Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Layers of NYC

Yesterday, I spent the day touring New York City. I saw many interesting bits of urbanism, from the World Trade Center construction site (which, after years of delays, is finally being reconstructed) to the High Line (an old raised urban railroad that has now been turned into a spectacular park/public space).

New York City is a place like no other, especially in the context of America. Its density and population is unrivaled by any other urban area in these United States. It's transit system is not only extensive, but it is also used by a majority of the population. The city has recently received positive attention from the urban planning world as a result of the new planning director in NYC Janette Sadik-Khan. Her new policies on creating bike friendly and pedestrian friendly infrastructure have caught the eye of planners across the globe.

When I visit places like NYC, I try to figure out what exactly makes the city such an interesting and desirable place, both to live in and to visit. Parts of the answer may be obvious (such as Central Park), but some aspects of the city seem like true turn-offs. The streets are filled with speeding, stinky cars. The subway stations are old, dirty and hot. The traffic is terrible, and it is almost impossible to find one peaceful, quiet spot in the entire city.

So why go?

For people who live there, the simple answer might be employment. But in my opinion, time is the thing that truly makes this place fascinating.

Since people have been living on this little island for such a long time, layers and layers of culture, history and urbanism have been created over time. One could walk for 3 blocks and hear 20 different languages, We were sung to by an African-American trio on the subway (they were pretty talented). There were 4 different bands playing at one single relatively small park we visited (Washington Square Park).

This kind of culture can not be created overnight.

The people who argue about the urban/surburban divide never touch on the issue of time. Cities are usually more interesting places than suburbs simply because the cities have existed for a longer amount of time.

Mix of use is also incredibly crucial. When buildings have a mix of uses (basically residential + anything else) they allow people more options about where they live and work. This allows for a variety of transportation options: walking, biking, roller-blading, skateboarding, bus riding, train riding or even automobile driving. People are always clamoring for more options in life; auto dependent development does NOT provide many options.

Overall, time has led to the creation of city filled with layers. It has layers of culture and layers of infrastructure. It is an organically growing place with constant movement and evolution. Some call it the City that Never Sleeps. What allows the city to stay awake all night?

One important aspect of that is the 24/7 subway network. When you have a transportation network running all day and all night, people will use it all day and all night. This is especially true in a city such as NYC, which has high density and a robust diverse economy.

How can we create incredible places such as NYC? Time is one very important ingredient.

A great public transportation network also helps.

Biking in the Cape: Some Lessons and Ideas

Today, my family and I enjoyed a long bike ride through Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This ride was made possible by a national program called Rails to Trails. The program is pretty self-explanatory: previous rail lines are converted into bike and/or multi use trails. It is great program that has led to the completion of many fantastic trails across the nation.

The Cape Cod Rail Trail was very well designed. All of the road crossing points were well constructed, making both the trail and the road crossings easy to traverse for both cycles and motor vehicles. Part of the reason the crossings were so functional was due to the fact that all the at-grade crossings involved only two-lane of one lane roads. All the wider roads had grade separated crossings (usually tunnels, with the occasional overpass). These crossings helped to illustrate a larger point of cycling: people will be far more comfortable cycling if there are grade separated crossings. Yes, this point has been made, and yes they are expensive, but they go a VERY long way towards making life easier for both bike riders/pedestrians and drivers.

So who was using this trail? Since Cape Cod is primarily a tourist destination, I expected to see mostly recreational riders. Predictably, after traversing this trail for its entire length over a period of 7 hours, I saw very few people on the trail who seemed to be locals. This was understandable, considering the wealth of the residents of Cape Cod. But then, I thought about all the service workers in the towns on the Cape; the children who attended the local schools; the people who lived a short, bikable drive away from their place of work: why were these people not present on the trail?

Lack of connectivity is the answer.

Since the trail was built primary for recreational purposes, the planners made very little provisions for commuters. The trail was required to follow the rail right-of-way, which means it doesn't necessarily go close to many of the major towns. In fact, there is only one major town that it passes through. In this town, the whole area around the trail is filled with parks and businesses that cater to bikers. Why can't the other towns in the area have this?

I envision a future where the Cape Cod Rail Trail is the spine of a larger, regional network. There would spurs that would go to every nearby town and every nearby school, along with every nearby major employment center. All of these spurs would have way-finding signs from the main trail. Currently, the majority of the Cape (along with the majority of the USA) is very auto oriented, with little to no commuter bike infrastructure. The development of the peninsula is not necessarily suburban, but it is sprawling and spread out in nature.

