Tag Archives: public health

Reforming Our Town Center Street Design to Cope with the 2020 Pandemic

By Dom Nozzi

The 2020 Pandemic has obligated us to engage in “Social Distancing” as a way to reduce the chance of becoming infected. Our best information about the infection indicates that being indoors for a prolonged period of time is by far the most likely way to become infected. That being outdoors reduces the chance of infection significantly.

This has created severe challenges for people holding jobs that require indoor work with others, as well as for businesses that require patrons to be inside a business for retail or dining in a restaurant.

Health officials continue to strongly recommend that even outside, those on the sidewalk should maintain at least a six-foot distance from others on the sidewalk.

Many city town centers have started to respond to this – as a key way to promote public health – by beginning the process of closing streets to give businesses and pedestrians more space for distancing.

While I think this is wise and largely support these reforms, I would strongly urge caution.

Here in Boulder CO where I live, there is currently much talk about reallocating space on Pearl Street. This is wonderful in many ways.

But I am worried about a few scenarios that might emerge.

First, I think a lot of us “put people before cars” folks will see the idea of closing Pearl to cars for several blocks beyond Pearl St Mall as a great idea. I’m not sure about that at all. Urban designers know that closing more than a few blocks of traffic to cars is almost always fatal to retail and vibrancy UNLESS there is sufficiently compact, dense, mixed-use development along the street that is closed to cars. Boulder’s density along Pearl (like the density in nearly all American cities) is far less than the density needed to support several blocks of closure.

Second, I am extremely worried that a “compromise” suggestion will be to reallocate space from cars to people not by closing Pearl to cars, but by making it a one-way street. One-way conversion was hugely popular in the 60s and 70s, but there are an enormous number of reasons they are terrible for a town center and deadly for retail. As a result, a large and growing number of one-ways are being converted back to two-way around the nation and world.

It would be a huge mistake if Boulder opts for a one-way on Pearl.

It must also be acknowledged that even in a severe crisis such as a Pandemic, it is extremely difficult, politically, to close streets to cars

Fortunately, there is a Third Way. A compromise that would offer enormous benefits, be relatively feasible politically, promote retail health, retain emergency access for fire trucks, and enhance public health (from both added social distancing space and boosting the amount of public walking and bicycling).

I believe that this “Third Way” design would be to create a low-speed street design on Pearl along the lines of a Dutch Woonerf (Google “Woonerf” for details about them, or go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woonerf). A Woonerf can be installed quickly, relatively cheaply, and be done temporarily.

Some people call such design “give-way” streets, where the two-way street is so narrow that the motorist must “give-way” to an on-coming car.

Low-speed design would allow two-way car travel to continue on Pearl, but would obligate motorists to drive very slowly (say, 10-15 mph) and very attentively. So much so that even children and seniors would be perfectly safe and happy to sit in the street or walk in the street or bicycle in the street.

How is a low-speed two-way street created? On Pearl, it would mean we would remove the very bad design decision of having a continuous left-turn (suicide) lane in the middle of the street. That alone is a great space reallocation tactic.

Second, we shrink the width of the travel lanes down to, say, 9 feet each. We also need to shrink the height of signs and street lights to create a “low-speed ambiance.” Street furniture, plenty of new green tree and shrub and flower landscaping in elevated “planter” boxes, seating, public art, etc., needs to be inserted in the street (exactly the way it was done on Pearl St Mall, by the way).

In most cases, a Woonerf eliminates curbs and elevated sidewalks as a way to signal that the street is slow-speed and shared between cars, bikes, and walkers. By doing each of these things, we would create an extremely safe, happy, vibrant Pearl Street that prioritizes people (cyclists, peds, seniors, children) over cars without eliminating cars. Cars, as is the case in Dutch Woonerfs, are able to remain but they are obligated by the street design to be very slow speed and safely attentive. Retail and restaurant businesses would flourish with the big increase in space, the much slower speeds by motorists (who, because they are driving more slowly, are more likely to stop and be customers), and we would see a jump in the number of pedestrians and cyclists on Pearl who were previously too worried to walk or bike there due to the pro-car design. By allowing slow-speed cars, a Woonerf allows a city with insufficient density to deliver sufficient customers to businesses along the street.

So yes! Let’s reallocate space on Pearl so that it is pro-people rather than pro-car. But let’s do it right, and avoid the mistakes of the past.

Woonerf examples

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Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

The Many Benefits of Higher Density Development Patterns

 

By Dom Nozzi

Those who work in the fields of town planning and transportation are well aware of the overwhelming evidence that there are a great many significant benefits of higher density development patterns. Tragically, nearly all Americans believe higher densities destroy neighborhoods and overall quality of life.

Why this disconnect?

Because nearly all Americans are utterly dependent on car travel, and higher densities make car travel much more costly and much more inconvenient.

Given this, it is clear that car-dependent Americans have a vested interest in fighting against efforts to improve community quality of life. This helps explain why so many community problems persist throughout the nation.

suburbia vs walkable3

In my 40 years of academic work in town and transportation planning, I have found that research studies show repeatedly and clearly that higher-density community and neighborhood development patterns provide the following benefits:

More affordable housing. This is due to smaller house size, the smaller amounts of land owned, and the ability of the household to survive with a smaller number of (extremely expensive) household cars. This is because more compact development patterns allow people to engage in many daily tasks without needing to travel by car.

