Why Surrey can’t have nice places: they’re de facto illegal.
I got a lot of kick-back when I said the difference between these areas of Paris and Burnaby was public policy. And I even had the audacity to claim the Parisian scene was objectively better by almost any metric. Hit me again with your counterarguments.
Chuck’s talk at SFU in Vancouver.
Rick Hall, an ex-FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) transportation engineer and member of Davis’ consultant team, recalls his initial surprise at seeing Seaside’s network of narrow streets and blocks, instead the wide curving streets and culs-de-sac more typical of the era:
“It was a total shock seeing 12 intersections in a half-mile of arterial road. I was preparing to tell Robert Davis to change the plan to follow the state’s standards for access management.”
Hall remembers that moment as critical in his conversion to New Urbanism:
“After speaking to Davis, and his planner, Andres Duany, I became convinced that the approach they were taking with Seaside—consciously creating a walkable community ‘by design’—was the paradigm shift that was needed to enable other similar places to flourish.”
(12 blocks per 1/2 mile means 240ft blocks.) From New Urbanism and local government by Peter Katz.
It has been established, for example, that suburban streets all over America ought to be as wide as two-lane county highways, regardless of whether this promotes driving at excessive speeds where children play, or destroys the spatial relationship between the houses on the street.
Back in the 1950s, when these formulas were devised, the width of residential streets was tied closely to the idea of a probable nuclear war with the Russians. And in the aftermath of a war, it was believed, wide streets would make it easier to clean up the mess with heavy equipment.
Zoning codes devised by engineering firms have been “packaged” and sold to municipalities for decades, eliminating the need for local officials to think about local design issues. This is one reason why a subdivision in Moline, Illinois, has the same dreary look as a subdivision in Burlington, Vermont. All the design matters are supposedly settled, and there has been little intelligent debate about them for years.
America has now squandered its national wealth erecting a human habitat that, in all likelihood, will not be usable very much longer.
By this, I do not mean an end to all cars but rather, that every individual adult need not make a car trip for every function of living: to go to work, to buy clothes, to have a drink, that every adult need not be compelled to bear the absurd expense of car ownership and maintenance as a requisite of citizenship.
Formal street trees as a nature band-aid
In his awesome 2004 TED talk, James Howard Kunstler rightly mocks useless greenery in the urban context.
To make ourselves feel better, we put a nature band-aid in front of it. And that’s how we do it. I call them nature band-aids because there’s a general idea in America that the remedy for mutilated urbanism is nature. In fact, the remedy for wounded and mutilated urbanism is good urbanism, good buildings.
He also neatly, and again rightly, defines the role of street trees in the urban context (I think this is a list of five, but he calls it four).
The street trees have really four jobs to do, and that’s it: to spatially denote the pedestrian realm; to protect the pedestrians from the vehicles in the carriage-way; to filter the sunlight onto the sidewalk, and to soften the hardscape of the buildings, and to create a ceiling - a vaulted ceiling - over the street, at its best. And that’s it. Those are the four jobs of the street trees.
Now, my question is this: if you have great formal trees do the buildings matter? If you have the trees doing the work of creating the outdoor room for the pedestrians, do you still need the buildings to do that? Or can you just mix any old buildings on a street - from any t-zone, with whatever setbacks, height and massing.
Are formal street trees like a (successful) nature band-aid, covering a multitude of built sins? “As long as I can’t see your monstrosity across the street from my house, you go ahead and build what you like!" Should that be the stance of the regulator?
Maybe it’s a question of sequence, of timing. So a street can begin with single-family houses and saplings, and as the trees grow, taller buildings would be permitted because, hey, the sunlight’s blocked already so who’s going to complain about a concrete wall year-round.
In case you haven’t seen it already, these questions were prompted by Chuck’s video from Vancouver in which he notes, again rightly, that West End is perfectly pleasant to walk around, despite (because of?) the juxtaposition of very different building forms.
(The more jarring juxtaposition for me is that T4’s blank wall on the intersection.)
Now I’m not advocating demolishing anything in search of some abstract ideal. I’m just wondering whether as a general rule (made to be broken, of course) we should be looking for buildings to form an outdoor room, or whether we can toss that rule out and just say “some vertical structure natural or man-made” should form an outdoor room.
Is it ok to propose towers in the park as long as you promise some well placed trees?
Johnnie Dodds Boulevard, Charleston, SC
Before and ‘after’ images of a 2005 proposal for Johnnie Dodds Boulevard in Charleston, South Carolina, included (with more interim steps) in this presentation by Hall Planning and Engineering for Little Manatee South in Florida.
