood.  It all rests on two key concepts: connectivity and permeability.  Connectivity translates into how often people can turn a corner within their neighbourhood. If you can count at least 30-to-40 intersections in a square kilometer, check “good”. More is better.  Permeability is about filtering and preferential treatment. When walkers, joggers and cyclists can keep going beyond where cars can, they get an advantage. Research findings confirm that they prefer it that way.  

Filtered permeability can be best grasped with a drawing. It shows a classic uniform grid (Portland) and one possible modification (right) to benefit pedestrians. The grid with its high connectivity (160 intersections per km) remains the same, but half the streets become paths for pedestrians and bikes. Cars have access to all blocks but not all streets. Permeability favours pedestrians; the joy of walking intensifies.

One more idea added to these two completes the enticement platter – proximity.   It means having destinations nearby such as parks, playgrounds, convenience stores, schools, barbers and such.

A street transformed from car-realm to people haven

The good news

The results are in for these three alluring attributes that would predictably and measurably increase walking.

The CMHC study (above) showed that the two layouts with the highest connectivity  scored 100% more walking trips above the average of all eight neighbourhoods and about 300% more than those with the least walking trips. Not only did they have high connectivity, they also had the highest number of pedestrian paths. The positive influence of the paths is made clearer by the contrasting numbers of a neighbourhood with  a low walking score had just as high connectivity as the ones with top walking scores  but  had few pedestrian paths. Connectivity  works best when complemented with paths.

More and precise evidence comes from a Memorial University (2010) study: of seven neighbourhood designs two stand above the rest with 25%  and 32% more walking in the set; both have paths separate from the regular streets . In addition to increasing walking, they also lowered driving by about 10%. 

An earlier CMHC study (2008) found that the presence of separate paths increased walking by 11.3% and its higher pedestrian connectivity reduced local car kilometers by 23%.  Separately, another study concluded that having a recreation, green space close to home would get more young people walking.

Though locally reduced  driving remains in the range of 78 (lowest) to 81(average) percent of all trips. But we can now trust that it is possible to get more people back on their feet. Green their streets and they will walk.

A Street you can call your own

 

There are two languages in currency that we use to talk about streets: one used by people who live on them and another favoured by transportation engineers. The first expresses our experience of streets and the other describes what each does in a “system”, the transportation network system.

People say they live on a “residential” street or a quiet street, on “main” street or a busy street; words that express an atmosphere, a feeling with always a hint of affection or disapproval. In the “system” or “network” these streets could be “local”, “collector” or “arterial”; neutral labels that ascribe daily car volumes, and imply number of lanes and permissible speeds; people and milieu are out of the picture. This impersonal language stems from a gradual shift in the street ownership from full people ownership to shared ownership with the car, the majority holder.

A narrow exclusively pedestrian street that evokes a welcoming feeling

 Streets were places where people strolled, kids played games and tricks, conversations started, adults traded ideas and goods and, occasionally, a spontaneous display of talent took place; that was the “public realm”, fully owned and used by people. A new owner, the car, now claims rights to the street space and a new craft has emerged to accommodate its requirements. Along with the craft came a new language, the “system” language of classification. When it is translated into design on the ground the result is inhospitable, unfriendly, unattractive streetscapes. 

To shape a welcome outcome when planning a street, the question to ask is: Whose street is it? 

To recover the craft of making streets people bond to, the path may start by rediscovering the meaning of original street words and their story. “Avenue,” for example, originally meant an approach leading to a country house, usually framed by a double row of trees. On the map, such an approach would resemble an impasse, a private lane with just one big house on it.  Later, avenue also meant a spacious road with large, shady trees on both sides. But shortly after, seen as serving primarily the car, it lost its trees and turned into a naked, wide, asphalt-and-cement road with up to 25,000 cars passing by each day.  But this need not be the case.

A similar story unfolds around the boulevards. Originally, they were wide promenades that replaced the obsolete fortifications. Fully landscaped, with spacious sidewalks, they created a country-like atmosphere often enhanced by an occasional park. Street crossing happened casually and leisurely anywhere, at whim. And, following the trace of the defence walls, boulevards circled the city. They were so charming and so conducive to socializing that they even generated a new class of citizens, those who frequented them: the boulevardiers. But being wide and continuous, boulevards naturally fell prey to the service of motor transport, losing the atmosphere that made their name synonymous with charm and leisure time. But this need not be the case when designing new ones.

The avenue story tells us about the importance of quiet and nature in a residential street. And since the majority of streets in every city are residential, there is a lot of opportunity for innovation. First, limit car access to residents-only or make them entirely pedestrian. People-permeable cul-de-sacs or loops do this well. Then use mostly 3-way intersections and use turns to slow cars down. Be generous with tree planting. Nothing surpasses the delight and comfort of a street that has been canopied over by a double row of trees. With these elements in place, majority ownership shifts to residents; and they love it. It sounds almost too good to be practical. Yet this is exactly what was built in Vauban, Germany and it changed our  perception of what’s possible.

