Walkability Social Policy discussed in “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck

Walkable City book jacket with no mention in index of disabled or handicapped peopleWalkable City: How Downtown Can Save America,  One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck, 2012, (coauthor of Suburban Nation)

There are several words I am getting really sick of hearing when listening to city planners discuss how to develop our city for “walkability.” The first word is “walkability.” I have multiple sclerosis and have trouble walking at all. The planners and politicians are obsessed with “getting rid of cars downtown” even though our city has an aging population majority. We also have a higher than average number of people with disabilities, some “invisible,” like MS, as well as visible mobility issues (wheelchair users).

In all the urban planning books I have read (at least 15 now) the word “disabled” rarely appears in the index. Nor do variations on it like handicapped or wheelchair. The most I have begun to expect is some vague mention of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Usually a simple mention of the legal requirement to abide by the regulations the ADA cites.

Vibrant” is the next word I loathe. Generally used to convey the image of happy 30-somethings with kiddies in tow on “bustling sidewalks” that are “pedestrian friendly.”

As anyone with a mobility disability knows, if you are in a wheelchair and the crowd around you is bustling, you are likely to get an elbow in the head and someone will almost certainly trip over your legs or back up into your chair.

Pedestrian-friendly is code for adding greenery and art and other embellishments. Fascinatingly enough, in “Walkability” the author critiques some of this “bring nature to the city” impulse, contrasting it with making storefront displays engaging to pedestrians.


The “curb cut effect” would do wonders for “walkability” AND be inclusive for people with disabilities (PwD). Walkability is not the opposite of using cars. The two things are not mutually exclusive.

Money is the driving force behind all new development. Developers want to make the most money per square foot. They can’t charge rent for a pocket park or public plaza as part of their projects. The city seems to be prohibited, by state law, from making any ordinances to mandate anything that would create a walkable streetscape in any case.

The legal roadblocks are not discussed in this book and that lack reduces this book to a philosophical discussion not anchored in reality.

At the beginning of the book, the flaws of what I call “being cheap” are discussed as a problem but the author blames it on the “school and parks departments” for pushing for “fewer, larger facilities, since these are easier to maintain — and show off.” CHEAPER TO MAINTAIN is the true meaning of “easier” in this context. (p. 18)

I don’t think our city departments suffer this short-sightedness at all. They are constrained by the law to only permit development that is cheap, unappealing, and serves the maximum profit of the developer.

The state law limits how many “tools in the toolbox” there are for city planners and leadership to get concessions about what amenities are provided or what populations are served (affordability). They all seem to be TAXPAYER SUBSIDIES basically.

Our city cannot REQUIRE jack shit from developers and the business interests of their puppets in the city and state government are going to keep it that way.


A common thread of those touting “walkability” is that walking is healthier than driving. I do not deny that walking is healthy. I hope I will always be able to walk some; at least to the bathroom from the bedroom. But I might not be able to do so. FORCED WALKING under the guise of “encouraging” healthy living is OFFENSIVE, PATRONIZING, ILL-CONSIDERED, and ultimately and OUTRIGHT LIE.

No one actually cares about residents’ health. WHEN EMPLOYERS PROVIDE EMPLOYEES PAID WALKING TIME, then I will believe they give a damn. Employers could also provide gym memberships, paid time to exercise of any kind, not just “walkability” forced by the built environment. Swimming is good for me because of the problems I have walking. In order to have the energy to swim, I need (and others like me) need to WALK LESS in order to be able to exercise by swimming.

Forcing people to walk reduces their time for, say strength training, exercise that would be of far greater benefit to them. Forcing people like me to walk means I will be able to do much less in my day. If I have to walk from a parking garage to the library, AND BACK, that means that I may not be able to WALK AT THE GROCERY STORE and have to go home and take a nap.

Forced walking for “walkability’s” sake COSTS energy (and time) for people and many people do not have any to spare.

Employers who conspire with the city planners for walkability simultaneously DO NOT PROVIDE EMPLOYEES PAID LUNCH HOURS or longer to enable them to walk to a nearby restaurant or to brown bag it and then take a walk. PAY PEOPLE for their time exercising and you will not need to manipulate the built environment to FORCE ALL PEOPLE, ABLE-BODIED OR NOT to walk based on ideology.

