Archive for transportation

Kids Books and the Absence of Walking to School

My youngest started kindergarten last week. To help her with some anxieties I took her to libraries and bookstores to find some good children’s books about going to school so she could feel more at ease with the concept.

Every single book that I looked at involved either a school bus ride, or a mini-van ride to reach school.  Nobody walked!

Now I better understand why my older child keeps wondering why we can’t drive to school sometimes (it’s 3 blocks!  But 6 blocks to drive because of traffic calming).  Being driven is the norm in what he reads and what I read to him and his sister.

Walkable neighbourhoods are great for building a sense of community. When you walk places (rather than drive) you say hello to your neighbours, sometimes even walking with them a few blocks when you’re going the same way.

Children and their parents walking to school similarly builds community. I meet so many neighbourhood parents as we’re walking our kids to school. If we all drove and just let the kids hop out of the car, when would we meet?

So, can anyone recommend a children’s book, suitable for ages 5-7, that takes place in a metropolitan area in recent times, in which the children walk to school?


Fuel prices and urban shifts

How much to gasoline prices need to rise–and for how long–for people to change their behavior?

The Economist blog has an intriguing piece this week on gasoline prices and demand in the US, looking at the long versus short term price elasticity of oil (gasoline).  The author argued that in the short term, people cannot really change their demand for gasoline when the price rises. For many people in many North American cities, their SUV is the only way to get to work. They might cut back on other expenses, but driving isn’t one of them.

In the long term, however, if prices remain high, then people do change their lifestyles.  The Economist blog entry suggests that in urban areas we can expect people to move closer to work or transit or select a more fuel efficient vehicle.

If we extrapolate to what this could mean for cities and urban areas then, the longer fuel prices stay high, the more people might be willing to support a shift away from public spending to support the automobile.  More people might push politicians to spend public funds expanding transit or bike routes rather than adding freeway lanes, for example.  The US interest in high speed rail is an example of this.

I don’t expect the private automobile to disappear in North America–too much infrastructure is built for it.  But I do think we’ll see more balanced options for getting around metro areas as a result of sustained high gasoline prices. Bring it on.

The delicate art of parking provisioning

(with apologies to Trent Carlson)

How people live in cities is changing, faster in some places than others.  In general, people are driving less.  But car ownership is still quite prevalent and it remains a key means for people to get themselves, their families, and their stuff from A to B and C and D around the city.  Even though urban travel by bike, transit and foot is on the rise, cars are not likely to disappear.  They are too handy in certain circumstances.

So what to do with cars when we’re not using them?  That is a key challenge for cities these days.  Here’s what I mean.

First, lets talk about surface parking lots and above-grade parking structures.  These are ugly and suck the life out of the streetscape.  Nothing interesting (or at least good and interesting) is ever going on there (drug deals and break ins are interesting, but not in a good way).  So, the answers are either street parking or underground parking, or typically both.  But….

Starting with underground parkades, these are expensive to build.  They therefore can make it uneconomical to build many apartment, office and retail structures unless the highest rents (or condo sale prices) can be achieved.  Some cities are experimenting with reducing parking requirements for apartments in core areas where most residents will walk or take transit, in part to keep the costs down so new rental can be built.  But this isn’t practical in most neighbourhoods, even walkable ones, as a typical couple or family will have a car.  This is an unresolved dilemma in cities–adding residents to average communities still requires room to park a car.

Next, street parking. This works well if there is enough room on the streets for residents and visitors to a neighbourhood.  In detached, single-family neighbourhoods this is the case.  But in slightly more dense areas, there isn’t always enough.  Especially if a prominent shopping street is nearby.

In a trendy walkable neighbourhood, many people will drive to the area, park, and shop. The retailers rely on these non-neighbour customers, so need there to be parking.  But if the number of people living in the area increases, without more parking places, suddenly none are available for retailers unless we either add underground parking (too expensive), surface parking (too ugly), go to parking meters to keep people moving.

Parking meters.  It seems that some city halls have figured out a science of parking meters.  Charge enough so that there is usually an empty spot every couple of blocks, and then people don’t circle around looking for parking.  I was shocked to read New York City still has lots of free parking.  We’re also starting to see variable rate meters that adjust the costs with the time of day and congestion.  I like this approach.  I’d rather pay more and have a spot available when I need one, than have to drive all over looking for free parking (I put a value on my time, and it’s more than $2 for 15 minutes!)

But parking meters work at destinations, not at home.  So we’re back to the challenge of urban development right now: the delicate art of balancing enough room for cars while also improving the livability and walkability of communities, and keeping costs of new housing down so that homes can be built for the non-super-rich.


How is the parking dilemma affecting your community?

What examples are you seeing of the delicate art of balancing parking needs with other urban requirements and challenges?