The boulevard story brings the message of space, plenty of space – for people. When planning them, change the balance between car and people space. Instead of the now usual four or six car lanes to one half equivalent people-space on the sides, make it four to one or to two. Similarly, when six lanes are allocated to the car, give two or three to people, a la Champs Elysees. This means a virtual linear park on either side of the boulevard with three or more rows of trees and a bike path separate from the road. Add trees and shrubs to a wide median also. The traffic is still there, but now people have plenty of room to walk, stroll, loiter and chat in a charming milieu, their own realm. Alternatively, separate the two streams of traffic by a building block and fill it with a variety of public spaces that make it a predominantly pedestrian area.

Using these techniques, streets can become places that people can call their own.

Closer for coziness, fun, safety and profit.

 Coming back from a cottage vacation, visions of places with the alluring attributes of a cottage emerge: A large lot, fronting a quiet, densely planted street and backing on to a lake, river or woods. Real estate price comparisons between locations of contrasting attributes confirm this craving. Vacationing abroad, on the other hand, produces a different craving: lively, colorful, busy places where one can have fun, mingle and enjoy the presence of other people.

 People bond to both kinds of places and want both. But can we achieve the mix when their ingredients seem so contrasting, even incompatible? Looking around for clues, we find that the key to the blend is “moderate closeness”.

 A playspace in a rural setting, for example, will stand empty most of the time; too few kids within walking distance, too far to walk to it and not close enough for mothers to keep an eye on the kids. The same would be true of the streets; mostly empty. Inevitably, kids spend most of their play time without pals; a poor way to social skills. Parents too live secluded lives in that milieu. Clearly, the houses are too far apart to create the “critical social mass”. 

A play space as a focal point in a compact neighbourhood

                          A similar situation, but for different reasons, arises at the other end of closeness – apartment living; too few kids, much isolation and very little interaction. The view from the balcony may be stunning but from the keyhole viewer it is precautionary.

Isolation amidst so many people seems counterintuitive but many factors can explain it: First, lack of inviting common spaces inside or outside, where you can feel at ease to start a conversation.  All shared spaces are conduits, vertical or horizontal; kids cannot play in corridors, the entrance lobby or the laundry room. Then it is people statistics. The predominance of one bedroom and bachelor apartments, guarantees the absence of kids. Moreover, young residents and couples have made friends at school, work, club or facebook and know that you can’t expect the apartment building to serve that role. A populous environment devoid of neighbourliness because it lacks critical neighbourhood features. It need not be so.

 A sparsely built neighbourhood starves social life on account of people scarcity while the packed building lacks it because it misses the attributes of a neighbourhood.

 What environment would strike the perfect balance? What is the “critical mass” of a flourishing neighbourhood?

 And then the risk of antisocial trespassers and intruders pertains.  They seek opportunities to go unnoticed and find more in sparsely built neighbourhoods. Closeness reduces these opportunities.  Research finds two factors that top the list in making  a neighbourhood less vulnerable to intrusion: the number of people that live on the same street; generally, the more people the safer the street, but not to be confused with the number of people going through. The latter may increase the risk as the number goes up. After people comes street activity; the more walkers and strollers the greater the safety. 

A cul-de-sac permeable for pedestrians only can be a play and social space

Researchers agree that the magic number for a friendly neighbourhood is in the range of 45 to 60 people per hectare.  Translated into homes, at 2.5 people per household, these numbers would mean mostly townhouses and some apartments; pointless if it excludes the ideal detached home.  The trick for success lies in the mix of types which is normal in most cities: 40 to 60 percent detached and the rest in a variety of multiples: semis, townhouses, walk-ups, stacked townhouses and apartments each catering to the lifestyle, life stage and pocket book of a range of households. Even singles can up the people count by including accessory apartments for relatives. This mix is also a profitable proposition: The development widens its client base (faster sales), increases the total number of units (higher yield) and raises the level of customer satisfaction (free, credible promotion). What’s more, it saves home and travel energy.

 Reaching the critical people mass, however, is only half of the job. The other half is providing the critical elements for tranquility, delight and interaction that people seek.

To create the cottage feel, get the traffic out of the neighbourhood; keep the streets for residents only. Hide away as many cars as possible. Enhance the site’s natural features and make them work for everyone. Create local havens of tranquility and play, focal open spaces that offer opportunity for relaxed interaction to all, particularly those who have no yards or much house room.  Plant the streets heavily, enough to make trees visually more important than the buildings. Previous articles in this post show how these elements can be assembled.

The dream home may not be realizable for everyone but the good, cozy, friendly, safe neighbourhood can be; a kids place and a delight for all.  And the developer delights in their pleasure.

 This article first appeared in the “Home Builder” magazine, September 2010 issue

“Urbanesque”: Town Place, No Town

Urbanesque: Town Place, No Town

 “Urbanesque”: – the perfect urban mix:
19th century urbanism with 20th century technology and commerce.

The Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley, 10 km south of Allentown (pop 100k) display  the design features of the cherished Small American Town, an icon of urbanism.
It has a Main Street, a town place and a town square in the midst of bucolic farmers fields.
The Main Street is a mixed realm of cars and pedestrians who arrive from the historic , classic but unkempt Main Street of Allentown. There is ample parking for all behind the stores.
A wide variety of stores, including  a Starbucks in the Square’s cetre are all part of chains.

An ideal urban world for upscale contemporary livingliving.