Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Smarter Suburbs

According to a recent Daily Journal of Commerce article, in Oregon some Legislative leaders are talking about a Congestion Relief package to tie the state over from now through 2009, when they expect to be able to offer a more comprehensive transportation solutions package. It's good to see that some folks are thinking big-picture, but "congestion relief" doesn't sound like the sort of terminology that describes Smart Growth, TOD, bicycle lanes and better transit.

There's an interesting article in the February 2007 issue of _Urban Land_, called "Looking Back to Plan the Future." OK, it's actually not that interesting of an article, except for the come-on quote at the beginning:

"Casting aside the failed experiment of suburbia in the United States, planners are looking back to age-old principles for guidance in planning a future with modern challenges."

It was written by a planner from.... Dallas, Texas.

And it got me to thinking: A lot of what needs to be happening in the next, say, 20 years is a re-building of our suburban areas. We do need smarter suburbs. We need to make it easier for people to walk or ride their bikes for local trips in their neighborhood, as well as to get to the local transit stop. Even if we can't get street connectivity in most places in the suburbs for *cars*, we should be thinking more about retrofitting suburbs to provide through-connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists. Even if this means using a little bit of eminent domain here or there, it would be worthwhile if the end product were a really good suburban grid of bicycle/pedestrian paths that connected every street in every neighborhood with every neighborhood center and important destination, just like you would get in, say, Portland's eastside with its regular street grid. Except that the grid would mainly apply to bike/ped, and cars would be stuck with the 1950s-style suburban street system that already exists.

The difference would be that there would, in theory, be fewer cars and more bicycles & pedestrians on the suburban bike/ped network.

The image at the top of this post depicts a path built between two houses allowing students to walk or bicycle to a local school from their cul-de-sac.

Update, 2:30pm March 28th:

Over at Portland Transport, another commenter asked:

"some people like living on isolated, car friendly, suburban, dead-end streets.

"Actually, I am going to guess most people like that kind of living. Why change it?"

This is a very good question, and I'm glad that you asked. Even though the quote calls suburbia in general a "failure," I think there are a lot of people who rather like it.

My great-aunt, for example. Lives on a cul-de-sac out in Hillsboro.

But you know what? At the end of the cul-de-sac is the entrance to a bike/ped path. This path connects with other paths. They lead all throughout her subdivision, and connect her with other, important destinations like... the community swimming pool, and other cul-de-sacs. Oh, and her niece, who lives on another cul-de-sac that would be about 8 blocks away driving, but is only about 300 feet on the path.

What I'm talking about is to expand this type of path system, which is often found within many suburban developments, such that the paths connect up with one another to form an actual, use-able ped/bike path "grid" that not only connects within each neighborhood, but connects to other important destinations such as the neighborhood commercial center and transit stop.

Would this decrease how much people liked living on their quiet, dead-end streets?


Would it make them any less quiet or dead-endy?

No, unless you happen to be riding a bicycle (pretty quiet, all things considered) or walking (also a rather quiet activity).

But, could you then ride your bike or walk from your quiet, dead-end street to the local transit stop, video store (ooh, how 20th century), grocery store or pub?


Without needing to drive your car.

Your nice car can then sit in its nice garage and save its nice $3.50/gallon gas for a more important trip.

Does this represent a fundamental change to "that kind of living"? I don't think so. Just a minor enhancement, maybe the addition of something that should have been there all along, that's all.


onlineguy said...

I have long thought transportation is key to improving conditions in the U.S. - not from a mega-corporate spoonfed myopic "do it this way because it's the only choice we offer you" POV but (as I interpret some of your themes) out of a sense of shared social responsibility (for a cleaner environment and less-crazymaking, more-affordable and -comprehensive system of transportation). One way to help in this effort is to hold government employees at ALL levels responsible for doing the right things and maintaining extant systems (for which we already pay taxes). Keep up the good work and strong ideas--thanks!

Garlynn Woodsong said...

Another comment worth re-posting here:

Garlynn: "It's certainly a lot easier to retrofit an existing neighborhood to add paths than to add streets

Commenter: "I think that is correct. And I think adding paths is a good idea. But there is resistance when you try to do it. There are also a number of places in Washington County where cul-de-sacs essentially end at berms that separate them from an arterial. The streets could be connected without taking out any houses."


Well, that's a good point. Where possible, a full street solution would be preferable, from the perspective of improving the grid. Maybe leaving some of the berm intact as a speed hump would be a good compromise solution...

But what about the question of new alleys vs. new bike/ped paths? What would be preferable?

- Alleys would increase the number of eyes on the street by allowing cars, and presumably more people would drive, walk or bike through the connection than would just bike or walk.
- Alleys could have speed bumps and would be necessarily narrow to keep speeds down
- Alleys would have to have a method for allowing vehicles and bikes/pedestrians to safely pass one another while traveling in opposite directions.
- Because vehicle motor noise is generally louder than bicycle/pedestrian noise, alleys could bring increased noise to a specific location

Pedestrian/Bicycle Paths:
- Could fit into a somewhat narrower space than ever alleys, because bicycles and pedestrians can pass one another while traveling in opposite directions with very little ROW requirements
- Produce generally less noise
- Have fewer eyes on the street, potentially, due to a lack of autos

I think design is very important here -- proper design (lighting, landscaping, presence or absence of street furniture like benches and trash cans, meanders, pavement type, grading, speed control devices, viewshed and views to/from neighbors, etc) can make or break the effectiveness of each new connection. If neighbors are fully involved in the design of each new connection (via a charette setting, perhaps), they could make their own path/alley/street decisions, and make other critical decisions that they would then feel a sense of ownership over.