Category Archives: Urban Planning

Infrastructure #fail

Flooded I-10/I-610 interchange and surrounding...

Flooded I-10/I-610 interchange and surrounding area of northwest New Orleans and Metairie, Louisiana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Building off of my previous post on suburban poverty, I briefly touched on the aspect of infrastructure. I mentioned that municipalities and transit agencies (really all government agencies) will be hard pressed to keep up their existing infrastructure, let alone create new infrastructure in a financially sustainable way. Much has been written on this topic, and I don’t have much new to add. Yet, I’m astonished to learn how much this country can tolerate when it comes to poor infrastructure. In urban planning and transportation circles, it has been common to note that it would take a major accident or catastrophe to get this country to embark on a program for infrastructure renewal. And yet, we’ve had two catastrophic incidents just in less than 10 years: Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee breaches in 2005 and the Minneapolis bridge collapse in 2007. Even today, with $5.00 a gallon gas a distinct possibility this year and with record transit ridership, we refuse to invest in  infrastructure that will make our cities fundamentally better and more sustainable places.

So how does this sorry state of affairs affect us?

According to the Urban Land Institute’s recent report, Infrastructure 2011: A Strategic Priority, we may see the following:

  • Tax Increases: User fees are likely as tolls and transit fares increase to meet operating costs. Additional utility fees and traffic fines too.
  • Deterioration: Local governments will fund essential capital projects but may be forced to abandon others. We already are seeing this with states allowing paved roads to revert to gravel.
  • Deterioration will result in service interruption and will affect mobility. This is exactly what happened with the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

    I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis,...

    I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, before and after its collapse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Put simply: we are unwilling or unable to fund infrastructure investment in this country and are willing to watch infrastructure fail with predictably catastrophic results. In terms of the suburban experiment, the inefficiencies of the transportation and utility infrastructure have become apparent as the life cycles on the infrastructure comes to an end. Communities and transportation agencies are discovering that they cannot afford to replace or even maintain what they have. My own employer recently raised transit fares on average by 30% to end the practice of diverting scarce capital resources to cover operating expenses.
In terms of the transport nexus between land use and transportation given the

Blight may sometimes cause communities to cons...

Now arriving in a suburb near you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

economic and political climate around infrastructure, I believe we need to focus any future growth in built up areas where infrastructure is already in place. Developing on greenfield sites without and transportation and/or utility infrastructure is absolutely idiotic given the realities. We need to see land use densities and mixed use types increase around transit stations to leverage the existing transportation infrastructure already in place. We also need to see infill development on brownfield sites where there is existing transportation and utility infrastructure. And, as difficult to fathom as this may be, we need to reconsider the utility of maintaining the infrastructure of much of the suburban experiment. Much of it, I suspect, is simply not sustainable.

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Filed under Infrastructure, The Suburban Experiment

Suburban Poverty

Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Veering off a little from previous topics, I’d like to discuss the issue of suburban poverty, which has been in the news lately, and what it means for metropolitan regions and transit service providers.

The impact of the Great Recession will be felt  for decades and some of the long-term problems are only now just beginning to be understood. The foreclosure crisis, high unemployment, and a collapse in government revenues have had quite an impact on the built environment. This has serious ramifications, particularly for suburban areas. To wit:

  • The largest and fastest growing population of poor people are in the suburbs.
  • The social safety net of the suburbs was weak to begin with and is now in tatters.
  • Transit service is a function of population density and urban form, of which the former is low in the suburbs and the latter generally does not encourage pedestrian activity of any kind in the suburbs.

Thus, we have the makings of a development pattern similar to continental European cities where the wealthy inhabit the inner core and the poor inhabit the outer areas of the metropolitan region. This is somewhat hyperbolic, but not beyond the realm of possibility. As we are observing, the millennial generation prefer cities, abhor cars and are attracted to the metropolitan regions where transit and rental apartments are in abundance. It may be that low density suburbs are the “loser” in the aftermath of the Great Recession. 

suburbs
Twilight of the suburban experiment? (Photo credit: maureen_sill @ flickr)

As this trend plays out, we’re already seeing what has been happening to the suburbs and how to grapple with this issue will be a profound one for my generation. Because the suburban environment was built on the assumption of never-ending growth, it cannot cope when that growth stops. Thus we see over-saturated retail commercial vacancies, massive subdivision foreclosures and an overbuilt infrastructure that small taxing bodies can never afford to maintain, not to mention replace.

How transit will survive and adapt to this market is a good question. Because suburban poverty is rising and the social safety net of the suburbs was never firmly in place (including transit), it remains to be seen what can be done. The inherent difficulties of providing frequent transit service in low density areas was obvious when times were good and is compounded now because, sadly, a population that needs transit most lives in an area where transit is most difficult to provide. Even in cities, transit services are cutting back on budgets, adjusting to the economic climate in which they operate. And most transit services have state of good repair issues so great that adding additional service in areas poorly served or not at all is a low priority at best.

We’re at the tip of the iceberg here in regards to the suburban experiment and suburban poverty is only the beginning. We’re looking at a future where this population becomes increasingly cut off from the world as jobs and people relocate and reorient themselves to a living pattern based on existing transit systems where the car and house with a picket fence is an option, not a necessity. Municipal governments, particularly small suburban ones not connected to larger cities by transit will likely fail under their enormous debt obligations and their infrastructure will really begin to crumble. And the tract houses in the subdivisions named “Orchard Hills” and “Lakewood”? Well, according to Brookings:

those house prices are now below replacement value, meaning the land under the house has no value and the sticks and bricks are worth less than they would cost to replace. This means there is no financial incentive to maintain the house; the next dollar invested will not be recouped upon resale. Many of these houses will be converted to rentals, which are rarely as well maintained as owner-occupied housing. Add the fact that the houses were built with cheap materials and methods to begin with, and you see why many fringe suburbs are turning into slums, with abandoned housing and rising crime.


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Filed under The Suburban Experiment, Urban Design

Transport Nexus in the Polish Triangle

Looking southwest from the Polish Triangle

Of great interest to this site is the connection, or nexus, between transportation and land use.  One prominent example of this failure of this nexus is at the southwest corner of Ashland Ave., Division St. and Milwaukee Ave., historically known as the Polish Triangle. Now part of the East (Ukrainian) Village neighborhood, this site is commonly known as the “Pizza Hut” site.

Needless to say, it is an abomination that this site was designed (allowed) in such a way as to maximize the use of the automobile when you have the following conditions present:

  • Access to the CTA Blue Line at Division St.
  • The #70 Division bus (running east-west) stop literally next to the property
  • The #56 Milwaukee bus (running NW-SE) and #8 Halsted bus (running north-south) stops across the street.
  • Designated, striped bike lanes on Division St. and Milwaukee Avenue.
  • Rare pedestrian space in the plaza like setting of the Polish Triangle.
Thankfully, this egregious market failure will be rectified.
It seems that after years of waiting, East Village residents will get what they have always wanted: 
In early 2007, immediately after the Pizza Hut was shuttered, a coalition of community organizations lead by the East Village Association set forth four policies for redevelopment of the property. They called for a significant building that was mixed-use, high density and transit oriented.

 

This is, of course, despite the fact that the site faced significant development pressure for a Walgreens and various drive-thru bank facilities. Instead, the community got this:

11 story mixed use building.

The building is an 11-story mixed use facility with ground level retail, second floor office and  apartments above. Reportedly, a coffee shop and bank are among the tenants thus far. 117 apartment units are provided with 35 parking spaces provided, 15 on site. One concession: a drive-thru for the bank using an existing curb cut. Interestingly enough, the 20 off-site parking spaces are in a parking lot adjacent to the property, home to an auto-oriented Wendy’s. The parking will not be available to residents, only for visitors, customers, and car sharing. This seems right.

What I find most interesting is that the developers acknowledge that the apartments are primarily for people who do not own cars. It is a tacit admission that not everyone needs a car, that the site will take advantage of its nexus to so many other transportation options that a car can be just one option among many, rather than catered to and coddled into the site. When you have this many transportation options and an urban environment designed for pedestrians, this concept had to fit within and respect those parameters.  Kudos to the East Village community and developers Rob Buono and Paul Utigard. If more people thought like this we would have more Strong Towns. 

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Filed under Transit-Oriented Development, Urban Design

SimCity 5

I have been a huge fan of SimCity since I was a little kid. I’ve played the original SimCity, SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4. I’ve played it on the Super Nintendo game system and on my phone. And I’ve been waiting patiently for a new release. And that new release is coming next year! SimCity is a great game for urban planners like myself. But, for many of us in the profession, it still leaves a bit to be desired. Hence:

Regions should be more “regional.” In SimCity 4, the city was still treated as if it existed in a vacuum despite the regional map and transport connections. For example, you could still place power plants and other polluting land uses near the edge of your city to minimize the negative externalities and these externalities would not be present in the adjacent city. This has to change. Also, how about the ability to have multiple regions or a megalopolis?

