Archive for the ‘Density’ Category

Links – Harumph.

July 7, 2009

The Urbanophile makes no little plans with a nice review and synopsis of transportation’s role in Daniel Burnham’s famous Plan of Chicago.   As someone born and raised in the Midwest, I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Chicago.

His “City Beautiful” movement can also easily be read as a precursor to urban renewal. Indeed, a good chunk of his plan consists of Robert Moses like street building and street widening projects, many of which were in fact carried out. And he drew direct inspiration, and even claimed inspiration in the document itself, from Hausmann’s bulldozing of the Paris to construct the grand boulevards there.

On the other hand, writing in 1909 he can perhaps be forgiven feeling overly optimistic about the automobile, and the more humane side Burnham shows through in many places as well. So let’s take a look.

Given DC’s abundance of very wide streets, widening them isn’t reason alone for a bad plan.  Indeed, many of Burnham’s widened streets, even if the goal was to better accommodate the car, function today as grand avenues.  Michigan Avenue in particular comes to mind.  Moses, on the other hand, brought in expressways.  What a difference 30-40 years makes in both the evolution of the automobile, as well as the evolution of road design.

Lake Shore Drive has a more mixed legacy – it’s definitely more in the “parkway” mold of Moses’ freeways, but other elements of the plan (such as the double decker streets downtown) are functional for both cars and pedestrians alike.  Wacker Drive not only provides great backdrops for the Blues Brothers and Batman, but it’s a fine public space as well.

Another relevant note and similarity Chicago shares with DC:

“The greatest disfigurement of the residence street is found in the varied assortment of poles which crowd out the trees along the space between the curb and the sidewalk.”

One thing that cannot help but strike any visitor to Chicago is the near complete absence of utility poles apart from street light standards on streets. And not just residential streets, but commercial streets. This is extremely rare in the United States. Chicago has more alleys than any city in America, and its power, telephone, and cable lines are located there. (As is its trash – take that, New York!).

Amen.  It’s just too bad that DC’s overly restrictive legislation against overhead wires inhibits development of streetcar networks, etc.

Chicago is a huge city, but it often doesn’t feel that way. Get out of the core and you find streets full of mature trees and greenery exceeding that found in much smaller places. This is no concrete jungle. It is a city for people.

As someone who grew up in the Midwest, Chicago always felt like the “big city,” but was definitely still Midwestern in vibe.  It’s a truly remarkable city, and this observation is spot on.  The neighborhoods feel welcoming and fit in to the larger city like lock and key.  It’s a similar feeling I got upon arriving in DC.  My previous experience had been almost totally federal, without any real exploration of DC’s neighborhoods.

The only real parallel is that DC never has (to me) that same kind of Big City feel that Chicago does – but much of that is due to Chicago’s dominance over its region.  Nevertheless, it’s a great place to visit.

Thank you sir, may I have another! Randal O’Toole continues to get lambasted amongst the pro-urban bloggers.  The Overhead Wire weighs in on Ed Glaeser’s op-ed piece – comparing it to O’Toole’s work (for someone of Glaeser’s accomplishment, that’s not a compliment), and Ryan Avent takes a shot at O’Toole’s recent testimony before Congress:

The performance earned dismal reviews. One by one, the other witnesses pointed out that failure to adequately examine land use effects rendered O’Toole’s analyses worthless.

Mode choice isn’t just about direct energy use, they explained; it’s about how increased driving or transit use affects development patterns and broader economic activity. Moreover, increased transit use improves the efficiency of driving by reducing congestion.

It’s great to see O’Toole’s ‘analysis’ get this kind of treatment not just from bloggers but from the fellow panelists as well (and even a Senator or two).

O’Toole was without friends in a room of leaders that finally seemed to grasp how planning had gone wrong in the last half century. At this moment — with vehicle miles traveled falling, with central city population growth rates increasing as suburban growth rates fall, and with central city housing prices showing resilience as exurban neighborhoods continue to experience rapid decline — Cato’s myth of sprawl as the American dream seems more hollow than ever.

