The early results seemed to confirm our theories. Not only did the economy grow rapidly but prosperity was widely shared. Every time we built a highway, bridge, or interchange and every time we ran a pipe out to a cornfield on the edge of town, we saw positive results. What my fellow Minnesotan Thomas Friedman would later call “the American recipe for success” was established: government financing of infrastructure plus incentives for homeownership equals sustained growth and prosperity. The American Dream.
Or the American myth. Local governments are starting to realize that this system doesn’t work. While it has historically provided federal and state governments with the economic growth they seek, it leaves cities responsible for maintaining vast expanses of roadways and huge service areas on a comparatively limited tax base. That works fine when everything is new and the cost of maintenance is low, but it quickly becomes impossible as systems age.
What makes matters more desperate is that for auto-based development patterns aging is not graceful. While buildings in the traditional development style have a natural interdependency—they line up in a pattern, often share walls, their value is a function of the quality of the public space they front, and so forth—each auto-oriented building is, by design, totally independent. It will have its own parking. Many are fenced off from their neighbors or have ditches or berms in between. This is done, of course, to facilitate efficiency in construction. The result is that each failure becomes a random blight.
Auto-based development patterns follow a now familiar cycle of growth, stagnation, and then rapid decline. During the growth phase, when everything is shiny and new, the affluent move in and enjoy the prosperity of a place on the rise. But as those random failures emerge and things start to decline, those with the means to move on tend to do so, leaving behind cities of dwindling wealth. As the decline steepens, local governments borrow money in the hopes that their revenue problems are simply a temporary cash-flow crunch. The result over decades, however, is an insolvent city with huge debts serving an impoverished population poorly situated to bear the financial burdens of an auto-dependent existence. thisissueappears
We’re now two full generations into this experiment. Ferguson, Missouri, was one of those shiny new suburbs that expanded rapidly after World War II. As it has experienced the growth and decline typical of auto-oriented development, not only has it become much poorer but during the transition the municipality borrowed heavily and spent much of its fleeting wealth trying to maintain its position. Ferguson today is trapped: in 2013 it spent $800,000 paying interest on debt while being able to devote only $25,000 to sidewalk maintenance. There is a reason people in Ferguson might walk in the streets instead of on the sidewalks.
Amid the disruption being thrust upon our local governments, a new national consensus is slowing starting to emerge, one that replaces an anti-city approach with a fresh vision for urban areas. The two most mobile age cohorts in America today, millennials and Baby Boomers, are leaving the auto-oriented suburbs—albeit for different reasons—and flocking to cities and streetcar suburbs, places built on a traditional, walkable framework.
As Joe Cortright documents on the City Observatory website, the probability (relative to all metro residents) that a 25-to-34-year-old lives in a close-in urban neighborhood quadrupled from 1990 to 2010. In the 51 largest metropolitan areas, between 2000 and 2012 the number of 25-to-34-year-olds within three miles of the central business district’s core increased twice as fast as outside it. Meanwhile, according to the Brookings Institution, poverty has grown twice as fast since 2000 in America’s suburbs as in America’s cities.
The central task of the Millennial generation is not going to be expanding the boundaries of our cities but managing their contraction. We must find a way to unwind all of these widely dispersed and unproductive investments while providing opportunities for a good life—a modernized American Dream—in strong cities, towns, and neighborhoods. And we have to do all of this with the drag of large debts and a failed national system for growth, development, and economic management that largely associates auto-based development with progress.
If you aren’t a traffic engineer or an urban planner, the word woonerf probably looks like a typo, or maybe the Twitter handle of whoever runs marketing for Nerf (woo!). But you might want to get familiar with the term—Dutch for “living street”—because the urban design concepts it embraces are on the rise.
A woonerf is a street or square where cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and other local residents travel together without traditional safety infrastructure to guide them. Also sometimes called a “shared street,” a woonerf is generally free of traffic lights, stop signs, curbs, painted lines, and the like. The basic idea is that once these controls are stripped away, everyone is forced to become more alert and ultimately more cooperative. Through less restraint comes greater focus.
The decades-old vision is not without its critics. Skeptics wonder if drivers feel too much ownership of the road to adapt their ways, or if shared streets can work fine for smaller towns but not in big urban centers, or if removing oversight is naïve at a time when people won’t even stop texting to drive. Then there’s the general critique pointed out by Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt in a 2008 article about shared streets: “people do act like idiots.”
