Rebirth: The Small City

The successes of New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, Denver, Houston, Chicago, and Minneapolis have led to some curious consequences.  More than ever, small cities* such as Columbus, Omaha, Tucsan, Birmingham, Allentown, Hartford, and even Des Moines are seeing unprecedented growth in their downtown areas, and new demand resulting in increased development.  Only a few decades ago, these cities’ primary marketing tool was cost differential.  Put simply, they were cheaper places to live.  That suggestion, in turn, excused the lack of big city excitement available to residents.  Today, these cities have changed their perspectives, looking to their larger counterparts for inspiration and ideas.  The outcome is already evident: their reputations are no longer about living cheaply, but about having identities people embrace and opportunities people enjoy and write home about.

*Small City: There is certainly no agreed-upon definition of city, but for the purposes of this piece, a small city has a metropolitan area of between 500,000 and 2 million people.  These cities are usually characterized as the cities of secondary or tertiary economic and cultural importance in their respective larger sections of the United States, serving as regional, rather than national centers.  They also tend to lack certain amenities of large and medium-sized cities such as airport hubs, world-renowned museums, and multiple major league professional sports teams.  They are, however, large enough to be a self-sustaining economic center with diverse industries, high quality institutions of higher education, and city-focused transportation systems and infrastructure.

Over the past 25 years, America’s largest cities have undergone grand redevelopments.  Perhaps due to shifts in economic sectors and market demand, or perhaps due to the influence of Kurt Russell’s dystopian 1981 in the hit film, Escape from New York…

…cities gained a determination to invest in and reinvent themselves.  Cities from Washington to San Francisco have seen an unprecedented and – by 1981 standards – almost unprecedented demand in downtown-area housing and entertainment.   These new residents have brought significant positive benefit to the urban core, but have overwhelmed city infrastructure.  Housing is in short supply and prices have skyrocketed.  These issues are now leading the nation’s young professionals to choose between a rock and a hard place; to either live in a smaller-than-you-would-like, more-expensive-than-you-would-like apartment with access to some of the world’s best cultural institutions, restaurants, parks, and entertainment but no suitable living space (or disposable income) to spread out or start a family, or:

Live in a place where the cost of life is more affordable.

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These ads for Columbus, OH are in Metrorail stations, encouraging Millennials to reconsider the cost of their lives in Washington, DC.

The problem with this decision has always been, in part, that the latter option required giving up everything that a big city offers.  It meant moving to a car-dependent single-family home in the suburbs with no nightlife, no nearby entertainment venues, no top-notch parks, nothing aside from chain restaurants, and certainly no decent museums or professional theaters.  However, with Millennials demanding to live in a place with these opportunities but no longer able to afford Manhattan or Haight-Ashbury (at least not in the long-term), some smaller cities saw an opportunity.  First, it was Portland, Seattle, Denver, Salt Lake, Nashville, and Charlotte.  Now, even smaller cities are getting in on the action.  This is not just a trickle-down effect.  This is about a fundamental change in culture, desires, and planning concepts.

The era of the totally car-dependent city, or at least the successful and car-dependent city, is over.  Millennials want options, even if they need a car to get some places.  This is an important distinction.  A single light-rail line, or bus rapid transit corridor, or bike lane network, will not rid most residents of the need for a personal vehicle.  Meeting this goal would require many rail lines, a vast and frequent bus network, and development at levels that would support such a lifestyle change.  This is a worthy goal, but this does not need to be completed in order to attract young professionals.  The reason? Placemaking.

Small cities have learned lessons from the trials and errors of their fellow, larger cities.  First, placing a transit line in a suburban, car-oriented environment without improvements to the surrounding area with amenities such as sidewalks, with appropriate zoning, crosswalks, and with low-speed pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly streets is a recipe for failure.  If there is not a critical mass of residences or businesses near the transit line, it will fail.  If people cannot safely and comfortably access the stations and surrounding neighborhoods, the service will fail.  Second, a transit line won’t see overwhelming ridership in its first year, or its fifth year.  To that end, neither will a new highway if it doesn’t connect appropriately into a larger, already-robust system.  This is okay, as these investments spur development over the course of one or two decades.  Third, the overall approach has to be about the specific districts or neighborhoods along its route, not the corridor.  An east-west transit line needs north-south connections at its stations.  It needs a network of bicycle lanes and complete streets.  Failure to make appropriate improvements would be similar to constructing a superhighway but providing local connections only via dirt roads.  Most importantly, though, and contrary to the popular belief only a few years ago, small cities have learned that transit and bicycling can be not only popular but highly successful.

