Planning for People: A Step Back in History

I would like to follow-up on my Planning for People in Jefferson Park post and expand a bit on what it means to “plan for people”.

For at least the past 60 years, the architecture, planning and engineering professions have fundamentally changed the way they designed cities. Cities, a creation of the human race for over 8,000 years have grown organically – they tended to pop up in places of favorable geography, say a deep harbor, up river at a narrow crossing point, at the nexus of trade routes. Cities expanded organically, one or a few buildings at a time. Streets were footpaths and market lanes. As we’ve moved through the millenia, cities have spread based on transportation technology. Whereas, before 1850 and the advent of the omnibus streetcar, cities were of a walkable size, the technology of the streetcar powered by horse, later by electricity and then the automobile has enabled cities to expand far beyond their initial settlements.

ancient cities photo

The way cities were designed before cars. Florence, Italy. Source: Imulej @Pixabay.

 

Chandler, Arizona. Source: By Chris J [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why the brief history lesson?

My point is to emphasize that cities were built for people up to and until the time that the automobile became a mass-produced commodity that the middle class could afford. In America, this was shortly after World War II. Something radical happened around that time. To make up for severe housing shortages caused by decades of depression followed by war, we found a way to mass produce housing and to tailor it towards the convenience of the car. These design decisions became codified into our zoning codes, our engineering standards and our architecture practices to produce an endless arrangement of Chandler, Arizonas.

An Ending and a New Beginning

We have reached a point where that phase of city building is over. As Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns and others have documented (myself here), the Suburban Growth Ponzi Scheme has come to an end. And it has come to an end here in Jefferson Park as the first cycle of the suburban development pattern, consisting of structures built-in the 1940s – 1960s has largely passed its useful life. You see this crumbling along Milwaukee Avenue in Gladstone Park in particular. The five lane stroad serving only 20,000 cars per day, empty businesses and listless place. It is an area lacking in pedestrian and transit-oriented design, in placemaking.

A new beginning for planning for people in Jefferson Park means returning to the tools of city planning for designing places for people. It means taking advantage of the design features that will bring people to places. These design features include things like medium to high residential densities, mix of land uses, safe street crossings, 2-4 travel lanes, transit, street-oriented buildings and comfortable outdoor spaces. In the next series of posts, I intend to highlight how Jefferson Park can plan for people utilizing these design strategies.

A reboot is needed. One in which we get back to the ancient art of building places…for people.

 

Geography is Fun

Geography is fun.

I’ve been playing around in Google Maps. Here are two maps made locally for my Chicago neighborhood of Jefferson Park.

The first, a map of all parking lots in downtown Jefferson Park:

 

The second, a map of election results from the February 24, 2015 municipal election in Chicago. I’ve mapped the results of the 45th Ward, where I live, by precinct.

 

The purpose of these maps is to illustrate and illuminate discussion amongst my neighbors. I find data visualization to be helpful in that regard. In my neighborhood, we often talk about a parking problem, but as you can see in the first map, clearly there is no shortage of land devoted to the storage of automobiles.

The election map is not surprising to residents of the 45th Ward that follow politics. The Alderman, John Arena, has his base of support in the southwest, near the Six Corners intersection of Milwaukee, Cicero and Irving Park Roads. His challenger, John Garrido, lives in the northwest part of the ward and has a base there. I’ve found potential precincts that might be in play and those precincts are notable for the issues that have occurred locally there. This map does a decent job of highlighting all of that.

Cross-posted at ryanjrichter.com.

Planning for People in Jefferson Park

 

Recently there has been a surge of planning work being done in my neighborhood, the once sleepy corner of the northwest side of Chicago known as Jefferson Park. Several development proposals have been percolating through the planning process and a few have been refined enough to make it to the community meeting level where opposition to increased density is a given (interesting coming from a neighborhood with a population density exceeding 12,000 people per square mile). When it comes to roads – many people seem to like them the way they are.

And this is the problem, because Milwaukee Avenue, the main north-south commercial artery through the neighborhood, as it exists fails the community (as I have previously pointed out).

The problem is, even in urban communities, the discussion of cars (and parking them) takes all the air out of the room. It is a straw man, designed to distract from the real issue at hand – if you plan cities for cars and traffic you will get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you will get people and places.

Hence the Milwaukee Avenue road diet. This project was killed dead because it was so vociferously opposed by people in Gladstone Park. They argued the road diet would cause congestion, that it would eliminate parking and that it would negatively impact quality of life and economic development. This despite evidence to the contrary. The reality is that road diets are an excellent way to support economic development. With the safety benefits that come with it.

