December 28, 2005

Yes, Buyers Want Mixed-Use, Smart Growth Projects

So often you hear sprawl advocates say that American homebuyers want to buy homes in suburban sprawl communities, where it's impossible to walk anywhere and the main visible neighborhood feature is huge garage door after huge garage door. And in fact, some do. But many do not; and developers who are brave enough to buck default sprawl zoning can be amply rewarded. In San Jose, Calif., for example, "the mixed-use pedestrian-friendly Santana Row complex on a former strip-mall site some three miles southwest of downtown San Jose enjoys such demand among mostly young and wealthy home buyers that the Maryland-based builder, Federal Realty Investment Trust, is selling its 219 condos at record prices of up to $525,000 for 700 square feet, $1.45 million for 2,200 square feet, and $2.5 million for 3,800 square feet, with fewer than 60 units left," according to Smart Growth News, summarizing a report in the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal.

The project's success "has proven out that people want to live in a community where they don't have to get in their cars all of the time," Federal Realty's chief investment officer Jeff Berkes told the business journal.

The complex includes a 214-room hotel, cinema and more than half a million square feet of high-end stores and restaurants.

One major issue: Will the success of this project hurt San Jose's downtown core, where, the business journal notes politely, "the downtown experience overall is much grittier than Santana Row."

December 27, 2005

Big Box vs. Walkability

Toledo, Ohio is running into a major conflict between planners' vision of a pedestrian-friendly village for the Westgate section of the city and Costco's desire to build a store in the area.

"Mayor-elect Carty Finkbeiner ... urged Costco Corp. and the plaza's owner to look nearby for an alternative site for the big-box store," the Toledo Blade reports. "The store and accompanying smaller buildings run contrary to the 'shopping village' concept advanced two years ago by "Walk Westgate," a consultant's report that suggested reconfiguring streets and allowing denser development to support small businesses and a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere."

Note that Finkbeiner isn't trying to turn Costco away, but hoping they'll look for a site in the city that's better suited for such buildings. A representative of the plaza responded that the Costco will be built keeping Walk Westgate principals in mind.

Interesting how the debate there has shifted to what types of stores and development will best create a walker-friendly village atmosphere, instead of still arguing whether such pattersn are better than sprawl. I wonder if there's any chance planners will get to that stage when discussing development along Rtes. 30 and 9 in Framingham/Natick....

December 25, 2005

Open Space

What open space truly enhances its immediate surrounding community? In thinking about such space here in Framingham, the village green in Framingham Centre is at the top of my list. Easily accessible to nearby residences, stores and Framingham State College, it's often used for concerts and other events, as well as informally by people playing football or frisbee when the weather's nice. That's the best test for how well designed such spaces are -- how often are they used?

Even though it's surrounded by reasonably well-travelled roads, the green is an oasis that's well integrated into the community. And one reason it works so well is the architecture around it. Although several of the buildings are set back a bit from the road, they're not set back so much as to feel completely cut off from the green. Instead, the doorways and windows are quite visible from the green -- there are many "eyes" facing that public space. That's important for people to feel comfortable using the space for casual neighborhood activities (as opposed to a park's natural setting for specific nature recreation like hiking and bicycling).

If the same space was tucked away surrounded by fences, blank walls and huge parking lots, I don't think it would have the same inviting feeling.

"Open space" as part of the planning process is a great idea, but it's not simply the quantity of square footage left unbuilt upon that's important - it's also quality. There's a bit of "open space" around the redesigned Shoppers World, for instance -- I'm guessing it might be wetlands -- but that space doesn't really add much to the project. In fact, if anything, it just makes it more difficult for pedestrians to get there from anywhere else.

December 22, 2005

Town Green Planned For N.J. Mall

Preliminary plans for a new Bethlehem Township, N.J. shopping center will include an outdoor "town green" gathering place, according to the Express-Times. The cynic in me says 1) I guess towns without real public town centers need private industry to manufacture and simulate them, and 2) that sounds a bit like the old Shoppers World, and I wish we had something like that incorporated into the hideously pedestrian-hostile current Shoppers World.

Now that I got that off my chest, though, I do think it's encouraging that private developers are thinking about public space. Assuming the space really is developed with walker-appeal in mind, and not simply plopped amidst a network of traffic sewers where nobody would actually want to walk.

"Possibilities for the green include a venue for a farmers' market and a band shell for outdoor concerts. The developer plans to include a fountain or carousel in the space," the article notes. "Rather than a traditional shopping center, [developer spokesman Dehan] Glanz said the goal is a return to an 'old style,' with pedestrian-friendly streets and a 'downtown' feel."

Pity no one thought about the outdoor pedestrian streetscape in the Natick Mall redevelopment...

December 18, 2005

‘We Don’t Really See Our Neighbors So Much Anymore’

What happens when small towns on the fringes of a major metro area turn into exurbs, with new homes being built in sprawling car-centric subdivisions? In Frisco, Texas, "older residents note a subtle change in the pattern of life as subdivisions spread and people spend more time in the car," the New York Times reports in a feature on some Dallas exurbs.

"We don't really see our neighbors so much anymore," Richard Kinnunen, a resident since 1993, told the Times. "We all drive into our back alleys and into our garage, and that's that."

In addition, lengthy commuting times makes it more difficult for many working residents to get involved in community activities.

No surprise. Many residents move out to the edges looking for larger homes and lot sizes, as well as the ever popular "good schools."

You can't make these exurbs closer to cities. You can build them in ways that include enough retail and commercial activity so some residents can find jobs closer to home. You can also make sure that the new development patterns don't emphasize - no, require - the use of an automobile to get anywhere or do anything. There's no reason these communities can't be built in ways that allow SOME things to be done on foot. No, every kid won't be able to walk to school; but new schools tend to be built set back so far from other developments that NO ONE can walk to them. That leads to needless additional traffic, and a reduction in quality of life for everyone.

December 15, 2005

Suburban Dining

Globe West focuses on suburban dining today, with the rather silly premise that it's oh so surprising you can get a decent meal beyond the city limits. Duh. Apparently the author is unaware of how common it is for great restaurants of the world to be outside urban areas. In France, for example, there are 10 Michelin 3-star restaurants in Paris, 1 in Lyons, 18 elsewhere. In Germany, one in Dusseldorf, five elsewhere (none in Berlin or Frankfurt; one NEAR [but not in] Munich).

Anyway, while the article discusses city/MetroWest differences in pricing, interior ambiance and style of service, one thing that's missing is neighborhood atmosphere. Author Erica Noonan mentions Wellesley's "village-style" town center as a plus, but doesn't articulate the reverse problem of some suburban spots: pulling into a strip mall does take something away from major special occasion dining. I love Maxwell's 148 in Natick, one of the restaurants profiled in the piece -- its service is truly exceptional, and the food is excellent as well. But for a milestone birthday or anniversary, it's a letdown to walk in and out of a nondescript strip mall parking lot. Without question, walking down Newbury Street to the Public Garden before or after dinner makes an evening more special; but even going to Blue Ginger in Wellesley, a storefront on the "village-style" street, is better than a detached, set-back strip mall.

Some places can use a non-urban location to great advantage, like the Wayside Inn with its beautiful location and grounds. If you're not a diehard foodie, exterior ambiance does matter to an overall "special evening out" experience.

December 13, 2005

True Test: How Important Are Pedestrians in Your Community?

There's nothing like a snowstorm to highlight whether walking holds as important a place in your community as cars. Unfortunately, in most suburbs the results are painfully disappointing.

I'm pretty confident that sidewalks in Manhattan are clear enough to be passable a day or two after a snowfall. In a city where more than half of workers take public transportation to the office, it would be unthinkable to clear the roadways but leave walkways unusable. Likewise, I'd bet that sidewalks in front of Newbury Street stores in Boston are reasonably walkable.

Here in Framingham, though, it's pretty random. Some sidewalks are cleared off, but many others aren't. The ones assumed to be used by kids walking to school are often eventually cleared off after a storm. Around the Speen Street office buildings, you can usually get from your building parking lot to your office. But if you want to take a lunchtime walk, be prepared to walk in the snow-narrowed streets and risk being sideswiped.

As I ranted in a MetroWest Daily News op-ed piece last year, this is completely unacceptable. Nobody relies on property owners to clear the roads in front of their buildings in order to allow cars to pass. It's not right to do so for walkways. Taxpaying pedestrians should not be treated as so unimportant. Walking around in winter is NOT an optional activity. Local government should be providing the same snow-clearing services for pedestrians on public sidewalks as they do for drivers on roads.

December 11, 2005

‘Designing the Village’

Thanks to reader Josh Ostroff for pointing out this interesting project in Westport, Mass.: Designing the Village, an effort to "to promote a sense of community and safe pedestrian access in Central Village." While tactics such as installing "street furniture" and public art along with improving sidewalks, pathways and street lighting to boost walkability, what intrigues me is the organization behind the effort: the Westport Arts Council.

Clearly, simply adding outdoor art and some benches is not enough to turn a pedestrian-hostile environment into a walker-appealing one (as Boston's City Hall Plaza makes amply clear). But it's cool that an organization focused on aesthetics is looking at the full package to create a better sense of place for those on foot.

December 10, 2005

Fun of a Walkable Neighborhood

After yesterday's Worst Commute Ever, the last thing I wanted to do today is get in a motorized vehicle of any kind. So, my husband had to go to the grocery store -- I got stuck yesterday right by Stop & Shop, and don't really want to see that intersection again just yet (preferably not until spring). But I was able to walk to the Pinefield shopping center and pick up some wine to go with the dinner we're making tonight.

