Monthly Archives: February 2013

Cars Are Parking Machines, Not Mobility Machines

Over the past few days several different friends have shared with me a post about how cars are parked 95 percent of the time. So, I guess I better get blogging on this topic!

Parked cars in Provo. Note how what should be a sidewalk here is actually a parking lot. So this spot is particularly awful.

Parked cars in Provo. Note how what should be a sidewalk here is actually a parking lot. So this spot is particularly awful.

The post offers three different methods for testing how much of the time cars are parked. They’re all pretty easy to do, and the author ulimately concludes that Donald Shoup — author of The High Cost of Free Parking, among other things — is correct when he argues that cars are parked most of the time.

So, yeah, that’s basically a waste of resources.

But what I really like is where the author goes from there:

One reason to talk about this is to highlight the importance of parking. It is what cars do the vast majority of the time.

It highlights a crucial inefficiency of mass private car ownership. It points towards huge parking space savings (an enormous land bank) that shifts away from mass car ownership might open up, if only we could massively improve the alternatives including making car-sharing and other ‘metered access to shared cars’ (MASC) more of a mass market phenomenon. – See more at: http://www.reinventingparking.org/2013/02/cars-are-parked-95-of-time-lets-check.html#sthash.Q4GprSsD.dpuf

In other words, it would be much more efficient, almost mind-bogglingly so, if we only had the number of cars in a city that were needed at any given moment.

So, I might need a car for 30 minutes at 9 am and you might need one for an hour at noon. Right now, we both probably have our own cars, but it would really make more sense for us to have just one car between us. On both individual and city-wide scales this would translate into huge savings, greater efficiency, and generally prettier spaces.

Parked cars on Center Street.

Parked cars on Center Street.

Its also worth mentioning that if cars are parked nearly all the time they’re not really “mobility” machines so much as they are space-wasting devices. In other words, though we think about cars as a means of transportation, that’s almost incidental when compared to their “primary” role, which is sitting around. There are a lot of implications to this reasoning, but if nothing else presenting and discussing the situation more honestly would probably help us tackle problems like too much parking and too many cars.

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Filed under driving, economics

“I Do Not Care,” Says New Street Art

A friend recently alerted me to a charming new piece of street art in central Provo:

A photo taken by a friend.

A photo taken by a friend.

I haven’t had a chance to see this piece in person yet, but apparently it’s on 100 East, between 100 and 200 South. When I plugged it into Google Translate, I was told “je m’en fiche” means “I do not care” in French. However, “je men fiche” apparently means “I plug men.” I think I see an apostrophe in there, but I suppose each viewer will have to decide which translation is truer to her/himself.

I’ve written many times before about guerrilla art, most often in the case of Leuven, and I think it’s fair to say I’m a fan of it when it’s interesting, beautiful or intellectually stimulating in some way. I’d say this piece fits the bill and makes Provo just a little bit more delightful.

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How Many People Have to Die

Earlier this week, Fox 13’s Ben Winslow reported on a fatal auto-pedestrian accident in Ogden.

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Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.33.00 PM

But here’s the worst part:

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.33.51 PM

After Ben’s original story on the fatality on Christmas Eve, UDOT apparently also said they were considering* putting in a pedestrian light in this spot.

In case you’re curious, here’s what that area of Ogden looks like:

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.38.54 PM

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.40.28 PM

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.40.18 PMJudging from these pictures I’m skeptical that a pedestrian light would make a huge difference, though anything would certainly help; as is so often the case with these types of accidents, this area is marked by over-wide stroads that are completely hostile to pedestrians. It’s dangerous, ugly, inconvenient and actively encourages unsafe behavior, such as speeding or ignoring foot traffic.

It’s baffling that someone was even walking in this spot in the first place, given how unpleasant it looks.

I feel like I’m beating a dead horse with these accident posts, but they keep happening so I keep pointing out the obvious: people will continue to die needlessly as long as we have atrociously designed streets like this.

*This post originally stated that Ben Winslow reported that UDOT would put in a pedestrian light. He actually reported that they were considering putting one in.

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Filed under driving, Uncategorized

Snow: A Case Study in Traffic Calming

Last month, I argued that Provo gets narrower streets after snow storms and that those narrow streets work just fine. The point was that we should be building new narrow streets and slimming the ones we already have because, clearly, they work.

But a video I recently discovered from Streetfilms explores how snow storms have other traffic-calming effects as well:

The video focuses on “neckdowns,” or elements added to street corners to slow cars as they turn. The idea is to increase safety for pedestrians and, as the video points out, the cars aren’t really using the space anyway.

The video shows a whole series of accidental neckdowns resulting from snow and tracks cars as they make turns. As the narrator points out, they’re “not stopping anybody from getting where they need to go.”

