Take the pledge in 2016 – end minimum parking standards

 

IMG_3621Raise your right hand and repeat after me – “I will work to reduce the negative impacts of the car on our cities and towns, beginning with the elimination of minimum parking standards.”

For years, I’ve used the phrase “form follows parking” to describe the state of our cities, and the methodology of most site planning and architectural design. In doing so I was describing our profession’s general acquiescence to the dominance of the automobile over our urban form. The influence of automobiles became firmly rooted in our zoning and building codes decades ago. Today it’s not uncommon to see codes that often exhaustively attempt to regulate every facet of a car’s existence to its benefit – from the width of a homeowner’s driveway, to the number and size of parking spots it has to choose from when its ventures out.

I believe, however, that form should follow people, not cars. Our cities should be formed by what is best for the pedestrian and cyclist, not for the parked car. So today, I make a pledge to advocate for the repeal of all minimum parking standards. Nor will I ever waste any ink to describe (in excruciating detail) the size of a parking space, the width of its drive aisle, or any other unnecessary details that prioritizes the parked car. I won’t write it into any code unless my client community simply cannot muster the political will to take this step.

Why am I making this pledge? The reason is simple. Government has been a terrible predictor of human behavior – and minimum parking requirements is a zoning standard predicated on human behavior. It assumes what we drive, how long we park, and how far we are willing to walk. In that zealous desire to ensure that every car has the maximum amount of convenience, we have paved over tens of thousands of greenfields and old growth forests. We’ve increased stormwater runoff, urban heat islands, and water pollution. Parking lots created by minimum requirements have served to spread communities apart making them far less walkable and bikeable, ensuring that every building be completely self-sufficient in the unlikely event of a parking catastrophe. And, we’ve intentionally made land financially inefficient by precluding more income-producing opportunities with largely unused asphalt.

How did we get here?

When the suburban revolution began following World War II, millions fled the cities in favor of more verdant pastures. But the suburbs came with a hitch – you needed a car to survive. Gone were the days where public transit effectively served its constituents – the suburbs were too sprawling to make that happen. Also gone were compact, walkable neighborhoods where local services were a five to ten minute walk away. To make the suburbs work, the automobile had to become a central component in community design. So, while the suburbs were paved with the greatest of intentions, mostly they were just paved.

Thus, minimum parking requirements were born. If the car was going to be the lifeline in holding suburbs together, then managing it in its “parked” state (which is nearly 95% of the time), is THE primary requirement. As a result, zoning codes today include a table of minimum parking requirements that spans a dozen or more pages.

With 30% or more of our communities covered by asphalt, it’s time for our profession to take action.

In 2007, we did a pavement impact study for counties in upstate South Carolina. In it, we quoted Donald Shoup, a nationally-respected economist and preeminent parking expert, on what was already happening with parking demand estimates. “First, one of the most commonly used sources for parking demand — the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ trip generation standards — are based on a one-size-fits-all scenario that does not take into account the unique locational characteristics of businesses in the suburbs versus those in urban areas. In addition, these standards ignore the fact that, depending on the use and the location, a significant portion of trips may be made using a mode that does not require parking (such as mass transit, bicycle or pedestrian travel). Second, trip generation estimates are based on peak demand, which logically ought to be used to set maximum rather than minimum requirements.” In 2000, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), for example, recommended 4 to 4.5 spaces per thousand square feet for shopping centers, depending on the size of the center. These numbers are based on peak demand at centers across the country. According to their own analyses, the ULI/ICSC parking ratios “provide for a surplus of parking spaces during all but 19 hours of the more than 3,000 hours per year during which a shopping center is open.”

The Results are In

For years, I’ve encouraged our communities to get rid of parking standards in their downtowns. A number of them have politely obliged and the results have been impressive. For example, Spartanburg, South Carolina chose to eliminate their standards years ago. In doing so, every development decision shifted from being around parking cars to instead centering around the pedestrian – how close they were to the central square or other amenities. Places for people came first, parking was more efficiently managed as a collective utility, and each parcel performed better economically. Smaller buildings in downtown can now be viably reoccupied without the burden of off-street parking standards.

Other cities have followed, like Fayetteville, AR, (http://www.fayettevilleflyer.com/2015/08/10/fayetteville-considers-eliminating-minimum-parking-standards-for-businesses/) a city that recently stopped using  minimum parking standards citywide and Fargo, ND, (http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/11/23/robust-growth-and-development-without-mandating-parking) a city that discovered the vibrancy that ensues in their downtown when parking is no longer the “driver.”

Even in places where we were only able to reduce minimum parking requirements to half the prevailing standard, chaos did NOT ensue. In Cornelius, North Carolina, and Germantown, Tennessee, the free market took over and each site was able to determine what they actually needed. In many older suburban areas, the former unused parking fields created under previous generations of parking standard mandates could now be converted to redevelopment areas for new outparcels and mixed-use buildings. We let the free market decide what was needed and largely moved government out of the business.

A Necessary First Step

Removing parking requirements alone won’t solve the problem. The truth is that there is a very sophisticated network of co-conspirators to ensure that cars are happy and communities are paved. Beyond our zoning ordinances, banks, tenants, retail industry groups, and the Institute for Transportation Engineers, all contribute to the false notion that we must inefficiently consume more land and pave over paradise. Unraveling the web of standards that conspires to prop up the car’s dominance in our cities will take some time and a concerted effort on many levels but it all starts with the zoning ordinance.

