European Tram

Urban Experts Offer Salient Advice

I’ve started listening to a few podcasts again. I took a hiatus for a couple of years after everything I listened to post-November 2016 all turned into world-on-fire rants, even podcasts that had nothing to do with politics.

One of the series I’ve picked up recently is “Talking Headways” (part of The Overhead Wire blog), which has an extensive library of episodes. (I wish I discovered this podcast much sooner than last month!) Host Jeff Wood has conversed with a number of urban research, design, and transportation professionals on various topics over the course of the series. In the past week, I’ve listened to four of these episodes (some recent, some over a year old), featuring discussions with Alon Levy, Christof Spieler, Jarrett Walker, and Alexander Stahle. While each of these individuals focused on their own areas of expertise, the underlying theme in these episodes was population density and designing urban environments to serve this density. A few things of each episode caught my attention.

Alon Levy

Levy, who has extensively researched transit construction and operational costs, addressed how U.S. transit systems are far more costly compared with those in other developed countries, something he wrote about for CityLab last year. He noted how many U.S. policymakers and transit planners fail to examine best practices from Europe and Asia. One particular element he is critical of is the U.S. aversion to the “cut and cover” method of building underground transit stations, in which crews take over several city blocks at a time to dig and construct the subterranean rail lines and stations. While cut and cover is still used outside of the U.S (I witnessed a project myself when visiting Copenhagen), U.S. planners generally use the “deep bore” method of tunneling well below city surfaces, so as not to disrupt daily life at the surface level. Deep boring has its merits, but it’s also far more costly than cut and cover (as evidenced by the New York’s 2nd Avenue Subway).

Levy had an interesting comment about urban density and the value of cut and cover. To paraphrase, with the cut and cover method, he said businesses would be disrupted for one or two years while heavy construction occurred right outside their doors. However, once the project is completed, these businesses (provided that they’re still in business) would be located right next to a transit station, and what business wouldn’t want to be near all of the foot traffic inherent with transit ridership? For the businesses, it would be a short-term hardship of construction to gain a long-term benefit of continual transit customers.

Christof Spieler

Spieler had a similar comment about urban density and proximity to stations. Pointing out several times how “transit is easy” but there aren’t enough transit advocates, Spieler explained how routes are not optimized for transit. This is the underlying theme of his recent book, Trains, Buses, People, which examines transit systems in nearly 50 U.S. cities, where many systems have inadequate layouts to match population centers. In one example, he discussed how Denver’s tech hub is the largest employment center outside of the city’s downtown. It’s next to an interstate, but instead of making the rail extension connect directly with the tech center, the city decided to put the extension on the opposite side of the highway, thus hurting walkability and discouraging people to take transit to the location.

Spieler addressed how this is an issue within transit systems nationwide, indicating that what happens within a 1/2-mile circle perimeter around the stations affects the success of the station. But if planners/policymakers locate the station by a 1/4- to 1/2-mile in the wrong location (such as farther away from an employment center), municipalities get a “very useless station” instead of a useful one. Although initial transit plans might include the most optimal routes, public and private objections lead to eventual changes. When new projects come up, planners seek to have the minimal amount of objections to initial plans. On point, Spieler echoed an axiom for planners/policymakers: “If you don’t have objections to a transportation project, then doing something wrong.”

Jarrett Walker

This brings me to the very eloquent-speaking Walker, well-known for his book (and website of the name) Human Transit. He said that during his career as a transportation advisor, he’s had many instances in which everyone seemed to be in agreement on things. However, he also indicated that nothing meaningful ever got accomplished when he would tell policymakers and transit agencies things that they wanted to hear. So he changed tack and began giving municipal and agency leaders a reality check on all of their transportation problems. Obviously, that’s not something they want to hear, but he has found that more problems can be solved by getting straight to the point of the issues rather than trying to please everyone. Smart advice for any industry. Specifically, when it comes to urban planning, in Walker’s words, it doesn’t make sense to design an urban environment for “a minority population” (aka, wealthy people whose sole transportation mode is the car).

Walker also pointed to another problem that municipalities have to regularly deal with: fear. It’s human nature, said Walker, to be fearful of places you’re not familiar with, and the same goes for density and transportation. This is apt for people either visiting cities, or people in moderately urban areas but are against transit expansion or new, large multi-unit building developments. We all know who they are; maybe you’re one of them! It’s natural for everyone to be a NIMBY, or at least to have significant fear, especially the hustle and bustle of the big, diverse city for those who don’t live it on a daily basis.