Put your money where your mouth is and PAY EMPLOYEES for their time so they can AFFORD to walk.

Walkability takes time!

Obsessive “walkability” enthusiasts DO NOT CONSIDER  people with disabilities (PwD) in their plans. No alternatives are even considered because that would require actual THINKING and MONEY and TIME to develop. And there may not be ready-made solutions out there yet because there is NO DEMAND. Vicious circle.

walkability and health search results show the pervasive linking of the twoHEALTH considerations behind “walkability” include OBESITY first and foremost. The FRAMING of the “healthiness” of walking ignores the COSTS OF WALKING completely.

Time is money!

Not one of the articles and books I have read discuss the fact that walking takes time. THE TIME people are forced to walk by these young able-bodied and well-paid city planners and developers and corporate vested interested COSTS PEOPLE MONEY in every possible sense of the concept.


This one just cracks me up. I bet NOT ONE ADVOCATE for walking to the grocery store ever does so for various reasons. First unless you live in NY, there is no bodega on every corner to be able to walk to for a quick few items to pick up.

“People” who talk about walking to the grocery store I would guess are actually 100% men. Why? Because they have the upper body strength to CARRY GROCERIES and walk further than the parking lot of a grocery store. Besides which I would bet 80% do not do the grocery shopping themselves if they have a spouse to do it instead.

I HATE FOOD DESERTS that are the result of segregated commercial and residential zoning. THAT DOES NOT MEAN THE GROCERY STORES MUST BE WALKABLE distances from residential to be beneficial.

Instead of visualizing a young able-bodied person going for a walk and picking up some fresh vegetables for the night’s dinner, picture the reality of a working single mom with 2 or more kids, who works two jobs, one just to pay for childcare, and who cannot take 1/2 hour EACH WAY to walk to the store. She needs to do a WEEK’S WORTH OF SHOPPING AT A GO, and has to have a car to pile it in, because she cannot carry it ALL THE WAY HOME.

A gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds!

If you have no choice but to walk to a grocery store, you are taking TIME away from someone who might choose to do other types of exercise or hey, maybe play with their kids, during the time required to walk for as many or as few groceries as can be carried home agin.

And if anyone reading this says “take the kids with you” smack yourself in the face for me. Wrangling small children is a full time job, efficient shopping does not include making sure a kid doesn’t eat something found on a lower shelf while chasing a runaway who delights in the lanes as a race track.

Being able to walk at the stride and pace of an adult to achieve any “health” benefit, does not include holding the hand of a 3-year old and matching that much shorter stride. A half-hour walk becomes an hour and the end result is a cranky kid who doesn’t want to walk around the grocery store much less back home. Hard to carry groceries and a kid.

Strollers were invented for a reason!

But the arrogance of this author (a man) is represented with the chapter titled:

Why Johnny Can’t Walk

The author states that 2004 was the year that HEALTH became a justification of more merit than the previous aesthetic and social metrics that were used to promote “walkability.” He cites the publication of a book, Urban Sprawl and Public Health, as the new ideology. And boy, he packs a punch with his rhetoric about the book’s conclusion:

“. . . a small platoon of physicians was quietly doing something much more useful: they were documenting how our built environment was KILLING US.” (my emphasis, p. 17)

I guess if a platoon says so, and DOCTORS as well, it just be true! Not.

In case you are wondering how massive a platoon is, I looked it up. A platoon consists of 2 or more SQUADS, so range from 16-50 people. By reversing that statt, that means a squad must be about 8 people. Since he specifiies a SMALL platoon, it seems reasonable that 16 doctors BEGAN WITH THE PREMISE that it was OUR BUILT ENVIRONMENT that was KILING US.

They were not researching the factors involved in public health that contributed to poor health. They were DOCUMENTING specifically how “urban sprawl” *CAUSED* PREMATURE DEATH.

I could spend 2,000 words dismantling the “epiphany” of Dr. Jackson that was quoted pp. 37-38 about how he came to the conclusion that it was a “lack of trees and public transportation, poor urban form, and heat island effects” that were actually the problem for an elderly woman “struggling under the burden of two shopping bags on a street with no sidewalks “in the ninety-five-degree afternoon.” But I can’t be bothered because of all the reasons this scenario is a problem, the heat, the grocery bags, and the lack of sidewalks are probably the LEAST of her problems. LACK OF MONEY seems to me to be the most obvious reason why an elderly person would be in such a position.