If these trends toward progressive planning and smart growth continue, the next era of American development could be that of the small city right alongside the continued success of America’s great large cities.  As these small cities harbor and grow their own, new cultural identities and institutions, they can grow to become truly dynamic urban centers.

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The Tucsan “SunLink” Streetcar

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Hartford’s CTFastTrack Bus Rapid Transit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Protected Bikeway in Columbus

 

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Bikeway in Omaha (Conceptual)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Riverwalk Park and Center Street Pedestrian Bridge in Des Moines

 

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How to Fix Chicago’s Iconic Road

Lake Shore Drive is a monumental highway.  There’s nothing quite like it.  Day or night, driving into or out of the city, to the north or to the south, it provides an amazing panorama of Chicago’s neighborhoods, skyline, parks, museums, and – of course – Lake Michigan.  The road has been memorialized in song:

Now, IDOT is evaluating the needed reconstruction of the iconic road, and civic groups are advocating for more space for transit.  Nearly 1,000 buses a day carry nearly 70,000 people up and down the northern half of the Drive every day, joining 161,000 drivers that use this segment.  That means that while 30% of people on the road are using transit, the lack of a dedicated travel lane for these buses means that they are stuck behind these drivers in every lane.  Meanwhile, crowded bicycle and pedestrian paths do not have the width to serve these users.  In a sense, Lake Shore Drive is a truly multimodal facility.  Conversely, it’s outdated, pedestrian-unfriendly, and favors cars over transit riders, cyclists, and pedestrians in nearly every way.  Ironically, the same series of tunnels that provide pedestrian access to the Lakefront Trail are necessitated by the barrier that is the road itself, separating neighborhoods from the lake and beaches just to the east.

Meanwhile, to the west, the CTA Red Line is horribly crowded and also in redesign.  The transit demands on this corridor are immense.  In a broader sense, the transportation demands on the corridor are immense, which is why smart planning is needed.  A lane of transit can carry far more people than a lane for private vehicles.  With all of these factors considered, it’s time to think boldly.   The status quo is not serving the neighborhoods along and north of the Drive optimally.  It’s time for a change.

What Will Solve the Problem?

Given the growing demands along the corridor, it’s clear that the only sustainable solution rides on rails rather than asphalt.  A light rail line down the middle of the corridor, with boulevard road concept and expanded bike and pedestrian facilities would provide a significant improvement for all users.  Considering that the Right-of-Way (ROW) is 220-feet wide along much of the segment from Michigan Avenue to Hollywood (Including the Marine Drive/North Lake Shore Drive Service Road), there is sufficient space for rapid transit, express buses, through lanes, local and long-distance cycle-tracks (bike lines), service roads, and lots of greenery with the space to allocate turn lanes, transit stations, and even pedestrian plazas where desired.

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Concept: Lake Shore Drive as a Multimodal Boulevard (Facing North)

This investment would be reasonable in cost, given that there would be no ROW needs, the road will need to be rebuilt anyway, and that the local neighborhoods adjacent to the street are already composed of residents who use transit daily and are suffering from overcrowded trains.  This plan would provide significant relief to Red Line riders, Lake Shore Drive bus riders, the growing contingent of cyclists, and people looking to access the lakefront.

“Hey,  I’m Driving Here!”

This plan would undoubtedly draw rebuke from some drivers, primarily in the far north side neighborhoods and near north side suburbs, who depend on Lake Shore Drive to get to work.  While this plan no longer gives preference to drivers over other modes, it does not preclude drivers either.  Adding higher capacity modes through these high-density areas will lead more people to choose transit, decreasing the demand for road space.  Additionally, the rapid bus lanes could provide a faster and more dependable trip for those traveling between the suburbs and Downtown Chicago than they have currently by permitting PACE and the CTA to share the lanes.

Where Does This Transit Line Go?

North side, meet the South Side.  If this line is built, it would not be Chicago’s only light rail line.  The southern line, formerly the Illinois Central South Chicago branch, is operated by Metra on a schedule far different from the operator’s other services.  The Metra Electric Line South Chicago Branch runs from Millennium Park to 93rd Street on the far South Side, stopping every 1/2 mile and running at headways during the week more aligned with rapid rail service than commuter rail service.  However, this service is highly limited on weekends despite serving highly transit-dependent communities that fill CTA buses (especially the #6, #15, #28).  There is so much demand in these areas that the CTA’s Jump service (#J14) was launched along this corridor to provide faster service and more capacity.  This is a clear case of an underutilized rail line being supplemented with bus service – not too optimal or efficient.