It is no coincidence that I’ve authored this during the Christmas shopping season when parking lots are presumed full. That may be the case for the Wal-Mart or Target shopper who enters a single store and leaves with a full cart two hours later. The same is not true for most other smaller retailers where shoppers spend less time and buy fewer items. And yet, we continue to apply the same inflexible standards regardless of actual need. On the one hand our zoning ordinances tell the developers to preserve trees, reduce impervious surfaces, and protect our water quality. On the other hand, they mandate largely arbitrary requirements to pave the environment based on a presumed need. The madness must end.

If your community isn’t ready to take the full plunge, there are a couple of baby steps.

  1. Cut all of your existing standards in half. It still preserves a safety net of sorts for those who still believe in their necessity.
  2. Eliminate standards for small buildings. The very best way to energize a vacant building is not to require more to re-occupy it, but less. Consider eliminating requirements for buildings that are less than 5000 square feet.
  3. Eliminate parking standards in the downtown. In the downtown, parking should be treated like a utility just like water and power, and managed collectively. Most downtowns are plagued with too much parking – no reason to further this urban erosion.

If the myriad of parking requirements are like a sweater, then today we pull the first threads loose and begin unraveling the delicately woven network of false assumptions about parking needs. When I wrote my first minimum parking code almost 20 years ago, we cut the current standards in half and it turned out just fine. The parking apocalypse never occurred. Instead, those communities became more compact, more walkable, and more vibrant. Today, I ask you to join me in reclaiming our cities and towns from the negative impacts of the car and begin by putting a stake in the heart of minimum parking standards.

Update: If your community has already broken the shackles of minimum parking, be sure to add that success to the map here.

 

 

Is the bell tolling for the parked car?

Laura Ingalls Wilder traveling in the covered wagon - Image Source: pcraig.iweb.bsu.edu/LIW/childhood.html
Laura Ingalls Wilder traveling in the covered wagon – Image Source: pcraig.iweb.bsu.edu/LIW/childhood.html
When our children are in the third grade we read the Little House series of books with them, in part to acquaint them with more challenging reading materials but also to teach them about our pioneering days as a country as we expanded westward. Most people are familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story of how she crossed the country in a covered wagon with Pa and her family in the 1860s and 1870s.

Few realize that in her lifetime Wilder saw a huge industrial and technological leap forward. In 1954, Wilder flew on a plane to visit her daughter. The same girl who knew the hardship of the covered wagon also flew on an airplane. That story is a parable about fast-changing technologies and how they catch us by surprise and upend conventional thinking.

There are many examples of this in recent times: In 1977, the home computer was invented and in less than two decades, it became a ubiquitous part of the developed world’s workplaces and homes. In 1991, the mobile phone (then the heavy bag phone) was introduced for mass-market consumption. It got progressively smaller, lighter, and more powerful until the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007 radically altered the mobile computing landscape.

So it is with the way automobiles operated in the city – not just in how they move, but how they stand still. How we park our cars has by far the biggest impact on the urban form of the places where we live. Billions of dollars of infrastructure are built every year through both public and private subsidies to store our cars. These surface lots, parking decks, garages, and on-street spaces take up a massive amount of our built environment – nearly 30% in some cities.

We finance parking facilities with bonds and mortgages that get repaid over 20 years or more. But impending changes in transportation patters mean that a parking deck built in the urban core today may be functionally obsolete long before it’s paid off. Why? A “mobility convergence” is rapidly approaching in North America and Europe, driven by declining desire for car ownership, the imminent arrival of self-driving cars, and a flood of mobile apps for sharing vehicle capacity. It’s entirely conceivable that the owner of a parking deck financed with a 20-year mortgage in 2015 will be making debt-service payments in 2025 on a facility using less than 25% of its available capacity.

To some, this will be unthinkable, just as airplanes were to Laura Ingalls Wilder in her covered wagon. But let’s look at recent decades for some lessons.

Beginning in 1903 with the introduction of the Ford Model A, Henry Ford and his peers replaced the horse and carriage with the automobile, thus revolutionizing not only how far we could travel but also the infrastructure required to support that travel. In 1954, President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act. The United States institutionalized (and heavily subsidized) Ford’s leap forward with the construction of a vast network of streets and highways designed to accommodate that single technology.

Then, in the past decade a series of transformational changes began to occur that will lead to the next big leap forward – the decoupling of mobility from car ownership and operation, and this will alter the spatial arrangement of our cities. Three forces, one demographic and two technological are quickly combining to bring what will be the most important, most far-reaching change to our urban society, affecting not only its physical form but its financial structure as well.

Millennials Don't Care About Owning Cars, And Car Makers Can't Figure Out Why - Image Source: Fast Company Exist  (http://www.fastcoexist.com/3027876/millennials-dont-care-about-owning-cars-and-car-makers-cant-figure-out-why)
Millennials Don’t Care About Owning Cars, And Car Makers Can’t Figure Out Why – Image Source: Fast Company Exist
This transformation started with a generation raised by the Baby Boomers, the wealthiest, most privileged generation our society has known. In spite of the obvious trend of their parents, and generations before them, the Boomers’ children began to eschew the rite of passage for every teenager – the driver’s license. For the first time in the history of automobile mobility, the rate of driver’s licenses amongst the population actually began to decrease, led by the so-called Millennials, who collectively have spent more time in a car than any generation of children in history. The idea of car ownership as a hallmark of success is likely coming to an end.