BTW, Dr. Jackson, he notes, “served as former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s state public health advisor. . . .” What are the odds that someone who spent entire days and weeks and years doing nothing but strength building and became a billionaire movie actor because of it, would have an advisor who concluded the “problem” of public health was the fault of the individuals who simply FAILED TO EXERCISE ENOUGH like by walking to AND from the grocery store or to AND from a bus stop?

The author goes on to cite the dreadful doom of HEALTH CARE SPENDING on “preventable” diseases like obesity and diabetes.

Here the truth of the concern is revealed: PUBLIC HEALTH PROBLEMS COST MONEY. Making “people” walk, therefore, will SAVE GOVERNMENT MONEY to be spent on “better” uses, like million dollar rockets to kill people in other countries.

He does cite the ASTHMA EPIDEMIC “tied directly to vehicle exhaust” but fails to reference the studies that show that WALKABILITY gains are OFFSET by exposure to air pollution (not necessarily all vehicle-related either). So the author promotes walkability, acknowledges that walking in vehicle exhaust (buses have exhaust too!) have caused an ASTHMA EPIDEMIC — asthma can KILL YOU by the way. And yet he focuses on making Johnny and his family walk to the grocery store.


How many people reading this pictured a an older tall and fit looking doctor type white man as someone who needed to walk more? I’m guessing zero. What I am guessing is that obese black women with two chubby kids, Johnny and Jane, were the “people” who needed to walk more were what you pictured. But the tall *seemingly” fit doctor might well have a cardiac condition that would benefit from him walking more, but no one will be pointing the finger at him any time soon.

I find all the discussion of walkability and public health to be inherently racially and economically biased. Rich white people buy gym memberships. Richer white employees have PRIVATE GYMS provided to them as a part of an employee benefit package. Old white man doctors get the closet parking and reserved parking spaces because their LIVES (AKA TIME) ARE INHERENTLY MORE VALUABLE than anyone else’s.

No doctor will ever be expected to spend an hour ONE WAY on the bus to get to work. Walkability to transit and the grocery store is for the rest of us.


If all the “healthy walking” people who are so concerned about the “obesity epidemic” really wanted to solve the problem, they would acknowledge the heart of the problem is the LACK OF TIME available to contemporary [non rich] people.

Advocates who want to MAKE US WALK, in effect, STEAL MORE OF OUR LIMITED TIME on earth. I bet they do not practice what they preach. They aren’t getting up and taking the bus to work. They aren’t walking to a grocery store and carrying home 20 or 30 pounds of food routinely. Nor are they advocating for mandatory grocery stores to be part of every 2 square miles of residential development.

They sit back on their high paying salaried jobs and consulting gigs and condemn those of us who are fat for our failure to eat properly, understand nutrition, prepare scratch meals, and all the rest of the baggage that goes along with the 50s delusional nostalgia of the “walkability” obsessed zealots.

We poor folks just don’t understand that WALKING IS GOOD FOR US (i.e., the public health costs, keeping our cars off the roads so they don’t sit in congested traffic, and they can feel self-righteous about FORCING US to embrace “walkability” when we are overworked, over stressed, and have way too much to do to walk anywhere much less go to a gym to exercise even though we might desperately want to be able to do so.

In “The Wrong Color Green” the author discusses carbon (“you can’t spell carbon without car”) referring to maps showing CO2 and the use of green color on them. This is contrasted with the good green of sustainability and non-fossil fuels based energy sources.

He describes a study made by “the Sierra Club’s John Holtzclaw” in California.

He found, as expected, an inverse relationship between urbanity and driving miles. But, perhaps not expected, he also found his data points distributed around a pretty sharp curve, with most of the gains in efficiency occurring early on. Increasing housing density at the SUBURBAN END OF THE SCALE had a much greater impact than at the urban end, such that the vast majority of the driving reduction occurred in the switch from large-lot sprawl to densities of ten and to twenty units per acre.