All fair points (especially the last). Butwoonerf supporters can point to the success of shared streets projects in Europe as well as their gradual adoption inother parts of the world—including major cities in the auto-centric United States. Construction of Chicago’s first shared street, for instance, is expected to begin this spring.
I know this ship has sailed but Victoria Avenue with a pedestrian bridge would have been ideal for this. So would parts of 20th Street.
CBCâ€™s The National asks leading urbanists if our cities still work and how we can make them better.
Â The classic American residential street has a 12-foot lane that handles traffic in two directions. And many busy streets in my hometown of Washington, D.C., have eight-foot lanes that function wonderfully. These are as safe and efficient as they are illegal in most of the United States, and we New Urbanists have written about them plenty before, and built more than a few. But what concerns us here are downtown streets, suburban arterials and collectors, and those other streets that are expected to handle a good amount of traffic, and are thus subject to the mandate of free flow.
Second, you should know that these streets used to be made up of 10-foot lanes. Many of them still exist, especially in older cities, where there is no room for anything larger. The success of these streets has had little impact on the traffic-engineering establishment, which, over the decades, has pushed the standard upward, almost nationwide, first to 11 feet, and then to 12. Now, in almost every place I work, I find that certain streets are held to a 12-foot standard, if not by the city, then by a state or a county department of transportation.
In some cases, a state or county controls only a small number of downtown streets. In other cases, they control them all. In a typical city, like Cedar Rapids or Fort Lauderdale, the most important street or streets downtown are owned by the state. In Boise, every single downtown street is owned by the Ada County Highway District, an organization that, if it won’t relinquish its streets to the city, should at least feel obliged to change its name. And states and counties almost always apply a 12-foot standard.
Why do they do this? Because they believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong. Or, to be more accurate, they are wrong, and thousands of Americans are dead.
They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineeringâ€”and many other disciplinesâ€”an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. This error applies to traffic planning, as state DOTs widen highways to reduce congestion, in complete ignorance of all the data proving that new lanes will be clogged by the new drivers that they invite. And it applies to safety planning, as traffic engineers, designing for the drunk who’s texting at midnight, widen our city streets so that the things that drivers might hit are further away.
The logic is simple enough, and makes reasonable sense when applied to the design of high-speed roads. Think about your behavior when you enter a highway. If you are like me, you take note of the posted speed limit, set your cruise control for 5 m.p.h. above that limit, and you’re good to go. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment free of impediments to high-speed travel. Traffic engineers know that we will behave this way, and that is why they design highways for speeds well above their posted speed limits.
Unfortunately, trained to expect this sort of behavior, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way. On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?
So yeah, I hear the complaints out of Evergreen, Hampton Village, and other new neighbourhoods that your narrow streets bug you but they are making those streets safer for children, other cars, and yourselves because you have to drive so slow to navigate them. Â You know what, that is a good thing.
Yet we need it more than ever. The Vancouverist ideology solves a number of serious problems.
First is sprawl: According to a recent projection, the population of the Greater Toronto Area will rise from six million today to almost 10 million in the next 28 years. Vancouver will go from 2.2 million to 3.4 million in the same period. Most of those people intend to move downtown or into inner-ring suburbs. But if housing there is in short supply, theyâ€™ll push out into the outskirts.
Second is the housing shortage: If we cannot increase the supply of housing, and at least double the population density of our big cities, then our children will have little chance of becoming homeowners. If foreign investors buy the new condos, all the better. We even more seriously need an increase in rental stock, to push down rents and give people an urban entry point.
And third is quality of life: That doubling of density isnâ€™t just needed â€“ itâ€™s highly desirable. With twice as many people per square kilometre, there will be sufficiently large markets (and tax bases) to justify subway lines, parks and cultural venues. At the moment, density-increasing development is being blocked in the neighbourhoods that most need these things.
Itâ€™s not just governments. Canadian city-dwellers need to adopt a Vancouverist mindset. Iâ€™ll never understand why downtown homeowners, who often rail against the horrors of farmland-destroying, carbon-speawing urban sprawl, then turn around and oppose midrise condominium projects in their own neighbourhoods. Not only do those developments add neighbours and thus demand for nice services and better schools and shops and transit routes, but they are the only solution to urban sprawl. You get one or you get the other. â€œDensity,â€ writes the Vancouver developer Bob Ransford, who consulted on the Melbourne report, â€œis the antidote to sprawl.â€