Google's Self-Driving Car - Image Source: Travis Wise on Flikr
Google’s Self-Driving Car
Riding in parallel with this societal change has been the evolution of the autonomous vehicle. Led by technology-based corporations whose likely motivation is to increase the number of hours we consume content online, the driverless car or at least its comforts have been the promise of car manufacturers for decades. Science fiction predicted long ago that we would be able to step into a personal vehicle, kick back and relax while a computer navigated the streets. Today, with a massive investment in the technology plus the legal structure necessary to support such a vision, Google’s Self-Driving Car Project has logged more than a million miles of accident-free transport over the past few years, navigating the streets of Mountain View, CA using a sophisticated combination of Lidar remote sensing hardware and navigation software.

Uber's iPhone app - Image Source: Wikimedia.org
Uber’s iPhone app – Image Source: Wikimedia.org
The third force, a combination of entrepreneurship fueled by social media, has created a rapidly emerging market for sharing assets. Like Airbnb, which liberated hundreds of thousands of empty bedrooms to create extra income, lower cost and often more interesting ways to travel, companies like Uber, Lyft, ZipCar, and Enterprise CarShare have taken an underutilized resource, the personal automobile, and created a software algorithm to match up empty seats in a car with potential riders through both on-demand and subscription services. Our cars, on average, spend almost 96% of their existence doing absolutely nothing but taking up space. And when we do use them, they often travel with 50-75% excess capacity. These ride sharing services have made it easier and often more enjoyable to live without a personal vehicle. More importantly, they have figured out a way to better utilize the excess capacity of our collective mobility system.

These three forces – diminished desire for car ownership and operation, improved technology for riding autonomously, and algorithms to maximize the capacity in our mobility network – presage radical changes in our mobility and urban form. When this convergence is complete, we will be able to summon an autonomous vehicle with our phone, watch, or other wearable (or perhaps implanted) device and be transported to our destination cheaply and safely.

The resulting efficiencies are staggering. By some estimates, autonomous vehicles, with their constant speeds and ability to reduce the gaps between vehicles, can increase the capacity of our current highway system by 370%, reduce the total number of vehicles needed by 80%, reduce the demand for parking spaces by 80%, and virtually eliminate the need to park a vehicle near your home, workplace, or store.

This marks perhaps the most disruptive leap forward that urban America has seen since the automobile replaced the horse as the primary means of transportation. In his book, Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation, Tony Seba has documented these trends and projected that “exponentially improving technologies such as solar, electric vehicles, and autonomous (self-driving) cars will disrupt and radically change the energy and transportation industries as we know it (sic). The same Silicon Valley ecosystem that created bit-based technologies that have disrupted atom-based industries is now creating bit- and electron-based technologies that will disrupt atom-based energy industries.”

“Clean Disruption” projections (based on technology cost curves, plus innovations in business and product models) suggest that by 2030:

  • Most new mass-market vehicles will be electric.
  • A big percentage of these vehicles will be autonomous or semi-autonomous.
  • The car market as we know it today will likely shrink by 80%.
  • Gasoline will become obsolete as a mainstream fuel.
  • New highways will hardly be needed.
  • Up to 80% of parking spaces won’t be needed.
  • Individual car ownership will diminish to a fraction of what it is now, or simply become a niche market.
  • The car insurance industry will need radically different models of operation. The taxi industry will be obsolete.

Foreshadowing these changes, Uber and Lyft have virtually dismantled the taxi system in several cities in just a few short years, and digital technologies are radially reshaping our communications and personal relationships in many fields. None of these, however, has the enormous infrastructure footprint of the parked car. Changing this will not be easy.

People and jobs have now returned to the center cities but not without bringing with them their voracious appetite for parked cars. The benefit of the walkable downtown should be to provide choices in mobility, shunning the need to replicate the parking standards of suburban business parks. And yet, the institutions supporting the automobile remain as wedded as ever to the massive infrastructure necessary to park a vehicle for more than 95% of each day.

We sit today in the crosshairs of two transformative shifts. The first is the welcome return of jobs and housing to our downtowns. Corporate America is discovering the power of place in attracting and retaining the very best people for their organizations, and a variety of demographic groups once again call the city their home. The second is the transition of the dominant form of transportation – the largely single-occupant automobile – to an autonomous, on-demand service that will likely be divorced from vehicle ownership.

So, how do we make the transition?

Step one: Amend (and preferably eliminate) the required minimum parking standards for private development enforced by local government zoning codes. The minimum parking requirements embedded in zoning codes usually mimic suburban standards established decades ago. They are artificially high at best and bear little relationship with the realities of the marketplace. In ten years, parking supply will be well above capacity because of the coming disruption, so if we are truly “planning” we should acknowledge this and get out of the way.

Step two: Eliminate any barriers to autonomous vehicles and car-sharing services. Cities across the country have already begun adaptation, with positive outcomes. The cities that don’t adapt will be the dinosaurs of the next age.

Step three: End of the provision of public parking by government. This is perhaps the most difficult provision of the three and this transition will likely vary from city to city depending on their maturity. New York, Chicago, and San Francisco may be close to this point already whereas Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville will necessarily need to trail – perhaps by a decade or more. Many cities have become addicted to providing parking paid for by the taxpayers using 10 or 20 year bonds. Some are backed by good-faith estimates of parking revenue streams or incremental increases in area tax receipts whereas others are simply outright commitments of public resources. Parking revenue models will likely begin to fail in some cities within a decade and the demands on government resources will only continue to increase. From the repair of infrastructure to the expansion of transit to the provision of affordable housing, cities already juggle many urgent needs; removing one that’s outlived its usefulness represents smart governance. To tie up precious resources for 20 years or more on an investment that may plummet in value is a great risk for precious public funds.

