Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Thoughts on Transit and New Urbanism

I am a member of the CNU. I've been going to congresses over the last 4 years but have noticed that a lot of other members don't really get transit or that transit should be an integral part of NU. In a session last weekend about value capture strategies, Scott Polikov showed some diagrams of communities he helped code south of San Antonio and in Leander at the end of Capital Metro's commuter rail line. While they were nice and could probably promote more walking internal of the neighborhood, he showed boutique retail and limited transit access and circulation for both projects. G.B. Arrington, former transit and TOD planner at Tri-Met in Portland who heads Parsons Brinkerhoff's place making division, raised his hand and asked a very pointed question.

"Isn't this just walkable sprawl?"

And therein lies the problem. Much of what the new urbanism is known for is their walkable sprawl which includes the Kentlands and Seaside as the projects most representative of New Urbanism from an outsiders perspective. At the end of the day all of the jobs are somewhere else and without alternative connections to those jobs and a location on the far reaches of a region, the same VMT and overall degradation of the environment will continue.

New Urbanism in principle says the right things in the Charter, but right now we're mostly neglecting the transit and mobility. This includes the understanding of bikes. I heard that Liz Moule of Moule Polyzoides who designed the Del Mar TOD stated that its silly to have showers at every place of employment to support cycling. This angered some of my colleagues who want to make the trip between neighborhoods and work accessible by bike.

If we aren't able to build places by reducing VMT, then whats the point? Building good looking internally walkable places is nice but really at the end of the day there is a reason for building it if you have to drive to get anywhere outside of the community? Without metrics or final purpose, we don't know what we're doing. Some like Andres Duany say that its all about providing happiness. But in reality there are many people out there who are happy with their freeways and huge gas guzzling SUVs.

Jan Gehl, who was responsible for bike and pedestrian renaissances in Melbourne and Copenhagen has a simple metric that destroys any argument against his improvements. Pedestrian counts. In fact he rebuked some store owners who said that they were slowly fading due to reduced auto access. He was able to prove that they were getting much increased pedestrian activity in front of the store by before and after counts.

So if we are going to build transit and build communities that reduce the autocentricity that begets sprawl, then we need to measure the effects. Else we are no better than other ideologues that state their ideas are right, without proof to back it up. I believe that we need to measure New Urbanism to make sure its working, and by working I mean reducing VMT because if we can't do that, its just walkable sprawl.


Unknown said...

While I agree that some suburban TOD developments miss the point, I do think that a residential area where you can walk to basic errands and entertainment is better than so many exurban developments, where you literally can't walk anywhere. I'm always shocked when I visit my relatives in the Columbus, OH exurbs how tied they are to their cars just get milk or go to Burger King or something. In contrast, it makes my aunt and uncle's place in King Farm in Montgomery County look like a pedestrian-friendly paradise.

kenf said...

My first reaction to Kentlands, almost 20 years ago, was I wouldn't want to live there because of the lack of transit.

And now, the State of Maryland wants to put in light rail some day, a couple of miles away from Kentlands in the middle of a parking lot.

Anonymous said...

Kentlands actually has bus service and it connects to the Shady Grove metro station. Also, I am in Seaside and Rosemary Beach right now. There are ALOT of jobs. Cafes, restaurants, bike rentals, gift shops, wine stores, book stores, boutiques, coffee shops, the list goes on...very impressive. The major problem here is that those who work here, can't live here. It's an affordability issue.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Yes Affordability is part of the problem. But affordability can be addressed in part by good transit access. I wish the affordability index was done for every region. It would be an interesting way to see what really is affordable and why other places are not.

M1EK said...

Walkable sprawl with downtown employment is a huge step up from what we have now.

Walkable sprawl CAN be served by transit, even if it's not being done currently. The other stuff can never be served by transit. Big difference.

Joshua Vincent said...

A lot of anti-sprawl folks who aren't planners & developers sorta think NU is a new way to market development and make money. Not so bad, as it goes, we all have to make a living.

But until NU deals with that issue of putting a 'town' in what used to be a cornfield, rather than infill on a massive scale, near extant infrastructure, NU will be what it objectively is, window dressing, and a denser way to sprawl...

