The Bicycle

Old Urbanist has put up a nice overview of the potential pitfalls of pro-bicycling efforts. In short, we should not expect that merely promoting bicycle use will reduce automobile use; indeed, many new cycling trips will replace transit or walking trips rather than car trips. For instance, my wife bought a Brompton, which she often uses to ride downtown to work, but she does so in place of taking the Metra. And pollution aside, bicycles in a dense urban environment have many of the same problems as cars: like cars, space is needed to park them, and a street full of zooming bicycles is nearly as dangerous to pedestrians as one full of zooming cars, if not more so. Moreover, bicycles aren’t terribly compatible with transit. These aren’t serious problems in an urban environment like present-day Chicago, where overall bike use is low. But in the long run, devoting too much attention to the bicycle is at odds with building a truly walkable city.

Hyde Park has been a hot spot for bicyclism as of late. The University of Chicago began its own bike-sharing program in 2009 and is currently planning to partner with a bike-sharing company to build a cycling center under the 53rd Street Metra tracks. And the Chicago Department of Transportation recently introduced a plan to install protected bike lanes along 55th Street and King Drive.

Now, I think all of these things are positive developments for Hyde Park. The protected bike lanes will help reduce traffic on some busy streets and thus improve walkability, and the easy availability of bicycles will help connect Hyde Park to neighboring communities. I can certainly imagine hopping on a recycles bike and pedaling up King Drive to Bridgeport to grab a delicious savory pie for lunch. But the underlying issue still remains: the South Side is sparse, transit-starved, and not terribly walkable. I fully support short-term, stop-gap efforts to improve things, but we must recognize them as such. We need to begin having the real tough conversations about urban development, the ones where we argue not about protected bike lanes on automobile-oriented streets, but about streets that are designed first and foremost for people, not vehicles.

Posted in Bicycles | 2 Comments

The Automobile

In my last post, I explained the ways in which small streets urban design improves walkability by making walking easier. On the other hand, such a design necessarily makes driving harder by making streets narrower, intersections more frequent, and parking scarcer, and most of all by removing the exclusive right of way for vehicular traffic on most streets.

Some might point to this as a flaw in small streets design that needs to be compensated for. Even many promoters of walkability cling to the idea that a viable urban landscape must be friendly to the automobile, an idea that is cemented in the Charter of the New Urbanism. But they are wrong. Building a truly walkable environment requires us not only to design our streets in such a way that makes walking easier, but to actively make driving harder.

This is not to say that I wish to actively impede drivers; indeed, I think any urban environment needs to be open to vehicular access and provide a reasonably dense grid of arterial streets with vehicular rights of way. But not only has our society developed a psychological attachment to the automobile, it has also constructed a myriad of ways in which drivers are rewarded at the expense of everyone. I merely wish to approximate a state of nature, where the price of driving a car is roughly equal to its total cost. In this and future posts, I want to explore the ways in which drivers are unfairly advantaged and explain how we can restore the balance.

Right now, I’d like to simply give an overview of the major ways in which automobile use is subsidized and leave more extensive discussions for later.

The biggest bugaboo here is parking. Our cities devote so much valuable street space to on-street parking and often give it away for free. But off-street parking requirements are even more insidious. Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking contains an extensive analysis of the external costs of such requirements, and they are staggering. Requiring developers to provide parking (and far too much of it) with everything they create drives up the cost of just about everything except driving. Shoup’s book is, in my opinion, one of the most important books on urban planning out there, although I feel it could be doing more good if it were a tightly written 200 pages rather than an often meandering 800. So if you don’t feel like reading 800 pages, pick any 200 of them. A quarter of the book will be more than enough to convince you that we’re doing something horribly, horribly wrong with regard to parking regulations.

Next is the cost of building and maintaining roads and bridges. And it is not true that gas taxes cover these costs. While gas taxes are a clever way to internalize these externalities, the truth is that these days, they don’t even come close to covering the costs: the United States Highway Trust Fund has received tens of billions of dollars from the general fund in recent years to cover shortfalls. Many state trust funds are in similarly bad shape, if not worse. And let’s not discount the opportunity cost of all this infrastructure. Automobile infrastructure in our cities uses up a huge percentage of the most valuable urban real estate.

