Red Light For Traffic Signs?

The American Conservative magazine has been running a series of columns on urban design, smart growth, and other topics covering the interaction between cars, people, and buildings.  Their most recent article by Johnathan Coppage talks about “shared space” and controlling traffic through good street design.

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We’ve Been Sold: Our Love Affair with Cars

CityLab.com has a great story on the historian Peter Norton of UVA, who proposes the idea that America’s love of the automobile is something we’ve been trained to believe by what he calls “motordom,” and it has affected the way we design our cities ever since.

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Death by Car is Normal, But Riding a Bicycle is Weird

Two recent pedestrian deaths in the region reveal how American car culture has normalized the violent death and countless injuries caused by motor vehicles, saving its outrage for those who, by choice or necessity, ride bicycles or walk for transportation.  What’s wrong with us?

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When they’re Gone, will we Mourn the Malls?

Overhead view of Valley View Mall | via http://blueridgeskyline.com/

Coming down from the recent high some of you may have experienced on Black Friday (myself, I could conceive of no greater punishment than dealing with the traffic and crowds at the shopping malls and other retail outlets), it’s worth some time to reflect on the history behind those massive structures in which many of us left so much money behind.  Back in April, Mark Hinshaw at Better Cities and Town offered this reflection and analysis:

I recently came across a set of recommended standards for commercial development published in 1954, just about the same time [architect Victor] Gruen was crafting his influential shopping center model. Although the authors of the standards likely had no idea they were actually designing the future, they were predicting if not dictating the American we live in today.

Because they were widely published standards, thousands of cities and towns used them as a basis to pass laws that enshrined them for decades. These blueprints of 20th Century America ramble on for more than a dozen pages of fine print with charts and graphs and crude diagrams. They laid out a prescribed pattern of development based almost solely on the parking of automobiles. The authors scolded developers who “underestimated the need for parking spaces or found the land too valuable to be devoted to parking.”

Reading the document is a bit like being in the film Back to the Future. Though almost no big suburban shopping centers yet existed in 1954, the authors drew sketches for prototypes. Every single one of them has been built somewhere since. (As a matter of historic interest, Northgate Mall in Seattle was one of the first, though it was originally open to the air. Its architect, John Graham Jr., made the claim that it was America’s first true shopping center.)

Hinshaw goes on to point out that in the world envisioned by these development standards, nearly 75% of developed land was devoted to parking cars.  “Most predictions of the future have failed,” he says.  “This one, unfortunately, was pretty spot on.”

Demographic and settlement pattern changes seem to be signalling and end to the shopping mall as a major shopping destination, which tracks against another trend we see – the resurgence of downtowns and urban centers, the focusing of development on village centers, the demolishing of antiquated zoning regulations that discourage density and create parking minimums instead of maximums.  We’re seeing new investment in old urban neighborhoods, such as what has been happening in Old Southwest and Mountain View here in Roanoke.  We are increasingly seeing a market that wants to reclaim and renovate, rather than continue to build on the edges.

Some other signs that malls and other huge shopping centers may be on the way out – the growing popularity of Small Business Saturday as a locally-focused response to Black Friday, and the skyrocketing increase in online shopping:

In the latest sign of the growing importance of Internet-based retailing, comScore Inc said Black Friday online sales topped $1 billion for the first time, while IBM said online sales rose 16.9 percent year-over-year on Saturday.

Online sales were still a fraction of total sales, but the percentage of growth in that category far surpassed the increase in in-store sales.

So, the malls may be on the way out, or at least in the process of facing a massive transformation.

The question is, with the internet giving us easy access to the most popular, practical, or just plan generic stuff, and a focus on local businesses for the unique and homegrown, will we actually miss the malls when they’re gone?

Downtown Roanoke Gets Bigger

Yesterday, Roanoke City Council voted to expand the footprint of what constitutes Downtown Roanoke.  The new area encompasses Jefferson Street down to River’s Edge and the Carilion Complex:

The council unanimously voted to expand the city’s downtown service district to include 72 taxable parcels in the Jefferson Street and Riverside corridors. That area includes the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, River’s Edge Sports Complex, the former flour mill and scrap yard properties, the former Victory Stadium site and a variety of properties between Jefferson Street and the Roanoke River.