As I was walking, I saw some neighbors out clearing driveways. I saw kids playing in the snow. I saw geese flying overheard in V-formation -- something I couldn't have stopped to enjoy if I'd had to get in my car to run the errand.

And, I saw this:

Horse-drawn cart in the Pinefield neighborhood

How fun is that! Turns out the local Ace hardware store is running rides around the neighborhood. I walked by Hometowne Hotdogs, and it was mobbed inside because Santa was visiting. The Amazing Things Arts Center is readying for a jazz concert tonight.... all within a 15-minute walk of the house. I felt a lot better about my neighborhood than I did yesterday :-)

Ah, if we were building the new library in Saxonville.... if there could be a small grocery store in the shopping center again that I could walk to ... and a bakery in Pinefield where you could pick up fresh bread every morning....if there was a cafe up at the sidewalk, with landscaped outdoor seating so you could watch the passers-by, and a good buffer between the sidewalk and the traffic.... it would be close to perfect. For now, though, it feels a lot better to me than some sprawl-plagued subdivision where you can only walk for recreation or exercise, not to actually GET anywhere besides other houses.

Farewell Filene’s: The Homogenizing of America?

Globe columnist Robert Kuttner mourns the passing of Filene's as another symbol of the homogenization of America. I'm not so sure.

Like Kuttner, I'm unhappy that every shopping center in America is starting to look like every other one. Shopping areas in Florida, Kansas City or Alaska are becoming barely distinguishable from those of Massachusetts, and that's unfortunate. Travel is simply less interesting if you see too many of the things there are back home.

But Kuttner is awash in nostalgia in claiming "Filene's is in a special category" of retailer as a local institution. 21st century Filene's was part of the homogenization problem, not a solution.

Worst. Commute. Ever.

I know this is a tad off topic, but I feel an undeniable urge to vent about my drive home yesterday in our surprise miniblizzard-within-a-moderate-snowfall.

Hey, I live in New England. I know the roads get bad in winter (and late autumn. and early spring.) . I've skidded, slid and been trapped in gridlock way more times than I can count. My car's been stuck plenty of times in various parking lots and my own driveway. But in 25 or so years of winter driving in New England and upstate New York, I was never actually stuck in the middle of a road because of heavy snow...until yesterday.

It was just the little hill at the corner of Old Connecticut Path and Rte. 126. But many other cars got stuck there too. When it was my turn to try going through, I passed three other cars littered along the roadway ... and couldn't make it around the corner either.

After much effort, I finally did turn onto 126 and get my car over to the side, so at least the other cars backed up endlessly could make their own attempts. Then, I was only about 2 feet away from the passable part of the road -- but try as I might, I couldn't get there.

Step 1: Get out of car and and try clearing the snow around the wheels and under the vehicle. Step 2: Get back in, rock back and forth, move a little. Get stuck again. Step 3: Repeat steps 1&2. This went on for about an hour. I called the police to tell them it was a dangerous situation (with cars skidding by right and left, I'm very fortunate no one hit me). They said they could call me a tow truck. I said never mind, I'd call AAA - hahahahaha. Line endlessly busy.

Finally, an incredibly kind guy hopped out of a private truck and offered to help push. He tried valiantly, making some progress...eventually, three other Good Samaritans materialized and joined him, and got me back on the road. I was too afraid to stop the car and say thanks, fearing it wouldn't start again or I'd get hit by someone .... but I am deeply grateful to those gentlemen. ... and to my neighbor across the street with his new snowblower, who came over and cleared out our driveway since I couldn't get my car in to park and leave it. Extremely unpleasant experience, made a lot better by the kindness of friends and strangers.

December 8, 2005

Philadelphia: Neighbors Help Condo Tower Makeover

Here's an interesting response to the problem of government planners falling down on the important job of ensuring pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.

It wasn't planning officials in Philadelphia who are responsible for revising a proposed condo tower that originally shaped up to be "500 feet tall ... hunkered like King Kong atop a nine-story garage podium that was so unpleasant, it would have sent pedestrians scurrying across the street. Those garage decks would have spewed exhaust into the apartments at the Penn Center House, a few feet away on JFK Boulevard," writes Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron. "Fortunately, the design for 1919 Market Street was subjected to early intervention by neighborhood activists. ...

"Most of the parking will be tucked underground or heavily camouflaged. There will be bright shops facing both 20th and Market Streets. The tower has been pushed to the site's Market Street side so residents of Penn Center House will still see glimpses of sun."

How did those changes occur? Saffron notes that "the city Planning Commission played no role in the condo tower's makeover. All the design changes were pushed by volunteers from the Center City Residents Association and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association over several months. The story has a happy ending because the developer, Opus East, responded constructively to the criticisms."

But how could residents - even highly motivated residents - come up with practical ideas to improve a poor design? Partly because "they had already articulated clear urban-design values. They knew that above-ground parking podiums cast a pall over the pedestrian realm and divorce the tower's residents from the surrounding city. They agreed that Market Street between 19th Street and the Schuylkill River, where the city's sleek office corridor runs out of energy, needs lots of sidewalk activity.

"But the civic groups also had the benefit of professional advice from Kise Straw & Kolodner. The CCRA hired the design firm last year because it felt that city planners were unable to provide any meaningful help with the staggering amount of development being proposed for Center City."

Typically, neighborhood groups turn to professionals (usually attorneys) when they're trying to keep development out. Here, they paid professionals to help make development better.

December 5, 2005

‘Rating the Suburbs’ - Kansas City Star Gives it a Shot

The Kansas City Star has attempted to rate major suburban communities around K.C. for "quality of life," picking its winners and losers on issues such as crime, education, housing, lifestyle and sense of community. Not being familiar with any of those suburbs (although I have been to Kansas City itself), the specific ratings didn't interest me much; but I was quite intrigued by the scoring system they used. And I have a few disagreements.

December 4, 2005

‘Zoned Out’

I'm in the midst of reading a review copy of Zoned Out by University of Michigan associate professor Jonathan Levine. I agree with the premise: "Municipal regulation that zones out th ealternatives to [suburban] sprawl is neither a preordained state of nature nor the free market's invisible hand, but a governmental decision to constrain market processes. As such, it does not deserve the 'default' status it has attained in debates over transportation, land use, and metropolitan development."

The fact that people are buying McMansions in the suburbs doesn't mean that's all they'd buy. People are also buying condos in the cities -- in fact, per square foot, condos in desirable Manhattan and Boston neighborhoods are pricier by far than most suburban homes. And people are clearly buying single-family homes at a premium in more densely populated, traditional town centers in suburbs like Wellesley and Concord. When almost 9 in 10 people in a Better Homes and Gardens survey said they value walkable neighborhoods when buying a home, it's fallacy to say that pedestrian-hostile, auto-centric sprawl is in fact Americans' default desire. If it's a lot tougher for a builder to create pedestrian-friendly cluster neighborhoods than cookie-cutter subdivisions, of course they opt for the latter.

Likewise, of course people don't want to use public transportation if it's inconvenient, unreliable, infrequent and unpleasant. That doesn't mean people won't use it at all. When I worked in Newton Corner and needed to go to Boston, I took the express bus - less than 15 minutes door to door, it was usually faster and less of a hassle than driving. From north Framingham, though, I never want to use the train -- the drive to the train station is about one-third of the distance to simply drive to Boston, but it's not heading toward the city; there's then parking and waiting, and about an hour's trip with endless stops. And off rush hour, there might as well not be trains at all, if they're running every 3 hours. Why can't there be an express bus on the same convenient schedule as Logan Express, but going to downtown Boston? But I digress....

Levine argues that "pervasive government intervention" and not free market forces has "mold[ed] U.S. metropolitan areas to a sprawling development template."

In one survey of developers, half in Mid-Atlantic and more than one-third in the Northeast believe that at least a quarter of their market is interested in "alternative" development patterns to conventional sprawl. Yet more than 86% of developers in the Northeast said there was not an adequate supply of alternative development housing in existing and new construction. "Few respondents [except in the South Central U.S.] saw lack of market interest as an obstacle, but an overwhelming majority of respondents viewed local regulations as a significant obstacle.

It seems that zoning, not "market forces," help explain suburban sprawl.

December 3, 2005

Oh, the Irony…

"Japanese automaker Mazda Motor Corp. is recommending its employees walk to the office, rather than drive, to improve their health and protect the environment," AP reports.

Actually, good for them for understanding that just because they manufacture automobiles, they don't need to do everything in their power to make people HAVE to use autos for everything all the time. And that it's still important to get out of your car once in awhile. It's a pity that U.S. auto lobbyists don't seem to have the same outlook, and can't seem to understand that cars will still be important even if we make communities that are more attractive for walking, cycling and mass transit; and that it's OK to accept sharing the road and planning for all.

November 30, 2005

Daytime Populations Changes in Massachusetts

OK, I've done some more testing and all appears to be working now: I've posted a sortable chart of data about daytime (i.e. commuting and living/working) population trends in Mass. cities and towns, based on U.S. Census data.

The chart is at

Some tidbits:

Almost one-third of employed Framingham residents also work in town. Marlboro is very close to that. Maynard, once the home of Digital Equipment. Corp., is now at 17%. And Bellingham is just 8.3%.

Framingham's daytime population rises 14% compared to its full-time residential population, while Marlboro's is up 37%. Bellingham's slips 2.1%, while Northboro's drops 10%.

