Transportist contributor David King (me) will be a guest on public radio’s Science Friday (October 7, 2016) to discuss the future of commuting and the role of ridesharing, taxicabs and vanpools. I believe the recent pilot project in Summit, New Jersey will be addressed (the Buzzfeed writer of the linked post is another guest), plus other topics.
American urbanists like to criticize “the suburbs”, but this isn’t really fair. The suburbs are just a place, like South Dakota, or Australia, or Antarctica. They cannot change where they are.Some of this is a criticism of “suburbanites”. But so long as there is housing in the suburbs, and transportation to enable people to move, someone will live in the suburbs, at a higher or lower rent depending on people’s relative preferences for space or travel time.Some of this is a criticism of suburban politics. But this comes with self-selection, people want to live with people with similar preferences. The alternative is those with different political, religious, and athletic views live together, which would inevitably create more conflict.Some of this is a criticism of suburban travel behavior. But this is really due to suburban land uses and network patterns, discussed below, and demographics and socioeconomics which can’t really be changed or changed easily.
Some of this is associated with land densities. Much of this is unfair as every place starts undeveloped and adds development over time, some places are more complete than others. Some of this complaint is legitimate in that particular subdivisions make intensification of development technically difficult and probably illegal under current zoning. But population densities dropped in central cities as well, both due to a hollowing out of individual houses as average household size dropped, and demolition of housing and replacement with lower density developments including more surface parking.
Some of this is a criticism of suburban street patterns. But this is not inherently associated with the suburbs, it is really associated with an era. Streets that were built in certain periods had particular spacings, connectivity, widths, curvatures and so on. You can even see it in some urban brownfields that were redeveloped in this era (Energy Park comes to mind).
Consider older towns, for instance county seats of suburban counties. While in the 19th century, they often had road, river, and rail connections with large cities, they were not in the daily metropolitan system, as people did not commute back and forth so regularly. Certainly residents of these places were affected by the nearby big city, but they were not at the time suburbs. These towns mostly have design coherence.
Similarly look at areas that we call suburban developed before World War II, particularly first ring suburbs. These too often have design coherence. The photo shows an early Garden Suburb in London. If suburbs were more like this, I suspect the complaint level would decrease.
The problem with the suburbs isn’t that they are not the city. The problem with the suburbs is the same problem as the city, they had a bad 5 or 6 decades of urban design. Cities in the same period saw urban renewal, mostly mediocre architecture, replacement of buildings with surface parking lots, and a general hollowing out. It’s not because it’s the city that this is a problem, it’s because there were some terrible design (planning, engineering) memes out there which got implemented as policy, while operating in a market that just had notaste. It is worse with the suburbs, as for many, those six decades of urban design were the only six decades of development they had, while for the city, at least the older street network remained mostly intact, as did some of the older commercial buildings and much of the housing stock.
It’s not the now-assimilated suburbs built before the big cities reached out to envelop them within the daily metropolitan system. It’s not the older suburbs within the core cities, or the first ring suburbs adhering to the grid. It is a particular design of a particular era which enlarges distances between places in order to offer larger parcels of land on which to spend time and store cars.To reverse this, people will need to want to spend more time off-their property, bear more affinity for their neighbors, and promote changes to land use rules to enable such things (which will follow from consumer preferences). Technologies, policies, land uses, and transportation networks which reduce the demand for car ownership and car storage will facilitate this.
Travel has peaked, many core cities are slowly gaining population, and perhaps population share, car ownership is down and car and bike sharing is up, new housing is being constructed in urban areas, and it seems if development is growing up faster than out. In short, the trends are favorable. They just have to run for 5 decades to undo the problems remaining.
On a date night with my wife, we recently visited Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove (Map below). Maple Grove is a suburban area northeast of the interchange of I-94/I-694 and I-494. The areas abutting the freeway are devoted to retail. Beyond that is housing. Much of the area used to be quarry, some of it still is. This leaves lots of holes in the ground, which fill with water, which we call lakes, and Minnesotans like lakes, so these are considered a feature.Much of the shopping district is auto-oriented, a simple look at the aerial photos indicates a large share of this territory is parking lots and big boxes. There are however three pedestrian-friendly regions of this shopping complex. (Ignoring the insides of buildings, which are of course pedestrian-only zones).The first is Main Street. Main Street is abutted by 2-story buildings with shops and restaurants, and short blocks. There is some parallel parking on street, and the buildings back to more parking. The pedestrian oriented part of Main Street is just north of Elm Creek Boulevard and proceeds for five blocks. Some of the side streets even connect not-so-terribly to nearby big box centers (e.g. The Toys ‘R’ Us block) or local medium density housing. According to wikipedia, this was built from 1997-2001.
Main Street crosses Arbor Lakes Parkway near its North End and on one side of the street is even more retail, followed by a park. The other side is a modern, but awfully situated government building. The building is set back from the Street, has one entrance (on the far side of all the pedestrian traffic), and is otherwise unwelcoming to walk-up traffic. It needsdoors (Just north of the government center is a nice park area as well). I am sure there are historical reasons for the building giving its back to the street, (like lack of foresight by the designers, and post 9/11 security paranoia), but it results in an abrupt end to what could be a more lively street-face. Arbor Lakes Parkway is four lanes (flaring to five at the intersection), and is reasonably acceptable to cross on foot, though the crosswalks don’t land on the median (i.e. the median dies before the crosswalk), which is odd, though surely for the convenience of drivers making faster turns.