Less per capita car travelThis reduces per capita air emissions and the overall per capita carbon footprint.

More physically fit community. With higher per capita levels of walking, bicycling, and transit use, residents of higher-density communities tend to be much more physically fit and less obese. Higher-density places promote social capital, and higher social capital is shown by studies to promote happiness, health, and longevity.

More financially sound households. A century ago, transportation was about 1 to 2 percent of household costs. Today it is about 23 percent and rising. The average annual cost of each car owned by a household is approximately $10,000. Higher-density neighborhoods substantially reduce the need for car ownership, car use, and overall household transportation costs. In addition, higher-density communities provide households with more job opportunities.

Lower startup costs. As Jane Jacobs noted several decades ago, higher-density town centers provide significantly lower capital startup costs for a small business. For example, it is much more financially viable for an individual to sell cooked food from a cart on a dense street corner than for an individual to buy or lease a restaurant building to sell cooked food.

More neighborhood-based (and smaller) retail. Only higher densities make smaller, neighborhood-based, locally-owned shops financially feasible. Lower-density communities tend to only be able to financially support franchise stores or large-format retail stores that draw customers from a regional consumer-shed.

More neighborly. Higher-density neighborhoods promote sociability. Lower-density neighborhoods promote isolation and suspicion.

Slower speed. Healthy cities are slower in speed, as slower speeds promote retail and residential health. And significantly reduces traffic injuries and deaths. These benefits explain why there is a global movement o create “slow cities.”

More abundant and diverse choices. Higher-density neighborhoods inevitably create much more in the way of choices for restaurants, other types of retail and specialty goods, and culture.

More innovation and creativity. Many studies show that higher-density cities are significantly more innovative and creative than lower-density cities. Higher-density cities attract more talented, skilled people.

More exchange. The main reason cities exist is to promote the exchange of goods, services, ideas, and sociability. Higher densities substantially increase the efficiency and amount of exchange.

More productive workforce. Higher-density cities not only attract more talented workers – which in itself promotes productivity – but also enhances productivity by reducing transportation costs in creating products or providing services.

More walking, bicycling, and transit use. Higher densities induce mixed-use development patterns, which substantially reduces trip distances. Relatively short travel distances to destinations is by far the most powerful way to increase walking, bicycling, and transit use.

Higher quality transit. Higher-density leads to higher transit ridership, which leads to better, more widespread, and more frequent transit service.

More housing choices. Lower-densities tend to deliver very limited housing choice. Nearly all of the housing consists of large single-family homes on large lots of land. Higher-density neighborhoods can provide townhouses, apartments, accessory units, co-ops, and live-work spaces.

More fiscal health for local government. Lower-density development, as shown by strongtowns.org, is a fiscal parasite because it fails to generate anywhere near the tax revenue needed to pay for its significant impacts (mostly road work) on the community. And minimizes per capita expenditures for infrastructure.

More security from crime. Higher densities promote citizen surveillance (often called “eyes on the street”). Higher densities lead to more regular use of sidewalks and observing the outside through house windows greatly contributes to our looking out for our collective security. Since criminals tend to rely on not being seen, this citizen surveillance greatly reduces crime. Many compact neighborhoods are now called “911” neighborhoods, as compactness increases the chance someone will spot an emergency and call 911.

More travel independence for those unable to drive a car. In a lower-density neighborhood, distances to destinations are far away and require the use of dangerous and high-speed roads. This makes car travel essential for nearly all trips, and those unable to drive (such as seniors, children, and the disabled) therefore lose travel independence. They must rely on others to get around.

More environmentally friendly. If we take, say, 100,000 people, that number of people will consume less environmentally sensitive land, produce far less air and water pollution, consume far less energy, and require less asphalt and concrete when living more compactly (ie, at higher densities). If we take that same 100,000 people and disperse them in lower-density patterns, the result is far higher levels of air and water pollution, far larger amounts of environmentally sensitive land consumed, far higher amounts of energy consumed, and far more asphalt and concrete needed.

Final Thoughts

A big part of the problem with the disconnect between the many benefits of compact development and the high level of citizen opposition to such development is that those who dislike density are thinking about the issue as a motorist and not as a human being. Since cars take up so much space, density is something that often and understandably makes the motorist furiously mad (so mad that the emotion tends to turn off a person’s brain). The idea of added density is seen as a direct threat to their ability to travel unhindered (or unfrustrated) by car.

It threatens the very core of their drivable lifestyle.

Car travel in a dense city is an effective recipe for infuriating a motorist. And again, because of the large space consumption of the car, nearly every trip the motorist takes puts them in a bad mood, as it is highly likely that driving a big metal box will be frustrating – even when densities are low.

Getting around by bicycle (or when I walk or use the bus), I pretty much never notice traffic congestion. In fact, almost every bike ride I take puts me in a better mood.

 

Some references:

http://www.lgc.org/wordpress/docs/freepub/community_design/reports/density_manual.pdf

https://theconversation.com/higher-density-living-can-make-us-healthier-but-not-on-its-own-34920

https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/11/cities-denser-cores-do-better/3911/

https://www.brookings.edu/articles/demand-for-density-the-functions-of-the-city-in-the-21st-century/

https://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/towns-and-cities/summary-value-urban-design-economic-environmental-and-social-benefi-10

https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/04/why-bigger-cities-are-greener/863/

https://www.britannica.com/topic/urban-sprawl/Costs-of-urban-sprawl

 

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Environment, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking