Thursday, March 5, 2015

Three Rules to Create a Walkable Neighborhood

I saw this post from The Better Block on my daily newspaper, The Walkable Times (subscribe if you don't already).  David Sucher, the author of City Comforts (order the book here), includes a chapter in his book in which he provides three simple rules for building a walkable neighborhood.  They include:

1.  Build to the sidewalk.  We've seen this approach incorporated into recent developments here in Atlanta, and the effect is profound on the feel of the area from the pedestrian standpoint.  For example, in Buckhead the recently constructed buildings have been built to the sidewalk (required by the City), as opposed to the '80s and '90s era developments which are set back from the sidewalk, resulting in a "dead zone" between sidewalk and building.  The difference is obvious.

2.  Make the building front permeable.  Basically, this means don't build blank walls along sidewalks which damage the pedestrian experience.  This seems like common sense, but unfortunately, it happens.  Just a little thought put into the pedestrian experience while planning will easily alleviate this.

3.  Prohibit parking lots in front of the building.  Again, this is a no-brainer but is often violated.  The old suburban retail concept of a large sea of black asphalt in front of a power center does not work for the pedestrian.  Parking behind buildings can be, and is, successful.  The GIF in the article which demonstrates the difference is pretty cool.

You can read the chapter from David's book here.  I hope more planning departments and developers take his three concepts to heart.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Atlanta Snowjam 2014 – A Failure of the Built Environment

The Atlanta area mess that has become known on social media as snowjam, snowpacolypse, snowmaggeddon and many others has been awful for any of us that have had to live through this nightmare.  For those unaware, yesterday, January 28, 2014, a snow storm of biblical proportions for Atlanta (all of two inches) hit the metro Atlanta area just after noon.  The city and state – which had proclaimed their readiness following the 2011 snow/ice storm that shut the city of Atlanta down for one week – failed to close schools in anticipation of the storm and failed to adequately prepare roads for the snow.  Despite the widespread forecasts of at least one to two inches of snow in the Atlanta area starting around noon, schools were not closed and major arterial roads were seemingly not salted or sanded.   Yet once it become obvious that the snow was coming down hard and sticking to the ground, a mass exodus of people from office buildings and schools began.  And thus began the snowjam.

Atlanta is essentially a regional of linked subdivisions.  There are the downtown and midtown areas which have grid systems, and the MARTA rail system runs north-south and east west but has severe limitations, but otherwise metropolitan Atlanta is one giant suburb.  It is a collection of suburbs linked by several key arterial roads, highways and interstates.  There is no road grid system, even in dense areas like Buckhead.  Atlanta has been built around the car almost exclusively.  The built environment here not only favors the car, but the car dominates the built environment.  And the built environment has failed us as the snowjam clearly indicates.

Unfortunate Atlanta motorists who were stuck in their single passenger vehicles for 6, 8, 12 even 24 hours had no other alternative.  Arterial roads and interstates iced up, and the arteries clogged all around town.  People abandoned vehicles on interstates, slept in retail stores that opened to stranded motorists or bunked at the homes of friends, neighbors or even strangers.  Those that only had a few miles to travel were forced into a death march as the only way to their destinations required a trip on those tremendously clogged arteries.  

While the city, state, Georgia Department of Transportation, local school systems and other governmental officials exacerbated this situation by their lack of planning, ultimately the built environment is to blame.  City planners and developers have simply failed us over the last 50+ years, and the snowjam is the ultimate, terrible result of this failure.  Without a grid system of at least some sort which would provide alternate paths to any destination, drivers are forced onto the same arterial roads in which everyone else is attempting to traverse.  The grid system would at least allow many roadways going in the same or similar directions.  The grid would also allow for those that choose to walk all or part of their destinations to do so much more easily.  And this is without even mentioning the glaring lack of an adequate transit system in Atlanta which was an obvious factor in this disaster.  

We have been failed, and this failure exists not just in Atlanta but throughout the country.  A reliance on a few arterial roads is simply a failure of proper planning.  Moreover, the interstate system was not originally designed to move traffic intra-city but instead to move traffic throughout the country.  Atlanta and many other large metropolitan areas, especially those in the sunbelt and the west, will continue to face situations like this if we do not make major changes to the built environment in which we live.  This is a wake-up call.  