Cars, Pedestrians Co-existing: Beacon St, Brookline vs. Rte 30, Framingham

As I was walking and driving on Beacon Street in Brookline today, I again marvelled how a street with 3 and 4 lanes of traffic in each direction - a pretty major east-west thoroughfare in that area, in fact - manages to be so pedestrian friendly. Especially when later in the afternoon, I was both walking and driving on Rte. 30 in Framingham, disheartened that on a stretch of roadway with fewer lanes than Beacon Street, it was unpleasant to walk and much more difficult to cross.

Here's why.

Center City Sensibilities

Warrenton, Va. resident describes describes going for coffee at a local (not chain) shop, going to the bank, returning a library book, mailing some letters, getting a haircut, and generally "wandering around" town where he can "can window shop to my heart's content and admire the classic architecture of Old Town. Not once did I get into my car.

"It is this very mix of private and public uses I encountered that are, by definition, center city sensibilities. They are what make Warrenton as authentic a place -- dare I say 'rural urban village' -- as one will find anywhere."

Alas, he points out in the Fauquier Times-Democrat, most suburban communities around Washington, D.C., "are built around the calculated separation of venues and complete reliance on the automobile. "

Sound familiar? There are pockets of walkability in Boston's western suburbs as well, but we've got way too much housing where residents can't walk to destinations; and retail centers that no one can walk to from anywhere except a parking lot. And the newer the development, the more likely it is to skew auto-only, unless a conscious decision is made by planners to encourage mixed-use neighborhoods and walkability. Mixed-use doesn't always have to mean apartments over stores, but it does mean blocks where stores and homes are well integrated, as opposed to having strip malls surrounded by asphalt oceans.

November 27, 2005

The Key To Successful Lifestyle Centers

"In 20 years, lifestyle centers will be the failed malls," predicts Eric Fredericks at Walkable Neighborhoods. Why? He believes "they are no different from regular malls. The key to successful lifestyle centers is to integrate with the existing neighborhoods, or to incorporate the right balance of housing and activities for residents to make it sustainable."

I couldn't agree more about the importance of integrating "lifestyle centers" into the surrounding neighborhood, so nearby office workers as well as residents can walk there. That's the crucial component in creating a community with sense of place instead of soul-less suburban sprawl.

Outdoor malls are nothing new. In fact, we had outdoor malls before the indoor enclosed ones - locally, open-air Shoppers World was built before the enclosed Natick Mall. The key to "lifestyle centers" is that there's supposed to be attention paid to making an attractive pedestrian streetscape and ambiance, instead of simply having open-air space for getting from one indoor location to another.

By definition, a walkable streetscape should include a way to walk to and from various destinations - the "park once, walk-to-multiple locations" ambiance I believe suburbs should be striving for. It's an admirable but long-range project to get more suburbanites out of their cars altogether so they go from home to work & shopping by foot, bike or public transit. But it's a much easier task to have them park at one mall and let them then walk to nearby stores, hotels and restaurants. You don't have to change density patterns much, but rather re-think how buildings and parking are designed and sited.

I'd add that it's equally important to integrate enclosed malls with the surrounding neighborhood. That's been done successfully in malls like CambridgeSide Galleria, on a city block, where the food court includes both indoor and outdoor sitting, and the outdoor seats are along a very nice walkway with waterview; as well as Copley Place in Boston, where it's at least reasonably possible and appealing to walk between the mall and neighboring Back Bay retail district. It's how malls and local business districts can not only co-exist, but enhance each other; and it's how you make a livable, pleasant streetscape. And it's why I'm so disappointed with current plans for the Natick Mall expansion, where new condos may be well integrated with enclosed shops, but residents will be effectively cut off from the surrounding community unless they get in their cars. They won't be able to walk to nearby office buildings and other destinations such as the cinema. What a missed opportunity to improve the Golden Triangle.

November 24, 2005

Beta: Sortable Database of Daytime Population Changes for Communities in Massachusetts

Which communities have an influx of people during the day? Which "bedroom communities" empty out during working hours? In between cooking side dishes for Thanksgiving, I've been working on posting a sortable database of the numbers from Massachusetts. I haven't finished testing and checking it yet, but if you want to take a look at the beta, it's at Daytime Population Data for Massachusetts Communities. Click on a column heading to sort by that stat.

Data is from the U.S. Census Bureau's recently released Daytime Population Analysis for communities throughout the country. A number of local media outlets reported on the results (see for example Globe West's Some Towns Empty Out During Day and MetroWest Daily News's Many Area Communities Serve as Daytime 'Home' to Workers). But what fun are Census numbers online if they're not sortable and interactive?

November 23, 2005

I’m Thankful For…

...many things this holiday eve, including health, family, friends, my home and so much more. But specifically in the Livable Communities arena, I'm thankful for:

* The express bus from Newton Corner to Boston. Less than 15 minutes and, traffic permitting, you zip from an inner suburb to Copley Square - a rare case where local public transportation is indeed faster and more convenient than driving. Ah, if only such a bus could run to downtown Boston from Framingham, similar to the Logan Express.

* The new Amazing Things arts center in Framingham. For the first time, Saxonville residents can actually walk to good live entertainment.

* Garden in the Woods. A jewel in our community, the botanical garden is a beautiful place to stroll away an afternoon.

* Newbury Street, the North End, Public Garden and other highly walkable neighborhoods of Boston, proving that a city can have a strong economy (if real estate prices are any indication) AND pedestrian appeal.

* Coolidge Corner, Brookline. Where major auto roadways, trolley line and pedestrians manage to co-exist in harmony.

* Concord Center and the nearby Old North Bridge. Proof that a "suburb" doesn't need to be high-density urban in order to have a soul -- and a walker-friendly downtown.

* The Stapleton elementary school, Saxonville. Saved from closing by an override vote a couple of years ago, it's the North Side school that's best integrated into a surrounding neighborhood business district.

* MWRA aqueduct trails. Well, I'm not so thankful when inconsiderate dirt-bikers roar through them, ruining things for everyone else who wants to enjoy them (not to mention all the abutters); but otherwise, these peaceful places where residents can walk, jog, ski and snow shoe without vehicular interference (even if technically there are no trespassing signs up).

* Sichuan Gourmet, Oga's, Gianni's and other top-notch ethnic eateries. What fun is a neighborhood without great food?

* The Framingham Premium Cinema. Well, from the outside it's a pedestrian-hostile nightmare -- how I wish it was located in the midst of a neighborhood business district so you could walk to it, like the cinema in Waltham! But while pretty pricey, once you're inside, it's such a civilized way to watch a movie -- leather seats, loads of legroom, stadium seating so you can see the whole screen even if a Boston Celtic is sitting in front of you. And once you factor in the free soda and popcorn, it's not really alarmingly more than regular full-price admisison.

Happy Thanksgiving!


November 19, 2005

Metro Detroit Leaders Eye More Mass Transit

"Late last month, to everybody’s surprise, the Oakland County [Mich.] Board of Commissioners, by a near-unanimous vote, approved a resolution urging the county to much more seriously consider spending at a similar magnitude on a regional public transit system [as on road contruction and widening]," writes Keith Schneider at the Michigan Land Use Institute in Metro Times Detroit, a weekly "alternative" newspaper, reports.

It's hard to miss the symbolism of government officials in the heart of America's auto industry concluding that the region needs public transportation as much as it needs ever more and wider highways. After all, it was the 20th century lobbying of that same auto industry that was one factor in generating enormous public funding of road infrastructure compared to funds for mass transit. (Did you know that in the early 20th century, there was a trolley line running through Framingham from Worcester to Boston? In 1931, the B&W trolley line was replaced by Route 9.)

Kami Pothukuchi, who teaches urban planning at Wayne State, sees "geography and the economy in confrontation" in the Detroit area, Schneider says. "The very same conditions that fostered Detroit’s decline and the rise of suburban sprawl — cheap energy, inexpensive land, rising incomes and massive government spending for roads and water systems — have all been transformed. Gasoline prices are rising fast. Road construction costs have gone out of sight. Incomes of working people have fallen for five straight years. Government deficits drain public spending on infrastructure.

"The urgent issue facing everybody in southeast Michigan is whether these are temporary trends. If not, Pothukuchi says, it might be time to ask whether metro Detroit should follow the lead of a number of competing regions and embrace a new economic development strategy," he notesAt the top of Pothukuchi's list: creating convenient, efficient and safe public transit networks - which, ironically, existed in the Detroit area a century ago.

"Is a policy designed more than 60 years ago — one that gives short shrift to alternatives — flexible and creative enough to keep the state’s economy and quality of life competitive in this century?" Schneider asks. It's the same question we need to be asking in eastern Massachusetts. Encouraging better development patterns around existing mass transit stations is one way to better use the transportation resources we already have, but we need to be doing a lot more to better balance public funding between roadways for private vehicles and mass transportation.

November 17, 2005

Mixed-use Multi-Family Housing in Lincoln?

Lincoln, Mass. - the upscale town where residents sometimes asked that potholes be kept in their roads to discourage added traffic - may be getting condos along with an expansion of the Mall at Lincoln Station, the Boston Globe's West Weekly reports. The mall's owner is considering adding 16 to 24 units to plans for phase 2 of the expansion (the 10,000-square-foot phase 1 would be commercial/retail only). Such a plan would require Town Meeting approval.

Wow, you'll know walkable "mixed-use" housing/retail developments are becoming a formidable high-end trend if one comes to Lincoln. I briefly covered Lincoln as a reporter for the then-Middlesex News (now MetroWest Daily News) in the early '80s, and to say that the town wasn't interested in adding a lot of commercial activity or high-density development is somewhat of an understatement. Lincoln is a gorgeous town, and residents tend to be fiercely protective of its rural character (although at the same time, Lincoln is substantially farther along in offering "affordable" housing than most nearby wealthy communities, reasonably close to the state-desired 10% level).