Happily, the finance aspects of value capture are slowly getting attention. It is not a coincidence that both the Melbourne and Copenhagen areas have had value capture through land value taxation for about a century. If land is able to be held as the cheapest species of property under our tax system (an overarching and salient point of all of our lives)without use, then sprawl is inevitable, full stop.

NU needs land value capture for both start up financing and infrastructure maintenance.

Jon Davis said...

As a railfan who pines for the resurrection of the South Shore Line’s sister interurbans and Chicago’s once massive streetcar system, and someone who works at the Congress for the New Urbanism, I’ve got to say that CNU XVI in Austin didn’t disappoint where TOD (Transit-Oriented Discussions) were concerned.

The recently concluded congress featured several sessions highlighting the value of, and urgent need for transit to be incorporated into new urbanist projects in cities and suburbs with active transit systems. One in-depth session for advanced practitioners, titled Streetcars as a New Urbanist Tool, was devoted entirely to the importance of streetcars as both people movers and economic engines. Among the concurrent sessions open to all, one focused on the synergy of transit and New Urbanism; another examined how to achieve a balance between transit and design; a third focused on the proper amount of parking for Transit-Oriented Development so you don’t over-supply parking, which of course would dissuade people from taking transit.

There is a keen and growing awareness among CNU and its members that New Urbanism is and must be the “Convenient Remedy” to the inconvenient truth of global warming. It offers the best fully integrated solutions for reducing one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions: Vehicle Miles Traveled. That’s why new CNU Board Chairman Ray Gindroz set out the framework for CNU’s climate initiative at the Sunday Morning Plenary session. He was followed by Doug Farr, who proposed a “2030 Challenge” to reduce VMT 50 percent by 2030. Transit must and will be an integral part of meeting that challenge.

Finally, Seaside and Kentlands tend to get cited as the only examples of New Urbanism but that is deceptive. Those were pioneer projects, but hardly the only ones out there these days. A lot has happened since then. For example, Rockville Town Square in Rockville, MD, won a 2008 Charter Award because it created a compact, walkable urban space (on the site of a failed shopping mall) within walking distance of both Washington Metro and MARC/Amtrak stations.

The 2007 Charter Awards honored Reconnecting America’s book Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century, and the new Kedzie and Rockwell stations on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Brown (Ravenswood) Line.

Sure, new urbanists can always do more and learn more to incorporate transit into their projects. I think that’s exactly what was happening at the Congress. Now new urbanists and transit/rail advocates need to join forces and push to undo the Bush administration’s transportation policy.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Jon thanks for the comment and it was nice to meet you at the congress. I noted that the Kentlands and Seaside were two projects most thought of whether right or wrong when people talk about new urbanism. We all know there are better projects, but these are the ones that are most visible. It's an education issue. As many sessions as there were on transit, I didn't see the people in those sessions that needed to learn about it the most. It's not enough to know that TOD exists or the parking standards needed for TOD, but rather they need an understanding of how transit works. Andres Duany especially since he keeps spouting off his mouth in cities around the country about transit, a topic to which from his comments he knows nothing about. His recent comments about a streetcar in Atlanta were laughable at best yet people listen to him. He has also said that we should not be worried about VMT but rather happiness. What a bunch of crap. Yet this is the person most followed in the CNU.

Chris Bradford said...

Jeff, I was in that session too. Where were you sitting?

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I was in the front left sitting next to a girl with curly brown hair. I have long hair and had a beard at the time, since gone :)

Chris Bradford said...

I thought I spotted some hippies up front. :)

The session was pretty dry until Arrington spoke up. I'll bet his confrontational style made him a bunch of friends in Portland.

Look, the new urbanist stuff is miles better than standard pod development. A low-density suburb like Leander ought to be praised for breaking with the standard suburban model. You're arguing that a glass half-full might as well be empty.

Joshua Vincent: Figure out how to convince neighborhoods to let dense NU projects be built in their midst. You'll retire rich. (And I'm glad the new urbanists are trying to make money -- NU will never supplant pod development unless it's as profitable.)

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Hippies :) Well I do live in San Francisco.

Perhaps if people had better transport options, there would be an argument against the NIMBY "more traffic" credo. That's all I'm trying to say. We need to give people a choice from the start instead of building these huge greenfield NU project with no transit and no connection to complimentary services or stores without an auto trip. The developer should be key in providing this, yet many in NU scoff at transit.

Anonymous said...