My main point is this: having long, recreational trails are beneficial to large portions of the population, but they do little to reduce intra-urban journeys. This type of trip (within an urban area, and usually a short distance, no more than 2-8 miles) is by far the most common trip type in America; it is also the easiest type of car trip to replace with a bicycle.

If we really want to reduce traffic, reduce emissions, reduce auto fatalities and reduce obesity, we MUST focus on the low hanging fruit. In this situation, the low hanging fruit is the potential to replace short car trips with other modes, such as bikes.

If we can build great recreational trails, we can also build quality commuter networks. It's time to stop wasting money on subsidies for car trips that are wasteful and unnecessary.

It's time for a transportation revolution.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Capping Freeways vs. Taking Them Out: Lessons from the Big Dig

Today, I spent a lot of time ambling around a recently built park in Boston. It is called the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and it is a nice public space. It is diverse, containing fountains, benches, flowers, lawns, long walkways and sculptures. The greenway is surrounded by densely populated areas, providing a green space for many who previously did not have one. The linear aspect of it makes it an ideal place for walking, running, biking and other forms of recreation.

Why is this park so unique?

It is located on top of I-93, a major interstate highway.

The Big Dig, completed in 2006, was the most expensive public works project in recent American history. At the cost of $15 billion dollars, a major raised freeway was torn down, placed underground (with added lanes), and covered with a greenway/park. The results speak for themselves: when cars once flew by at 70 mph, people now run and play frisbee.

On the other hand, $15 billion dollars is a lot of cash. What if there was a cheaper solution? What if all that money was used to restore and refurbish every decaying Boston subway line instead?

Though this project is unarguably a major benefit for the city of Boston, it is truly just a small Band-Aid upon many gaping freeway scars. One of these scars occurs just steps from my hotel, where I-93 continues uncovered. This section of freeway is surround by decaying buildings and homeless people. The cars flying by are loud and polluting. Even where the highway is covered, there are smaller connector roads where the car speeds are still high. Taxi drivers recklessly fly around corners, causing pedestrians to run in fear. There are no bike lanes in this area, forcing bike riders to dodge pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Beyond this, there are vast parking garages surrounding this new park. There massive buildings do not contribute to street life, and their presence encourages people to continue driving.

What am I getting at?

Freeways are only one small part of the problem; all of the car based infrastructure is the real wound.

What if instead of covering the freeway, the freeway had been removed instead?

Some would argue that absolute chaos and gridlock would instantly occur; I disagree.

If this freeway had been removed, than vehicle drivers would learn that driving in this area would no longer be pleasant or efficient. They would either drive to the edge of it and park, sit in traffic, or bike, walk and take public transit.

Did I mention that there are multiple subways stops that directly border this park/freeway?

What if that money had been used to improve the aging metro system instead?

Here is what would occur:
Time after time, when road capacity is reduced, less people drive. As a result, less road capacity would mean less parking structures would need to be constructed. Instead of a ten story parking structure, a ten story mixed use building could be built in its place.
The people living and working in this building would not be as interested in driving since driving would be challenging in this freeway free area. Their use of a new transit system (built instead of the buried highway with the same $15 billion) would further enforce the idea of transit being a wise investment.
They could also use the new state of the art bike network (built with an extra few million leftover form the original $15 billion) to get where they need to go. Bike sharing systems would provide options for people who would prefer not to buy their own bike (more news on global bike sharing systems here).
The variety of options provided to them at all hours of the day would more than make up for the lack of a car. Zipcars and other car sharing systems would help to fulfill the desire the take a spontaneous weekend trip or a jaunt to Ikea.

How should we spend our precious transportation tax dollars?

I have some ideas...

Beantown: Urban Form and Function

Density: The part of Boston I am staying in (Back Bay) is quite dense, especially compared to the rest of the United States. This makes sense as Boston is one of the oldest American cities. It is also very diverse and educated, being home to a massive number of universities.

The city itself is different from many of the other older American cities (Philadelphia, NYC, Wash. DC) because it is not planned on a grid system. Its streets are chaotic and ancient, creating an interesting urban area with many urban layers. Much of the current city is also built on landfill, causing adjacent neighborhoods to be sometimes completely different.

As with most major American cities, Boston went through a serious decline/ urban renewal process a few decades ago. This led to the construction of some notoriously ugly modernist buildings (Boston City Hall). However, many locations that recently were open lots/surface parking have been transformed into lofts and other new/New Urbanist developments. A major project, called the Big Dig, recently covered a major freeway with a park. Though this project has been beneficial, some residents are unhappy about the quality of the new public space and the price of the project. However, it is really encouraging to see this city recovering from a period of serious urban decline. This success is in no small part due to the previously mentioned large number of universities.

