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Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time Kindle Edition
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I can understand why housing and parking are both expensive in geographically cramped locations. According to Walkable City, on page 117, "Parking spaces under Seattle's Pacific Place shopping center, built by the city, cost sixty thousand dollars each. .... The twelve hundred space Pacific Place garage cost $73 million." Such details abound, more than most of us would ever need. Some very interesting facts about cars in the US though, such as the car companies buying up trolley car firms in the past and scrapping them so there would be no public alternative to cars.
This book is heavily anti-cars in cities, but in rural areas (even in Ireland), cars are a necessity if you are ever to get anywhere or carry anything, especially after dark when cycling is suicidal. The author overlooks or doesn't know an awful lot of detail that seems obvious and important to me. In discussing promoting cycling, the author never mentions the biggest drawback about bikes, which is theft. He tells us that the Netherlands has a wonderfully high rate of cycling. Yes, but he never mentions that this land is all flat. I did not see one single mention of parking, walking or public transport provision for disabled persons. For instance, traffic lights are having to have a longer pedestrian crossing time here to cope with an ageing population using walking aids. The author even insisted on a street junction outside his home being kerbless, brick-tiled from one row of houses right across the street to the others. How does this help a blind person, a mother with toddlers and pram, a dog-walker, a person in a wheelchair? We're also told that Zipcars are helpful. I don't know what that is and we are not told. I can make an educated guess, but it seems like a glaring omission.
Also, the book recommends building housing without parking spaces and charging to park on the street outside these houses. This ensures that people like me, who drive a van to and from work (at your house) and need to remove all the tools every evening, and may tow a trailer, will never come to live in that neighbourhood. So your plumber, carpenter, gardener, sparks, painter, tree surgeon, kitchen fitter, dog groomer etc will not live where you live, which pushes up the price of services. And if your housing in the city centre is entirely pedestrianized with no parking spaces, how do they get to you in the first place? In one area where I work, the parking charges are so steep that I only go there on a Sunday and park around the corner in a space which is free on Sundays. This charge would otherwise force up the price I had to charge my client.
I'm pleased that the author is heavily in favour of trees. The urban heat island effect is by now well known, and trees create shade as well as absorbing rainfall. Since childhood in Dublin I've seen that wealthier areas tend to have mature trees in gardens and on roadsides, while poorer areas do not; why did it take this bright man until middle age to see this at the prompt of a friend? He never mentions that trees increase biodiversity and help migrating birds to cross a city or give resident birds nest sites and food. Also, it never seems to occur to him that trees create problems - aside from windows being too dark, the infrastructure can suffer as tree roots buckle paving, tilt walls, break pipes, and tree limbs tangle in wires or obscure street signs, lighting and traffic lights. They can also make it impossible to see for a driver coming out of a gate. So just dropping trees, or particular species, everywhere is not recommended.
The author also says that people using street cafes prefer to sit looking at parked cars than at traffic that might hit them. Actually, they don't; they just need to know they won't be hit. So in Dublin, there are cast iron decorative bollards to protect shop windows and seated café patrons. But pedestrianising can go too far. I used to go to Dun Laoghaire regularly, some years ago; then the planners introduced parking charges and spread them over an increasingly wider area. When the walk got to ten minutes each way I stopped visiting Dun Laoghaire. Now I never shop there and nobody else I know does either. Similarly, one major store after another has closed in Dublin city centre, because people can't get near them and don't like long walks carrying lots of goods. A shopping centre policy often seen here is that staff are to park at the end of the car park, as the cars are left all day, and that frees up spaces next to the shops for oft-changing cars and for mothers with toddlers and trollies. This kind of common sense could be mentioned in this book, but isn't because the author doesn't make provision for the fact that families actually need cars.
The data compiled is interesting if you are looking at this topic, and it's certainly educational about American city sprawl and the expense of providing for cars, a cost paid by everyone.
