Mr. Speck thinks that our profession can be obsessed with “gizmo green”, specifying “sustainable” products that often have an insignificant impact on the carbon footprint when compared to a building’s location. It makes little sense to him that we design a LEED-certified building that you must drive to. Architects can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing and just adding a solar panel, wind turbine, bamboo floor, or whatever. Location trumps design.Transportation planner Dan Malouff is quoted here, putting the situation into simple terms: “LEED architecture without good urban design is like cutting down the rainforest using a hybrid-powered bulldozer.”
I have been using the real estate web site mentioned in the book to evaluate project locations for my clients. Walkscore.com’s mission is to promote walkable neighborhoods. Pittsburgh’s average Walk Score is 70 out of a possible 100 points. Each point over this average directly correlates to an extra $500 – $3,000 in property value. This is important news for urbanism and infill development. Many infill sites remaining in our neighborhoods are small and have limited parking potential. Zoning limitations for these sites may be unlocked if we take a creative approach to right-sizing the parking, along with other building systems.
If it sounds simple, let’s give it a try. If you have a potential site with an above average score, go full-steam ahead and start building. If a neighborhood has a below average score, then it’s time to work on improving it. The book suggests that one way to make our neighborhoods more walkable is to make the sidewalks safer. This generally means slowing down vehicle traffic.
The book suggests that a proper mass transit system is one that connects walkable neighborhoods and is really public space in itself, so the quality of the experience matters. Several options are discussed, with street cars being a favorite method of connecting existing city centers to emerging ones. Street cars don’t create walkability, but rather improve existing pedestrian places. Trollies have an intangible “cuteness” factor and in fact become more charming as they age, unlike buses whose life cycle is a maximum of twenty years and start to show their age after only ten. One hybrid solution Pittsburgh is taking a close look at is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which typically costs half that of Light Rail Transit (LRT). The key here is the word “rapid”, without which there is no advantage over standard bus service.
Walkable cities have both heroes and villains. The bad guys: Traffic engineers, especially those who work for state DOTs, who Speck states have no obligation to listen to a community but “answer to a higher authority, which ultimately is the god Traffic Flow.” They have a significant impact on many old downtowns whose Main Streets are often state roads. This makes change in these areas difficult, if not impossible. It is very much like the fox guarding the henhouse, as their engineering studies often have predictable results that inevitably recommend building more roads and more parking.
Speck minces no words when stating that traffic studies are a joke for three main reasons. First, a computer model is only as good as the inputs, and there’s nothing easier than tweaking data to get the desired outcome. Second, guess who gets to design these new roads? It’s the same engineers who said they are needed. Third, they don’t take into account a phenomenon called induced demand, where an increase in the number of roads causes more people to drive, obliterating any reduction in congestion. Cities with the most roads ironically have the best public transit, since they end up with the most congestion.
The hero in this story is Donald Shoup, Chairman of Urban Planning at UCLA, who inside a small circle is a rock star. There’s even a Facebook group called “The Shoupistas.” Shoup earned his exalted status by being perhaps the first person to really think about how parking works in cities. Most studies result in more parking than needed, often at a great cost to society in general, not only drivers. Developers who must build this parking pass its cost on to consumers with higher costs of goods, services, and rents.
Speck says that a number of alternative parking strategies may be worth considering, especially in transit-oriented locations. “In-lieu payments” allow developers to construct only what their market study recommends and pay a fee to create shared city parking spaces a few blocks away. Another option is called “parking cash-out”, which lets businesses that offer free employee parking to give their workers the option of trading the space for its cash equivalent. It’s an ingenuous law because “it’s all carrot and no stick.” One downtown L.A. employer saw its parking demand decrease by 24 percent.
All of this new knowledge will hopefully come in handy to “walk the walk” on our projects, negotiating size and access with our clients and local planning officials. In Pittsburgh, MOVEPGH(2) is currently developing just such a blueprint, linking communities and transportation. If we right-size our proposed buildings, rents, parking, and traffic we’ll be living in a walker’s paradise(3).
This book was featured on AIA Pittsburgh’s list of top 5 summer reads.