The takeaway here is that after snow storms we often have working examples of how our own streets should be structured; we don’t need to rely on distant case studies or theoretical models. Instead, we just need to walk outside a few days after a snow storm, look at how much street is being used, and only plan to build that.

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A Mall-To-Neighborhood Case Study

Last month, I argued that struggling malls could be converted to mixed-use housing developments. The idea is that adapting malls accomplishes several goals simultaneously and economically; it diversifies a city’s housing stock, capitalizes on a huge but (in Utah County) floundering asset, cuts down on the need for massive parking lots, and potentially produces a cooler kind of living space in more monotonous cities.

The Orem mall is a prime candidate for adaptive reuse — or in other words being converted to housing.

The Orem mall is a prime candidate for adaptive reuse — or in other words being converted to housing.

I used Provo’s Towne Centre [sic] mall as my case study, but that’s not even the best candidate.

Orem’s University Mall is already two thirds empty, so there’s really no reason not to give this idea a try there.  Orem also lacks a central downtown, which problem could be remedied by turning the current mall into a diverse neighborhood. The area around University Parkway and 2230 North — near Movies 8 and Shopko — is also a prime candidate for redevelopment; there’s a lot of space there, but the current configuration hasn’t produced anything really successful.

But the real question is, would any of this actually work?

A recent article in The Atlantic Cities seems to suggest it would. The article describes a historic mall in Providence, Rhode Island, that is about to reopen as a housing development:

[…] this spring a shuttered shopping center in downtown Providence will be reborn in micro form, with two stories of micro-apartments above ground-floor micro-retail.

The end product, at least according to the pictures, looks kind of like a much cooler version of City Creek.

There are a few caveats: the Providence mall is historic, micro apartments aren’t for everyone, Providence isn’t Provo, etc. etc.

If relatively stable Providence can sustain a mall-to-neighborhood conversion, fast-growing Provo should easily be able to do the same.

If relatively stable Providence can sustain a mall-to-neighborhood conversion, fast-growing Provo should easily be able to do the same.

But the specifics aren’t what cities like Provo should copy. Instead, the broader idea of taking something old and adapting it is the point. The end product can be historic, industrial, or just plain vanilla and can be designed to appeal to any demographic. In the end, however, it simply makes sense to take big empty-ish buildings and turn them into some sort of living space — especially in Utah County, where the population is expected to double in the coming decades.

One more thing also deserves mentioning: implementing this idea could have an array of benefits on the community, but it won’t work if we make the areas surrounding our adaptation cites more hostile. I’m specifically speaking of the area around Movies 8 that I mentioned above. That spot may get a super street, which would produce more, faster traffic. It would be hostile to pedestrians and bikes.

That spot already produces many failed business, which I’ve argued is a result of its design, but if we make it more hostile to people it’ll be that much harder to adapt it into a livable neighborhood. And as this recent example from Providence shows, adaptation really is something that can work.

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Cities Should Oppose The Prison Relocation

Lawmakers are currently considering a proposal to begin moving the Utah State Prison, which sits prominently on the west side of I15 in Draper. The idea is that the prison occupies valuable space along the Wasatch Front that would be better used for new development. More specifically, some people want to create a tech hub in Draper.

Everyone would benefit from more high tech companies in region, but suggesting that the prison needs to move to bring them in is a fallacious argument. Indeed, it would be vastly better to encourage tech companies to locate inside existing development. As a result, cities like Salt Lake and Provo should be doing everything they can to make sure new jobs aren’t lost to future sprawl. That means opposing the prison relocation.

The arrow points to the approximate location of the Utah State Prison. Lawmakers want to move the prison to make room for tech development, but it makes more sense to create tech hubs in existing urban centers.

The arrow points to the approximate location of the Utah State Prison. Lawmakers want to move the prison to make room for tech development, but it makes more sense to create tech hubs in existing urban centers.

Relocating the prison creates a variety of shorter-term problems. For one, it means more new development even as most cities along the Wasatch Front already have very low densities and plenty of room for more infill. In other words, there is absolutely no need for more massive new subdivisions.

Moving the prison also creates more distant development that requires more driving; Draper isn’t proximate to anything, so new development will require long trips to get anywhere. Historically, Draper has also been filled with car-oriented development, meaning residents have to drive short distances for everyday errands as well. It’s a lose-lose situation, and is particularly baffling at a time when we’re trying to clean up our worst-in-the-nation air.

But city governments should particularly oppose the prison relocation because it effectively stacks the decks against their efforts to win talent and jobs. Why would a tech company move to Provo or Salt Lake, for example, when they can get cheap land from the government in the middle of nowhere?

In other words, moving the prison is a government subsidy for sprawl. It would involve spending hundreds of millions of dollars to just make it less appealing to develop a tech hub in an urban center.

Relatedly, last year I contrasted the new campuses of Amazon and Apple. Basically, Apple is building a huge new building out in the suburbs, while Amazon is investing in the urban core of Seattle.