I was somewhat surprised by Walker’s forgiveness of fear-forward people and NIMBYism when it comes to the big city, considering his advocacy for smart urban development. But, as public transit is to serve the whole populace, including visitors from outside the city, it is great that he is deeply aware of the perceptions of city and non-city dwellers. Planners/policymakers need to acknowledge others’ innate fears and work to show that there is nothing to worry about. That’s quite a difficult goal to achieve. But by designing smart urban settings that: 1) are inclusive of all people, from residents to daytrippers, 2) are built for density, and 3) encourage walkability, biking, and public transit usage, there will be a better sense of community among strangers rather than fear.

Alexander Stahle

I’ve read about the “fear” element before, particularly with “towers in the park.” Conceived by French architect Le Corbusier, these are large urban residential high-rise blocks with large setbacks and separation between each other. As a result, there’s a psychological community gap between buildings, as the green space at ground level is often considered intimidating rather than inviting. To many Americans, these developments are associated with urban housing projects. But they can be found in some form on every populated continent, particularly dense cities. 

I mention towers in the park because the fourth expert I heard was Swedish urban researcher and designer Alexander Stahle, who commented on such residential buildings in Stockholm — and how they are just as panned in Sweden as they are elsewhere. In fact, he emphasized that despite Americans’ general perception that Sweden is some urban planning utopia, in actuality, the Swedish metropolitan areas have the same sprawl and NIMBY issues as we do in the U.S., even if it’s less evident to outsiders. I was somewhat surprised to hear this, particularly after witnessing first-hand and living amid so much efficient planning/policies across Europe (as well as hearing Levy’s comments about the Europe-U.S. differences as noted above). But this makes sense, as large metropolises worldwide, no matter how uniform they may appear, undoubtedly have residents with differing mind-sets regarding urban design and policies.

Regardless of the differences, Stahle referenced his firm’s own data-driven research on what urban planning elements correlate the most with housing prices and office rents. His team ran a regression analysis that looked at 1,000 different input factors related to things like urban amenities and design. They discovered that accessibility to public transit was far and away the most statistically significant factor, explaining 70% of the differences in office rental prices. The numbers were similar for housing prices, as well. They ran the same model using factors for car accessibility and found no significance in the model. In other words, offices and houses close to public transit are higher in demand (and therefore higher-priced) most likely because they are close to public transit. On the opposite side of things, offices and residences near robust road networks have no price premium compared with those that have lower car accessibility. I’ve anecdotally noticed similar price discrepancies in my own housing searches over the years; it doesn’t matter if your home is close to a busy road for your car, but if you’re looking to live within a couple of blocks from a CTA or Metra station, then prepare to pay a premium.

Improving Urban Environments

As with any industry or trade, there is always room for improvement. Levy, Spieler, Walker, and Stahle point out just some of the many areas that policymakers and planners are faltering or have the opportunity to right past wrongs. That’s essentially their jobs: to help point out and resolve urban planning problems. Maybe it’s convincing businesses of taking a long-term view, as noted by Levy; working with developers to locate transit stations in optimal locations, as noted by Spieler; designing urban spaces to accommodate density and differing mindsets, as noted by Walker; or understanding the demand for public transit and building more offices and residences in proximate locations, as noted by Stahle. These aforementioned individuals are just a fraction of the professionals working and researching such issues (and their comments I highlighted above are just a fraction of the full conversion in the podcast).

The collective effort to make improvements to urban-related issues has been growing significantly in the past decade. More people outside of the planning and policy fields are tuning in to how broader planning and policy decisions affect their daily lives. Still, a lot more work has to be done, not simply to just educate people so that they become more interested, but to also break the habits of previous poorly conceived policies that still resonate today. How to change the mind-sets might be as passive as an ad campaign. Or it can be aggressively active such as enacting new policies that force people to change their mind-sets as the urban environments around them comply with the new policies. It’s up to the municipalities to choose which approach to take. To reiterate what Spieler (and to an extent Walker) said: If no one objects to your plans, you’re doing something wrong.

Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

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