Unlike Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had to live a lifetime to move from the covered wagon to the airplane, we are likely to see this disruption of our urban infrastructure in less than a generation. Car manufacturers will resist, insurance companies will resist, the lawyers will resist, and those stuck in the mindset of cheap, available parking for cars will resist.

But despite that, my children – the youngest of whom are the same age as Wilder was when she left the big woods – may very well never need a driver’s license, much less a car.  And, in the coming years, we may just build the last parking garage that we will see through to the end of its payments.

Six ways to turn SouthPark into a great urban neighborhood

Density does not equate to good urbanism. Density is a necessary ingredient, but raw density of jobs, housing, or retail does not create a great street much less a great place. Downtown Atlanta is a classic example where tall towers empty out at 5 pm to create an employment ghetto in the evening, devoid of any street life (unlike neighboring Midtown) and hostile to pedestrian activity.

IMG_1057
Image from downtown Atlanta where the tree pits get more respect than pedestrians, but only marginally so

How hostile? When a friend and I attended a conference there, the topic of which was ironically “walkable urbanism,” he was struck by a car crossing the street to the conference hotel. Thankfully, he rolled over the hood and was uninjured, but the incident is probably replicated too often to not be alarmed.

The same is true of the SouthPark area in Charlotte. Originally a suburban mall on the edge of the city, it has grown to become one of the largest shopping and employment centers in the state. And lately, the level of housing within “walking distance” is quite staggering. (My reason for putting the term “walking distance” in quotes will become clear in a moment.) Hundreds of apartments are rising up or are in the planning stages. New speculative office buildings are on the rise once again after a long hiatus since the recession and it seems the retailers, particularly those at the high end, are falling over themselves to find a place nearby.

Forty years ago, the area was a classic suburban mall district with buildings hardly eclipsing two stories. Today, few new structures are less than five stories with a number of eight to twelve story buildings now rising above the mature willow oak canopy. And, it seems that mixed-use buildings with housing or offices over ground-level retail are becoming more common. Yet, with each new project, all often higher in design quality than the previous, why does each rezoning discussion seem to devolve into a simplistic argument over the management of cars, both parked and moving (Charlotte Observer & Charlotte Business Journal)? And why does being a pedestrian along the main streets of Fairview Road and Sharon Road feel as hostile as in downtown Atlanta?

Perhaps it’s because there is a missing ingredient in the stone soup of great urbanism. The presence of mixed-use buildings and density do not equate to a vibrant, walkable environment that encourages people to shed their cars. As an individual project, they certainly deserve points for advancing the cause. But the recently completed Villages at SouthPark, Piedmont Row, and even the older Phillips Place seem more like cul-de-sacs than they feel like main streets. They are visually and often physically disconnected from the larger street network, create enclaves of dense development, and fail to produce a great street for the community.

The destination cul-de-sacs around SouthPark Mall in Charlotte
The destination cul-de-sacs around SouthPark Mall in Charlotte

In short, each project seems to fail to contribute to the larger public realm. Each project is constructed in isolation of each other. And, worst of all, the level of auto dependency is reinforced with the construction of each new parking deck providing free parking at a rate far exceeding what is necessary if planned in a more comprehensive manner.

This is further aggravated by the fact that most (but not all) smaller infill projects fail to add any value to the street edge. The blank walls of each CVS, Walgreens, and office building conspire with their larger neighbors to destroy all pedestrian activity.

The real culprit is the absence of a detailed urban design plan—and a zoning code to require the plan to be carried out. Those could knit each project together with a public realm that balances the needs of auto traffic with pedestrians, bicyclists and transit. Instead, individual projects are weighed on their individual merits and impacts, not on how they contribute to the greater whole. The Lorax asked, “who will speak for the trees?” But, when creating great places, we have to ask “who will speak for the people?”

Many folks will throw up their hands and say that the traffic volumes are too high along Fairview Road and Sharon Road to make a great street. That is because they are still thinking of this area as an auto-dependent suburban mall and not as a downtown.

SouthPark-Existing network
Current network around SouthPark Mall

Cities have a dense street network and complex variety of transportation modes that provide choices on how you both arrive and move throughout their area.

Street network for Center City Charlotte
Street network for Center City Charlotte at the same scale as the image of SouthPark above

In the suburbs, everything is predicated on one mode of arrival – the car – and the shortest distance to the front door. In cities, the value lies in the aggregation of activities, parking is considered a shared utility, public space is given center stage, and each addition contributes to increasing value.

In the suburbs, the value rests solely in the final destination. Everything else is quantified as a nuisance – pavement, traffic, loss of trees, etc.