Tax incentives vs fixing urban spaces first

What would be more effective in attracting a new cluster? Tax incentives? or improved urban infrastructure to attract and retain more people?  Or both?  What’s working (or not) in your city?

The province of Ontario (Canada) has announced tax incentives in order to build a digital animation cluster to rival those in Vancouver and Montreal.  This sector includes video game programming as well as movie special effects / post production work.

Presumably, they expect the focal point of this cluster will be in Toronto.  As nice as St. Catherines and London ON are (where a couple bigger animation firms are currently located), young computer graphics whiz kids will probably prefer to live in more urban, higher density and amenity-rich Toronto.

In fact, according to my friends at the Martin Prosperity Institute, people with creative occupations in SW Ontario disproportionately live in Toronto along the metro line corridors–yet I’ve heard most of them don’t take transit.  MPI’s map:

And I wouldn’t blame them for not taking the metro. To me it feels “scary old.”  It’s dark, dirty and rickety and I wouldn’t want to take it every day (and I’m a metro lover: I’d happily take Vancouver’s 25 year old sky train every day; I’ve lived in Mexico City and done that Metro every day too).  As a result of under investment in this system, I suspect many more people in Toronto drive than would do so if a clean, modern metro existed.

This further contributes to the crippling congestion in the Toronto area. The drain on the economy and quality of life must be enormous.  If I were a company considering taking the government up on their tax incentive offer, I would worry about retaining workers.  Toronto is a cool place, attracting talent to give it a try shouldn’t be a problem (plus a company can recruit from students at the local universities and technical colleges).  But will these people stay if their commute option is gridlock, old ricky metro, or a long go-train commute from a suburb (or a combination of drive in gridlock and go-train).

If the Ontario government has money to spare, and can subsidize industries, perhaps they can kick in a little more to partner with the city of Toronto and fix the transportation infrastructure.   This would also benefit their goal of being a more prominent global financial centre.

Should “Urban Studies” be a mandatory high school course?

More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and that percentage continues to grow.  Yet, how well do urban residents understand cities?  Do they know where housing comes from? what about food? or clothing?  How much does they average urban resident know about how cities are governed?  Or what legislation or bylaws affect their daily lives? (and how to get them changed?)

Too often lately I’ve been reading comments or quotes in the newspaper that suggest an otherwise intelligent, well-read person doesn’t fully understand how cities work.

Maybe, graduating from high school should require passing a course that includes (or is substantially) “urban studies.”

Here are some topics that I’ve learned about from life, work (or this blog), that many more people should understand.  And I certainly could have benefited learning about by age 18.  Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments.

1. Housing and housing costs.  Why are houses or apartments or condos in some cities and locations more expensive than in others?   Although there are complicated nuances worth elaborating on in a course, in essence it comes down to supply and demand.  If there are not enough homes where people want to live, then prices tend to go up (whether rents or purchase prices).

Too often lately I’ve read comments that suggest people don’t understand this basic issue.  High housing prices are not caused by greedy developers or landlords.  They charge what people are willing to pay (and most people try to find the best deal).  When the market is flooded with homes (look at many places in the US), prices go down.  When the government stops individuals from building or renting homes for profit, they don’t do it.  And the homes that remain become more expensive.

2. Container shipping by boat, rail or truck is how the food and clothes and other things we need and use in cities get to us.   Trying to stop container terminals, logistics facilities, and trucking routes, for example, without figuring out an alternative ways to nourish and clothe the people in cities, is pointless.  Sure, one location may not be appropriate and citizens can speak out, but they need to suggest alternatives that make more sense and show they grasp the consequences.  Preventing a logistics facility in one area might result in more truck traffic (and pollution) if goods have to be transported further. Similarly, stopping truck traffic on one main street diverts it, and may result in longer routes, more pollution, and higher prices.

3. Congestion.  Although on the surface building more roads seems like a solution, all the evidence points to the opposite.  The more roads, the more vehicle traffic.

These are three topics worth covering in a mandatory course.  Yes, they can be controversial and have multiple political sides–but so do most topics covered in history classes.  A student emerging from high school understanding both sides of the issue (or all three or four sides, in some cases) is far more prepared to be a productive, helpful person making our cities function better than someone who has no idea there even is a side or an issue–than someone who has no clue how the apple in her lunch or jeans on her legs got there.

World Cup Street Celebrations Then and Now

Urbanistas often debate or discuss how to make cities less automobile-centric. Sometimes the discussion becomes an “either-or” dichotomy.  But there are examples where streets can be for cars most of the time, and the city make exceptions on the fly as popular activity dictates.