Monday, June 4, 2012

Now Walkability Equates to Status

I've been making the argument for a long time that walkable communities are more valuable, see more pricing increases, hold value during economic downturns, etc. than drivable, suburban areas.  Now the NYT states that living in walkable communities can show your socioeconomic status.  Of course, this is a Chris Leinberger op-ed based upon his recent Brookings Institution study, so its not as if the NYT itself is making this claim.  But, its nice to see in those pages.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Do we really need a 35 member transit governance board?

The AJC provides a nice editorial today arguing against the State of Georgia's proposed transit governance board which seemingly provides nothing but a huge bureaucratic nightmare.  The State fails to support MARTA, resulting in that organization's financial challenges.  Apparently many in the Gold Dome do not believe that the Atlanta region can govern its own transit system as a result of the challenges imposed by the State on MARTA.  Yes, we need a regional body to ensure that the proposed increased transit and transportation system operates as a regional system, not a confederacy of disjointed local systems.  But do we really need that much bureaucracy?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Revised DC zoning has a retro look

I'm happy to hear about the proposed changes to the D.C. zoning code that look more like developments prior to WWII.  I particularly like the relaxed restrictions on commercial development in residential areas, allowing for the "corner store" to make a comeback.  It is a shame that most of the country has lost the ability to walk to a store WITHIN the neighborhood, rather than having to drive to any commercial area.  I'm sure there will be significant opposition to this provision, but hopefully the relaxed restriction proponents will prevail.  Now if we could just bring back the corner neighborhood bar....

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

No surprise -- Florida most dangerous for pedestrians

Four Florida cities -- Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami -- rated the "Top 4" worst cities for pedestrians. The study by Transportation for America listed the 52 worst metropolitan areas for pedestrian safety, creating a "Pedestrian Danger Index" based upon pedestrian deaths and the percentage of the population that walks to work.  As Florida has boomed during the automobile era, these rankings should not surprise.

Atlanta ranks 11th on the list, which is also not much of a surprise.  Fortunately, Atlanta and its surrounding communities have realized the problem posed by our car-based infrastructure and culture and are taking steps to change our car-dependent ways.  Yesterday a committee of mayors and council members from across the Atlanta region voted unanimously to approve a $6.14 billion list of transportation projects, many of which are for transit projects rather than new roadways.  This is a first step in a long process that will include a voter referendum to raise a 1% sales tax to fund the regional projects, and the list is likely to ultimately change.

However, yesterday's meeting is important in two respects.  First, the Atlanta area has finally realized that the solution to its transportation problems lies in a regional effort with a regional transportation plan.  Yes, some giving and taking will occur, as it did yesterday.  And yes, some projects will not be built in favor of others.  But a comprehensive, regional plan is the only way to ensure that the Atlanta area's transportation network is viewed as a whole rather than on the typical ad-hoc basis it has been handled in the past.

Second, the fact that just slightly more than half of the projects approved yesterday were transit related is a big step, both for Atlanta and the region as a whole.  There are still detractors, but counties outside Fulton and Dekalb seem to have come to the realization that transit is necessary for long-term growth.  Even Cobb County, long a vocal opponent to MARTA's expansion into the county, now actually WANTS transit.

Much work is needed, and the voter approval of a sales tax to fund infrastructure, much of which is in Atlanta, may be a difficult sell.  But yesterday's compromise is a very positive sign.  Hopefully the leaders of the region can continue to work together to craft a vision and a future for transit in Atlanta that will rival those of transit leading cities worldwide.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Is Walkability Reaching a Tipping Point?

Am I premature, or does it appear that the desire for dense, urban, walkable communities is reaching a tipping point of sorts?  It appears that there are more quality developments planned or being delivered which take the pedestrian and transit into consideration.  It also appears that more press is being devoted to these urban infill projects, further adding to the walkable cause.

In recent weeks, several studies have shown the additional benefits of living and working in dense, walkable communities.  The results of these studies are not surprising to those of us who have advocated for such development for years.  But, the benefits are starting to be discussed in the mainstream.  From having positive financial benefits to trusting one's neighbors more and participating in civic activities more often, studies are showing attributes of walkable, urban lifestyles other than the typical benefits of reduced pollution and gas use.

Even in Atlanta, long a car-centric city, we are seeing recent developments along this line.  The Beltline continues to develop, with a new park opening this weekend.  Recent announcements to develop areas of midtown with dense, walkable projects continue to come, with an announcement today for a new building by Selig and Daniel at its 12th & Midtown project.  These dense, walkable projects are increasing becoming the de facto new development projects in Atlanta and throughout the country.

Could it be that we are starting to see a tipping point here?