It’s not too late for these suburban teenagers to grow into urban adults. There are still large swaths of frontage along the major roads that can be claimed in the name of great urbanism. SouthPark Mall can continue to urbanize and finally have a front door towards the community and not just into a parking lot. Here are seven key things that the SouthPark area, and places like it around the country, needs to start doing immediately:

  1. Update the SouthPark area plan. Last adopted in 2000, is has nuggets of great wisdom, but they’re buried amongst the unnecessary data. Ground floor design and mobility at the human scale are the most important elements. And most of all, stop thinking about this area as a suburban mall and plan for it to be a city. See the SouthPark Small Area Plan, adopted in 2000.
  2. Improve the grid, project by project, block by block. There have been some glimmers of hope, but each project still seems much too introverted and lacks a true urban network.
  3. Implement a Code that ensures a more predictable urban environment. Relying on a 15 year old plan and a cumbersome rezoning process will never produce an optimized outcome, nor will rezoning it ad hoc.
  4. Convert Fairview Road and Sharon Road to urban streets. Urban Streets carry high volumes but also balance their use by cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. These streets are important to the overall city network but for one mile can they be so much more?
  5. Begin planning urban transit service. Begin building frequent, predictable service with rubber-tired trolleys to circulate around the area and plan for premium, fixed guideway services in the future.
  6. Manage the District, not individual projects. Like Center City, South End, and other mixed-use districts around the country, the collective assets and resources, both current and planned, need to be collectively managed to maximize their efficiency and reduce the impacts of incrementalism.
  7. Quit arguing about traffic. Congestion will never be solved. At this stage, urban design, walkability, and planning for premium transit are much more critical to the conversation.
Fairview Rd today
Fairview Road in front of SouthPark Mall today
Fairview Road with intentional urban design and planned mobility
Fairview Road with intentional urban design and planned mobility (Image by Bella Tang/Stantec)

Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago is considered one of the greatest streets in the country and it carries about the same traffic volume as Fairview Road. What if blocks were created instead of parking fields? What if the streetscape was generous enough to invite pedestrian activity (i.e., walking and outdoor seating) like its bigger cousin in downtown Charlotte – Tryon Street? What if transit was incorporated through the corridor to make it truly accessible from corner to corner and then connected it to the greater region? In 50 years, would Fairview Road in Charlotte be counted among the greatest streets of the country?

Or, will it be measured only by the futile exercise of counting cars?

The Golden Triangle of Great Urbanism

Microsoft PowerPoint - Getting to Complete Blocks.pptx

If there is one important technique to understand when it comes to great urbanism, it’s the golden triangle. This condition, when properly configured, cuts across all cultures and architectural styles. It’s easy to define, simple to construct, and operationally intuitive. Yet, why does this basic principle get violated time and time again?

It starts with a patent misunderstanding of what pre-conditions walkable urbanism. Most people assume that a great street must be constructed using gold plated design – all brick sidewalks, antique-finished street lights, glossy wayfinding, and these days, integrated bio-retention areas. Cities and business districts spend millions of dollars on such improvements in the hopes of attracting investment back to an area. And yet, far too often, the public investment is too one-sided – too much public investment with little to no commitment from the private sector. Quid pro quo is critical to revitalizing business districts and getting it right from the beginning is equally important in new village centers.

The golden triangle is the intersection of the public and private realms – where buildings meet their fronting streets, and where pedestrians, cyclists, and cars (usually parked) interface. This should not be confused with the sight distance triangle mandated by highway departments to be-rid all thoroughfares of life-giving activity. Very simply, the triangles’ height consists of the the fronting building facade – typically the first story and a half – and its integral use(s). The base ties together the public realm including the width of the sidewalk, pedestrian amenities such as seating and streetscaping, bicycle amenities such as bike parking and travel ways, and on-street parking.

  • On Street Parking: I can’t emphasize enough how important on-street parking is to a walkable, urban environment. Without it, some perception of convenience is lost and perception of safety as a pedestrian moving along a corridor with moving cars within a few feet is not an optimal arrangement.
  • Sidewalks: As the picture from Ann Arbor, Michigan shows, sidewalks don’t have to be all brick. Simple concrete will do just fine as long as you cover them with activity – moveable chairs and tables, pedestrian signage, outdoor displays, landscaping, and of course, people, lots and lots of people. They need to be wide enough to accommodate a number of activities but no so wide that they look windswept without it.
  • Ground Floor Transparency: Windows and doors are essential to encouraging pedestrians along down the street. As a species, we become bored too quickly on our journeys and will find other routes if a storefront is dark. Blank walls are the same thing – boring and unsafe. Storefront glazing transmits light from the inside to the sidewalk area at night, lighting the pathway; provides passersby with a connection to the activity on the inside; and softens the visual aesthetics.
  • Uses and Activities: Active uses such as shops, restaurants, and entertainment are so critical to street life that their subsidizing their initial entrance into the area is actually much more important that spending millions on a streetscape project. In fact, we have probably all been to lots of areas with small sidewalks (Charleston, SC) or poor streetscape amenities (University Hill in Seattle, WA) and yet were thriving places. Use trumps infrastructure nearly every time.

It should come as no surprise that the very best places exhibit a height to base ratio of 1:1. Twenty to thirty feet of public realm for an equivalent amount of private realm. One story buildings can work well, so long as they have a high enough facade to enclose the sidewalk area.

It should also come as no surprise that these places are quickly becoming places of choice for employers and retailers alike. Living near great urbanism increases WalkScores which has been statistically shown to increase home value. Recent documentation of preferences by employers small and large to be in or near these places further underscores the economic value of great urbanism.

All of this contained in a simple right triangle.

Why the debate about widening I-77 in Charlotte is not answering the right question

Image Credit: www.charlottefive.com
Image Credit: http://www.charlottefive.com
As an urban planner with a national practice I am frequently asked by friends and colleagues for an opinion on the Interstate 77 toll lane discussion. I’ve been all across the country this past year in areas that were either growing fast or dying slowly. So when I return home to see how a seemingly conservative group of advocates demand spending more than a half billion dollars on a single-purpose facility, I not only wonder if that is the answer, but I wonder whether anyone is asking the right question.

