TagSam Schwartz

The rate of change on city streets: USA versus the Netherlands

ThinkBike 2013

One of the people in this photo is Dutch. We’re on the Dearborn bike route installed downtown in 2012. The next downtown protected bike route was installed in 2015 serving a different area. However, the Dearborn bike route has become so popular that it’s size and design (t’s a narrow, two-way lane) are insufficient for the demand (who knew that bicycling in a city center would be so high in demand, especially on a protected course?) and there are no plans to build a complementary facility to improve the conditions.

My friend Mark wrote the following paragraph on his blog, BICYCLE DUTCH, relating the need to change a city and its streets to the way families change the contents of essential parts of their homes. In other words, cities and streets are like our living rooms and they must also change as we change.

Think about your living room, chances are you change it completely every 15 to 20 years. Because you need a wider sofa for the expanding family, or because you rightfully think that table has had its best years. Maybe the extra big seat for granddad is sadly not needed anymore. Of course, things can’t always be perfect: you have a budget to consider and it is not so easy to change the walls. Replacing things does give you the opportunity to correct earlier mistakes and to get the things which are more useful now. While you are at it, you can also match the colours and materials better again. Our cities are not so different from our living rooms. Just as families grow and later decrease in size again when the children leave the house, the modal share of the different types of traffic users changes over the years. These shifting modal shares warrant changes to the street design. So you may need some extra space where it was not necessary before, but if you see less and less of a certain type of traffic, its space can be reallocated to other road users.

What I really want to talk about is the rate of change in the Netherlands. I’ve visited Mark’s home in s’Hertogenbosh (Den Bosch), and we’ve walked around Utrecht.

One thing he told me, which is widely evident, is that the Netherlands is always renewing its streets. Or it has been for decades (maybe since World War II). They update street design standards regularly and streets that no longer meet these designs (or a few generations back) are updated to meet them.

Now, the two changes – updating the standards and updating the streets – don’t happen so gloriously hand in hand. Just like in the United States it takes a couple of years to come up with the right design.

The difference between our two countries is the regularity in updating the designs, and the regularity in updating streets.

I’ll lead with one example in Chicago and ask that you tell me about projects in your city that repair what’s long been a pain in the ass.

An intersection in the Wicker Park neighborhood got modern traffic signals, added crosswalk signals (there had never been any), and a stupid, sometimes dangerous little island removed. One of the four legs didn’t have a marked crosswalk. The state of Illinois chipped in most of the cost of the update – this was known at least four years before the construction actually happened.

When I wrote a blog post about the project for Grid Chicago in 2012, I found a photo from 1959 that showed the intersection in the same configuration. I also wrote in that post that the construction was delayed from 2012 to 2013. Well, it got built in 2014.

Milwaukee & Wood ca. 1959

Intersections like this – with difficult-to-see traffic signals that motorist routinely blow past, missing crosswalks, and curb ramps that aren’t accessible – persist across Chicago in the state they’ve been in for 55 or more years.

The “reconstructed bicycle route” that Mark discusses and illustrates in his blog post is known to have been updated at least once a decade. He wrote, “pictures from 1980, 1998 and 2015 show how one such T-junction was changed several times. The protected intersection went through some stages, but having learned by trial and error, the design we see now is one that fits the present ‘family’ best.”

Three books by well-known city transportation planners have all been published within months of each other. I read and reviewed Sam Schwartz’s “Street Smart”, and I’m reading Janette Sadik-Khan’s “Street Fight“. Gabe Klein’s “Startup City” is the third. All of them advocate for new designs to match the changing attitudes and needs cities have. Actually, the needs of the cities haven’t really changed, but our attitudes and policies – and the politics – around how to update cities has evolved.

I don’t know what can spur all of these seemingly minor (they’re no Belmont Flyover) infrastructural updates. I don’t think a lack of money is to blame. I think a lack of coordination, staffing, and planning ensures that outdated and unsafe designs remain on city streets.

P.S. The Netherlands “renewal” attitude isn’t limited to streets. The Dutch national railway infrastructure company “ProRail” (which is “private” but owned by the government) has been completely replacing all of the primary train stations. The Dutch have been rebuilding dikes and building flood control projects for decades, many under the common name “Delta Works”.

Here’s a photo in Nijmegen where the government was building a new, bypass canal that would ease a shipping route, create a controlled flood area, a new recreation area, but that would also displace homes.

People want more walkability and property developers can make it happen

Columbus Commons

The Columbus Commons in the tationty center. Photo by Brandon Bartoszek

This is my favorite part of Sam Schwartz’s book “Street Smart” so far. You’ll find it on page 117 following a discussion of Walk Score, a tool used mostly by realtors that measures “walkability” of any place in American cities based on the location and diversity of services, shops, and amenities nearby.

Every way you slice the data confirms that what all the polls say is true: people want more walkability.

Why, then, is there so little of it?

Why is there such a mismatch between the supply of, and the demand for, walkable neighborhoods?

Is it because, as one observer wrote, “Americans would like to live in places that don’t really exist”?

Do you live in a walkable place? Answer, and then check your Walk Score. I’m curious to know if they match.

Schwartz answers these questions with “not really”.

They want to live in places that do exist, but there are far too few of them.

Schwartz mentions that the housing prices in the most walkable cities – San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City – are so expensive, but being walkable is what makes them the “coolest” cities.

Higher Walk Scores positively correlate with higher housing prices, “which is a problem”, Schwartz says.

[It’s] also an opportunity. By definition, only a few neighborhoods can be the coolest places to live. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make everywhere cooler.

Many pages later Schwartz describes how one city attempted to get property developers to make their proposed buildings or complexes more receptive to walking and biking (active transportation).

Columbus, Ohio, needed to lose some body weight. The city’s sprawling nature contributed to 59 percent of adults being obese or overweight, and 38 percent of children in the third grade (here’s the citation).

The Columbus Healthy Places program was formed in 2006 and implemented by the transportation and public health departments. Here’s one of the strategies they undertook to affect the built environment.

[The transportation and public health officials] persuaded the [buildings] department to grant them an opportunity to comment on all requests from developers to rezone a particular bit of land.

With that opportunity, Schwartz explained on page 133, they proposed that developments with shopping centers, bus stops, schools, park, libraries, drugstores, or grocery stores, within half a mile of residences, “include a suite of active transportation elements” like bike parking, connections to bike lanes and trails, and wider sidewalks.

It worked, he said. Before the program only seven percent of projects requesting a zoning change included active transportation elements, but after it was reviewed by the Columbus Healthy Places managers it “jumped” to 64 percent.

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