On the southern edge of this pedestrian area, Main Street tries to cross Elm Creek Boulevard. At the intersection, Elm Creek Boulevard flares to seven lanes. At this pedestrian actuated signal, the pedestrian light turns to red just as we completed crossing. On the one hand, this is maximally efficient timing. On the other hand, if I were just a bit slower, I would be stranded in the middle of the intersection. There is a pedestrian landing at the median here, but it is at the end of the second lane, so I don’t quite yet realize that I am going to be stuck with a red light in front of me as cars trying to cross have a green light. Nervous pedestrians might be tempted to run by the almost instantaneous switch to a flashing Don’t Walk (which really just means Don’t Start Walking).
Main Street does cross though, and I see two restaurants on the south side of this intersection, but they are oriented to their respective parking lots, not the sidewalk. And their parking lots are giants. Which is too bad, because I can see in the walkable distance (about 500m) another place I might want to walk. There is a movie theatre anchoring the west end of a pedestrian oriented shopping street, a lifestyle center in the jargon, an outdoor mall. So we walked there, past the parked cars.
And we reached a less interesting, but still viable center going by the name of The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes (opened 2003), which is like a smaller version of any of the Dales without a roof and without a “Dayton’s” Department Store. It also has the Maple Grove Transit Center (a Park and Ride ramp). It has seen recent change (its east anchor, Borders Books, recently went out of business). You are not however expected to continue going forever. Unlike the grid of the city which offers continuing potential of surprise, that something might happen if I walk to the end of the block and turn the corner, the East Anchor stops the center. You can drive down part of the middle of this outdoor Mall, but a pedestrian-only block (Arbor Park) prohibits through traffic. The middle of the mall is street like, but seems nameless. I will call it Fountains Way because that is the street that aligns with it on the East. This would annoy the developer however, as that is the name of the next shopping center.That the center stops is good, because on the other side of the building is a parking lot connected to a freeway entrance ramp via Hemlock Lane, and who wants to see that. It is bad, because on the other side of Hemlock (about 300m to the east of The Shoppes edge) is Fountains Drive, connected via Fountains Way, another shopping district, which is in fact walkable. But that section is only 2 blocks long. And behind it are large big box stores. The Fountains (c. 2007) is considered a hybrid-power center.
The Arbor Lakes Business Association identifies these three districts: Main Street, The Shoppes (by Cousins), and the Fountains, as three separate areas, and clearly we are the only people in the history of Arbor Lakes to have walked between the first two, much less the third.
The business association is correct, “Arbor Lakes has it all”. Unfortunately, it is all scattered about.
Developers are capable of creating pleasant walkable places with fine grained streets.
Contiguity is an important consideration. If everyone is driving everywhere, leapfrog development is not such a problem, there is a small fixed cost of getting in the car and a variable cost of driving. If you want people to walk, it is a problem, since the variable cost increases significantly with distance. How you accomplish this in a decentralized piecemeal development process (so it doesn’t take 30 years to complete) is not obvious, but is important. This is where some kind of planning is important, either on the part of the master developers who control everything, or the government, or a negotiated compact between the individual property owners. Suppose the individual developers pooled their land and the profits in a joint venture, would the planning outcome have been better?
Suburban shopping centers are a place that most people will drive to, in order to walk around. Yet the developers seem to be selfishly irrational trying to keep their own center as a walled garden, rather than tying into adjacent centers. That is, it would have been just as easy for the Shoppes at Arbor Lakes to build its walkable center abutting Main Street on the West, so that people could and would have walked there from Main Street, as surrounding it on all sides with parking. Similarly, The Fountains could have put the Pedestrian Zone on Fountains Drive, tying it to the adjacent Shoppes better, so some customers of the Shoppes would walk to the Fountains (and vice versa). The Shoppes could also have been designed to connect to the Fountains. [Admittedly the Shoppes would need to be twice the size to reach both the Fountains and Main Street, so initially only one would be possible with the finite number of small stores. If the Big Box stores were also reoriented, something more could be done.]. Yes you might lose some business as people comparison shop in the next center over, but you also gain from the adjacent center, I am sure the net loss/gain is small. More importantly, there is a positive externality of creating a walking district where people come from other market-sheds to visit.
The interface between pedestrian realms and automobile realms is generally ugly, and here it is really ugly because you have pedestrian only areas near auto only areas (freeways). I firmly believe in grade separations as a tool that should be considered where appropriate. Here the elevations don’t make it very easy or convenient. Pedestrians should not be forced to climb stairs or steep ramps for such crossings, while moving cars up or down is pricey. Yet pedestrians crossing Hemlock Lane or Elm Creek Boulevard in large numbers at grade is apparently seen as not practical by the authorities that be, hence the division into three zones in the first place. Transforming Hemlock Lane or Elm Creek Boulevard into pedestrian-friendly streets is Quixotic at best, and a drain of resources better applied elsewhere at worst.
There is also the question of how much retail Maple Grove, or anywhere, could possibly need. I suspect we are at or near Peak Retail, so in 10 or 20 years time, much of this will be abandoned (some already is, witness Borders among others), and retrenchment and consolidation would be in order.
Important parking lot rows really ought to be named streets. (Even if they legally are not dedicated). I can’t describe them adequately without resorting to a map, and the map doesn’t have names. This really hurts wayfinding.
[We went because my wife got a coupon to the restaurant Zushiya, which was cromulent, but not of itself worth the drive. I think my wife thought it was in Maplewood, which is closer to her work than Maple Grove]
From the NYT: Causes of Death Are Linked to a Person’s Weight
“Linking, for the first time, causes of death to specific weights, they report that overweight people have a lower death rate because they are much less likely to die from a grab bag of diseases that includes Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, infections and lung disease. And that lower risk is not counteracted by increased risks of dying from any other disease, including cancer, diabetes or heart disease.”
So if suburbs cause obesity, and obesity reduces the death rate overall, then suburbs are good and cities bad for public health.