The environmental impact of automobile use is quite significant as well. According to the EPA, gasoline consumption from personal vehicles accounts for 20% of United States carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. I imagine the emissions created from automobile production are non-negligible as well. And in addition to contributing to global warming, automobile emissions also reduce air quality.

Finally, automobile use kills. Thousands of pedestrians are killed in the United States every year in motor vehicle collisions, and tens of thousands more are injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

All of these things are costs of driving automobiles that are not paid for by the drivers themselves. If drivers had to pay for all of these things directly, many fewer people would drive because it would no longer be an economical option for them. It may seem elitist to argue that only people who can bear the full economic costs of driving should be able to drive, but is it any less elitist to argue that we should build our towns and cities under the assumption that everyone drives, to the detriment of those who must significantly lower their standard of living because of it, particularly those who cannot afford an automobile even with all of our subsidies? The ultimate goal of small streets urbanism is not merely to promote walking over driving, but to make safe and satisfying urban living affordable for all who desire it. The elitists are those who stand in the way of such progress.

Posted in Automobiles | 5 Comments

Bringing People Together

I don’t wish to spend too much time on this blog discussing various underlying precepts, examples, and goals of small streets urbanism, mainly because there are already blogs, including a rather canonical one, doing a great job of that (although Google tells me I am the only person to use the phrase “small streets urbanism,” which I find to be a very natural one). I will endeavor to give links to others’ blog posts whenever possible instead of recreating their arguments myself. Nevertheless, I would like to give my own interpretation of what I mean by small streets urbanism.

Let me first define what I mean by “small streets,” since it’s a phrase that can be easily misunderstood. A small streets development is one in which the distance between buildings, measured facade to facade, is small. How small? There is no exact number, although I’ve seen 30 feet thrown around as a good maximum. This leaves precious little room for the extraneous stuff that we have between building facades today: parked cars, green space, separate pedestrian areas, and setbacks. In a small streets design, front doors will more or less open out onto the street.

More importantly, I think, is to say what small streets are not. Small streets are not pedestrian-only streets, although they can be, either by fiat or by construction. Small streets are not mutually exclusive with larger arterial roads for motor vehicle traffic, although such arterial roads should be large only in comparison to the smaller streets. And finally, small streets are not necessarily lined by multi-story attached buildings as in traditional cities. Small streets can be populated by single-family detached housing, as in many parts of Tokyo.

However, this last point brings us into the “urbanism” part of small streets urbanism. While single-family detached homes are desirable to many, they are also not as dense or as affordable as multi-story attached buildings. So for the South Side, which is broadly low-income, and Hyde Park in particular, which has a large student population, building more single-family detached housing is not really appropriate, even if it does incorporate small streets. So a small streets urban development is one that incorporates multi-story, mixed use, attached buildings in a small streets layout.

Such a design enables walkability because it makes walking easier. Walking becomes easier because distances will be shorter, since we have rid ourselves of most of the extraneous space between buildings that I discussed in my last post. Walking becomes safer, because more people will be out walking, and they’ll be doing it in a smaller space, which leads to a much higher density of people out on the streets. And there will be no high-speed traffic to worry about. And keeping the streets walkable in winter will become a painless task, since each individual building will have only a small amount of street space to take care of.

While the walkability of a small streets urban space may seem to differ only quantitatively from that of a neighborhood like Hyde Park (a greater density of people, shorter distances, and so on), this can lead to a significantly different way of life. Even when the distance from your place of residence to any individual destination is “walkable,” most of us do not live our lives simply going from our home to a single location and back. We often have numerous errands to run, many of which involve carrying items to or from our homes. Thus, many people drive to the supermarket and pick up a week or two of groceries rather than going to a local produce stand, butcher, fish market, and bakery, even if each of those places is individually within walking distance. It is not that people wouldn’t prefer to do their shopping by walking to such places daily, but the total distance involved is impractical. By bringing everything closer together, such a way of life becomes much more realistic. There is a critical level of closeness required for this sort of walkability that is simply not possible under our current models of urban design.