These densities represent a traditional urbanism of apartments, row houses, and yes, some freestanding single-family homes. In contrast, the future concentration of household at higher densities — even about one hundred per acre — while helpful, produced less dramatic results. (pp. 60-61)

The author makes an excellent point that we want to avoid the “horrid tower-in-the-parking–lot” style of density, since it doesn’t provide significantly better benefits anyway.

To students of urban form, these outcomes are not that surprising, because then to twenty unit per acre is the density at which drivable sub-urbanism transitions into WALKABLE urbanism.

The author cites Mercer Surveys as the gold standard of cities and quality of life. In the infographics on this linked page, the United States is notably absent from the highs and the lows (at least there is that). The only ranked U.S. city by regions was San Francisco, and I would vote that way too.

I have lived in the Bay area and I have lived in NY/boroughs, as well as Seattle, and a number of other cities. San Francisco was absolutely the best. But I have to say, some of that has to be attributable to WEATHER as well. They don’t have to deal with 3 feet of snow (I doubt there would be much housing on Nob Hill or other spots that practically seem to have a near 90 degree incline (or whatever that measurement would be) if snow were prevalent.

Vancouver, British Columbia (lovely city! Great public library building!), ranks very high consistently. Vancouver made “high-rise housing downtown” in the fifties. “This strategy, which included stringent requirements for free space and transit, really hit its stride in the mid-1990s, and the change has been profound. Since that time, the amount of walking and biking citywide has doubled, from 15 percent to 30 percent of all trips. ” (pp. 62-63)

ONCE AGAIN I MUST NOTE WEATHER PLAYS A ROLE HERE! While the climate is rainier than the Bay area, the low elevation means rain not snow counts up to double digit inches.

The second half of the book covers the author’s “Ten Steps of Walkability” following an introductory section where he describes how he has led a car-optional life — in Washington, D.C, where given the money to buy near transit does make cars optional with some lifestyle modifications. It should be noted that like the Bay area, New York, Boston and Chicago (which he also lists), are all cities that can be car-optional BECAUSE THEY HAVE THE TRANSIT INFRASTRUCTURE in place and the MASSES OF PEOPLE to use it.

He also notes that these cities all have “a combination of pre-auto-age provenance and subsequent enlightened planning.(p. 68)

He also casually mentions how they “built our new home in the District” and they “put in an office where the garage was supposed to go, and vegetable garden in place of the driveway — never mind that it took us nine months to void the city’s parking requirement.”

“Now I work from home and we eat (extremely) local produce in season. Without a car, we find ourselves spending most of our disposable income nearby, in neighborhood restaurants and at the farmers’ market. When we need a lightbulb or an extension cord, we bike to Logan Circle Hardware rather than driving to Home Depot.

If that doesn’t scream money and privilege I don’t know what else to say.

Among other things, the fact that a Logan Circle Hardware still exists in the face of the big box store onslaught counts for something that most towns no longer can expect.

He doesn’t have to commute, but perhaps the wife does. He can mind the kid(s) simultaneously working at home. They can afford to pay for the “Zipcar” service on demand for instances where they need EFFICIENT door-to-door transport.

Ah, but here’s the catch, now they are considering buying a car:

The birth of our second child has created a circumstance where a personal vehicle will contribute to OUR QUALITY OF LIFE. Moving a pair of car seats in and out of the Zipcar is JUST BECOMING TOO BIG A CHORE FOR TWO PARENTS WITH SORE BACKS. (p. 70)

I guess they’ll have to pave over their garden.  With their bad backs, the gardening was probably too much anyway, especially since it would seem they could walk to a farmers’ market. How nice for them, but these idyllic circumstances are not the case for 99% of the rest of the country where he wishes to impose FORCED WALKING.

His ten steps are grouped and listed as follows with abbreviated s off his summaries of topics, (p. 71 plus):

Step 1: Put Cars in Their Place
The automobile is a servant that has become a master. . . distorted the way that design decisions are made in American communities.

Step 2: Mix the Uses
For people who CHOOSE to walk, the walk must serve some purpose. . . mixed use. . .balance of activities within walking distance of each other.

Step 3: Get the Parking Right
. . .until recently there was not even any THEORY on how to use parking to a city’s benefit.

Step 4: Let Transit Work
Walkable neighborhoods can thrive in the absence of transit, but walkable cities rely on it utterly.