Some suburban planners still dislike mixed-use, believing it somehow impinges on the 50-year-old vision of the American Dream -- which somehow morphed from "owning your own home" to "owning a house in a suburban housing tract where there's no possible way to walk anywhere except to other houses - and even then you wouldn't want to because the neighborhoods are so car-centric and pedestrian hostile."

However, others view mixed-use as a return to more traditional neighborhood development along the lines of historic New England village patterns, where it was indeed possible for some residents to walk to local stores. It will be interesting to see how this project proceeds in Lincoln.

November 13, 2005

San Bernardino Plans Walker-Friendly, New Urbanist Development

"Between sprawling subdivisions, packed freeways and shops crowded into malls, the City of San Bernardino (Calif.) is planning a development that will combine homes, offices, shops and artists' studios in the same neighborhood, emphasizing walking instead of driving,"according to the Press-Enterprise.

"Times have changed," James Funk, the city's director of development services told the paper. "People want work flexibility. They want to work at home. They want to live near their work. They want to walk to shops."

Times have indeed changed, and an increasing number of people value walkable neighborhoods with a sense of place, instead of car-centric strip-mall corridors like Rte. 9. It's also why almost 9 in 10 people said pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods were very important to them, according to a Better Homes & Gardens survey -- more than said large rooms or a big yard. Alas, such changes haven't seemed to make their way to many local officials overseeing the Golden Triangle. But I digress....The San Bernardino mixed-use developments still need city approval. " Elsewhere in Southern California, whole cities have been organized around new-urbanist architectural ideas, including dense development, a mix of residential, commercial and office uses and walkable street plans that discourage driving within the community," the Press-Enterprise notes.

November 12, 2005

Another Pitch For Narrower Streets to Breathe Life Into a Downtown

"When is a downtown not quite a downtown?" asks Jason Hardin at the Greensboro (N.C.) News-Record. "Maybe when some of its roads look more like highways than main streets."


"Many streets are wide, multilane routes with one-way traffic. This tends to encourage higher speeds. And that, in turn, helps to make roads such as Market, Eugene and Edgeworth streets and Friendly Avenue unpleasant to walk along," Hardin notes.

He points out that streets with one lane of traffic each way and on-street parking gave cakner traffic, making a more pleasant walking environment. For some reason, that's a concept many planners today haven't yet grasped. Either that, or they're purposely designing traffic sewers and think it's fine to make a pedestrian-hostile atmosphere.

It takes great care to make a good walking environment when you've got multiple lanes of traffic each way going along at a fast clip. It's not impossible, mind you - Commonwealth Avenue in Boston's Back Bay comes to mind. But look at all the walker friendly design that's gone into that boulevard: most notably, the gorgeous, linear park along the median; but also plenty of buffer (including trees) between pedestrians and cars, and street-scape friendly architecture with varied building facades (instead of one long wall) and plenty of bay windows looking out onto the street.

In fact, unlike Framingham (where the goal seems to be to make our major shopping thoroughfares ever wider for increasing lanes of cars, graduating from simply unpleasant-to-cross to downright life-threatening), Greensboro has already done a "major makeover" on one street, East Market, "that converted it from a six-lane artery to a much more pedestrian-friendly street," Hardin says. "A similar project is under way on Greene Street, which will go from four lanes of one-way traffic in parts to a lane in each direction."

If you want a business district with strolling shoppers and a sense of place, you can't have highways running through them.

November 9, 2005

Montgomery May Revamp Zoning To Allow For Traditional Neighborhoods

Livable-community advocates have long complained that "modern" zoning codes usually outlaw the kind of building patterns that create some of the nation's most popular neighborhoods. Places like Boston's Back Bay, with their emphasis on pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, would be illegal under zoning codes that require large building setbacks, minimum off-street parking lots and separate uses (i.e. no condos above the trendy shops).

But some cities and towns are re-examining their zoning regulations, trying to allow the return of traditional neighborhood patterns instead of car-centric, soul-less suburbs. Mongomery, Alabama, is the latest:

"Some aspects of popular and aesthetic Montgomery communities -- such as Cloverdale and the Garden District -- would be illegal under city zoning drafted decades ago, but there is a movement to update those and adopt smart code," the Montgomery Advertiser reports.

" 'It will allow for newer neighborhoods to be created in the mold of old neighborhoods such as Cloverdale and the Garden District and provide another option to cookie-cutter subdivisions that are primarily automobile-oriented,' said Chad Emerson, professor at Faulkner University's Jones School of Law.

"Emerson helped draft the code for the city. The code promotes walkable communities with more public green space and a variety of houses and businesses located close to one another."

November 8, 2005

Walk ‘n Mass Volkssport Club Sponsors Framingham Walking Tour

Tourists walking around Framingham to see the sites? That's not simply a "someday dream" of mine; it's on the schedule this weekend as the Walk 'n Mass Volkssport Club sponsors 6- and 10-km self-guided walking tours this Saturday, Nov. 12. How cool is that?!

If you want company, meet at 9:30 am at the Dunkin' Donuts on Franklin Street and Mt. Wayte Avenue. If you want to do it yourself, details are posted on the club Web site.

Prior events have included walks in Duxbury and on Cape Cod.

What's Volkssport you ask? "A volksmarch is a non-competitive 6 mile (10 kilometer) walk," according to the American Volkssport Association. "It's not a pledge walk, it's not a race, it is a fun activity you do with a club, with your family, with your pet, or all by yourself. Volksmarching got its name from its origins in Europe. Today there are thousands of volkssport clubs around the world, allied in the International Volkssport Federation, the IVV."

Happy walking!

Mass. Smart Growth Grants

The state last week doled out around $1.5 million in grants to help communities with smart-growth and other planning issues. Alas, Framingham didn't make the list (I don't know if the town even applied), but a number of other Boston-area communities did:

* Brookline received $30,000 to create redevelopment plans for three sites in walker-friendly Coolidge Corner.
* Needham also got $30,000 to plan a downtown mixed-use district; Quincy also received $30,000 for a downtown "vision plan" and "design guidelines."
* Somerville received $27,850 to help it prepare a District Improvement Financing application for Union Square.
* The MAPC got $60,000 to assist Hopkinton, Ashland and Southborough in planning for land that Weston Nurseries is selling, including a "community planning process" and suggested zoning changes.

You can see the complete listing of this year's Smart Growth Technical Assistance Grant awards here.

November 5, 2005

Another Outdoor ‘Lifestyle Center’: Lehi, Utah

Although you'd never know it from the conventional, pedestrian-hostile expansion now underway at the Natick Mall, outdoor walker-appealing shopping centers are the current trend in retailing, as consumers increasingly seek the experience of strolling somewhere with a sense of place. This is especially true among retailers hoping to cater to more upscale shoppers (such as the Natick Mall will be doing in its half-century-old format of enclosed mall surrounded by a sea of asphalt).

The latest incarnation of that trend is in Lehi Utah, where "developers plan to build a pedestrian friendly mall twice the size of Salt Lake City's Gateway shopping center and bordered by 8,000 houses," KUTV in Salt Lake City reports. "The 150-acre development, dubbed Terrace at Traverse Mountain, will be an 'outdoor lifestyle center' with up to 150 upscale shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, the partners said." Average annual household income within a 15-mile radius of the planned center was about $87,000 last year, KUTV notes.

November 3, 2005

500 Atlantic Avenue Solution

I'm not sure why there's a brouhaha over the sidewalk in front of the planned new hotel at 500 Atlantic Avenue. Developers want to divert the sidewalk so there's pull-up valet parking, while walking advocates want an unbroken sidewalk as part of the Rose Kennedy greenway. But there's an easy solution - do both.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Hilton in midtown Manhattan does just that, using parallel sidewalks with a drive-up between them. Here's what it looks like:

Sidewalk in front of New York Hilton

The shot on the left shows that there's plenty of room for taxis or private cars to pull up and drop off passengers, and there's a sidewalk in front of the door. The shot on the right shows that there's also a continuous sidewalk, interrupted only by the driveway (which isn't as massive as it appears on the photo).

Pedestrian-appealing non-diverted sidewalks CAN co-exist with pull-up valet parking. It just has to be designed properly. It's already been done.

November 2, 2005

You’re More Important Than My Car

My parents' neighborhood doesn't have brick sidewalks, faux gas lamps or sidewalk cafes. But their neighborhood in an inner suburb of New York is extremely walkable nonetheless, and that's due to more than the presence of sidewalks, fairly dense development/small lot sizes and actual destinations you can walk to (local stores).

Those all help, of course. But the design of the homes and blocks also goes a long way toward making a walker-friendly streetscape.

Streets are relatively narrow - when cars are parked, traffic has to slow down. The nearby artery road has one lane of traffic each way and a wide buffer between sidewalk and cars.

Homes are fairly close to the street, and windows face invitingly to the sidewalk. Many have front porches where people can (and do) sit to watch the neighbors walk by. You feel like you're walking in a neighborhood, and there could be friendly eyes on the street watching.

And, in design from a bygone era, most garages are not attached to the houses presenting huge car entryways to the street, but are tucked farther away in back of the homes. Even two-car garages in such designs don't negatively impact the ambiance, because often the driveway is one vehicle-width-wide at the sidewalk, and then opens up to be wider behind the house.