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Neighborhoods and Destinations Along the Proposed Light Rail Line

By connecting the North Lake Shore Drive light rail with the South Chicago line via the underground streets (likely Lower Randolph Street and the notoriously invisible McCormick Place Busway), a continuous north-south service could be initiated that would serve 18 unique neighborhoods and 10 major tourist areas.

A Practical and Pragmatic Solution

The best part of this plan is that it’s feasible.  There really is significant transit demand along this corridor, Chicago has already determined the need to provide more car-free mobility options for the city’s residents and workers, and the ROW needed to make this happen already exists.  This investment would support the ever-increasing demands for more housing development in the North Side neighborhoods along Lake Michigan, while injecting new life into the markets of lakefront neighborhoods south of the South loop, while giving existing residents a more dependable connection to jobs and Chicago’s vast array of parks and downtown festivals.

If Lake Shore Drive is rebuilt as it is, a divided highway will separate these North Side neighborhoods from its residents for another half-century.  Reclaiming the Lake and the public ROW has to start now.  It’s time to be bold.

Why Urban Planning Can’t End at the City Line

Do you live in the city or a suburb?  What is a suburb?  What is the city?  Does it matter?  As my favorite blog, Greater Greater Washington, attempted to answer these questions last week, it got me thinking – what, in modern terms, is a city?  Are suburbs nothing but sprawl that can’t be tamed?  As much as I hate writing – or reading – a series of rhetorical questions, these are crucial not only to the future of planning, but to the quality of life that all sorts of people have all over the country.

In many metropolises today, there is no single downtown.  Our nation’s capital is a perfect example of this truth.  Yes, Washington, DC has a downtown, but much of the region’s employment is centered in other areas – edge cities, namely Tysons, Reston, Alexandria, Rosslyn, Bethesda, Rockville, Silver Spring, and Fairfax.  Some of these places are walkable and as urban as the core downtown areas of many cities throughout the county, others are aiming to get to that level of urban form, while still others are relics, with wide roads, narrow sidewalks, surface parking, and lacking high-quality or rapid transit.  Many of these areas began as an auto-oriented answer to the dense urban core which fell out of fashion in the 1960’s, yet no place is doomed to a single infinite identity.  That is, if anything, the mantra of urban planning – we can improve this place.

And yet, suburbs are often derided as too low-density, too defined by single-family homes, too disconnected from employment centers, too overwhelmed by high capacity roads and highways.  However as a juxtaposition, it takes only a satellite image to see that such are the defining characteristics of many so-called urban neighborhoods.  Take, for example, the bungalows that line the streets in many Chicago neighborhoods.  They have some positive characteristics.  They have rear garages and are on small lots.  Yet, they are still single-family homes.  Most are not within walking distance of stores or employment, and even in a transit-oriented city like Chicago, many are still far from trains.  If the neighborhood is middle- or upper-middle class, the majority of people are driving to work.  This is no more an urban neighborhood than those in many suburban areas.  This is not a slight, but a necessary recognition of what is and what isn’t.  Living within a political boundary does not make your home urban – or suburban.

Perhaps then the city address relates to pride and place, but again, I disagree.  While some suburbs are, at best, disconnected blobs of development, I grew up in a place (Homewood, IL) that certainly had a strong community spirit, a clear downtown area, and pride in its shops and parks and schools.  No, we had no arenas or nationally-recognized museums, but it certainly was not devoid of culture or community pride.  But why does this matter?  Because suburbs are the affluent and demographically homogenous.

Except not really.  Today, the re-genesis of the urban planning profession and strong comprehensive planning has, perhaps not surprisingly, occurred in tandem with an influx of urban redevelopment spurred by increased demand from affluent people to live in cities.  This, on one hand, is wonderful, both fiscally and environmentally.  Urban density costs less per capita to all levels of government, as services can be provided more easily and be better used.  For decades, it was necessary to all but subsidize even the most basic services in the cities as depopulation ravaged city coffers.  However, with money, multi-generational residents, and new retail flowing into cities, these cities are seeing revenues at levels not seen in decades.   Meanwhile, suburbs are more diverse than ever and, for many, are the more affordable option.  Families being priced out of cities are going to the suburbs not only for decent schools but for more affordability.   Even in rental markets, the suburbs can be the only affordable option for a young couple today, who are not avoiding the city due to concerns about crime or safety, but rather defaulting on their exorbitant rent.