Step 5: Protect the Pedestrian
. . . moving parts, including block size, lane width, turn motions, direction of flow, signalization, roadway geometry . . .

Step 6: Welcome Bikes
. . . bike ability makes driving less necessary

Step 7: Shape the Spaces
. . . open spaces. But people also enjoy, and need, a sense of enclosure to feel comfortable as pedestrians. Public spaces are only as good as their edges, and too much gray or green — parking or parks — can cause a would-be walker to stay home.

Step 8: Plant Trees
Like transit, most cities know that trees are good, but few are willing to pay properly for them.

Step 9: Make Friendly and Unique Faces
[No] . . .  blank walls, repetition, and a disregard for the pedestrian’s need to be entertained. City design codes, focused on use, bulk, and parking, have only begun to concern themselves with creating active facades that invite walking.

Step 10: Pick Your Winners
With the possible exception of Venice, even the most walkable cities are not universally walkable: there are only so many interesting street edges to go around.

NOTE: he doesn’t mention the fact that Venice allows NO CARS AT ALL on the island it sits on (that is sinking). Venice represents, once again, the pre-auto provenance so the city was designed from the start for walkability (and horses and donkeys I guess) BECAUSE THAT WAS THE ONLY CHOICE! Plus gondolas for water transport that is FREQUENT, EFFICIENT, AND RELIABLE. Expensive though.

The book at this point is a veritable bouquet of Post-it notes, but I am tired. So I will try to just hit the high points. This is a book worth reading, I should note, but keep in mind the FRAMING of the argument is based on a white male privileged point of view.

He also utterly fails (as do so many others) to include the most crucial factors behind the necessity for car use if possible in almost all small to medium cities and the midwestern places that were built after trains, wagon trains, and subsequent invention of the automobile. Inadequate transit is the general experience in many towns. Transit that is expensive any way you look at it if you are realistic — instead of trying to fake the case for it. The false equivalences and other logical errors of calculations purporting to prove that transit is cheaper than car ownership creates a major problem not addressed other than the “health benefit” of walking to the bus stop.

TIME. People do not have time to walk anywhere anymore. Back we they were self sufficient famers, they could take the wagon into town for supplies once a month or so, but that lifestyle is no longer applicable.

People have to get to work ON TIME. To doctor and dental and other appointments ON TIME. People who have money BUY TIME by being able to afford close to work downtown housing, pay for permanent parking spots in employer ramps, and the seniority to be eligible for one. Though I imagine no DOCTOR has to wait for a spot.

Or in the case of the usual two-income households, TWO CARS are needed because the two adults have different locations for jobs, different hours of work, and different tasks to perform when not working, such as picking up children, going to the grocery store. Family visiting the grandparents on the family farm 20 miles out of town is unimaginable without a car.

Heck, going to a party of a friend who lives across town requires a car because there is no transit at 1 a.m. and the cost of a cab is prohibitive at $30 a pop when that is your weekly food budget. You can budget for fixed costs of a car. You cannot budget for unexpected outings to parties, to friends and families, to visit someone in the hospital, or the myriad of other necessities that only the car can meet for the transportation need in a TIMELY, immediate, and time of transit (there and back again).

High Points of the Steps

P. 78 points out the high amount of money being spend on roads.  “. . . the feds are still funding highways at roughly four times the rate of public transportation.” Plus the author notes, subsidies to the oil industry “estimated at between $65 ad $113 billion annually.”

P. 81 “. . . traffic congestion is the main topic of civic complaint in most American communities. Since it is the only real constraint to driving, congestion is the one place where people are made to feel the pinch in their automotive lives. So the traffic study has become the default act of planning. . . ” He goes on to say: “Traffic studies are bullsthit.” Then he discusses why that is so.

Among other things, contrary to what most people would guess, new roads actually increase congestion and do not relieve it.

The author discusses how successful pedestrian only (and bikes) work so well in Copenhagen, for example. Mercifully, he goes on to explain why American cities should not expect “SIMILAR DESIGNS TO PRODUCE SIMILAR RESULTS IN SO VASTLY DISSIMILAR PLACES.”