Streets and roads are not like teachers and doctors
"It was too simple. He’s basing his math on assessed valuation alone, not sales tax or other economic considerations. That might be a proxy in Minnesota, but not here in Wyoming."
- Mike Glode, who runs Shively Hardware in Saratoga
That quote is a response to a recent Strong Towns curbside chat, reported here. I’ve heard a variation of Mike’s critique a couple of times here in Vancouver, when justifying the latest provincial highway project. Here’s a paraphrased straw man, for the sake of argument:
'You can't demand a Return-On-Investment [ROI] calculation for transport infrastructure, because it's too complicated. The economics are all intertwined.
'Some of the taxpayer investment return comes directly back to the municipality as property tax, but other revenue - like improved income and sales taxes from all the businesses and workers whose profit and wages are improved by the transport investment - that tax take first flows upwards to the province and the Feds, but then comes back down as transfers from those higher governments.
'It's a public investment because it's a social investment, like teachers and doctors. The benefits are more nebulous. You can't calculate an ROI.'
I call bullshit. Streets and roads are not like teachers and doctors. You can calculate an ROI, and here’s how.
Toll them. If there’s an income benefit to people or businesses from using the road, then they’ll use it. If not, they won’t.
Now, maybe - for whatever good democratic reasons - the taxpayers and voters want to subsidize the toll for all the drivers using the road. You should still be able to calculate (and advertise!) the hypothetical fee per vehicle that you’re waiving. The fee would return your hurdle ROI over the lifecycle of the road (including all operation, maintenance and construction debt repayment costs).
Note: chances are more people will use a road that’s free at the point of use, so you might want to accelerate your depreciation, as compared to a tolled road.
Property tax. A street is a platform for value: it is an outdoor room that adds value to the surrounding properties, by providing safe and pleasant access. The proportion of annual property taxes received from surrounding properties that is available for street maintenance must at least match the annual depreciation expense on the street.
Whatever their scale, note that you can both minimize the maintenance cost of a street and improve the surrounding property values by dedicating most or all of the surface to intermittent vehicles (transit) and slower, lighter ones (feet and bicycles). Many, heavy, faster vehicles (cars) will wear the surface more quickly, and detract from property value.
If the thoroughfare under ROI analysis is neither a street or a road - if it has features of both, such as multiple or wide lanes for high speed travel, but also sidewalks, intersections and property access - then the thoroughfare is a stroad and it will offer a poor ROI.
A stroad offers neither the toll-able efficiency of an A-to-B road, nor the property-value-boosting platform of a street. Start-stop congested drivers will be frustrated, cyclists will be only the few and fearless, and pedestrians (aka transit-users) will be few and uncomfortable if not entirely absent.
Tolling intersection-pocked stroads is technically difficult - not to mention politically out of favour - so most municipalities have treated stroads as streets, with the maintenance charges falling on surrounding properties. Those are of course the very properties whose value is undermined by this pedestrian-repelling land use. When these property tax revenues are - predictably - found wanting, municipalities are left begging for transfers from higher up government, citing all the spurious and nebulous ROI benefits in the straw-man case above.
(British Columbian municipalities’ latest begging came under the banner of “fairer, more economically responsive revenue tools” to give municipalities a “greater share of the benefits of overall economic growth”, i.e. other tax revenue. The Strong Fiscal Futures report didn’t mention infrastructure ROI, zoning reform or road tolling once.)
Analyze transit ROI in a similar way to roads: what would be the full cost to move a person. If the passengers paid the full amount of ongoing O&M costs, you would have a farebox recovery ratio of 100%. However, you would have to add to this the cost to pay down the debt that purchased the buses or trains, and laid the tracks or asphalt or dug the tunnel.
Now, just as with the road, your electorate and taxpayers - within and above the municipality - might have reasons to want to subsidize transit. Simple geometry for example suggests that moving people en masse in vehicles that don’t park at passenger destinations will take up less space than moving people in individual cars, and so allow more space in your city for (tax paying) economic activity. Local economic considerations might favour subsidizing transit before roads, as less money per trip would leave the local economy for fuel and car-parts purchases. Democratic equity might be a consideration, as transit is available to both children and the old, and to other voters without a drivers license, or the means to purchase, maintain and fuel a car. Environmental considerations might also be a motivation, as mass transit obviously consumes less energy per person-trip than private vehicles.