This is why planning the suburbs is so crucial.  I believe that everyone deserves a reasonable quality of life, marked by safe neighborhoods and decent schools.  Over the coming decades, these are no longer going to be concerns centered only in urban environments, but will spread into suburban areas that often have less experience managing residents from diverse incomes and backgrounds.   Low-density suburban developments and their urban counterparts are inextricably linked.  For half-a-century, we allowed our cities to crash and burn, which – in the cases of Detroit, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and dozens of other cities – was detrimental to their suburbs as well.  For an urban area to be successful, planners and politicians can’t stop at municipal boundaries.  With so much focus on urban revitalization, let’s not leave the suburbs behind.  Otherwise, in another half-century, our grandchildren will be sitting around wondering how we could have turned our backs on these once thriving (suburban) communities.

A Road to Nowhere

“Well, we know where we’re goin’
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowin’
But we can’t say what we’ve seen”

In 1985, David Byrne put these lyrics to music for the classic Talking Heads single Road to Nowhere.  While not literally about roads – or transportation infrastructure, like this post – the lyrics are surprisingly poignant when considering our nation’s collective ignorance about the investments that made America great.  Today, we have no national funding source for transportation, which is perhaps the second-most basic responsibility of government after national security.  And if this streak of short-term fixes continues without a long-term plan, well, I know where we’re going and it’s not a good place.  It’s a place where our most prominent and crucial roads are marred by potholes and dangerous conditions; a place where the likelihood of bridge collapses and derailments and equipment failures increases exponentially.   It’s a place where LaGuardia isn’t our nation’s only third-world airport.

And it has also become clear that we don’t know where we’ve been.  It was 35 years ago that the first modern light rail line opened in San Francisco and only 60 years ago, we had no interstate highways.  It was only 75 years ago that commercial transatlantic flights were nearly impossible to find and only 100 years ago that we had just a handful of paved roads.  Only 150 years ago, there was no safe way to travel from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean (thanks, Golden Spike!).  These innovations that today allow us to roam freely around our cities as well as the world were due to the hard work of entrepreneurs and engineers and a giant dose of public funding.  Somehow, we look at our crumbling infrastructure – the infrastructure that turned this country into an economic giant – and forget how it was built in the first place.  It was public funding through the public works administration and later incarnations that not only gave us many of the systems that exist today, but also bolstered the economy and provided good-paying middle-class jobs in exchange for hard work.  This was not socialism but public investment in a generally undisputed public good.

The odd thing about all of this is that we know what we’re knowing – that almost every American has benefited – and is benefiting and will benefit – from the advantages of the local, state, and national highways; that millions of Americans in some of the highest GDP production areas of the country rely on trains on a daily basis, and that we can get anywhere we want thanks to an abundance of airports and airlines (although that number is slowly shrinking).  We know all of this, and yet there seems to be some hostility to continuing the investments that our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents made to develop the unprecedented systems that exist today.  We also know that European nations, China, Japan, the UK, Israel, South American nations, Australia, and countless other rapid-growth economies are investing heavily in their public transportation infrastructures.  We know that this is giving these places an edge.  We know that we can do better.

And yet, despite everything, we can’t to say what we’ve seen or come together to do anything about it.  Despite their insistence, politicians on both sides of the aisle seem helpless to pass a funding bill.  Perhaps we cannot come to terms with the idea that our national aptitude – the fundamental belief that it is our manifest density to be the greatest country on earth for now and forever – didn’t come from a childlike belief, but from sweat, tears, and investment in the publicly- and privately-funded advances that have made us an economic, military, and cultural powerhouse.  Perhaps we cannot pass such a bill until we open our eyes and come to the understanding that if we don’t do something, if we leave our infrastructures to rot, the consequences will fundamentally change this nation into a second-rate developed country, and that’s something I never want to see.

But perhaps the appropriately-named Talking Heads were right.  After all, a song called Road to Nowhere sung by a band mocking the hot air rhetoric of politicians by their very name is a perfect juxtaposition of the entire situation.