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I just completed a journey to Greece and Western Turkey and it is blindingly how much more interesting an old, pre car built city is for walking than one that is car based. And how increased traffic can really bind up these cities. Too bad they look to the West for insight son how to handle this. Kind of like asking a heroin addict how to kick the habit.
Speck also does a great job of showing/ linking our car based designs to increased carbon footprints and how some thoughts in design can ameliorate/prevent self induced issues. That was again brought to me in the Turkish city of Marmaris which had many covered streets/bazaars that were very pedestrian oriented. This was in a city that has an average daily temp of 30 degs. Shade is really important. Terminal 2 in Heathrow, UK is another good example , which uses mostly north facing windows to prevent increased heat build up in the open plan building. Its is a good job. If you fly Star Allianace you can experience this.
I recommend this to anyone interested in living in a more interesting, energetic and vibrant city.
Walkability, as I read the book, requires some level of mass transit to in essence “create” pedestrians in the urban core. Not that no one can drive, but the more people who don’t, the more people who are on the urban streets. “Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.” These terms are themselves quite subjective, but the author defines useful to mean that “***most aspects of life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well”. Safe means “***that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles” . Comfortable means that “***buildings and landscapes shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms’”, and interesting means “***that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.” An example he gives of a city that lacks almost all technical aspects of walkability–good sidewalks, safe traffic, etc- but is wonderfully walkable because of being so interesting, is Rome. Anyone who has been there can appreciate the example. His basic premise is that walkablilty attracts creative people to our cities, enhancing both the culture and the economy, including the increased property values in walkable cities, as well as healthy citizens who walk or ride bikes more often. (As an aside, the author speaks a lot of Portland, Oregon-50 miles north of me-, and its commitment to walkability.)
Despite the ascribed benefits of walkability, the author posits that over the last 60 years, our country has made the automobile the master of the urban environment–and the environment in general. To create, or perhaps restore walkability, the car has to relegated to its position of servant rather than master. This can be done in many ways, including getting the parking issues right, and to the benefit of pedestrians. He also notes, as mentioned above, that walkable cities must have transit. Indeed, he points out that one need only trace the relative investment in highways versus transit in American and Canadian cities to see why the latter, who invested less in highways, have more walkable, and to the author, more vibrant cities.
The author goes into detail abut a great many subjects, but I will only explore one–traffic engineers. He does have a distinct bias against traffic engineers, saying most are trained to solve traffic problems, and thus the first step, at least for them, in solving every urban problem is to conduct a traffic study–usually aimed at how to better move traffic. He feels such studies are flawed for three reasons. First the computer models are flawed because, like all computer models they are only as good as the input; second, traffic studies are typically performed by firms that do traffic engineering; and third, traffic studies almost never consider what the author calls “induced demand”. The last consideration is very interesting, for the author, supported by studies, postulates that induced demand reflects the fact that increasing the supply of roadways lowers the “time cost” of driving, causing more people to drive, obliterating any reductions in congestion. In essence, investments in road capacity expansion do not ease congestion, but just add more cars to the highway. This is at first a bit counterintuitive, but, with a second thought, has a logical ring. If induced demand is a viable theory, then it has a doubly negative effect. It not only fails to reduce congestion, it adds more cars into the mix, reducing the possibility for walkability. So is congestion good? Contrary as it sounds, the answer might be “yes”. Indeed, the author notes that 7 of the 10 cities ranked worst for traffic also had “***excellent public transportation and a vast collection of walkable neighborhoods”. (The 3 that did not were Dallas, Houston and Atlanta.) Also, if induced demand is correct, why bother with spending fortunes to expand highways if you will end up with congestion anyway. I fund the whole “induced demand” scenario quite thought provoking.
This is not a “beach book”, or any type of “relaxing read”. It’s full of facts, theories and a bit of technical jargon. It is also quite informative and enlightening if one is interested specifically in urban planning, or more generally in reducing automobiles, increasing pleasant walkable urban environments, and making our cities more enjoyable for their residents.