The question seems to be only this: How fast can we widen I-77? And the foregone conclusion to solving all our transportation woes from uptown Charlotte to Statesville is to run out to the highway store, after eating our way through the holiday season, and buy a pair of fat pants and a bigger belt.

Instead, the question should be: How do we facilitate more predictable and reliable mobility, north to south? And, assuming that a half-billion dollars were miraculously sitting on the table to spend, why would we dump it into one project?

Folks, I hate to break it to you, but there is no highway wide enough to accommodate growth’s demands. Transportation researchers have already proven that the inconvenient truth of “induced demand” will sap any capacity in any additional lanes within a generation. Induced demand is a well-proven, if counterintuitive, result. Highway widening will increase demand (congestion) for the capacity rather than relieve it.

Very simply, for some short period of time, homebuyers will be lulled into a false sense of smooth sailing until sometime in the near future the new road capacity fills back up.  The 23-lane, Interstate 10 corridor in Houston, which combines free lanes (a lot of them) and managed (toll) lanes (a lot of them, too), saw total commute times (morning and evening) increase by more than 32 minutes from 2011 to today.

Now, Houston is talking about a $6 billion “improvement” to the Interstate 45 corridor – which carries roughly double the traffic I-77 sees each day – to “relieve congestion.”

Are we Houston? Not yet. But with a growth projection that our metropolitan area will double in population in the next 40 years, we’ll be Houston before we know it.

So, when asked – “Do I support the toll lanes?” – my response is yes, but it’s but one of many solutions needed.

The lesson from Texas  – a hyperconservative, pro-property rights state, where managed lanes are now everywhere – is that adding free lanes is the functional equivalent of throwing money down a rat hole. At least with toll lanes, they can manage the trip through demand-based pricing strategies that keep cars and their occupants flowing. In that regard, that is the only type of new freeway lane that makes any sense in Charlotte. To offer additional free lanes – lanes  that our already heavily subsidized state Department of Transportation cannot afford – would simply open new land for development farther out, causing it to fill with the aforementioned “induced demand.” Has Interstate 485 really relieved congestion? Have you been around the southwestern leg with its 6+ lanes at 6 pm lately?

We simply need more choices, and choices not predicated on accommodating single-occupancy vehicles on single-purpose freeways. Until we all move over to Smart Car-sized autonomous cars, freeways are a lost cause for improving travel times. Instead, we need to look at providing more choices in our corridors – choices in both the network and the mode.

The Charlotte region’s suburban development pattern has failed to provide choice to our community. Its heavy reliance on dendritic neighborhood patterns and poorly connected thoroughfares means we have no traffic on the cul-de-sac while we have terrible traffic on the periphery. Look at a congestion map of Mecklenburg County. The worst congestion begins about 15 miles from the center city, where the number of choices in the street network decreases dramatically. While long-haul commuters won’t necessarily take the smaller streets to travel 30 miles from office to home, folks who simply need to take their children to soccer practice at 5:30 p.m. (my family included) have few choices for our short trips. Two two-lane roads handle more traffic than one four-lane road. How many two-lane roads, north to south, can we build for a half a billion dollars?

After all, isn’t choice a good thing? As Americans, we like many choices when we go to Target to buy a vacuum cleaner. Have you seen the dog food aisle at Harris Teeter lately? Yet, for the single piece of infrastructure that has the greatest impact on our productivity, our air quality, and our economic competitiveness, we have few choices.

This leads me to the elephant in the room –transit. Dedicated-corridor transit is the only mobility solution that can ensure consistent travel times from point to point regardless of demand. If the cars fill up, we can simply add more cars. Having traveled to Dallas this spring, I saw how a 20-year investment in transit has paid off for the Metroplex. With 90 miles of light rail infrastructure and 62 stations, the DART system accommodates nearly 100,000 passenger trips every day. That’s about the same volume as I-77 carries today. Most important, the system, the largest light rail system in the country (again, in Texas), has ensured that Dallas can remain competitive in the marketplace for jobs. State Farm is finishing construction of a $1.5 billion, 2 million square-foot office space within a stone’s throw of the light rail station in the northern suburb of Richardson. They are doing the same for their operations in Atlanta and Tempe, Ariz. Why? Because it gives their employees more reliable choices to get to the office. Anyone know what the annual property taxes are on $1.5 billion?

Until the Charlotte region and our partners in Raleigh and Washington get serious about funding transit, we are going to remain a community with few choices. And so long as we keep providing a monoculture of answers to the wrong questions, we will continue to see congestion increase.

If I could wave a magic wand and spend a half-billion dollars in the north corridor between Charlotte and southern Iredell County, I would build a commuter rail system (where fares would be less than half of the toll lanes) from Charlotte to Mooresville and have money left over to construct another north-south thoroughfare.

Instead, I’m just glad the public investment far less than the total, and the rest is someone else’s money. At least what is getting built will be managed to give us the hope of a predictable travel time.

We might not be trying to lose weight through diet and exercise, but at least we aren’t simply putting on our fat pants and giving up.

A Tale of Two Bridges

I recently had lunch with a friend of mine in St. Louis who shared the story of their vacation at Folly Beach near Charleston, South Carolina. On their trip they crossed two very similar cable-stayed bridges – the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge crossing the Mississippi River and the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge crossing the Cooper River. We both mused how much the two structures were incredibly similar and yet their impact on the community was so radically different.