Transportation needs to be realistic. SimCity had a built-in bias for roads when utilizing the transportation network. Subways were often under-utilized, even expressways! If this is the case, then buildings should be drawn to support these uses. That means more “suburban sprawl” because, after all, those cars have to go somewhere.  I’m not advocating this, of course. What I would like to see is a balanced transportation network of roads, transit and bike/pedestrian infrastructure that is accurately modeled. We need to know that the transit systems we build will be utilized, and that bike and pedestrian infrastructure can reduce auto demand in a similar fashion that transit can.

Finance is critical. Admittedly, this might make the game impossibly difficult, but I’d like to see more realistic infrastructure and development costs. Revenues and expenses should be more realistic as should economic impacts on the city. How does the economy effect a SimCity? I’d love to find out.

Scale. Why do some factories that employ 500 workers take up the same land area as a middle class house? Why does an airport or seaport seem so small? I’d love to see a better sense of scale. Airports are gigantic and can the size of a city itself. Seaports often have huge areas for container stacking, railroad terminals and truck storage. These should be shown at a realistic scale.

These are just a few things that this urban planner has been thinking about. I am excited to play the next version of the storied franchise next year.

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Filed under Technology, Transit Planning

Commuter Rail Stop Distribution: Some thoughts…

I just wanted to add some additional thoughts on Alon Levy’s fantastic post about commuter rail stop distribution. The lack of urban stations in the mid-city sections of most cities with commuter rail is a real problem in most American cities with commuter rail services. I’d like to explore in-depth the possibility for in-city stations in Chicago and how this would work.

Alon examined two Metra lines, the UP North and Milwaukee North lines, both of which serve the north suburbs and traverse through dense residential neighborhoods of Chicago. These are precisely the areas that are ripe for a “transit revival” particularly as they have been stable (on the MD-N) and/or growing in population (UP-N). And yet, these areas are ignored, I think, because Metra (and commuter railroads generally) views as its bread and butter the traditional suburban peak service commute pattern. I think its safe to say that Metra views city riders as having alternative (i.e. competing) forms of transit (CTA) and, thus, does not need to serve these riders.

And yet, there are numerous places along the UP North and Milwaukee North lines which a new station could have a significant impact on the neighborhood in terms of access and connections. Let’s examine a couple of places.

Addison (UP North Line)

Located 1.5 miles south of the busiest station on the UP North Line, Ravenswood, this site is ideal for transit access. It is also adjacent to the Addison Station on the CTA Brown Line and has bus connections to the Addison 151 bus and Lincoln 11 bus. About a mile to the east is Wrigley Field which can act as a sort of seasonal anchor, similar to Ravinia Park. A station here could provide additional ridership from the bustling West Lakeview neighborhood to downtown (15 minutes away) or north to Highland Park and Waukegan with additional reverse-commute service. Furthermore, many current riders at Ravenswood live closer to Addison, thus increasing the likelihood that Metra could be capturing additional riders here who find Ravenswood inconvenient.

According to the Center for Neighborhood Technology TOD Database, in 2010, 17,001 people lived within 0.5 mile of the station or 36 residents per acre. 37% of this population took transit to work, the majority by L. Additionally, household income is high, over $90,000, rental housing units are 52% of the total market and 62% of the population has 1 car or less. These factors point to strong transit demand likely coming from choice riders. These customers are Metra’s bread and butter.

Irving Park (Milwaukee North Line)

This station has been studied before but I think it should be seriously examined again. A station at Irving Park Road on the Milwaukee North Line would be located midway between the existing stations of Grayland and Mayfair, which are 0.8 miles apart. It is also adjacent to the Six Corners shopping district, once one of the largest retail districts outside of the Loop and still a significant destination. “Six Corners” is a reference to the intersection of Cicero Avenue, running north-south; Irving Park Road, running east-west; and Milwaukee Avenue, which radiates diagonally from downtown to the northwest. The station would be located about two blocks east of this intersection in a commercial area that is auto-oriented to the west and a residential area to the east.