Last Sunday as the World Cup final went into extra time, people started gathering on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.  As in past years, the crowd was starting to spill into the street for lack of room on the sidewalks in front of the myriad restaurants, cafes and bars offering the game on TV.  The excitement was building as penalty kicks seem to loom, and then Spain scored, to cheers and a few groans from Dutch fans.  Soon, the celebration began for those cheering for Spain.

The police had already shown up, not to stop festivities, but to facilitate them.  With no announcements or prior plans, they had closed a 7 block stretch of Commercial Drive to traffic.  And people danced, juggled soccer balls, and enjoyed mingling.

10 years ago, when I first moved to this neighbourhood, the post-Euro-2000 game celebrations involved cars driving up and down this same street, waving giant flags, honking horns.  The 2002 World Cup was the same. The police kept the crowds on the sidewalks, on the sidewalks, which really meant they had to leave onto side streets as it was crowded.  The road was for cars, people had to use whatever urban space was left.

This time, the street was for people and those in cars had to find a place to park if they wanted to join the fun.  And they did.

What was also really cool about this approach was that instead of being in a silo in a car, people mingled with both strangers and neighbours who had backgrounds from around the world, all having a good time (and no one seemed drunk).

Spontaneous soccer games erupted on the street.  Some drummers offered a samba-salsa beat with flamenco influences and dancing took place.  People in Netherlands shirts joined those in Spanish colours as well as many wearing Serbian, Mexican, Brazilian, Italian or Portuguese jerseys kicking around a ball.

Others sat in chairs sipping their cappuccinos, on the street, watching the show.  Kids road bikes and scooters. The gelato stores did well.

This spontaneous urban event lasted for several hours, and without incident as far as I could tell.

A great example how streets can be for cars and buses most of the time, but become great public spaces for certain occasions.

Metro mania

Tens of thousands of people stood in line for hours yesterday to experience the new rapid transit line in Vancouver. Such excitement has not greeted new transit options before, which got me thinking about the relationship between metro lines, a city, and its residents.

Unlike two previous routes, which primarily link suburban residential areas to downtown, this “Canada Line” links a variety of great places — real destinations — together:

  • The financial core / downtown area and nearby Granville St. Entertainment District
  • The trendy,  restaurant-rich condo-ville of Yaletown
  • City Hall and the new retail developments adjacent as well as the Vancouver General Hospital complex
  • Langara University College
  • River Rock Casino (which has a theatre that brings in great retro musical acts)
  • The Vancouver International Airport

Many more citizens can see themselves benefiting from this line, compared with the previous two which have really only served commuters from bedroom communities.  I think that accounts for the extra excitement.  That it opened three months early, and in August, also helped (not sure how many would have stood in the rainy November weather had it opened on schedule).

It will be interesting to see how ridership does.  I could see this line having much more balanced use beyond during rush hour as people go about their daily activities.

For those of you familiar with transit and metro systems,  what’s your experience?  Do metro lines connecting special places — destinations — have better ridership?  Do they mean more to you and other residents in the city?

This is not to say a debate doesn’t continue about whether this infrastructure was worth the cost (although I personally think it’s a worthwhile investment in a future, green, livable region).   I’m wanting a different discussion on what makes rapid transit work, and what makes rapid transit draw people from a variety of backgrounds. 

Automotive advertising and newspaper struggles

Many city newspapers in North America are struggling.  A few months back in a post I suggested it was because they were not covering local topics, instead picking up on non-analytical wire copy and propaganda media releases rather than reporting actual events.

The Global Urbanist has another theory, suggesting in a recent e-mail that newspaper declines are actually linked to a decline in advertising dollars from car companies and the fact that automotive-based commuters simply don’t have time to read the paper.
So s/he asks:

Why do newspapers have an automotive section?

On reviewing the world’s largest newspapers, I realized they circulated in regions with high transit use.  Japanese newspapers hold the top five spots in circulation numbers.   Japanese are also the largest users of passenger rail services.  Almost half of Tokyo’s 30 million residents commute by rail everyday. In the United States the top newspapers also correlate with the top mass transit centres with the exception of USA Today.  That exception could be explained as being the airline’s newspaper.  Daily airline passenger traffic in the U.S. is equivalent to almost half of New York City transit user traffic.

This makes sense since a train ride or a flight is the ideal environment to read a newspaper as opposed to the attention demands of driving an automobile.  So why do North American newspapers spend so many resources promoting automobile culture, and hardly any promoting transit?  Does the decline of transit culture in North America equate to the decline in daily newspaper readership?

Of course the answer is newspapers are funded by advertising, not readership.  There are a lot of advertising dollars coming from the automobile culture.  Whether it is a classified ad to buy or sell a used vehicle, an auto dealership promoting new deals, or a manufacturer promoting the upcoming model; there’s a lot of revenue coming in from drivers.  When was the last time Bombardier or Siemens promoted their latest rail innovation in the newspaper?  So newspapers are initially drawn by the advertising revenue from the automotive industry that leads to the long term detriment of their readership.