Happily, legislators — at least those who attended today’s hearing — increasingly seem disposed to acknowledge reality.

That’s great.  Now, about turning that thought into action…

Maps. GGW and BDC have a couple of posts on GGW’s publication of several MWCOG maps of home locations of employees based on where they work.  The patterns are quite interesting, showing how people tend to cluster their homes nearby their place of employment, regardless of transport mode.  Thus, for employees in DC’s downtown Federal buildings, their home choices are located around Metro.  NIH employees tend to congregate on the Wisconsin Ave/Rockville Pike corridor, etc. Similarly, suburban job centers like Reston still show a great deal of concentration, but not nearly as tight as the transit-oriented locations.

BDC’s policy takeaway:

Think those downtown workers are the ones clogging I-66 and I-95? Not likely. The situation could not be more clear: If you want to foster Smart Growth and multi-modalism, put your jobs in the city. If you want to foster sprawl and congestion, put them far away. End of story.

I would add that within our current framework of transit corridors and job centers, continuing to try and transform an area like Tysons Corner into more of a city is worthwhile.  However, consider the rest of Tyson’s Silver Line neighbors – transforming the Dulles Corridor into something more like Rosslyn-Ballston well after the fact is going to be easier said than done.  We don’t have much choice but to try, but running a subway down the median of a freeway isn’t going to produce the best results.

Random Stuff:

  • Austin Contrarian looks at the relationship between the skill level of employees in cities and the density of that city.  Bottom line – more dense, more skilled – and the relationship is particularly strong when you look more at the weighted density of an area.
  • Housing Complex looks at the plans for Rhode Island Ave, starting with some woefully underutilized land near one of the original 1976 Metro stations.   Fun facts to know and tell – Brentwood has the highest elevation of any station in the system.
  • Metro operators probably shouldn’t be texting while driving.

Links – Mono…D’OH!

July 7, 2009

With apologies to Lyle Lanley, it’s worth reporting that Disney’s genuine, bonafide, electrified, six car monorail! crashed.  Is there a chance the track could bend?

The Transport Politic notes the damage this kind of fantasy has on useful transit advocacy.   The Simpsons really does the same thing, when you think about it.

But the fact that more Americans have probably ridden the Walt Disney monorail systems than have chosen to take advantage of their local transit offerings is problematic. That’s because Disney presents a space-age vision for what public transportation should be, and it’s that fantasy that many Americans want in their trains and buses, not the mundane services like light rail and buses that most communities can actually implement. Meanwhile, Disney can offer the convenience of rapid transit in a safe, well-monitored environment, something difficult to do day-in, day-out in a real city.

The most damaging effect of the Disney monorail is the pervasive idea among virtually everyone other than transportation people that it represents the ultimate in transit technology. That’s why cries for “monorails!” come up at every turn when communities consider new transportation systems, even though monorails are consistently more expensive and less reliable than their two-track counterparts. It’s a mystery why people find the idea of the single, elevated track so exciting, but Disney’s example may be one explanation.

That Simpsons episode looks more and more prescient.  “…but Main Street’s still all cracked and broken!”

Avent vs. Glaeser. Ryan Avent takes Ed Glaeser’s recent Op-Ed on high speed rail to task over at Streetsblog.

Glaeser is correct that a good place to begin addressing our transportation failures is by pricing congested highway and air routes more effectively.

But we have every indication that doing so would significantly increase demand for rail services, while also raising tens of billions of dollars every year that could be used to construct a rail system that would be cleaner and faster than driving or flying. Contra Glaeser, pricing our existing infrastructure would make it painfully clear just how badly we need an effective intercity rail system.

In environmental and economic terms, the case for major investment in high-speed rail is quite strong. Unfortunately, wisdom seems to take wing whenever economists start writing about public spending.

Indeed.  Others take the social aspects of Glaeser’s proposition.  Any way you slice it, it’s pretty clear that Glaeser’s pop economics doesn’t do much in persuading the transportation blogosphere.