Face it: you aren’t Copenhagen, where cyclists outnumber motorists. You aren’t New York, where pedestrian congestion can actually make it almost impossible to walk south along Seventh Avenue near Penn Station at 9:00 a.m. Unless you have a similar residential and pedestrian density and stores that can thrive in the absence of car traffic — a rarity — to consign a commercial area to PEDESTRIANS ONLY, in AMERICA, IS TO CONDEMN IT TO DEATH.

He goes on to describe that “of the two hundred or so pedestrian malls created in the United States, only about thirty remain. Of those, most are moribund low-rent distrcts like Main Street in Memphis where, despite the presence of an appealing streetcar line, empty storefronts abound. The exceptions are almost all in college town like Boulder, Colorado and Burlington, Vermont. . . .”

“It would seem that only one thing is more destructive to the health of our downtowns than welcoming car unconditional and that is getting rid of them entirely.”

He warns that it is a bad idea to do expensive construction and “expensive-to-remove”streetscape that make driving impossible.”

Instead, our up some temporary bollards and bring in a few potted trees and movable chairs, like they did in Times Square. Try it on a weekend and, if it works, expand the days. Don’t spend a penny on gorgeous car barricades, because if a pedestrian zone is going to be successful, it will thrive due to its location, demographics, and organization — not it’s streetscape. (p. 99)

I think he is describing the current state of housing development in my city when he describes the new problem we have with housing downtown:

“A lucky few, larger cities — some of the heroes of this book — have already attracted so many well-off people into their downtowns and close-in neighborhoods that these places are in danger of becoming social monocultures. Despite their wealth, these can also be detrimental to street life, since YUPPIE OVERACHIEVERS tend to spend less time in the public sphere, and also because sidewalks, like communities, thrive on diversity; different types of people use the streets at different times of day, keeping them active around the clock.”

For these gentrified and gentrifying communities, two powerful remedies exist for increasing and maintaining affordability. One is well know and the other hardly so. They are INCLUSIONARY ZONING and GRANNY FLATS.

Inclusionary zoning — requiring a set percentage of all new housing developments to meet [ACCESSIBLE!!!!] affordability criteria — hardly requires a mention, expect to say that it works and it is always the right thing to do do. . . .

Granny flats, on the other hand, have yet to gain much traction in America’s cities. Called “accessory dwelling units (ADUs)” by planners, and “backyard cottages” by clever marketers, these apartments are as intelligent as they are illegal. The few ADU ordinances that have been passed in the United Staes allow single-family houses to place a small apartment in their backyard — often atop a garage on a rear lane — that can be rented in the free market. They are typically opposed by neighbors who are worried about property values. An old college roommate of mine from Los angels put it succinctly: We are afraid that nine illegals [sic] will move in.” (pp. 109-111)

My idea of what he calls granny houses also are known are mother-in-law houses. Basically, the concept to me was less about being able to rent it for additional income (who wants to be a landlord in addition to care taking your own family and grounds?), but more about having a place for aging parents to live nearby but not in the same home. This usually ends up being women because mostly the men die first.

Given the lack of “age-in-place” housing, the lack of AFFORDABLE care facilities, granny houses would really make a difference for people whose parents still are mainly independent but just need help close to hand for various circumstances.

Meanwhile every developer and their mothers get TIF incentives to build architectural disgraces beyond boring but actually offensive aesthetically.

If the city really wanted walkability, they would surely return to the days of yore when AESTHETICS was considered a criterion for walkability.

One of the interesting points about “getting parking right” discusses various ways to meet parking needs. One of the suggestions was that instead of a private lot, businesses could pay towards a public lot or possibly a ramp.

For example, in one of the new downtown business developments a chunk of the middle of the section will be a flat lot parking for employees only. this is replacing an existing parking lot used by maybe a hundred other people in another business a block away.

Maybe the new development could and should build a parking ramp, with the City kicking in incentives, that would then be permitted to be used by the public as well. One floor could be designated for employees, the other the public. And perhaps a third could be used by the former business that used it for their employees.

I am going to have to suggest this. OF COURSE IT WILL COST MORE MONEY, so in a community obsessed with economic dollar value as the definitive measure of worth, I don’t suppose the idea would be embraced.

P. 137 “PARKING IS A PUBLIC GOOD” and I agree about this. His logic is flawed when he follows it by a discussion of FREE MARKET setting the price for parking. Public goods are not and should not be priced based on the never truly “free” market which actually tends towards monopoly and exploitation and corruption.