Similarly, I believe that there is a critical level of closeness for people that fundamentally changes the nature of our outdoor spaces, from a place where people merely exist in isolation to a place where people are in constant interaction, a phase transition from a gaseous state to a liquid state. Such closeness certainly exists in places like downtown Chicago (although not in the evenings) and even in certain places in Hyde Park at certain times. But small streets permit such a critical density of people to permeate throughout. This does not mean that the streets will seem crowded, just occupied, as in the photo of Toledo, Spain below. (Incidentally, Toledo is the city overlaying the Midway in this blog’s title image.)

Street scene in Toledo, Spain

Photograph by Greg Emel

I can imagine that not everybody finds occupied streets more pleasant than unoccupied ones, but I’m sure that I’m far from the only one with this preference. Much of the virtue of living in a city is the opportunity to run into all sorts of people at any moment. Such interactions can only happen when people are brought together.

Posted in Small Streets, Walkability | 8 Comments

Is Hyde Park Walkable?

Hyde Park is what most people would consider a very walkable neighborhood. My Hyde Park apartment is in a “Walkers’ Paradise” according to Walk Score. And indeed, as a young, healthy individual, I can get wherever I want to go in Hyde Park on foot without too much difficulty.

But just because I can walk around does not mean that all is well in this walkers’ paradise. If it were, why would parking spots and bus service be such popular local issues?

The walkability of Hyde Park comes with several large caveats. First, walking around Hyde Park at night, although much safer than many residents seem to believe, is at the very least unpleasant due to the lack of other people walking around. The fact that the university provides bus service to compensate for this perceived danger only makes things worse. Most of Hyde Park seems utterly deserted during the night, which is not conducive to safe, enjoyable walking.

Secondly, walking around Hyde Park in winter is often made difficult because of snow and ice. In principle, owners are supposed to clear snow and ice on the sidewalks in front of their buildings, but in practice, this often doesn’t happen in a timely or satisfactory manner. Having to walk through snow, slush, and ice can turn quick, enjoyable walks into slow, tedious, and dangerous ones.

Thirdly, while destinations within Hyde Park involve reasonably short and aesthetically pleasing walks, the same is not true if one wishes to leave the neighborhood. Aside from the Metra, which has a sometimes inconvenient schedule and no fare reciprocity with CTA, the only way to travel to more distant parts of Chicago without a car involves either hopping on a bus or passing through significant amounts of both green space and urban decay. And even if one wants to visit the surrounding neighborhoods to the south and west, Washington Park, the Midway, and Jackson Park add extra distance to these journeys.

We can very roughly group the difficulties associated with walking into three main categories: distance, safety, and aesthetics. These categories are not entirely independent, nor necessarily all-encompassing, but most of the problems I mentioned above fit into one or more of them. I want to argue that these three classes of impediments are very deeply rooted in the way in which we design our streets, and more generally the way in which we allocate space between buildings.

The distance we have to travel to get from one place to another depends on two factors: the street layout, and how much stuff is between the two places. The Hyde Park grid is a bit long in the north-south direction, but overall is not a bottleneck for efficient travel distances. Rather, the problem is how much stuff we put between destinations. The typical Hyde Park street has two lanes of traffic, two lanes of parked cars, two green strips, two sidewalks, and in some cases one or two lawns. As a result, the facade-to-facade distance between facing buildings often makes up a significant fraction of a horizontal block. For example, the facade-to-facade distance on Blackstone north of 58th street is generally more than 100 feet, while the distance between Blackstone and Dorchester is under 400 feet: the width of the street makes up more than a quarter of the total distance! And this doesn’t include extra space beside and behind buildings. All of this space adds up. Too much space between buildings means too much distance between destinations. (Note, too, that the more space we put between buildings, the less of it will get cleared in the winter. This only adds to walking times!)

The corner of 58th and Blackstone

The corner of 58th and Blackstone. Compare the distances between facades to the distance between Blackstone and Dorchester!

When we increase distance between destinations, we decrease the density of people out walking on the street, both because we have increased the overall amount of street per person, and because longer distances discourage walking trips. (Of course, the average walking trip will be longer, but this effect is smaller than even the first alone.) Fewer people out on streets make them easier targets for crime. And the more space we put between our buildings, the more difficult is for law enforcement to patrol this space. Furthermore, we relegate walkers to the peripheries of our streets to accommodate high-speed automobile traffic, which is itself a significant danger.