Transit service includes the two Metra stations, Grayland and Mayfair (both stations have around 250 riders), located 0.5 miles south and north of this area respectively, and CTA buses on Cicero Ave., Irving Park, and Milwaukee Ave. The CTA Blue Line station at Irving Park and the Irving Park Metra Station are  a mile to the east and adjacent to each other. CTA Blue Line service on the O’Hare branch parallels Milwaukee Ave. and supplements bus services in this area. Additionally, Irving Park Road was recently proposed to be a viable bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor in a study conducted by the Metropolitan Planning Council. In a BRT scenario, buses would operate in dedicated lanes with signal priority, off vehicle fare payment, and level boarding at stations. A station would be placed every half mile (one at the Six Corners intersection is proposed) and at transit connections.

Another look at CNT’s TOD Database shows that in 2010, approximately 10,000 people lived within 0.5 miles of this potential station. Owner-occupied and renter-occupied housing were even, and 21% took transit to work. Average household income was around $60,000. 55% of households had 1 car or less.

This neighborhood is more middle class than near Addison, although households here rely on cars to a greater extent. This is due in large part to the lower residential density (about half of Addison) and urban form which have auto-oriented retail, plentiful parking throughout the area, and proximity to the Edens and Kennedy expressways. And yet, because of the connectivity options between commuter rail and CTA bus, 20 minute trips downtown and reverse commute service to the job-rich areas along Lake-Cook Road in the north suburbs, and large infill development opportunities I think a station has serious potential to attract additional ridership and development nearby.

It has become clear in urban planning circles that the U.S. is undergoing some demographic  trends that will factor into greater use of transit services of all types. In Chicago, we see a continued population growth in the city’s north side neighborhoods, including the areas discussed above. We are seeing a preference for urban living, particularly among the Millennial generation which entails more one-person households, disinterest in owning a car and greater interest in alternative transport modes like bicycling and transit. Furthermore, businesses are taking note in following this “creative class” in locating businesses downtown (most recent example: Sara Lee).

These trends in general, and the creative class in particular, are locating to cities that have strong, established transit systems. It behooves cities like Chicago and agencies like Metra to tap into this transit demand in this era of austerity.

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Filed under Commuter Rail, Parking, Transit Planning

Access to Transit

Metra and TOD in Morton Grove. Source: katherine of chicago @Flickr

I would like to take the opportunity to give a little shout out to the RTA to promote a new document they put together called Access & Parking Strategies for Transit-Oriented Development.

This is a much-needed guide for municipalities in the Chicago area on the “how” of TOD. Sure, all urban planners are familiar with TOD but in practice, how many know how to really make it work? A big reason why TOD fails is parking. As in, too much parking. Many municipalities will build TOD but still keep parking minimums that are more appropriate for suburban style development patterns. The great thing about the RTA guide is that it rightly reminds people that one of the biggest ways to support TOD is to make it more difficult to use a car. Because, as any driver knows, people who are already in cars tend to stay in cars. Adding density and mixed land uses within close proximity and easy access to transit makes transit successful. It makes TOD successful. The RTA points out the need to reduce parking demand is the key to a successful TOD.

So, how do we reduce parking demand, particularly in suburban areas that are designed around the automobile? In creating a TOD area, we do the following:

  • Provide as much on-street parking as necessary at a variable market rate.
  • Unbundle parking from private development, particularly in TOD areas
  • Set parking maximums rather than minimums.
  • Implement shared parking
  • Create alternatives to access transit. This includes bike and pedestrian trails, shuttle buses, and remote parking facilities.

When we do these things, we create a way for transit to be successful. When transit is successful, frequency can rise, resulting in a positive feedback loop that generates more transit customers.

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Filed under Parking, Transit-Oriented Development, Urban Design

Can Big Box Stores in Cities Work?

English: Exterior of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in...

Image via Wikipedia

This morning’s Atlantic Cities article on whether big box stores can reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) because it “brings shopping closer to where people live” fundamentally misunderstands the problems that big box stores cause in urban communities and why many urbanites do not want them in their communities even though they may patronize these stores. Nothing about these stores’ design is urban. It is not walkable, there are no accommodations for transit or bike/pedestrians. The only way to access these stores comfortably is with a car. This development pattern drives up traffic locally on urban streets that may not have been designed for these traffic volumes. It impacts neigboring land uses through light pollution from its vast parking lots, through water runoff,  and through large deliveries at night in the back of the store (sometimes facing residential neighbors).

Whole Foods in Chicago Source: Beer Advocate

That’s not to say that big box stores can’t work in urban areas. They can and do. When you reorient them to face the street, making it easier to access via transit, bicycle and pedestrian modes, reduce parking ratios (per square foot) and build big box stores in a more mixed use environment, they can work in a much more urban-friendly way.


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Filed under Transit-Oriented Development, Urban Design