Baseball: Ready for a Comeback

The Washington Post is adorned with a headline this morning:

Baseball is Struggling to Hook Kids – and Losing Fans to Other Sports

But let’s be honest: kids aren’t the real problem.  Kids do and watch what their parent’s do and watch.  I grew up watching baseball because my parents watched baseball and all I wanted to do was play in Little League.  My favorite part of every summer wasn’t going to the beach – it was a trip to Wrigley Field.  I knew all of the players, all of their stats.  I learned strategy and score-keeping.  I even had one of those “Baseball is life – the rest is just details” shirts.  I really liked baseball.

The explanation for why kids today are more interested in soccer or basketball probably has a little to do with parents as well.  Suburbanization and helicopter parenting has made moms and dads more despite than ever for high energy organized events that provide their children with exercise in a programmed environment.  I love baseball, but there’s a reason why Wilt Chamberlain isn’t famous for a diet of hot dogs and beer.  For all of the great aspects of baseball, it involves far less running, far more sitting, far more talking, and far less sweating than any other major sport.  Heck, I played tennis in high school and that was a lot more exercise than I ever got in Little League.  When it came down to it, my baseball-loving mom only allowed me to play in Little League in the spring if I agreed to play soccer in the fall.  “I want you to get some exercise,” she told me.

There is another angle to this story, however.  Baseball tickets, once relatively inexpensive thereby providing access to people throughout the economic spectrum, are in many cities unaffordable for young families.  It might cost a family of 4 well over $100 for the nosebleed seats to a game, and when considering the inflated prices of concessions, as much as $200 might be needed for the afternoon.  That might allow a middle-income family to go to one or two games a year while sacrificing many less expensive activities.  In lieu of reasonable prices, the teams offer stadiums that double as amusement parks – part of the reason for that high cost.  This is not a tradition but a new trend that began with the now rather benign U.S. Cellular Field in 1991.  A park surrounded by stadium seating, like Fenway Park, is in many ways no match for the modern technology and box seat lined stadium, but these luxuries draw attention from the game, and cater to a crowd generally not composed of children.  Worst of all, they correlate to the decline in active fans of the game.

Today, baseball is inaccessible in more ways than just admission costs.  Cities are expensive and ballpark security is tight.  Families are being forced out of cities due to an under-supply of housing, which means that long trips are required to reach the ballpark.  In many cities, a lack of investment in transit along with increasing parking costs mean that there is no expedient and efficient way for those in the suburbs (i.e. middle class people with children) to reach the ballpark.  Once they do arrive, however, a new headache ensues.  Beginning this season, thorough security screenings are required at all ballparks.  While I understand and appreciate the need for such security, the downside is in the form of delay and confusion while shepherding children – an all consuming experience – through crowds.   This makes baseball not only feel more inaccessible and less communal, but significantly more stressful for parents and frightening for children.  While I am not sure what the answer might be, perhaps in the interim a family-only entrance with added but family-friendly security would at least provide a sense of relief for parents.

Of course, more problems arise after the game.  Building a fan base behind the pay-walls of cable television and pay radio mean that it’s harder for children, and budget-conscious adults, to follow their team.  Growing up, Cubs games were on over-the-air television and radio, which was great because we didn’t have cable.  Now, to watch Nationals games here in DC, I need MASN (i.e. cable), which requires a significant monthly investment.  To listen through a computer – most people don’t have high-quality radios at home anymore – I have to subscribe.  I frankly don’t have the money for either of those options right now, and if I did, I’m not sure that would be my first expenditure.  Baseball at home used to be free – now it’s just another thing that many cannot afford.

I believe in baseball.  It’s a great sport built on the idea of accessibility and community.  With 162 games every season, each game does not have the magnitude of an NFL game in regard to season-long impact, and yet baseball is the one game where with whom you watch it is as important as the plays on the field.  Tension mounts slowly but builds to a heart-stopping crescendo when the bases are loaded with two outs or when the home team has drawn the crowd to its feet with two strikes and two outs in the ninth inning as the closer throws his last pitch.  Baseball is the only game that even the most inept athlete can play – even if it’s in right field.  In this sense, baseball is the quintessential American pastime.  This is not because of its age or the generations of hall of fame players that have graced its record books, but because it highlights both individual talents and team efforts, because good sportsmanship is lauded in every aspect of the game.  This is because winning is not about knocking the opponent down or outplaying the pitcher but about being the best hitter/pitcher/fielder/runner that you can be.  It’s a game where players and fans don’t hope for opponent errors or miscalculations but for their own solid play.   And in all of these ways, baseball is the American sport because it reflects the American Dream.

This is why we have to return baseball to its rightful place as the centerpiece of the America summer: because baseball is America.

Happy Opening Day!