All of this information goes to the back of my head as I witness an urban battle over space occur in Boston: cars vs. everything and everyone else.

This is not a new battle; it is constantly occurring everywhere. It happens to be especially fascinating to witness in Boston due the contrast of an ancient city and a relatively modern freeway network.

As recently mentioned in this Streetsblog video, the city of Boston is quickly becoming more bike friendly. It is astounding that this city was previously bike unfriendly (did I mention how many universities are located here?!?) and the city continues to have plenty of elements of a bike unfriendly city. Looking out my hotel window, there are encouraging symbols of the future to come, with brand new bike lanes, sharrows and bike boxes all visible from my room.

Just yards away form hotel exists a major freeway. This freeway is surrounded by properties in continual decline and areas that feel dangerous at night. The continual negative externalities of a surface freeway system continue to haunt many once beautiful Boston neighborhoods. Cars continue to speed by on wide urban arterials. Drivers continue to ignore pedestrians and bicyclists. Car sharing vehicles (Zipcar, etc.) are rarely if even seen, and a bike sharing network that was supposed to be up and running is nowhere to be found. Suburban style development rubs elbows with historic neighborhoods. Some metro stations are found outdoors under double tiered freeways, creating a dangerous and unfriendly pedestrian environment. Others are found in dark, old dirty tunnels, filled with squeaky trains that frequently break down.

How do we want to develop our cities? What do we want our future cities to look like? How much sense does it make to continue heavy subsidies for a network that depends upon finite fuels and massive amounts of valuable real estate?

It's time for a transportation revolution.

ABQ to Boston: Taking the T*

*Note: This is the first of a series of posts originally written in June as I vacationed across the East Coast.

After arriving at the Boston airport with my family, we boarded a shuttle bus to get to the subway. I at first saw the lack of a direct connection between the airport and the subway as a large restriction. However, the shuttle arrived very quickly, and the ride was short. It did leave me to wonder the frequency of this shuttle during off hours.

After getting to the station, we purchased a pre-paid transit card, scanned it for each family member and walked to the platform. The train (the Blue Line) arrived almost as soon as we got there, and we were off. After a couple of stops, we got off and transferred. The transfer was relatively painless: we simply walked upstairs and boarded the next train that arrived.

However, this new train we boarded (the Green Line) quickly became more and more crowded. Halfway through the trip, the train was very packed and borderline uncomfortably crowded.

We then realized that we were on the train line that served Fenway Park, just an hour or so before a Red Sox game.

The only really negative part of this whole experience was when the train stopped and the power went out for just a couple seconds. The power quickly came back on and the train started moving again, but this should not be occurring on a major subway line in a major American city.

So how is the Boston T? In my short experience of riding it, the frequency seemed pretty good (especially since it was the afternoon on a Saturday) and the train was pretty quick. The brief power outage was inconvenient, but it quickly ended, causing no harm.

Some of the stations and trains looked pretty old and in dire need of some financial assistance. I am not aware of any pending transit cuts in the Boston area, but if anything, this system could use a large financial boost.

This is the same story across America: when will we realize the true value of our transit systems and provide the cash they need instead of just barely letting them slide by?

The Boston T system is a fine example of many American transit systems: old, working relatively well, but just barely hanging on to the edge.

More transit funding NOW!

Back At It from Urbanquerque

After not posting for over one month, I am trying to get back into it. I have had so many ideas and adventures that it has been hard for me to figure out how to turn them into some sort of written form. Alas, without trying there would be no success.

My living situation for this coming month is urban and unique: I am spending the month living yards away from the University of New Mexico (UNM) in a 1950's style suburban house in the Nob Hill neighborhood. My reasons for living down here are
a) my downtown summer job at ABQ Ride and
b) the fact that I am starting summer school tommorrow at UNM. I have no car for the summer so living in the far eastern part of theNE Heights with my family would be impractical.

The cost of living here in Albuquerque is extremely cheap. Since I am living so close to transit and bike-friendly areas, my transportation costs are ZERO. This is due to the fact that I am working at ABQ Ride this summer (they provided me with a free bus pass) and the fact that my father is letting me borrow his fantastic old-skool road bike.

My quality of life down here is amazing. I bike pretty much everywhere and go on long bike rides every evening as the sun sets and the earth cools down. I buy groceries (mostly from the nearby Sunflower Market) and cook almost all my own food, saving lots of cash. Basically, my only expenses are rent and the occasional grocery trip.

Most people believe that living carfree in burque is impossible; I am proud to say that it is entirely possible (in certain parts of the city) and continues to get easier.