The action tacks on the service district’s tax rate of 10 cents per $100 of assessed value to properties in that area. That rate generated about $400,000 annually under the previous service district; the expanded area will generate an additional $135,000 annually, according to a city staff report.

It was noted that the expansion now included the bulk of the length of the free Star Line Trolley route.

An Ode to a Good Walk

Laura Clawson at the DailyKos has an interesting diary on the virtues of walking.  It’s good, and a lot of the material she links to is also good as a review of the challenges of making walkable communities.

One of the points she makes is of walking as a cultural rather than structural issue (structural here meaning the presence of sidewalks, crosswalks, and other pedestrian amenities).  She relates the following:

But nothing illustrated how far outside the norm attempting to walk someplace was in that culture like the first time I tried to walk anywhere the summer I lived on the country road. There was a gas station half a mile away and enough grass at the edge of the road that I didn’t think I’d get run over, so I set out. Halfway there, I was stopped by the police, who ran my license. The ostensible reason I was stopped was that there had been a break-in reported about a mile away just minutes before. But there was no way I could have been at the break-in and where I was on foot; really, I was stopped because I was doing something suspicious simply by walking along the road.

I had a similar experience upon moving here from California.  Where I lived in El Cajon, I had – for years – walked and ridden my bike the two or so miles to my junior high.  In fact, I had never ridden a bus to school or had been driven to school in my life.  When I moved here and  ended up at Cave Spring High School, about the same distance from home to school as where I grew up, everyone rode the bus or was driven by their parents (or drove themselves).  Even though I wasn’t really environmentally aware at the time, and didn’t see walking vs. driving as an environmental issue, it still seemed very strange to me that no one was walking that relatively short distance, a distance I had walked my entire life.   There were many mornings when I missed the bus on purpose just so I’d have an excuse to have to walk, and recapture some of that experience of moving under my own power.

For doing that, I got a lot of strange looks.  Often, I would arrive at school before or at the same time my bus did, even when I hoofed it, and as it drove by some of my classmates would stare, perplexed.  Besides this cultural issues, there were – and are – structural issues:  no sidewalks between home and school, and little consideration for pedestrians along Electric Road and Chapparal (point of note – Electric Road may be due for a renaissance according to recent planning work the Commission completed).

That said, things have improved a lot, I think; at least, many of the cultural issues to walking (and other alternative modes) seems to have waned a bit if the structural issues haven’t.   Of course, I’m surrounded with this stuff everyday and might be suffering a bit of an echo-chamber effect.  I’d be interested if some of those cultural objections to walking, biking, and bus riding are still in full effect.

Enough With the Fetishization, it’s Just a Car

U2’s Bono jumped on the New Year bandwagon, using his op-ed space in the New York Times to pen a Top 10 list of sorts.  It covers the kinds of topics you might expect from Bono – Africa, intellectual property rights, and so forth.  However, for a list that purports to look “forward, not backward,” Bono starts off with a strange and regressive idea:  “Return of the Automobile as a Sexual Object.”

After some innuendo and Freudian word-play, Bono gets to the point:  Cars are ugly, he says, and goes on to suggest that car companies employ artists and designers to make them beautiful, to resexualize the automobile and make them objects of desire and envy.

I don’t understand this at all.

First of all, it’s not that automakers have stopped considering design elements when producing vehicles, it’s just that the focus has changed from beauty to intimidation.  SUVs in particular, with their towering height, maw-like grills, and muscular bulk, are clearly designed not only to make the driver feel safe (feel being the operative word here; SUVs, with their high center-of-gravity, are more prone to rollovers and are more likely to kill their passengers than an average car) but powerful and aggressive.  Yes, this is one part of the automobile market – other lines like the Prius and Volkswagen have succeeded in clever, effective designing concentrating on coolness and quirkiness.  The point is that design is alive and well in auto development, it’s just that the market has changed in what it want to feel when we’re sitting in the driver’s seat.