Lawmakers who want to move the prison are effectively trying to create Apple-style development, even though analysts have said the Amazon version is actually the one that is benefiting its surroundings the most.

Ultimately, there’s no reason cities like Salt Lake and Provo couldn’t, or shouldn’t, create internal tech hubs. Moving the prison, however, makes that harder because it uses government money to pick winners and losers.

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Not So Super Streets

One of the most popular posts ever on this blog discusses the “interchange boondoggle,” or the many failings of Provo’s new I15 on-off ramp on Center Street (click here for a second post on this topic).

The post is popular, I think, not because it’s particularly great but because the onramp is so obviously horrible and everyone hates it. It’s like a nightmare, except that it’s real and cost more money than most of us will make in a lifetime.

And yet despite the absurdity of this piece of built environment, Provo may get another highly questionable, computer-generated intersection that promises to be a disaster for pedestrians, cyclists and humans generally.

The new intersection is called — ironically I hope — a “super street” and is being considered for an intersection in north Provo:

Utah Department of Transportation officials told legislators Wednesday they are considering using that new design — sometimes called a J-turn, or a restricted crossing U-turn — in Provo at the intersection of University Parkway and 2230 North.

The idea is to increase traffic flow and cut down on driving time for most people. Fair enough.

But it’s also so complicated that I had a hard time figuring out what was going on — other than more driving:

The Super Street design would force all traffic on 2230 North to turn right. Motorists who wanted to go straight or left could make a U-turn a few blocks down on University in a provided spot. Those who wanted to go straight could return to the intersection and turn right onto 2230 North.

Luckily, The Atlantic Cities also recently reported on “crazy intersections” that are designed to make us safer. That article included this illustrative video:

That intersection seems needlessly complex just at first glance, but the real problem is that like all of these other exotic projects UDOT likes to put in — things like diverging diamonds — this makes the street far more hostile to people. As The Atlantic Cities puts it:

In theory – i.e., in conflict-point diagrams – these intersections should be safer than more traditional ones. But there are two caveats to that promise: Sangster is really talking about safer intersections for cars. Pedestrians and bikers aren’t figured into any of these models, and Sangster has yet to encounter designs that do a good job of incorporating them (or transit). There also isn’t much hard data on the safety of these designs because so few of them have been built (and even accurately modeling them on a computer can be tricky and expensive).

The article goes on to note that these ideas are best for times “when a local road outside of town has grown so congested that it needs to be converted into a highway.”

That point about hard data is also worth emphasizing. The Center Street I15 interchange almost certainly looked good in a diagram, but there was so many accidents that they had to alter it with a stop sign. I still see accidents almost every time I use it and, again, it’s widely hated. So diagrams aren’t necessarily a good indicator of how people will actually behave.

UDOT is considering a confusing new kind of intersection for this already bad spot. Instead, this space needs to be more pedestrian-friendly.

UDOT is considering a confusing new kind of intersection for this already bad spot. Instead, this space needs to be more pedestrian-friendly.

The intersection in question is certainly bad as it currently stands, but it’s is not a highway outside of town. It’s also a prime candidate for the kind of parking lot infill that I advocated in this post — though a bigger, ugler and more dangerous intersection wouldn’t promote infill. And in any case, it’s the type of place that we need to make more pedestrian friendly and more bikeable. It needs to be more human.

But this “super street” doesn’t look promising. Instead, it looks like more car-oriented infrastructure that is increasingly out of tune with a city striving for a high standard of living. And ultimately, Provo doesn’t need another disastrous boondoggle.

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Invisible Guzzlers, Or, Buildings and Energy Use

Right now in Utah we’re beginning to have a discussion about the damaging effects of cars. But if we really want to improve air quality, our health, and generally live in a better world, we should also consider tackling another big polluter: buildings.

An oft-overlooked source of pollution is buildings.

An oft-overlooked source of pollution is buildings.

A recent Slate article notes that in New York City 75 percent of carbon emissions come from buildings. The article quickly points out that in most other parts of the county buildings produce a smaller percent of the emissions, but the point that buildings create pollution is still an important one for any region. And it’s particularly important in Utah because there’s also very little discussion about the need to build more efficient buildings.

The really interesting thing is that the article suggests retrofitting buildings to make them greener:

[…] retrofitting almost every building in the city to keep the heat in during the winter and out during the summer. In a nod to Rudy Giuliani, Bill Bratton, and James Q. Wilson, I’ll call it the “triple-pane windows theory” of greenhouse-gas reduction.

The article gets into some and interesting strategies that are specific to New York but that have varying levels of applicability to cities along the Wasatch Front.

And again, this is an important topic that warrants more discussion in Utah. Aside from the occasional LEED certified buildings — which aren’t always that environmentally friendly after all — few people are apparently bringing this up.