It's hard to overstate what this does to improve the appeal of a streetscape to a pedestrian. It all but shouts: Your presence walking by my home is welcome! Your sensory enjoyment is more important to me than where I park my vehicle!

Huge 2- and 3-car garages built up at street levels, with doorways in some cases even closer to the sidewalk than the house itself, usually give quite a different - if unintentional - message: This neighborhood is built for the drive-up convenience of my vehicles, not for you.

November 1, 2005

Last Night’s Walkable Neighborhood Test

Are there a lot of kids in your area? Were there a lot of trick-or-treaters at your door last night? That's a great test of how walkable your neighborhood is.

To be fair, it's probably best to average out over a few years - in the same spot, some years there can be a horde of kids and other years not so many. Weather can make a difference; so too can competing events (like a big school Halloween party) or local customs. But if there are kids around and they generally do want to go trick or treating, whether or not they come to your block is a good test of how walkable your neighborhood is.

As the New York Times noted in an article about some blocks in Cold Spring, N.Y. that traditionally attract hundreds of kids throughout the community:

With new housing sprawling across the Hudson Valley, parents and children want a neighborhood where you can actually walk around, rather than hiking from two-acre lot to two-acre lot. No one can claim McMansion neighborhoods were designed for trick-or-treating. And with safety an issue for parents in a way it was not for their own parents, having one street, section of town, condo project or whatever become Halloween Central has a definite comfort-zone appeal.

Yet another way that McMansion neighborhoods are affecting traditional neighborhoods - now those living in traditional areas have to buy extra candy for the McMansionites. (That's along with suffering the traffic those neighborhoods dump onto our roads because residents of non-walkable neighborhoods have to drive everywhere. And when there's more residential housing going up without nearby commercial services to support it, or any kind of jobs nearby for residents, that means those people are always driving through other communities to get to work, etc.)

If it doesn't feel comfortable trick or treating, it probably doesn't feel comfortable walking anywhere.

October 29, 2005

Walkable Manhattan

With its towering skyscrapers, congested traffic and acres of concrete and asphalt, theoretically you might not think of Manhattan as a pedestrian paradise. But in fact it's one of the greatest urban walking environments in America, and not only because of density of population combined with difficulty in driving/parking.

The Manhattan streetscape is extraordinarily interesting, with countless intriguing and unique shop windows designed to attract the passer-by on foot. Even the street vendors, whom some city officials complain hinder walking activity by taking up valuable sidewalk square footage, actually help the pedestrian environment by offering more points of interest aimed at appealing to walkers.

Blocks are varied, windows are close to and looking out at the street, there's usually a good buffer between pedestrians and traffic (on-street parking works for this) -- and ironically, the fact that traffic generally crawls through Manhattan makes the walking environment even better. The faster multiple lanes of traffic are whizzing by, the more of a barrier you need between pedestrians and the roadway. And you're almost never walking by acres of parking - real estate in Manhattan is simply too valuable for that. Nor are buildings set back so far that they divorce themselves from the streetscape.

There are numerous destinations within walking distance, and a robust public transit system to get countless other places. Many new buildings are required to have public space within them, offering yet more potential destinations.

Oh, and I doubt zoning rules in Manhattan allow for hotels to co-opt the sidewalk for valet-parking purposes.

If you haven't heard, there's a controversy brewing over hotel plans at 500 Atlantic Avenue in Boston, where developers plan to break up the sidewalk along the post-Big-Dig Greenway in order to allow drive-up valet parking. UGH. The advocacy group WalkBoston has been involved in trying to get the plans reconsidered, supported by an editorial in the Boston Globe:

The Rose Kennedy Greenway above the Central Artery tunnel will never live up to its promise as a promenade and pedestrian connector between downtown and the harbor if its design does not invite walkers. Making sure it does has been a goal of state, city, and community group planners from the beginning. That is why it is so disappointing that the city has gone along with a hotel's request for a parking pullout at its entrance that would force pedestrians to detour around idling cars and under the building's portico as they make their way on Atlantic Avenue.

There's an extremely easy solution to this issue, which you can see at the Hilton hotel on 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue in New York -- two parallel sidewalks, one for the pedestrians walking down 6th Ave., and another for those getting out of taxis or private cars. I'll try to see if I can get a photo of it sometime before I head out.

October 26, 2005

From Contaminated Steel Mill to Trendy Urban Address

"The opening of Atlantic Station's retail and entertainment district Thursday will be the final milestone marking the nine-year trajectory of a project that transformed a former steel mill into one of the region's hottest addresses," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month. "On land where barrel hoops were made in 1901, more than 1,000 people now live a short hop from Midtown's trendy restaurants, the funky shops on Huff Road and attractions in downtown Atlanta. On the exact site where the old steel mills spewed hazardous wastes, bank executives and lawyers peer from their office tower at a movie theater and shopping district."

Atlanta is often held up as one of the nation's worst examples of sprawl. However, Atlantic Station was designed to be a "pleasant place to walk," the article notes. "...[T]he retail district is laid out in a grid pattern, with wide sidewalks and narrow streets passing brick buildings lined with glass windows that let people gaze inside the shops. Parking is in underground decks, so streets should be mostly free of vehicles." Ah, that all-important attention to a pedestrian-friendly streetscape!

Widening and landscaping a bridge was also part of the development deal.

And while it is a largely upper income neighborhood, one-fifth of the residential units were reserved for the middle class, and some stores like Ikea are affordable for average wage-earners.

The transformation of an industrial site to mixed-use residential and commercial appears to have been good for the city's treasury. "The site paid about $300,000 a year in property taxes when it was a steel mill," the Journal-Constitution notes. "This year, it will pay about $8 million, and payments are expected to reach up to $25 million a year in 2010."

October 25, 2005

Improving Suburbia

If you missed it, Globe West Weekly had a piece last week on Tearing Down the Walls That Separate Us, focusing on ways to make suburbia more friendly and less isolating. Focusing on Dave Wann's book Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, reporter Kristen Green outlines a broad range of Wann's suggestions, such as getting out and introducing yourself to neighbors, creating a neighborhood newsletter, or more radically tearing down backyard fences to make large common spaces.

The issue of neighborhood design is absolutely critical to making friendlier neighborhoods. If people are always out and about walking, and other people's homes are near the street with windows and front porches facing the sidewalk, interaction is going to be a lot more likely. Kristen interviewed me for over half an hour for the story, although none of my design comments made it into the piece (fortunately, the director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance is quoted discussing this critical issue). But I'm glad one important point of mine made it in there: You don't have to completely give up your privacy in order to achieve better neighborhood design, whether we're talking about private yards or density of development.

Sure, there could be more optimal density and usage mixes. But we can start right now with the uses and densities we have and make better neighborhoods, by simple changes to how buildings are designed and sited. Put the "strip malls" up to the sidewalk with parking in the rear, make a more appealing streetscape with buffers between traffic and walkers as well as variations of how windows front the street (think the bay windows along Newbury Street in Back Bay instead of one long boring flat wall), and you'll have a much more appealing suburban street for pedestrians. Make front yards an attractive part of the public streetscape and you can still have private yards in the back.

October 24, 2005

Sacramento State ‘University Village’ In Works

A University Village featuring mixed-use housing, community center, shops and restaurants is planned for a 25-acre site near Sacramento State, the college's faculty and staff newsletter reports:

The concept features a “Main Street” with shopping and restaurants on the lower level, loft-style apartments above and a tree-lined esplanade down the center. ...

The Village will also be designed to limit the need for faculty and staff to drive to campus. A planned bike- and pedestrian-friendly extension of Ramona Avenue would go from campus across Folsom to the new Village development. And the University’s planned Bus Rapid Transit line route would be designed as a direct link between the campus and the village.

It's a great disappointment that there is no such bustling pedestrian-friendly village around Framingham State College. The closest to that would be Framingham Centre, which is a less-than-pleasant walk across Rte. 9 from campus. And while it's great there's a pedestrian bridge over Rte. 9, that bridge dumps you off in front of the street feeding onto Rte. 30, which is still a difficult route to cross on foot.

It's just not a well-integrated whole. And even more disappointing is that there's not a walker-friendly village center right on Union Avenue at the campus.

Framingham State isn't a rural, pastoral setting that requires being separated from the rest of the town. Not every university can spawn a Harvard Square environment, but there are plenty of examples of better synergy between campus and surrounding streets than what we have in Framingham.

October 19, 2005

Tips for Pedestrian & Bicycle Advocacy (conference coverage cont.)

Representatives from MassBike and WalkBoston wrapped up today's Moving Together 2005 conference breakout sessions with some suggestions on how to best advocate for better walking and cycling environments.

For pedestrian issues:

Sponsor local guides walks, whether featuring community attractions (history, nature, etc.) or issues walks focusing on things that need to be done. "Get people excited about walking," advised Wendy Landman, executive director at WalkBoston. Note: Despite its name, the group lobbies on statewide issues and offers advice and expert comment on projects and programs outside the city of Boston. They're willing to help other communities figure out how to help put together walks that will appeal to local residents.

Produce local walking maps. Show people available community resources - even something as simple as working with major employers to show workers where they can walk to on their lunch breaks.

Get Central Transportation Planning Staff assistance for a community walkability audit (alas, I couldn't seem to find any Framingham officials willing to request such an audit this year in town. But there's always next year.)

Include walking as part of local festivals and other events (such as the historic walks as part of Discover Saxonville).

The goal here is to get more people enthusiastic about walking - and thus interested in improving the pedestrian environment.