(I'm speaking for myself.) Indeed, New Urbanism (as I'm sure you'll recognize from the heated arguments at Congresses) is a forum, not a formula, and New Urbanists have differing ideas on many topics -- particularly in how we prioritize the many elements of New Urbanism. Peter Calthorpe, just as equal a co-founder of CNU as Andres Duany, probably coined the phrase "transit oriented development." I would argue that transit, and transportation choice more generally, sits at the core of New Urbanism; indeed, that commitment is what drew me to it as an urban design movement. That commitment is enshrined not only in the Charter, but in documents like LEED-ND -- the first certification scheme advanced by the CNU -- which goes so far as to nearly require projects to locate along transit or in low-VMT areas. There was even discussion at CNU XVI of adopting a VMT reduction strategy as a principal goal for the organization.

Observation bias might explain why so many people feel that New Urbanism is "just window dressing." Many prominent built examples of New Urbanism exists at the Charter's smaller scales -- the neighborhood and block, not the region -- since regional changes take much longer, and many more participants, to realize. (Although most built NU today is actually infill, those 20-year-old greenfield projects are still more famous.) Part of the goal in establishing various recognition programs for New Urbanism over the years, like the Charter Awards and LEED-ND (and some other initiatives that are coming soon) is to let people know that NU isn't just Seaside and Kentlands. Indeed, the number of Charter Award-winning urban infill plans or projects far outnumbers the number that could qualify as "walkable sprawl" -- and the resident population of the former dwarfs the population of the latter. Observation bias comes into play again here: "walkable sprawl" stands out amidst its surroundings, whereas walkable urbanism blends in quite nicely. We notice the former, but take the latter for granted -- when, in fact, the latter is actually much more difficult to build given our current regulatory climate.

One key fact I'd like to underline for transit advocates: most of the difference in mode split between American and European cities is not in transit trips, but in walking and cycling trips. (With better data collection, I also believe the same differential would also hold for American and wealthy Asian cities.) We focus on transit infrastructure alone at our peril: a mixed human habitat centered around pedestrians creates the kind of urban fabric that supports transit ridership. A transit line alone won't generate ridership in the absence of a supportive environment.

I personally can't defend "walkable sprawl," since I can't visit it -- I've never had a driving license. I also am among the school of bike commuters who thinks showers are a nice idea, but hardly crucial; after all, most bike commuters don't shower at their destinations. And it's not even like I live in naturally air-conditioned San Francisco.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, and glad to know the beard is gone. I'll stop there before this turns into "ask a gay man."

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Thanks for the comment Payton. I think we'll see more thinking on this in the coming months as evidenced by a few emails over pro-urb today. You're right though, good new urbanism tends to not get noticed as it blends in with the old urbanism.

Chris Bradford said...

I think NU infill is great, and I think TOD is great. But I think it's a real mistake to emphasize these at the expense of what you're calling "walkable sprawl." Most growth will be greenfield development. You simply cannot accommodate massive population increases through TOD and NU infill projects. The real choice for most projects is between the Kentlands-type project and the pod.

Let's use D.C. as an example. D.C.'s urbanized area added 600,000 people between 1990 and 2000. DC, Alexandria and Arlington -- the dense parts -- have less than 1 million combined. Even if 100,000 of the new residents had settled in TODs in one of these cities (or in one of the other stops of the Metro), you'd still have had 500,000 to house.

Without a good NU alternative, most of these new residents would have no choice but to accept a pod-style development.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Man I didn't think this post was still active. But apparently it is. Payton also I might add, Paul Krugman pulled up the differences between europe, canada and the US: A lot of it is walking and biking but the transit facilitates it. It's at 10+ percent in most of europe with a weird exception in the Netherlands. But they have quality transit as well so i'm wondering if the number of trips taken walking is just so high it brings about interference. Dunno.


AC, I agree there is a need to accomidate people and that the numbers are huge. There is no way we're going to be able to do it by POD without busting our energy budget. But my thinking here is that if Kentlands moves to the North a mile, it's a TOD at a MARC station. It's possible to connect it to the station by bus as well. But we weren't really thinking about it like that when those things were built. It's possible to link these developments to transit so they aren't walkable sprawl, but rather districts on a corridor. I think we need to start thinking about it that way. Perhaps that's what you were talking about. But I think we're agreeing.