Today North American newspapers find themselves on a road to extinction.  On-line options get much of the blame, but these options are also available to Japanese, Germans, and British, all of whom maintain substantial readership numbers among their major newspapers.  The lengthening of the North American driving commute is as responsible if not the key factor to the decline of the continent’s newspaper industry.  When cars drive themselves or there’s significant increase in mass transit traffic the industry might start to recover.  Metro International is the fastest growing newspaper in the world and there key success factor is that they distribute at transit hubs.

Your thoughts?
p.s. I’ve been busy with family and vacation, but have several big posts percolating that I hope to post in the next few days

Special civic advocates for walking? cycling?

Cities need to offer residents and businesses a variety of transportation options to maximize livability.  Only facilitating automobile travel makes for a polluted, congested, and concrete-freeway-based environment.  Only facilitating bikes or walking in 21st century life and you hamper citizens’ ability to go any distance or carry very much while doing it.   As recently discussed, some argue that a plurality of viable transport options are what make a neighbourhood and city more livable.

So, would city benefit from a special advocate for each type of transportation option?

A professor of Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University believes Vancouver needs a pedestrian advocate.  Along with some other dedicated walkers, he’s frustrated by the new bicycle-friendly policy to take over a one vehicle lane and one sidewalk on the Burrard Bridge between downtown and Kitsilano.

Portland Oregon apparently has one (according to the professor) — although in googling to learn more, I could only find out about a paid coordinator for the Willamette Pedestrian Advocacy Committee, which is a volunteer-based community organization to promote pedestrian-friendly policies in greater Portland.

In looking at the dramatic swing to bicycle friendly policy with the new Vancouver city administration (the new mayor is an avid cyclist, commuting by bike to many city events), I’m inclined to think that cities don’t need single-transportation-mode advocates.  Focusing on improving the situation for just one transportation option, can result in ignoring the implications for other users, as the SFU prof notes.

I’d like to see cities embracing a position for balancing citizens’ transportation options.  The holder would be someone knowledgeable and sympathetic to all forms of getting around a city — motor vehicle, bus, metro, street car, bicycle, walking, stroller, wheelchair, etc.  And their role would be to consider the implications of any proposed policies on all of these transportation options.

Cities themselves generate volunteer-based citizen lobby groups for cycling, walking, driving, transit use, etc.  This “transportation advocate” I’m envisioning would also be their liaison to city hall, helping to turn their ideas into workable civic policy proposals that will improve the livability of the region.

Maybe a multi-modal transportation advocate position would be something CEOs for Cities could consider in their efforts to re-envision America’s cities and come up with strategies to help them emerge from this recession or “reset” ready to support 21st century economic, social and ecological needs.

Diversity of transport essential for livability

This weekend I attended Gordon Price’s “Jane’s Walk” through Vancouver’s West End — a densely populated neighbourhood situated between downtown, English Bay beach, and Stanley Park.  Price told the neighbourhood’s story, connecting it to more universal ideas including those of Jane Jacobs about how city’s work, and mixing in wisdom from his years on city council contributing to many of the zoning and decisions that have made Vancouver the successful city it is today.

One lesson from Vancouver’s West End: much of its livability comes from the balance of transportation modes in the area.  Neighbourhood roads that serve the 1960s and 1970s era mid rise apartment blocks are quiet.  People walk, cycle and roller blade along them joined only by the occasional motor vehicle, most likely local traffic.  Driver’s are generally patient and accept their equal status on these roads with human-propelled options.  Every residence is within 4 blocks of a busier street with an electric trolley-bus transit route (the modern day street car) as well as a variety of shops, cafes, restaurants and other businesses.

Price used these observations on the walking tour to point out that a vibrant, livable community needs to support four types of transportation:

  1. Walking
  2. Cycling
  3. Transit
  4. Motor Vehicles

Numerous people who want to promote livability in cities think of the car as the enemy.  Price argued that the car has a place in our lives and in a well designed city.  The problem with cars comes from designing space that only accommodates private automobiles, crowding out walking, cycling and transit.  Sprawl tends to do this, for example, separating people from each other as well as the amenities they need such as grocery stores, shops, restaurants, schools, recreation centres, etc.  Jane Jacobs recognized this long ago.

Closing down commercial streets to cars, making them pedestrian malls, tends to fail, Price reminded the group.  Both transit and cars bring customers into the area, and keep “eyes on the street”(A Jacobs-ism).  This access combined with walkability and cycle access allows that many more people to support the businesses that provide what residents need and appreciate.

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