The most subjective category is aesthetics. I find the most enjoyable places to walk are places where there are lots of shops and people and activity, but I can certainly believe that other aesthetic preferences exist. Nevertheless, I expect that few believe that the aesthetic quality of a walk is improved by constant traffic, abandoned buildings, rows of parked cars (or worse, sprawling parking lots), and empty lots. And while the Midway Plaisance may have aesthetic value to some, there is very little variation across its one mile east-west expanse: how much marginal aesthetic value does each additional east-west block of the Midway provide, anyway? Would a half mile-long Midway be significantly less beautiful than the current one? The little green strips between the sidewalk and parked cars likewise have some aesthetic value, but how many additional people could live in Hyde Park if those strips simply weren’t there and we could fit a few dozen more low-rise apartment buildings worth of people? I contend that those would-be residents would receive (and also provide!) far more total aesthetic value from living in Hyde Park than those little strips of grass.

The idea behind small streets urbanism is to eliminate all of these barriers to walking by eliminating their root cause: too much space between buildings. The ideal is not to be car-free by decree, but to create an environment in which few will prefer to travel by car, an environment designed with people, not vehicles, in mind. It is unproductive to blame people for driving instead of walking. Everything about our cities, from the way we lay them out to the way we zone them to the way we fund their infrastructure, incentivizes people to make the decision to drive.

Advocates of walkability often have to hedge their enthusiasm with statements of the form, “I don’t want to take away your car.” And I don’t. I want to take away a system of urban planning and regulation that coerces millions into buying cars. I want to provide a place where almost no one will drive, not because they are not allowed to, but because they will not benefit from it.

Posted in Hyde Park, Walkability | 6 Comments

Our Opportunity

In spite of the poor global economic climate of the past several years, Hyde Park has managed to attract an unusual amount of interest from both developers and retailers. The Harper Court redevelopment project is well underway, and Village Center is looking to break ground later this year. A Marriott Hotel would have been constructed at the Doctor’s Hospital site on Stony Island but for a controversial referendum. Hyde Park residents are looking forward this year to the opening of a cinema and a flagship fashion boutique. Whole Foods looms not far on the horizon. With much of the country in dire financial straits, Hyde Park appears to be a rare source of opportunity.

This opportunity, however, will not last forever, so we need to do as much as we can to take advantage of it. The Harper Court and Village Center projects are a good start, but I would like to push into the public consciousness the idea that we could be doing more—much more—to build a lively, economical, people-oriented neighborhood that can serve as a model for the rest of the South Side and more generally for stagnating cities everywhere.

My proposal is to redevelop the Midway Plaisance into a dense small streets village. Currently, the Midway serves mainly as a conduit for traffic and as a barrier between Hyde Park and our neighbors in Woodlawn. It is an unnecessary “green space” for a neighborhood sandwiched between two of Chicago’s largest parks. And it lies right on a passenger railway. In short, the Midway is the perfect space to turn into the opposite of what it currently is, a place for people to live, work, study, shop, and interact.

Such places have existed for a long time: they are the traditional cities, built with streets barely wide enough for automobiles to pass through, streets meant for the activities of people rather than the moving and storage of vehicles. This idea seems very exotic to most Americans, even quaintly archaic. But traditional cities have many virtues. They are social, healthy, affordable, and environmentally friendly. They are pleasant to live in, and easy to enter and leave (if provided with a conveniently located train line or two). They provide a lifestyle that many people desire, but few have access to, because we as a society made a decision a long time ago to embrace heroic materialism for our cities and comfortable isolation for our suburbs. We built a civilization tailored to a race of automobiles, not human beings. But the global economic downturn has led many to rethink the foundations of our society. It is now time to rethink our cities.

In forthcoming posts, I will attempt to delve deeper into the virtues of small streets development and discuss some of the roadblocks that currently exist to making such places a reality. I will also discuss my own ideas for the development of a small streets village on the Midway. I am not terribly optimistic that my plan or anything like it will be put into place on the Midway, but I hope to generate public awareness and discussion of modern urban planning issues. And if enough of Hyde Park catches small streets fever as I have, who knows what can happen?

We have the opportunity to make the Midway bloom, not with flowers, but with people.

Posted in Hyde Park, Midway Plaisance, Midway Village, Small Streets | 9 Comments