NIMBY’s Aren’t Environmentalists. The East Bay Express has a great piece on the role of cities and density in the environmentalism.  It’s a lengthy piece, but well worth the read.   The article makes several key points about how conventional thinking about managing urban growth, even with explicit intentions to be environmentally friendly, or to be affordable, often hurts the overall outcome.   Most importantly, the fight against density in developed, transit accessible areas is a major impediment to sustainable urbanism.

When put into a DC context, the article raises several key points about building heights.

Much of the heated debate over the plan has been about tall buildings. After eighteen months of meetings, a city-sponsored committee recommended that the council allow four 100-foot-tall buildings, and four that are 120 feet tall in the downtown area. However, the city’s planning commission, which is more development friendly, came up with its own plan that would allow six 120-foot-tall buildings, and four that are 180 feet tall — as tall as the existing Wells Fargo building, the city’s tallest. Both plans would also allow most new buildings to be built at a maximum height of 85 feet. The council appears to be leaning toward approving the denser plan, which some critics decry as “the Manhattanization of Berkeley.”

Hmmmm.  Where have I heard those arguments before?

In truth, the fight over building heights is misdirected. Tall buildings are unlikely to be built in Berkeley anytime soon because they’re too expensive to construct. The real difference between the two plans is that the less dense one will probably result in no tall buildings, while the other will probably produce four. The reason is that developers prefer buildings that are less than 75 feet tall or greater than 180 feet, but not in between. So any plan that calls for 100-foot- or 120-foot-tall buildings is unrealistic.

Why? In buildings that are less than 75 feet tall, developers can use wood framing, which tends to be relatively inexpensive. But above that height, fire-safety codes require them to build with reinforced concrete or steel, which costs a lot more. As a result, developers can’t make a tall building profitable unless it’s at least 180 feet in height (seventeen stories). Anything shorter than that means that the developer won’t generate enough money from selling condos or renting apartments to pay for the high costs of erecting the building in the first place.

Of course, with land values as high as those in Downtown DC, you can easily justify going as high as possible – even though those heights fall within that ‘unrealistic’ zone of 100-120 foot tall structures.

Oakland could achieve plenty of density with 75-foot-tall housing developments, Pyatok argued. Assuming that such buildings can house about 150 people per square acre of buildable space, that works out to about 96,000 residents per square mile. As a reference, Manhattan is home to about 65,000 people per square mile. “It’s just a misunderstanding to think that you have to have high-rises to get high density,” said Pyatok, who also has been studying the potential growth of Upper Broadway with a group of graduate students. “I really think that a 75-foot height limit throughout a great deal of downtown could create a lot of density.”

This is more or less the situation we see in a lot of DC, at least with regard to the height limit (and therefore upper cap on density).  What’s missing, of course, is that most of DC’s areas built to max height are office districts, not residential ones.  Fear not, however – there are solutions to this, as well:

Oakland, he believes, should limit skyscrapers to Broadway, near the 12th Street and 19th Street BART stations. Or, he said, the city should take a hard look at what San Francisco and other cities have done. San Francisco limits both building density and height, but allows property owners to buy and sell development rights to construct skyscrapers. So if you’re a property owner and you do not intend to build a high-rise, then you can sell the space above your building to another developer, who then can add it to his or her property and build taller. As a result, San Francisco has been able to protect historic buildings while controlling land values and spurring growth.

For DC, a transfer of development rights program to encourage the sale of density rights from areas worth protecting (whether they be existing rowhouse neighborhoods or the height-capped and very high value downtown) and transferring them to a designated receiving zone could be a framework to grow the city around in the future.  Designating a few receiving areas, such as Poplar Point, would allow some taller buildings (perhaps eclipsing that dead zone where building up doesn’t make economic sense) to give DC a high rise district similar to what we see in Rosslyn, Silver Spring, and Bethesda.  Doing so with a TDR program would continue to encourage infill development and densification within the city while still allowing an outlet for development pressures in areas of the city we wish to protect.

With any such plan, of couse, the devil’s in the details – but it’s certainly worth considering, in my mind.


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