Likewise for cyclists, MassBike's Dorie Clark suggested working with local bike shops, offering training materials to local police department on bicycle laws and sponsoring bicycling classes.

People often become activists because of "negative conditions," Clark noted; and when people call asking how they can get a trail fixed or roadway improved, "the answer is sometimes a little scary and offputting" -- issues of jurisdiction, funding and legal requirements can sap the enthsiasm of potential citizen advocates. MassBike needs to work to help their volunteers feel productive and that they're making a difference, she said.

It doesn't take too many calls and letters on most issues to make an impact with local officials and legislators, Clark said, urging people to get involved in big-picture state issues as well as local concerns. When she worked for a legislative office, five calls and letters could often be enough to bring an issue to the forefront.

As for the state of pedestrian and bicycle advocacy in the Commonwealth, the two pointed to some recent advances such as MBTA plans to buy bike racks for buses, federal money for safe routes to school programs and creation for a Mass. bicycle and pedestrian advisory board (the first time we've had one in more than a decade). "The government has really been making progress," Clark said.

MassBike currently has about 1,600 members -- an all-time high -- while WalkBoston has 600 members (I suspect the number would be higher if more people understood that the group was a state-wide pedestrian advocacy group and not merely serving Boston). A member of the audience today expressed frustration that the various advocacy groups did not have as strong a presence and force as they should, considering the large numbers of cyclists and walkers in Massachusetts. The two responded that organization officials regulary talk and cooperate on issues. And, a relatively new local group, the Livable Streets Alliance, is aiming to get various advocacy groups to work together.

Some additional Web resources:

America Walks

National Center for Bicycling and Walking

Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center

Walkability Case Study: Springfield Walks (conference coverage continued)

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has branched out from its initial mission to work on Springfield (Mass.) Walks, a program to "make it easier, safer, and more enjoyable to walk in the Springfield area."

The program, still in its early stages, aims to create an interpretive walking trail and a linear park throughout four neighborhoods in the Mason Square area of downtown Springfield.

The interpretive trail would be something along the lines of the Freedom Trail - one where you don't need a brochure to find your way, but can simply follow an existing trail. Planners envision using sculpture and other art from local artists to point out important sites, instead of simply conventional markers; and seeking input from the neighborhood as to features they'd like to highlight. There will also be health information, highlighting such things as distance walked on the trail and what benefits that brings.

Why was Springfield chosen? It had one of the state's highest rates of cardiovascular disease, three possible rail corridors (one existed already as a trail project needing work), an existing and active Springfield Health Coalition including about 80 organizations (around 20 active regularly, from local organizations to the American Heart Association), a lot of walking groups and church organizations interested in physical activity, and a low-income minority community that could greatly benefit from such an addition to the community, Betsy Goodrich from the Rails toTrails Conservancy told an afternoon session of the Moving Forward 2005 conference going on now.

The Link Between Sprawl and Health Issues (conference coverage cont.)

B.U. will soon be publishing a paper showing that on a sprawl index from 1 to 100, the risk of obesity goes up about a quarter of a percentage point for each 1 point increase in a region's rating, Boston University research assistant professor Russ Lopez said this morning. (To give you an idea of how the index works, New York City is rated 5 while Atlanta is a 90).

Local factors also make a difference. In a study of eastern Massachusetts "from Worcester to the ocean," he said, the built environment from zip code to zip code makes a difference - even controlling for other factors such as age and education.

If there's a supermarket in your zip code, for example, you're 20% less likely to be obese. If there are a lot of intersections in your neighborhood - a sign of street connectivity and continuity - you're less likely to be obese. And, not surprisingly, the more time people spend in their cars, the more likely they are to be obese.

One of his most interesting points came during the question and answer period, when he made this intriguing remark: Homes and neighborhoods built before 1975 tend to be substantially more walkable than those built afterwards. "That's when we went over the cliff," he said - he's not sure why - and tilted overwhelmingly toward auto-centric planning at the expense of walkable communities.

Impact of Community Design and Transportation on Health

"Driving," says Boston University School of Public Health research professor Russ Lopez, "is bad for your health."

I couldn't agree more!

Speaking right now at the Moving Together 2005 conference in Boston, Lopez added: "Technology is not going to solve the basic problem of driving." Sure, it could help pollution problems, but is "not going to solve the problem of people sitting doing nothing and getting stressed out."

Of course, pollution from auto emissions are a critical public health issue. It's a key contributor to smog, which accounts for 400,000 asthma attacks, 1 million other respiratory problems and 15,000 premature deaths annually. Emissions aggravate everything from respiratory and cardiovascular disease to cancer; there's also the problem of global warming.

But cleaner-burning vehicles won't solve the critical problem of declining activity since we're spending so many more hours in our cars. Incredibly, in the last generation, we've gone from taking 66.9% of our trips by car and 10.3% byfoot in 1960, to a whopping 87.9% of our trips by car in 2000 and only 2.9% by foot.

In fact, Americans use cars for between 82-93% of our trips. In many other developed countries with high standards of living, percentages are much lower: Germans use cars for 48% of their trips, British 45%.

In U.S., 25% of all trips are under 1 mile, yet 75% are made by car.

Is it any wonder that 25% of Americans are obsese and one-third are overweight?

[more to come]

October 18, 2005

Mass. Pedestrian/Bicycling Conference Tomorrow

I've taken a day off from work and am signed up for tomorrow's Moving Together 2005 conference in Boston, "people from across the Commonwealth working to improve bicycling and walking conditions locally, regionally, and statewide."

Workshop topics I hope to attend:

  • Building Healthier Communities: The Health Impacts of Transportation and the Built Environment

  • Springfield Walks: A Collaborative Community Effort to Promote Physical Activity and Health

  • Identifying and Mobilizing Local Bicycling and Pedestrian Advocates

I'm not sure if I'll be dragging my laptop into town, hoping to use the Marriott Courtyard Tremont Business Center during breaks, or waiting to write it up tomorrow evening, but I do hope to have plenty to report.

Reminder: Any of the following URLs will work for this blog

October 16, 2005

Roanoke Downtown Plan Has New Urbanist Imprint

New Urbanist consulting firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. recently sketched out ideas for Roanoke's downtown that include adding outside balconies to buildings, putting farmers market stalls in a structure running down the center of a main street "like a spine," and turning the anchor market building "inside out, so the existing enclosed food court restaurants would face the outside, complete with new glass doors so dining activity could be seen from the street,"the Roanoke, Va. Times reports. "The renderings and initial ideas for a spruced-up downtown were drawing rave reviews late in the week."

The ideas are all aimed at creating a more vibrant pedestrian streetscape, as opposed to a downtown center designed primarily for cars, and a special sense of place that will draw people there.

While some worried about having enough parking, planner Tom Lowe said an attractive enough downtown would make people willing to park in garages or on the fringes of the downtown business district.

As I've said before, a downtown business district can never compete with a mall for easy access and plentiful acres of adjacent parking. However, few malls can compete with a great downtown business district for sense of place and appealing pedestrian streetscape. Going to the Natick Mall is simply a different experience from going to Newbury Street or the North End in Boston. Spending an afternoon in Concord Center is different from an afternoon at the Burlington Mall.

Downtown business districts shouldn't try to mimic the mall experience; they need to exploit what makes them attractive, dramatic and appealing.

Do Zoning Codes Make Sprawl Inevitable?

"Many of Connecticut's developers and designers would love to create sociable, dense urban communities with open space set aside in perpetuity, a practice generally known as New Urbanism," writes Chad Floyd, a partner with Centerbrook Architects and Planners, in the Hartford Courant. "Unfortunately, there are many obstacles - the biggest, baddest and most entrenched of which are the state's antiquated zoning codes, which make sprawl all but inevitable."

Floyd notes that some communities purchased entire zoning codes from third-party companies such as MuniCode, which supplied simiar regulations to many other towns across America. "This is but one of many ways the character of our special places erodes," he argues. "Eventually every place begins to look like every other place. ... Sprawl in Connecticut is advanced almost every time somebody pulls a zoning permit."

Case in point:

In my town of Essex, as in most Connecticut towns, it would be impossible to use the town's zoning code to build anew the very hometown Essex citizens love. Few aspects of urban density that make Essex village special are allowed by the town's zoning code. In a new Essex, buildings would be too far apart, and they would be placed too far from the sidewalk. There would be too much space around each building. Houses would be too far back from the water. The streets would be too wide, and houses wouldn't be tall enough to have the elegant proportions of those built in the 18th, and especially the 19th centuries.

Would most Massachusetts suburban zoning codes allow Concord center and its surrounding neighborhood to be built as it is? I doubt it.

There is usually "knee-jerk, negative reactions" to proposals for more dense neighborhoods, Floyd says, which are dispelled "only after tremendously involved presentations have been made. ... We have a very long way to go to relearn the art of making sociable, humane neighborhoods."

October 15, 2005

Details Matter

Hundreds of planning professionals are in Biloxi, Mississippi this week, working on recommendations for rebuilding areas of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. The goal: Not simply reconstruct, but improve.

New urbanism pioneer Andrés Duany, who is spearheading the sessions at the invitation of Mississippi's governor, emphasized the need to un-do some errors of the past decades. "People know that this took a wrong turn somewhere," Duany said, according to the New York Times. "People know this has become honky-tonk, and this is the chance to get it right. ...

"This place has lost its neighborhood structure over the last 50 years. This is a chance to rezone it ... so people can walk to the corner store, kids can walk to school."