Milwaukee Avenue north of Foster Avenue struggles for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons is because of cars. They simply drive too fast for people to notice what business activity is there. Another reason is a lack of sense of place. Because Milwaukee Avenue doesn’t feel like a pleasant environment, people don’t want to be there. Have a look for yourself.

Conversely, this is a street that I think many people would like to be on.
View Larger Map


View Larger Map

Notice the difference? Lincoln Avenue is planned for people, not cars. And its businesses are thriving. But there is something else – and it is in the details. Look at the narrowness of Lincoln Avenue, the sidewalks, the trees, the setbacks of the buildings. It feels like an outdoor room. It feels scaled to people, not cars. And so there is a plaza on the left side and a sidewalk cafe on the right. This street has a sense of place that make people want to linger. And if they linger long enough they spend money…

Whereas, Milwaukee Avenue looks like a giant runway. It is not scaled to people but rather to cars. It does not have a sense of place in that people would want to spend time there. The vacant storefronts support that theory. In short, it is a weak, unproductive place.

If we want to build a strong Jefferson Park we need to look at planning for people and not cars.

New Beginnings

Today is a new day. A few weeks ago I announced my resignation as a transportation planner at Metra, the commuter rail agency in Chicago. Now I have started the next phase of my career as a transportation planning consultant with HNTB Corporation, working out of their Chicago office. One of the principal reasons for moving on for me was the opportunities that HNTB presented to build my career and nurture its development. Through no fault of its own, Metra is an operator of one very specific mode of transportation, and one that is largely built out. I now find myself working on plans for streetcars, bus rapid transit and light rail in a variety of cities around the country. Many of these projects are dynamic, providing new ways of increasing mobility. Understanding and planning for these different modes broadens my understanding of transportation planning while also working on modes that are very interesting, and challenging, to plan for.

 

Talking About Transit

Redefine-the-Drive-May_boulevard-detail-section

How does this station work? Is there signal priority for the streetcar? How does existing CTA bus service interact? All transit questions unanswered by this concept.

 

There is a right way and a wrong way of talking about transit. Specifically, when you propose an idea for transit service without mentioning the details. As a transit planner, I love details. Because transit costs money, and because it is seen by many as government largess, if you are going to responsibly discuss your transit ideas, the more fleshed out it is the more credibility you will have with both the public and the government agency that would likely run the system. The project in which I’m referring to is the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance proposal for streetcars along North Lake Shore Drive when that road is rebuilt. I attended a presentation [actual proposal here] by John Krause of Chicago Streetcar Renaissance at the Transport Chicago conference a last month where he laid out his vision for a streetcar (or LRT) running from downtown via Michigan Avenue north along Lake Shore Drive. The vision looks really nice. Many pictures of streetcars in European cities in urban areas at a smaller scale, and perhaps even more dense than the areas around North Lake Shore Drive. And while I was sucked into the grandeur of it, the transit planner in me awoke with these questions:

  1. What is the actual route (from end to end) of service? It’s great to see cross-sections of North Lake Shore Drive, and I’m aware that the streetcar is proposed to travel down North Michigan Avenue and Sheridan Road, but what are the limits? Are there branches of service, particularly at the ends of the route?
  2. Which current CTA bus routes, if any, will this new streetcar service replace?
  3. What is the frequency of service and hours of service? Since you propose to replace many of the buses along Lake Shore Drive with streetcar service, I am wondering if the service plan accounts for headways of 1-3 minutes in the peak period. If so, then…
  4. Where to do you plan for the vehicle and crew facility? Particularly since land is at a premium downtown and along the lakefront.
  5. Will the streetcars have traffic signal preemption?
  6. How do you anticipate at-grade street crossing effecting scheduling?
  7. Could bus rapid transit provide a similar level of service for less cost?

I am not saying this project is a bad idea, by any means and I am receptive to reducing North Lake Shore Drive from a limited access expressway to a boulevard of some type with transit running alongside (or in the middle). But when you propose a new mode of transit, one in which there is no legacy network to tie into, then these types of questions are appropriate. That said, I applaud the efforts Mr. Krause has made to thinking about North Lake Shore Drive differently, and putting his efforts into a concept to show an alternative way of thinking about this corridor. But the pictures are too pretty and now we need to get to the hard part. The system design and analysis.

So, as a transit planner what would I do?

I would flesh out my concepts a little better first, making sure the streetcar is feasible from a physical, operational and market standpoint. That is, addressing the questions above and developing a service plan to compare with existing CTA bus operations. Then I would really figure out a way to pay for it.

What would you do with North Lake Shore Drive?