I suppose this would be much better if they were all Aston Martins

More importantly, though, Bono’s creepy festishization of the automobile is part of the core psychological problem that has led to the country’s transportation, energy, and urban design mess.  Despite the problems we’re currently suffering from too many people being in love with their automobiles – air pollution, suburban sprawl, skyrocketing gas prices  and the outsourcing of our energy development to hostile foreign powers – Bono suggests that, in the coming decade, we need to love our cars more, we need to make them prettier, we need to want to spend more time in them and invest more money in them (yes, more money; the one example he gives of a beautiful car is an Aston Martin, not a Prius, so he’s thinking high-end art here – Pollock, not Kinkade).  Even qualifying, as he does, that “the greener, the cleaner, the meaner on fossil fuels,” the more he’s aroused, he misses the point that gas mileage is only one small component of a vehicle’s energy and environmental impact.  Even a fleet of zero-emission electric Aston Martins need someplace to park and roads to drive on  They still get into car accidents, and require expensive maintenance and production.

Automobiles – which, really, are simply one of a number of tools that helps you get from Point A to Point B, the set of which includes thinks like your own two feet  – are hardly lacking in obsessive attention.  Bono’s strange assertion that we should reverse the admittedly small gains we’ve made in separating ourselves from our dysfunctional love affairs with our cars is exactly the wrong way to go.  The last thing we need are deeper ties between our cars and our reptile brains.

Bono would have been better off, if he insists on his bizarre fetishization, to emphasize beautiful and “sexy” urban spaces.  If the idea is to sexualize something so that people want to spend more time with it, why not emphasize our cities and downtowns?  Why not take the artists and designers he wants to work with automakers and instead put them on city planning commissions and in city engineering departments?  In essence, concentrate design and beauty on where and how we live, not on the tools we use to go to the grocery store.

A Strong Criticism

From Diana Christopulos at the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition:

Hollins University and the Darci Ellis Godhard Fund for Social Justice present “The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century” with urban planning expert, social critic, author, and journalist James Howard Kunstler

  • WHEN:     Wednesday, November 11, 2009, 7 p.m.
  • WHERE:    Niederer Auditorium, Wetherill Visual Arts Center
  • COST:       Free Admission

With a critical eye and a provocative, entertaining voice, Kunstler explores the sweeping economic, political, and social changes that will result from the end of access to cheap fossil fuels.

“Kunstler, like George Orwell, understands that being honest about the past and present is the only way to prepare ourselves for an uncertain future.”  —Professor David Ehrenfeld, Rutgers University

I’ll be there.  Kunstler has been an outspoken and harsh critic of urban sprawl and progressive design of public space, as illustrated by this presentation (warning:  Some of Kunstler’s language is as strong as his criticism, so be forewarned).

Humans Reclaim the Pavement

img_cicloviaFirst, a congraulatory note:  Andrea Garland, the driving force behind Roanoke’s first-ever Ciclovía, was recently visiting Manhattan and had a chance to drop in with the Livable Streets folks, where she told them that their Ciclovia Streetfilm inspired her to get this event started.  They were kind enough to blog about her visit and to talk about the upcoming Roanoke event.

Andrea deserves an enormous amount of credit for the work she has put into getting this event going.

Roanoke’s first Ciclovia is only a little over two weeks away – I say first because, much like the Colombian event that inspired it, I hope this continues to grow year over year.  I’m excited about the spectacle of seeing some of the busiest streets of downtown Roanoke turned back over to people – even if only for a few hours.

One thing I want to make clear, though, is that this is not a bicycle event per se, despite the impression the name might give you.  It is really an experiment in how we choose to use urban space, essentially turning busy streets into parks.  With all the discussion of greenways and bike lanes recently, it is important to recognize that we have already built vast transportation networks dedicated to a single mode of travel – arguably, even a single kind of vehicle – and it’s worth reexamining those decisions.

The other day, for example, I was driving north on Electric Road and thinking about the word we did last year in mapping out bicycle commute routes for Clean Commute Day.   The biggest struggle we had was how to get folks from the Cave Spring area across 419?  There were very ways that felt safe; we were either bringing folks across the middle of road, which was risky, or we were routing them down 419 to signalled intersection, which was also risky.   The Sidewinder route was what we eventually settled on, but there are still some issues.  Now, imagine if we shut down a mile of Electric Road so that people could simply walk across it whereever they wished (heck, they could set up a dodgeball game smack in the middle).  How would that change perceptions of the safety of the street and how we could better use it?  How might that alter our sense of how that space be used?  And, more imporantly, how might we better connect two areas of the valley that are right now separated by little more than 50 feet or so of pavement, and yet feel completely cut off from one another?