The task is formidable, covering 11 communities severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina; and time is short, since some rebuilding efforts are already underway. "Among the other issues being considered here this week are how to integrate the behemoth casinos that line the coast with the neighborhoods they share; how to create small-scale, high-density streets so that poor people with limited access to cars can meet their daily needs; and how to build hurricane-resistant structures that are not prohibitively expensive," the Times notes.

But planners are focusing not only on grand designs, but small yet critical details such as parking, building setbacks and landscaping. "There are the kind of trees that support retail," Duany said. "You plant the wrong tree, people won't shop, because it blocks the signage."

Whether you're looking at rebuilding entire communities or just a single home or business, those details matter.

Drive-Through? Not Downtown

The Lincolnwood, Ill. Plan Commission has wisely recommended against drive-through windows in its downtown business district, even via special permit. Such facilities have a negative impact on creating a pedestrian-friendly streetscape, officials concluded - and not only because they encourage people to stay in their vehicles.

"The facilities require additional curb cuts for driveways that cross sidewalks to provide access to the site," Village Planner James Cox told the Lincolnwood Review. "This not only creates additional vehicle conflict points with pedestrians, but it also breaks holes in the continuous building facade of the downtown street, creating open gaps and a streetscape which is less appealing to pedestrians."

Ah, lucky Lincolnwood, to have planners who understand the importance of aesthetics in creating a walker-friendly streetscape. There's a lot more to it than simply assuring the presence of well-maintained sidewalks.

October 11, 2005

When Boosting Traffic Flow Kills Off Your Downtown: West Palm Beach

"In the 1980s, community leaders in West Palm Beach, Florida, did everything they could to promote a high level of service for motor vehicles," the Active Living Resource Center notes in a short case study. "The result? Cars sped through the downtown area without stopping. People with a choice moved out and businesses closed. Vacant buildings and lots became a hotbed for drug dealing and prostitution."

City planners had taken actions like widening lanes for cars by narrowing sidewalks and eliminating on-street parking, as well as synchronizing traffic lights to speed traffic through downtown. Great for creating traffic sewers; not so great for creating a sense of place where people want to come, stroll, shop and linger.

It's a classic mistake of downtown revitalization: After looking at what helps suburban malls succeed, local officials think that designing easy-as-possible access, optimal traffic flow and maximum parking will help a neighborhood business district. But downtown business centers can NEVER compete with suburban malls in those areas. Instead, such actions help destroy downtowns' chief asset, a pedestrian-friendly sense of place. After years of decay, West Palm Beach planners finally understood that.

Over time, a new vision for West Palm Beach emerged, one that recognized that thriving cities are built for people. The city narrowed its streets to slow the traffic, widened sidewalks, and added amenities for pedestrians. Businesses returned, and private investment increased. Residents began to choose to come back into the downtown area.

West Palm Beach now has a thriving downtown and is considered a desirable place to live, work, and shop.

"The City of West Palm Beach has adopted an innovative approach to transportation planning, with an emphasis on traffic calming. This has helped stabilize and revive the downtown and several older, challenged neighborhoods. The intent is to reestablish the quality of life and improve resident and visitor perception of the built environment," says a presentation posted on the U.S. Conference of Mayors Web site, one of several traffic safety best practices. I love this quote from Mayor Graham:

Urban streets can be safe and friendly if and only if the streets are designed to physically and emotionally foster apt behavior by all their users. Conventional engineering theories be damned, the true test of success for urban streets is if a child pedestrian can independently get there from here safely and pleasantly. Unfortunately, most urban streets fail by design.

This is an important cautionary tale as Framingham officials begin investigating the possibility of depressing Rte. 126 under the railroad tracks downtown.

October 9, 2005

Curbing Growth Through A Water-Hookup Moratorium

For more than three decades, Bolinas, California "has refused to authorize a single new water meter, needed for hooking up to the town water supply," the New York Times reports in quite a fascinating article on an unusual way of controlling growth.

The meters have become so valuable in the town, 20 miles from San Francisco, that one was recently auctioned off for $310,000. That's right, $310,000 just for "the right to hook up to the municipal water supply." Money went to the nonprofit Bolinas Community Land Trust.

The moratorium is a somewhat extreme solution to the basic conundrum faced by communities around San Francisco, New York, Boston and other cities where home prices have cracked the stratosphere: Is there any way to create affordable housing AND maintain a non-urban quality of life when demand for housing so severely exceeds supply?

October 5, 2005

Concrete Processing Plant Sought For Framingham

Boston Sand & Gravel is attempting to open a Concrete Batch Plant next to a conservation land on Old Connecticut Path in Framingham, according to an e-mail I receieved today.

The site, at 597 Old Connecticut Path, "is in close proximity to the Oaks Neighborhood and its many families and residents, Reardon Park, the Cochichuate Rail Trail, an Cochichuate Brooker Reservation conservation land and water. The property also abuts a residential zoned area." The special permit calls for "a 75-foot tall silo to house their hazardous concrete dust, concrete block borders, and heavy machinery," the e-mail says.

If true, very bad idea, and I hope the special permit is denied. As it is, there's a delicate mix of office space and residential in that area, and there's going to be a heavy increase in traffic nearby as the Village of Danforth Farms and its many hundreds of new residences come online. Adding heavy industrial activity to the area is unwise. Appealing mixed-use zoning does NOT mean sticking a concrete factory next to a residential neighborhood and conservation land.

October 2, 2005

Missing In Most Of Suburbia: An Outdoor “Third Place”

When it's a gorgeous autumn day in suburbia and you want to spend the day outside, what do you do? Where do you go? If you don't want to hang out in your own backyard or head out for a nature day hiking or a sports activity, what are your options? Where can you head to, to enjoy the day and just BE, in a public place with some family or friends?

I'm talking about what's known in planning circles as a "third place" - besides your home and your job, a third place where you can regularly and reliably go to spend time. To many, the ideal is something like those places portrayed on TV shows such as Cheers or Friends (the Central Perk coffee shop). But communities also need outdoor "third places" to have that sense of place, that soul, that make some cities and towns so appealing and others feel somewhat sterile.

For me in Framingham, it's often the beautiful Garden in the Woods, a wonderful place to take a hike or a stroll in nature. But the Garden's mission isn't first off to be that kind of third place, and it really isn't. Although they run occasional programs, the New England Wildflower Society is primarily a natural and educational area. It's not like Geneva's botanical garden, which also has an outdoor cafe where you can sit outside and have lunch, or a snack, or a glass of wine/beer (although there are plenty of benches along the trails if you want to stay and relax).

Great cities have a number of outdoor third places. In Boston, there's the Commons and Public Garden, as well as parks along the waterfront, not to mention Newbury Street - a place to stroll, shop and sit out at a cafe to chat and people watch. In Montreal, the small neighborhood park in St. Louis Square features a place selling ice cream, drinks and other snacks as well as tables to sit, eat and linger.

In the U.S., though, it's relatively rare for suburbs to have such spaces, and that's a pity. In Europe, even small towns usually have a town square where there's a cafe and/or other places people not only can hang out outside for an afternoon - they do. Creating such outdoor third places in our suburbs would truly add to quality of life - if properly designed. What you don't want is some useless "open space" set off from the rest of the community, where you're more likely to get underage kids drinking beer that a cross-section of residents out enjoying the weather and each other's company.

Striking That Balance Between Big Government and No Government

Since 1990, Minneapolis neighborhood groups "have received some $200 million to improve houses, schools, parks, and commercial boulevards," writes Archon Fung, who teachers at Harvard's Kennedy Schol of Government, in today's Boston Globe magazine. In Boston, meanwhile, there's still what he sees as a "relative lack of collaboration with neighborhood associations."

Because neighborhood associations [in Minneapolis] were empowered to make investment decisions, many residents became involved. The funds also allowed these groups to hire staff to keep the organizations going. As a result, even the very poorest have functioning community organizations. These groups use their money and mobilize thousands of volunteer hours on countless community projects that enhance the quality of the city's neighborhoods.

Fung's key point is that the "social network" including families, houses of worship and community organizations are criticial in disasters like Hurricane Katrina - government alone can't address all problems. He's annoyed that "many people still want government to be the sole savior." (He doesn't express the same annoyance that our federal appointed hacks don't seem to want their agencies to take any responsibility for adequately providing any services, beyond taking care of their cronies, but that's a rant for another time).

However, in general, it's a good and often overlooked point that the best service delivery - whether for local education, disaster relief or community planning - is a balanced partnership between government and non-government local entities. Simply funneling tax dollars to local community groups, which might or might not have planning and financial expertise, is not necessarily the best approach. But neither is the government coming in and deciding what's best for a neighborhood, without local input (as the demolition of Scollay Square for the hideously designed Boston City Hall Plaza makes clear).

That's one reason I was happy to hear that Framingham is considering creating a citizen's advisory group as part of a plan to investigate feasibility of depressing Rte. 126 under the railroad tracks downtown. Done well, such a project could theoretically ease downtown traffic snarls while helping revitalize the surrounding business district. Done with only automotive traffic in mind, a resulting traffic sewer could kill off any hope of creating a vibrant business community there. (It's nice that people think there could be for Framingham's version of a Little Dig massive capital project, while rebuilding our substandard branch library or actually putting pavement as opposed to crushed gravel on our roads is apparently too expensive, but that also is a rant for another post.)

October 1, 2005

New Urbanists To Share Vision For Southern Mississippi

"Andres Duany is heading a team of more than 100 new urban experts - architects, planners, transportation specialists - from across the nation who hope to show South Mississippi one possible vision for the future in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," of Biloxi reports. Duany, one of the founders of the New Urbanism movement - and co-author of one of my all-time favorite books on planning, Suburban Nation - says the Congress of New Urbanism will be sending teams of planners to many damaged communities, where residents can decide if they want to incorporate tents of smart growth when they rebuild.