The cable-stayed design, popularized by Spanish architect and structural engineer Santiago Calatrava, is attractive and functional with with its decidedly modern, sleek lines. The technique has been incorporated into a large sail to capture the breezes from Lake Michigan on the roof of the Milwaukee Art Museum as well into a pedestrian bridge over the Reedy River Falls in downtown Greenville, South Carolina. China has all but adopted it as their official design given their extensive usage of the technique for some of the longest spans in the world.

A Modern Bridge for Historic Charleston

The Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge opened to traffic in 2005. With a bridge span of 1,546 feet and a total project length of 3.5 miles, at its opening it was the longest cable-stay bridge in North America (it is now the third longest). The $632 million project was the largest infrastructure in the history of South Carolina. It replaced two aging bridges that stretched from Charleston to Mount Pleasant, the lanes on one of which were so narrow that white knuckles were the norm in my family when riding alongside a truck.

The bridge was constructed over top of the older cantilever bridges while they were still in use and was constructed to withstand the potential hurricanes and earthquakes that regularly comprise Charleston’s history. In addition, it was designed in both span and height to accommodate the expected supercontainter ships coming through the widened Panama Canal to the Port of Charleston.

When it opened to the public approximately one year ahead of schedule and under budget, and after a week of public activities, it provided four wide travel lanes in each direction and a 12 foot wide pedestrian/bicycle track. The economic value from the bridge is significant – not just from the hundreds of thousands of cars that travel back and forth each year, but also for how people on foot or on a bike can exercise and enjoy the stunning views of the Charleston Harbor and beyond. It’s unique form now sits atop the podium sharing the prize with Charleston’s historic district as the region’s most distinctive features. In fact, according to TripAdvisor.com it is the second highest rated attraction in Charleston (second only to the Waterfront Park in the Historic District of downtown Charleston). Every April, the bridge accommodates the annual Cooper River Bridge Run and its more than 50,000 volunteers and participants to create an economic return of nearly $18 million from this event alone. And, on any given day, there are hundreds of walkers, cyclists, runners, and sightseers crossing the bridge.

Fast forward a decade.

On February 9, 2014, the country’s latest crossing of the mighty Mississippi River opened to traffic. Stretching from downtown St. Louis into Illinois, the new bridge re-routes I-70 from the busy Poplar Street Bridge, relieves a substantial amount of traffic from the Martin Luther King Bridge and provides a new connection to the downtown area via Tucker Boulevard. The cable-stayed main span measures 1500 feet and is supported by a substantial amount of road on both the Missouri and the Illinois sides. The $695 million project included $264 million for the cost of the actual bridge with the balance used to re-route I-70 on both sides.

Of course, the original cost exceeded $1.7 billion, so it should be expected that some items will be left on the cutting room floor to achieve a 60% cost savings. Certainly no expense was spared to re-route the Interstate to a new location north of the former alignment. At its opening, the bridge deck provided 4 travel lanes (two in each direction) with the ability to expand to six if necessary in the future with low-cost re-striping. And, perhaps most importantly, it is expected to substantially relieve two aging bridge structures, at least one of which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2017.

On February 7th, just two days earlier, the bridge was christened by dignitaries from across the country with hundreds of people and cyclists having exclusive rights to enjoy the entire span that day. Here’s the problem: Somehow in all that value engineering, two crucial opportunities were lost by the absence of single design feature – a place for pedestrians and cyclists. As it turns out, in order to save all that money, the traffic engineers decided that the only bridge that would be built across the Mississippi in our lifetime would be for automobiles only. No trains, sidewalks, or bike lanes – just cars. The hundreds of people who attended the opening ceremony and crossed the bridge on foot will be the last people to ever walk on that bridge.

What Did We Learn? Nothing Apparently.

Apparently we didn’t learn a thing from the success of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. The only thing that the two infrastructure projects is a common design vocabulary. After that, the two projects diverge rather significantly. Most significantly, the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge inherent lack of facilities for pedestrians and cyclists missed a HUGE opportunity to leverage a massive infrastructure investment for a tourist opportunity. At the same time that the St. Louis region is investing $380 million in the renovation of the Arch Grounds to increase tourism, Missouri and Illinois chose the short sighted path that forgets that our infrastructure investments are just that – investments. It’s hard to believe that the St. Louis region will reap any real economic benefit other than the time savings for commuters traveling between Illinois and Missouri.

Imagine if St. Louis took a page from Charleston and Mount Pleasant with the construction of a park at the base of the bridge that connects to a pedestrian and bicycle pathway. Tens of thousands of visitors every year will be able view the Arch Grounds from the middle of the Mississippi River and exercise enthusiasts would be able to connect via a miles-long riverfront trail from the observation areas on the bridge to the Arch Grounds and into downtown and Illinois. In doing so, visitors will have a reason to stay another night and further expand the economic impact of tourism.

Throughout history, bridges have always been multi-functional and pieces of grand civic art. Even in China, who have nearly 30 cable-stayed bridges longer than can be found in North America, each project considers how cars, people, and transit can cross waterways and valleys. They recognize that such investments will only happen once in two or three lifetimes so to program them for a single use is unfathomable.

Perhaps in the future, saner heads will prevail and the bridge deck designated for additional lanes in the future will be converted to a dedicated pedestrian/bicycle path. Charleston was already a tourist mecca before the new bridge was constructed. But because the leadership in South Carolina understood the value of people to every infrastructure project, money was found to complete the project for the good of the entire region. St. Louis still has an opportunity in the future, perhaps as a part of the massive City Arch River project to rectify this $695 million mistake, and in doing so it could create true and lasting economic value rather than focusing on very short sighted one-time costs.