There is sometimes confusion about whether transit should be treated as a ‘street’-like investment, with costs recovered primarily through property taxes. A rapid transit stop can bring a tonne of value to a neighborhood, which can be captured through property taxes: this is precisely how streetcar neighborhoods across North America were originally built. However this is more analogous to the value creation of the original railroads: once the station arrives, surrounding land value rises. The dominant function of the transit investment is connection, not creating a local value platform. The connection benefit of transit is felt on the entirety of the surrounding neighborhood, not on a single street: indeed, streets that aren’t directly on the transit route may see a greater uplift. This is very different from the access and value-platform function of a street.
Now, the subsidy for transit could well come (in part) from local property taxes, but it should be clear and transparent that this is the case, so that citizens can compare that value to funding for schools, libraries etc.
Teachers and doctors
I really don’t know where you’d start with ROI here. Teaching to the test, and assessing on grades, seems to be generally unpopular now. Maybe we could do some kind of a bankers-like withheld bonus scheme, paid if students are gainfully employed a decade after graduation? Teachers and doctors don’t wear out with use along a quantifiable depreciation curve in the way that streets and roads do, so to me there’s a stronger case for the social benefits of education and healthcare to be exempt from cold hard ROI calculations.
But streets and roads do wear down predictably over time, and have to be repaired. This predictable maintenance can be paid by users in the case of roads, or by the beneficiaries of access in the surrounding properties in the case of streets. Both can be subsidized, but the subsidy should be explicit and transparent so that voters can make informed decisions.
Waving your hands and claiming some magical unidentified multiplier effect will pay for all the maintenance is fiscally unsound, and bad governance.
Chuck Marohn in Vancouver: October 24th
I’m very, very excited to help welcome Chuck Marohn to speak in Vancouver. Details and (free but required) registration here.
Thu, 24 Oct 2013 7:00 PM
Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema
Goldcorp Centre for the Arts (at SFU Woodwards)
149 West Hastings Street, Vancouver, BC
I imagine readers will be familiar Chuck’s fiscal conservative take on urbanism: his Strong Towns organisation has grown in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and Chuck recently keynoted at CNU21 in Salt Lake City.
Chuck notes that sprawl requires huge government funding, and that more traditional, pre-war compact forms of development are more fiscally conservative, make more efficient use of public infrastructure investments, are more adaptable and hence more resilient. He coined the word “stroad” to describe the result of apply highway (‘road’) design standards to street environments, as in many of Vancouver’s arterials (Hastings, Oak, etc.). This obviously inspired this very blog.
Register and mark your diaries now. (And drop me a note @neil21 if you want to come for drinks afterwards.)
The boulevard shows the common American bug of not narrowing access lanes at the end, or having them rejoin the main thoroughfare: it would be possible to travel several blocks in the access lane which risks pedestrian conflict. The parking is also on the sidewalk side, although this is probably fine for T3 where sidewalk traffic is minimal, and the grassy boulevard keeps pedestrians from the access lane.
Patrons of Le Touring café on the Avenue de la Grande Armée in Paris are surrounded by cars, but they don’t feel like they’re sitting in a parking lot. They feel fortunate to be there in the city of light and love, watching the world go by.
"Bon café et belle terrasse. Prix excessif mais c’est le quartier," writes one reviewer. (‘A good cafe, with nice outdoor seating. A little expensive, but so is everywhere around there.’)
Nice try, Lima, but no cigar. This stroad (and I think we can use the term here) has the approximate segmentation of a multiway boulevard, but is clearly far from a pleasant pedestrian environment. A checklist:
- that fence
- tree height/massing
- building height
- building street-level interest
- balance of access/through lane widths
- access lane height and surface texture
- parking location
Very slick video (shame about the casual Russian/German/Polish racism) highlighting institutionalized entrapment in Vancouver, BC.
As a reminder to all our engineering readers:
- Roads must be designed to be safe at any speed.
- Streets must be designed to ensure slow speeds.
- Every thoroughfare must be unambiguously a street or a road.
Tooele, Utah is apparently having difficulty paying its bills (HT). Not to kick a muni when it’s down, but you really have to wonder who on earth is in charge round there. For the record, the two really obvious things wrong with the picture above are:
- The balance of taxable, productive land uses (buildings) to subsidised, maintenance-requiring ones (asphalt).
- The negative contribution of public infrastructure investment to local taxable land value (and hence revenue). That stroad makes everything around it worth less. The goal of public street investments should be to make everything around it be worth more.
We can talk environmental, health and all the other wealth impacts of car-dependent design on the community, but just purely from the point of view of the health of municipal coffers, these guys are really bazooka-ing themselves in the foot.