Obviously, no one wants to have their community destroyed in order to get better planning and design. However, in the wake of the vast damage from Hurricane Katrina, area residents will have a chance to decide whether they want a new vision for their towns, or to try to rebuild as it was.

My guess is that many communities won't want the full New Urbanist concept of higher density, mixed-use development. However, if they take some of the ideas to ensure walkability and sense of place instead of sprawl, they'll benefit from the planners' work.

September 30, 2005

Update: Road Maintenance Cont.

More on the saga of no-pavement roadways: I received a call back from someone at the Highway Department this afternoon, who was quite courteous and helpful. (The person who answered the phone initially at DPW never took my information or did anything beyond telling me it was a Town Meeting budget decision and if I had a problem, I should complain to my Town Meeting members and the Board of Selectmen).

The executive summary of what he told me is that this particular process, called something like chip and seal, is many times cheaper than blacktop, it is considered "proven," that it will settle into an acceptable surface, and that they have been working very hard to deal with the dust and gravel and will try to do more.

The dust was indeed somewhat better this morning after the rain, and there is somewhat less loose gravel being kicked up when cars drive by than there was last weekend. But it's still a problem (which I'm told will continue to improve); and it's still an unpleasant surface to walk on unless you've got thick-soled hiking boots, now that the odd-shaped, pointy, sharp stones are settling in and sticking to/up from the surface.

My frustration is that I truly don't believe consideration was given to the fact that in a residential neighborhood without sidewalks, this surface serves pedestrians as well as cars. I'm not asking that sidewalks be installed this year (although I wouldn't mind if they were). I'm asking that people who make decisions on roadways think about when pedestrians and bicyclists must share the same streets as cars, trucks and SUVs. What's an acceptable temporary surface for a motorized vehicle over a couple of months is not necessarily acceptable for kids walking to school.

Pedestrian-Hostile Road Maintenance

Silly, naive me! I thought that since I live on a town-maintained, paved, public way, when it came time for the road surface to be redone (which was about 5 years ago), the town would, um, re-pave it.

But no.

Instead, what appears to have happened is that the old crumbling surface was indeed removed; but then a bunch of crushed gravel/rock/stone was dumped on top of the dirt surface, flattened into it, and left there! And that's it! This is Framingham's money-saving solution to the expense of real road maintenance: Use gravel pushed into dirt instead of spending all that money for actual blacktop.

Indeed, town officials have confirmed that this is how they're leaving roads now in the Pinefield neighborhood. I'm assured that after a few months, it will all "settle" and become an acceptable road surface. Meanwhile, though, too bad for everyone out walking or cycling, as we are pelted with flying gravel and consumed by clouds of dirt and dust every time a car drives by.

It's clear that our government decision-makers didn't give a microsecond of thought to the fact that THIS IS A NEIGHBORHOOD WITHOUT SIDEWALKS WHERE A LOT OF PEOPLE WALK AND BICYCLE FOR TRANSPORTATION AND RECREATION.

Parents of kids who walk to school (or their friends' houses, or wait for a school bus in these conditions) are understandably livid. So am I. I tried to walk the 4 blocks to the hardware store the other day, and it was horrendous. Besides being hit by painful flying gravel, it was difficult to breathe with all the dust being kicked up.

My usually walkable neighborhood has become pedestrian-hostile, and will be for weeks if not months. Yet another example of town officials who think only about automobiles and not about pedestrians and bicyclists.

September 28, 2005

What Makes A Great Suburb?

Beyond core issues like good schools, low crime and well-maintained property that you see in real estate ads, it's the balance of private and public space that makes a great suburb.

In hot urban areas like Manhattan, all but the extremely wealthy expect to trade private space (who can afford anything beyond a tiny condo?) for incredible public space right outside their doorways. In rural areas, private space is more affordable. In the best suburbs, there's thought given to creating both nice private space - attractive homes and yards with more room than you could afford in a city - AND surrounding public space.

Where suburbs have been deservedly slammed is when little thought, planning and resources goes into the design and creation of public space. And I don't simply mean "leaving enough open space." I mean creating appealing front yards, streetscapes, shopping areas and parks. Walkable communities will naturally emerge if attention is paid to these things. If you design solely for the automobile, to move traffic at optimal speeds and create maximum acres of parking without thought to sharing space with pedestrians or whether there's a sense of place to these areas, you end up with the hideous aesthetics of Rte. 9.

It's no accident that some of our most appealing suburban centers, such as Concord, were designed well before the automobile - and then NOT redesigned solely to improve auto access. It's still quite possible to drive to and park in Concord if you want to (I worked in that town for awhile, so I know). But the Concord Center streetscape is very appealing to walkers.

Great suburban design is not an oxymoron. Suburbs don't HAVE to look like the Framingham/Natick Golden Triangle.

September 27, 2005

Smart Growth Pitch: Author Randall Arendt

What's true for good photography is also true for good community development: If you have no focus point, your creation isn't compelling, whether it's a picture or a town. That's one of many reasons suburban sprawl has so little sense of place, and is so aesthetically unsatisfying.

Author Randall Arendt recently "showed slide after slide of subdivisions all over the eastern half of the United States. He clicked to one picture of homes scattered over dozens of acres, with no sense of community, because of a large minimum lot size," reports the Lynchburg, Va. News & Advance. Instead, he "extolled the benefits of having smaller lot sizes in exchange for more shared open space in a subdivision. The shared space could be used for an old-fashioned village green, walking trails or picnic areas, he said,"

Urban-sized tiny lots are necessary to create a sense of community. Some of it has to do with good design of the lots, buildings on the lots, streets and community space. But Arendt isn't talking about postage-stamp-sized lots, but a scale where you have 20 homes on 30 acres and keep 70 acres for community use and open space, instead of 20 homes on five-acre parcels.

He also urged narrower tree-lined streets in residential areas, to discourage speeding traffic. Such streets are much more likely to be used by pedestrians.

Arendt wrote the book, Rural by Design: Maintaining Small Town Character.

September 24, 2005

No-Auto Developments

CoolTown Studios is touting a new development with "miles of pedestrian-only streets" as a way to "have our cake and eat it too" - create neighborhoods where you don't need to have vehicular traffic because entrepreneurs are working at or near home. But I think it's a mistake to consider miles of pedestrian-only streets as how we want to create pedestrian-appealing urban environments.

Yes, having residential garages in alleys out back instead of facing the street is a great idea. And I'm all in favor of creating neighborhoods where people don't have to drive everywhere! But truly vibrant pedestrian-appealing environments can have motorized vehicles as well. The key is proper design.

You want to make sure that there's good screening between sidewalk and street. You shouldn't have TOO many lanes of traffic - and if there are multiple lanes, you need an attractive median to create an attractive, boulevard ambiance. Of course you need good crossing areas that feel appealing and safe. And, no, you don't want to have traffic whizzing by too quickly.

But take a look at places like Newbury Street or Commonwealth Avenue in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood (and in parts of Brookline). Those are outstanding examples of how vehicular traffic coexists with thriving, vibrant pedestrian activity. You don't need to create no-auto environments to do that. "Pedestrian-friendly development" does NOT mean "auto-hostile development."

$340M Downtown Redevelopment Plan For Kansas City

"An ambitious proposal to transform a dreary 12-block section of downtown’s east side into a cozy neighborhood anchored by corporate offices is expected to begin in earnest today," the Kansas City Star reported yesterday. "If successful, an underused swath of surface parking lots and scattered buildings northeast of City Hall will be redeveloped into a project with 1,183 housing units, 87,200 square feet of retail and 213,000 square feet of office space that backers hope will house a new headquarters for J.E. Dunn Construction Co."

The East Village redevelopment plan would keep "the more historic and commercially viable buildings in the area," the paper notes.

There are some extremely nice pedestrian-friendly touches in a drawing of a street in the plan.

Buildings are up at the sidewalk but not crowding the sidewalk - they're human-scale, leaving enough room for walkers but not too much (massive open swathes of concrete don't do much for pedestrian life, as Boston's City Hall Plaza demonstrates). And the building fronts are architecturally interesting - it's not all just one long flat wall, but broken up by bay windows and such. That variety of building shape helps make a place pedestrian appealing, such as Boston's Newbury Street and parts of Beacon Street in both Boston and Brookline.

September 23, 2005

The Hundred-Mile-Long Traffic Jam

"Heeding days of dire warnings about Hurricane Rita, as many as 2.5 million people jammed evacuation routes on Thursday, creating colossal 100-mile-long traffic jams that left many people stranded and out of gas as the huge storm bore down on the Texas coast," says the New York Times report of the desperate attempt to flee in adavnce of the hurricane. "Acknowledging that 'being on the highway is a deathtrap,' Mayor Bill White asked for military help in rushing scarce fuel to stranded drivers."

Even with days of advance warning, it has still proven all but impossible to evacuate major metropolitan areas relying largely on private vehicles. After the crisis eases, this is something officials will have to think long and hard about. Do we try to come up with plans that will allow for reasonable evacuations, that somehow better augment the private automobile/SUV? Do we acknowledge that our current development patterns are dangerous, and work in the long term to make them safer? Or do we basically acknowledge that such widescale emergency evacuation needs are rare and thus accept this inability to get people out in a reasonable manner? Because doing nothing is actually dong the last choice - admitting that we simply can't evacuate a major metro area in any sort of timely fashion.