One of the easiest ways to cut energy use is to simply turn the air conditioning off. And unlike something like driving — which is sometimes needed to get to work, school, etc. — cooling the air is purely discretionary for most people.

One of the easiest ways to cut energy use is to simply turn the air conditioning off. And unlike something like driving — which is sometimes needed to get to work, school, etc. — cooling the air is purely discretionary for most people.

One other thing also deserves mentioning here: air conditioning. Though the Slate article mostly discusses heating, the need for air conditioning is also often accepted as a foregone conclusion in discussions about energy efficiency.

Yet air conditioning is far from necessary. Though humans have heated their living spaces for millennia, modern forms of air conditioning — and the grossly inefficient buildings it has spawned — has only been around for a few generations. Steve Mouzon calls this the “Thermostat Age” when he points out that historically,

buildings we built had no choice but to be green, otherwise people would freeze to death in the winter, die of heat strokes by summer, starve to death, or other really bad things would happen to them.

The point is that there is one easy way to drastically cut energy usage and emissions: turn off air conditioning and, over time, build structures that don’t need it. It may seem like a challenge when those hot days come along, but in the end it’s really one of the easiest and most obvious ways to cut our individual energy consumption.

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Filed under building, Development, environment

How to do Stairs Right

Last year, I argued that we’re designing buildings that promote obesity. The problem is that our buildings fail to encourage physical activity — specifically taking the stairs — even when it would be easy to do so. More specifically, the problem is that so many buildings tuck their stairs out of sight while making elevators very prominent. It wastes energy and it eliminates the opportunity for little bursts of activity.

When I wrote that post, one of my examples was Provo’s Fourth District Courthouse in downtown. In that building, the elevators are the obvious choice, while the stairs are kind of hard to find.

But a few days ago I visited West Jordan’s courthouse and was surprised to see a good example of stairs featured prominently in the front of the building:

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The entryway of the West Jordan courthouse.

In this picture, the front door of the building is to the right by the windows. The elevators are behind the stairs. That means visitors see the stairs first and are never in doubt about their location or availability. In other words, the architects have designed the building to prioritize stair usage; the structure literally communicates more effectively to its audience.

Not coincidentally, while I was in this building the stairs were used at least as often as the elevators.

Stairs and better-designed buildings aren’t going to completely solve the obesity epidemic. But they will help in some small way. And in the end, this is perhaps how we should approach much of our urban design: by slowly fixing the spaces that discourage any kind of physical activity.

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More on Campus Drive

In a pair of recent posts, I argued that BYU’s planned campus redesign is flawed at best. Though I don’t doubt that it’ll be pretty in the vague, office-park way that most of BYU is pretty, I seriously question its positive impacts on Provo generally. The best case scenario, I think, is that we don’t notice much of a difference.

But a redesign that makes Campus Drive — currently slated for closure — more pedestrian friendly could be a fantistic and successful project. To get there, however, it would need to be based not on a suburban grass-plus-parking lots model, but on a multi-modal one. I’m thinking of streets in Paris or Rome; they generally allow cars but under conditions that make walking safe and appealing.

But BYU doesn’t have to look to Europe for an example; west Campus Drive is already what I’m talking about.

This part of Campus Drive is slated for closure.

This part of Campus Drive is slated for closure.

However, this part of Campus Drive is not part of the upcoming redesign.

However, this part of Campus Drive is not part of the upcoming redesign.

The west half of Campus Drive winds slowly around the south and west sides of campus. It includes only two lanes — one in each direction — and is shaded by old buildings with shallow set backs and big trees. Cars typically drive slowly and pedestrians cross at will.* It’s not perfect, but it’s much closer to being perfect than either the eastern section of the same street, or the proposed redesign.

Somewhat surprisingly, Google Street View is available in the area:

A section of Campus Drive on the west side of BYU.

A section of Campus Drive on the west side of BYU.

This image is from the south side of campus and coincidentally shows how angled parking can be used on a non-commerial street.

This image is from the south side of campus and coincidentally shows how angled parking can be used on a non-commerial street. I’m not sure why there are neither cars nor people in these pictures. My guess is they were taken when school was out.

The point is that it’s not necessarily encouraging or inviting to drivers, but it’s not impenetrable either.

East Campus Drive, however, is going from one extreme to another. It’s currently a big, fast street but will soon cease to be a route at all for cars.

As I’ve said before, BYU’s campus redesign is not terrible. (This is an example of terrible news.) It’s just disappointing to see what are clearly good intentions being squandered on something that could easily be better. And as one of BYU’s own streets demonstrates, there are ways to make streets safe and useable for everyone no matter what their mode of transportation.

*The last time I tried to drive on west Campus Drive it was closed for construction. The closure didn’t look permanent, but if it is I would be disappointed. And in any case, the point I’m making is based on the historical state of west Campus Drive, not any future state.

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