Featured Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/frted/4194406818/

Walkable urbanism lands jobs

Charlotte, North Carolina has long been an aggressive suitor of jobs from all over the country. They are supported by an arsenal of tools, largely financial handouts, to incentivize jobs to take up residence in the Charlotte metropolitan area. This summer has been an extremely busy time, unusually so, for job movement.

It started on a particularly low note on Monday, June 16th – Black Monday as some recruiters might be calling it behind closed doors. It was the day when two large firms with a combined 2,200 employees – LPL Financial and the Lash Group – crossed the state line into South Carolina to claim tens of millions in “new job” incentives. Their 20 mile move didn’t impact the homes of the employees or their CEOs. It won’t change their spending patterns or where their children go school. The commute times are likely to be a wash with some folks driving longer distances with others decreasing their time in their cars. Were new jobs actually created? Not likely, at least not for now, though each is promising to more than double in the coming years. The “jobs” are “new” to South Carolina, but certainly not new to the employers.

For those companies, their location is a ledger-based decision; a $169 million decision to be precise. They can stay in North Carolina and get nothing (or very little) or move across the line and get a pile of tax incentives. End of transaction.

But, for a growing number of employers, there is an added dimension to their ledgers that is playing into these decisions – the place dividend. More and more, employers are making decisions on where to locate based on their proximity to real places and in some cases are willing to pay a premium. Downtowns all over the country are attracting jobs back to their core because of this place dividend. The areas are not only locations where they can be in close contact to similar businesses but they are also some of the most highly amenitized locations in a region. This is true of both large cities like New York and Chicago; secondary markets like Kansas City and Charleston, SC, and smaller communities like Manchester, NH and Davidson, NC.

Take, for example, the town of Davidson, a town located approximately 20 miles north of Charlotte’s center city. They have spent the last twenty years cultivating a walkable, mixed-use town anchored by prestigious Davidson College and surrounded by walkable neighborhoods and vibrant commercial areas. More than two decades ago they consciously made a decision that their growth was going to be on their own terms, slowly in some cases, but always intentional. The net result has been a community whose property values fared substantially better than nearly any other zip code in the region in the past ten years.

Additionally, they have carefully planned their interchange area accessing busy I-77 so that it looks and functions like no other interchange in the region. It is in fact both walkable and urban. With two roundabouts and a form-based code that prescribes building form and design, this “planning area” as they are called in town, is regarded nationally for its beauty and it’s value. It is home to major employers, a Harris Teeter grocery store, a Homewood Suites hotel, two gas stations, numerous restaurants, parks and housing all within a 5-10 minute walk. The basic form and structure are readily apparent even though it’s only half built with lots of available parcels to complete the picture.

Coincidentally and perhaps ironically, the same development company who coordinated the move of LPL and the Lash Group to South Carolina is also a big player in Davidson’s office market. In 2013, Childress Klein opened the doors for MSC Industrial Direct in a $31 million, 180,000 square foot office building in Davidson as the Melville, NY company opened a southern co-headquarters for what will likely be more than 700 employees.

But more recently, about two weeks after Black Monday, Childress Klein announced the construction of a three story, 51,000 square foot mixed-use building – the second in their Davidson portfolio (in additional to the single tenant MSC building). The anchor tenant – the regional office for Valspar Paint – the primary supplier of paint and painting supplies through Lowes Home Improvement Stores. That the regional attractiveness for new business to find a home here is not the story here. It’s the decision-making process to land in a mixed-use building in the center of this emerging village that seems to defy the conventional wisdom that sent others across the state line. In fact, Valspar is relocating from just a few miles up the road in Mooresville, NC. Why?

“We enjoy the culture of Davidson and knew this was the spot,” said Kelly McGlynn, operations manager for Valspar, as reported in Business Today.

And, as Paul Devine, a partner at Childress Klein Properties noted in an interview in the Charlotte Business on July 4, 2014, “…you get right on and off the interstate, which the employers love, and they love the town even more because it’s just packed with amenities. And it’s all about the pedestrian and how many amenities — from housing to restaurants to work — the average citizen can get to on foot. It’s really what got Valspar excited about the location. They can recruit from a large area, but they’re part of a real town. The companies that have come up there have really enjoyed that experience because it is so different from most places in Charlotte.”

In fact, the new location for those other jobs that state-hopped went from multiple office parks with low amenities to the Fort Mill community which has invested in its civic infrastructure for decades, thanks largely to the Springs and Close families. “A lot of corporations have figured out the way to really attract the best and the brightest is to be part of something larger. Not just a slick-looking office building in an area that’s accessible to your employees. You’re part of something greater. These developments that we’re talking about all share that same quality. It’s people-focused, it’s pedestrian-focused and it’s focused on the new work style. The best and the brightest can work anywhere, and you want to be part of something greater if you’re going to have the opportunity to recruit and retain these folks,” said Devine.

“…it’s all about the pedestrian and how many amenities — from housing to restaurants to work…The best and the brightest can work anywhere, and you want to be part of something greater if you’re going to have the opportunity to recruit and retain these folks.”

That’s the definition of walkable urbanism.

This story underscores that in the economic development toolbox, we can now confidently add place as a unique differentiator. Investment in place yields great returns. And, for communities that are truly interested in growing in the new economy, it’s time to start paying attention to what matters most over the long term – being an authentic community for residents, and employees too.

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