In a jam, etc.

* The new issue of the Chicago Reporter looks at the familiar challenges facing transit around here: $315 million in capital funds diverted to operations, fragmented decision-making leading to duplicitous planning efforts, elected leaders who just don’t care. Two interesting tidbits from the sidebars: Singapore’s 1975 congestion pricing scheme cut congestion 45% — and crashes by 25%, notable since the social cost of crashes might well exceed that of congestion. Also, a work mode split chart evidently derived from the new, annual American Community Survey shows some interesting trends. Drive-to-work shares appears to have declined in many large cities from 2000-2006, while bus ridership is up broadly. And a few cities are seeing pretty broad mode shifts: in DC, transit is up 3% while driving is down 7%; in PDX, bus ridership increased 6% and walk/bike 5% while driving plunged 14%.

* A “Revised Charter and Initial Actions” for Vancouver’s EcoDensity planning initiative have been posted. I’m quite impressed with the action steps — they’re thoughtful, bold, and really show evolution over the course of consultation. The revisions have been improvements in most cases and hedges in only a few cases.

* Went to Paul Goldberger’s “conversation” about preservation on Thursday. Nice quote: “In a city, time becomes visible” – Lewis Mumford. He praised tall & thin buildings, saying that the beauty of 1920s skylines stemmed from their tallness and thinness. Weird coincidence: Penn Station was 52 years old when it was demolished; Crown Hall is 52 years old in 2008.

He also made an analogy about preservation as resonance — I’ll have to think more about that acoustic angle.

* [posted at Overhead Wire] New Urbanism (as I’m sure you’ll recognize from the heated arguments at Congresses) is a forum, not a formula, and New Urbanists have differing ideas on many topics — particularly in how we prioritize the many elements of New Urbanism. Peter Calthorpe, just as equal a co-founder of CNU as Andres Duany, probably coined the phrase “transit oriented development.” I would argue that transit, and transportation choice more generally, sits at the core of New Urbanism; indeed, that commitment is what drew me to it as an urban design movement. That commitment is enshrined not only in the Charter, but in documents like LEED-ND — the first certification scheme advanced by the CNU — which goes so far as to nearly require projects to locate along transit or in low-VMT areas. There was even discussion at CNU XVI of adopting a VMT reduction strategy as a principal goal for the organization.

Observation bias might explain why so many people feel that New Urbanism is “just window dressing.” Many prominent built examples of New Urbanism exists at the Charter’s smaller scales — the neighborhood and block, not the region — since regional changes take much longer, and many more participants, to realize. (Although most built NU today is actually infill, those 20-year-old greenfield projects are still more famous.) Part of the goal in establishing various recognition programs for New Urbanism over the years, like the Charter Awards and LEED-ND (and some other initiatives that are coming soon) is to let people know that NU isn’t just Seaside and Kentlands. Indeed, the number of Charter Award-winning urban infill plans or projects far outnumbers the number that could qualify as “walkable sprawl” — and the resident population of the former dwarfs the population of the latter. Observation bias comes into play again here: “walkable sprawl” stands out amidst its surroundings, whereas walkable urbanism blends in quite nicely. We notice the former, but take the latter for granted — when, in fact, the latter is actually much more difficult to build given our current regulatory climate.

One key fact I’d like to underline for transit advocates: most of the difference in mode split between American and European cities is not in transit trips, but in walking and cycling trips. (With better data collection, I also believe the same differential would also hold for American and wealthy Asian cities.) We focus on transit infrastructure alone at our peril: a mixed human habitat centered around pedestrians creates the kind of urban fabric that supports transit ridership. A transit line alone won’t generate ridership in the absence of a supportive environment.

I personally can’t defend “walkable sprawl,” since I can’t visit it — I’ve never had a driving license. I also am among the school of bike commuters who thinks showers are a nice idea, but hardly crucial; after all, most bike commuters don’t shower at their destinations. And it’s not even like I live in naturally air-conditioned San Francisco.

* [posted at SSC about Dearborn Park’s urban design.] Forgive your forebears, for they knew not what they did. When Dearborn Park was planned in the 1970s, how could anyone have predicted what the South Loop would look like in the late 2000s?

Take some time to read plans and predictions from that era; very little of it had any prescience whatsoever. (And no, even though I work in the planning biz, I’m afraid to say that we probably haven’t gotten much better at crystal-ball-gazing since then.) And even if City Hall actually did write binding, official City Plans, and the Central Area is the only part of town where it even pretends to do so, what were the chances that its ideas would come to fruition? Distributor subway, anyone?

In the 1970s, some people genuinely planned for River City to become an inwardly focused monster complex three times as big as Presidential Towers — or half again as large as Robert Taylor Homes. (Note how wonderfully River City, as built, meets the street. And yes, the original plan would have used a Section 8 mortgage, which could have filled it with public housing tenants.) The demographic trends were perilous: the city’s population dropped over 10% in the 1970s, with a net loss of 300,000 people (the population of Pittsburgh or Tampa!), all while the city’s poverty rate increased 24%.

Hindsight is 20/20.

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