Does our infrastructure truly reflect our values?

A workshop James Rojas and I led at Walk SF on rethinking our transportation infrastructure
A workshop James Rojas and I led at Walk SF on rethinking our transportation infrastructure

The prevailing adage goes that our infrastructure reflects our values. Thus our transportation systems, with their high investment in roads and personal auto ownership, and low investment in rail and other transit networks, reflect our cultural propensity towards the individual and our reluctance to embrace a more collective cultural model. Yet what if this adage is wrong? What if the infrastructure we see does not so much reflect our cultural values but instead reflects the limited ways in which we plan and conduct outreach for our transportation systems in the first place?

See the full article on Streetsblog SF HERE.

John Kamp

Walkable American cities: narrative vs. reality

There has been much hubub of late in these parts over some recent “most/est” tags Minneapolis has received: best night’s sleep; most well read; fittest; gayest; most bicycle-friendly. To add to the proverbial -est-list is now walkable. While not considered the most walkable, Minneapolis is thought of as quite walkable, with Walk Score ranking it as the ninth most walkable city in the country (for the updated Walk Score for 2018, click HERE). And it is true that through certain lenses Minneapolis is walkable: good network of continuous sidewalks, relatively few mega-streets that are impossible to cross, extensive boulevard tree canopy. However, too much of the discussion of walkability centers around the sidewalk itself and whether they are clean, uninterrupted, well-lit, and within a well-connected network. While these are indeed building blocks of a walkable city, they alone don’t induce people to walk. As a result of this limited discussion, we are stuck in a narrative of a city being great and fabulous and walkable because it appears so (i.e. those sidewalks look pretty and nice, and I would walk down them if I felt like it and wasn’t driving to the store right now), not because it actually is. This is particularly problematic when it comes to the real work of crafting policy to genuinely improve walkability in the city, as an examination of the true elements that encourage walking are never explored, and the result is much wishful thinking, self-congratulatory rhetoric, and policy efforts that may not at all increase the number of people walking as a means of transportation.

Minneapolis, like so many American cities, suffers from the simple fact that it is relatively spread out in comparison to cities in other parts of the world. As a result, trips one must make to accomplish everyday tasks – grocery store, hair salon, etc. – are by and large simply too time-consuming for most residents to consider making on foot. And herein lies the problem: it does not matter how clean and uninterrupted the sidewalks are; if the door-to-door time and level of convenience cannot approximate what one could accomplish by car, many people, when given the choice, will simply drive. And this simple fact of distance needs to be discussed and tackled, otherwise we are simply never going to be able to move policy in a meaningful direction towards real and genuine walkability.

Discussion to be continued. For more on the topic, see this article.

John Kamp

The Road-widening fallacy

Mega-right-hand turn lane on Grand Avenue, Downtown Los Angeles

Los Angeles is perhaps one of the only major cities left in the US that continues to practice road-widening with aplomb. While other cities begin to move away from the faulty logic that new, multi-family housing in the inner city equates more traffic which necessitates a wider road and a narrower sidewalk, Los Angeles has shown itself to think this logic perfectly sound and uncontestable. On the one hand, the city has, by virtue of many of the projects it has recently approved, been encouraging more people to move back to the city and to live in multi-family housing, from which they can presumably walk to various amenities and services, and take transit to work. However, in the same breath, the city will proceed to narrow the sidewalk in front of the new multi-family project, cut down any existing street trees, and widen the road. This is the physical manifestation of a thoroughly mixed-message: Give up your yard and space outside the city so that you can come live in the city in a smaller space with no yard that overlooks a freeway-style street, on whose sidewalks no one is encouraged to walk.

Temporarily narrow street noticeably devoid of traffic, Downtown Los Angeles

There are many assumptions to uncover in the faulty reasoning behind this approach. Perhaps more egregious than the assumption that new multi-family housing suddenly induces traffic congestion is the assumption that we should be planning for minimizing traffic in the first place. As we recently reported in a post on New Orleans’ famed neutral grounds, there is little correlation between traffic congestion and a slow economy; in fact, quite the opposite is proving to be true: the world’s most successful cities also contain horrible traffic congestion. These same cities have also begun realizing that their strength and allure lie in the quality of life they can offer to their citizens, not to their vehicles. In Los Angeles, we still have a vehicle-pampering problem, and given the ongoing track record of road-widenings, this penchant for pampering isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Grand Avenue south of 11 Street, with widened sidewalk and street trees

Nonetheless, some glimmers of modern intelligence have begun working their way up through the asphalt. The city has recently revised its downtown street standards, so as to prevent the kind of inane road-widenings shown in the top photo of Grand Avenue and its mega-right-hand turn lane, and so as to favor the more pedestrian-friendly streets, such as this small stretch of Grand Avenue in South Park, shown above. Let us hope that this trend continues and spills out beyond the boundaries of Downtown and into the vast swath of contrete, and asphalt that is greater Los Angeles.

Neutral grounds

Huntington Drive in El Sereno

Many of Los Angeles’s boulevards measure in at over 100 feet from side to side. Some, such as Huntington Drive, stretch out to almost 200 feet – which is, quite simply, huge. The vast majority of these 200 feet comprise traffic lanes, while a small portion of the width is devoted to planted median strips. As a city, Los Angeles has historically shown great hesitation in relinquishing carpspace and transforming it into generously sized medians and wider sidewalks. Quite the opposite, the prevailing modus operandi has been to widen roads early and often, including widening those streets and roads adjacent to rail stations, the very places where pedestrians travel most.

To learn about the wide, wide world of varying uses for streetspace, many an Angeleno (and American, for that matter) could benefit from a trip down south to New Orleans – both the birthplace of Jazz, and home to the famed neutral grounds. Neutral grounds are what New Orleans residents refer to their medians as. Originally developed for drainage purposes, the neutral grounds have become the city’s emerald jewels, bisecting streets with swaths of greenery, wildlife, and calm.

Neutral ground in New Orleans spanning some 30 feet

The neutral grounds range in size, with some measuring a miniature three feet, and some spanning over thirty feet. Some of the larger neutral grounds have become home to playgrounds, impromptu games of volleyball, fountains, and public gathering areas. Others double as space for streetcars. Whatever the case, they are a reminder of what many of our streets once were: public spaces for a whole host of activities, only one of which being vehicular traffic.

One of the narrower neutral grounds

There has been growing talk of late of bicycle lanes, transit, and walkable streets, all of which are integral components to 21st Century city, but none of which can be realized if municipalities simply cannot get serious about relinquising some carspace to other uses. Merely painting a bicycle lane along the side of Sunset Boulevard while not redesigning the street so that motorists do not drive at 45 mph is insufficient. The push-back within the conversation has come from those who claim that constructing medians, bike lanes, wider sidewalks will lead to worsening traffic, which will lead to economic decline. This line of reasoning sounds mildly convincing until one considers New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong – all cities with horrendous traffic, and all major financial centers of the world, not to mention some of the most-visited cities of the world.

Saint Charles Streetcar within neutral ground

-Written by PRAIRIEFORM’s John Kamp, and James Rojas of Place It!