P. 144 “But adding trains to Miami does not make it Minneapolis.”

P. 147 (Step 4: Let Transit Work)
Which raises the question: What is Dallas doing wrong? For an answer, we turn to Yonah Freemark, the sagacious blogger behind “The Transport Politic” and probably the best-informed source on transit today. His answer, paraphrased, is “just about everything,” which includes lacking sufficient residential densities, encouraging ample parking downtown; placing the rail alignments in the least costly rights-of-way rather than in the business areas; locating stations next to highways, and with huge parking garages; reducing frequencies to afford far-flung service; and, finally , forgetting about neighborhoods. He suggests, “If people are going to be living in apartments anyway, have them do so in mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods within easy distance of light rail stops.”

P. 149 he suggests that cities should “focus development on the transit stations, making plans for walkable neighborhoods around every one.”

P. 154-155: If it is to become widely used, transit has to be ruthlessly reconceptualized as a convenience. . . the system needs to focus on those rare opportunities where it can offer a superior experience to driving. These should be earmarked for a higher level of service, and indeed only provided with service if certain conditions can be met. These conditions are what is lacking in much of transit today: urbanity, clarity, frequency, and pleasure.

Urbanity means locating all significant stops right in the heart of the action, not a block away and, God forbid, not across a parking lot. This is the problem of the last one hundred years that haunts so any a bus or train station. Riders should be able to fall into the bus from a stool at a coffee shop. If the dimensional requirements of your vehicle do not allow this, then you need A DIFFERENT VEHICLE [not a 60-foot bus]. And without true walkability on both ends of the line, your system is a non-starter.

Clarity means a route that is a simple line or loop with as few diversions as possible. This not only expedites travel — and limits frustration — but also allows riders to form a mental image of the path, so important to their comfort. Sometimes when I ride another city’s bus for the first time, I am reminded of the one-day bus strike I encountered in Florence, Italy: the drivers showed up for work but, once the passengers boarded, they cruised wherever the heck they wanted. We got the message.

Frequency is the thing that MOST TRANSIT SERVICE GETS WORNG. People hate to look at schedules almost as much as they hate waiting, so ten-minute headways are the standard for any line that hopes to attract a crowd. IF YOU CAN’T FILL A BUS AT THAT RATE, then GET A VAN.  GPS-enabiled, time-to-arrival clocks at stations (and smartphone apps) are also essential, and particularly helpful after hours. What after hours means depends on the circumstances, but staying popular may require short headways all evening. The byword here is to provide service frequently or not at all. Limiting service due to limited ridership is a death spiral that few transit lines survive.

Pleasure is the mandate that is most often overlooked by transit officials, yet the search for its attainment is at the heart of so many human choices.

P. 156 “And yes, even novel vehicles, like DOUBLE-DECKER BUSES, that add capacity and charm while reducing turning radii.

P. 173 “. . . why is it still illegal in most of America to intersect two streets at a thirty degree angle?

P. 176 “Naked streets refers to the concept of stripping a roadway of its signage — all of it, including stop signs, signals, and even stripes. Far from creating mayhem, this approach appears to have lowered crash rates wherever it has been tried.

I am not so sure that will play in America but apparently some places have tried it.  The concept is that without signage, people have to slow down and be more cautious. There is also a school of thought that suggests that so much signage makes it confusing and requires too much diverted attention of drivers reading signs instead of watching for other cars or pedestrians.

P. 182 “What makes a sidewalk safe is not its width, but water it is protected by a line of parked cars that form a barrier of steel between the pedestrian and the roadway.”

“According to the National Trust’s Main Street Center program, each eliminated on-street parking space costs an adjacent business ten thousand dollars each year in sales. “

“The latest enemies of on-street parking to make the scene are two erstwhile friends: bikeways and transit lanes. Stripping a sidewalk of its protection in order to add bike lanes is just sacrificing one form of non motorized transportation for another. And since transit depends on walkability for its success, any trolley system that undermines pedestrian comfort is shooting itself in the foot. If they are truly to offer an alternative to the automobile, bikes and trolleys must displace moving cars, NOT PARKED ONES.

Pp. 185-187 Has an extensive discussion of crosswalks and includes Barnes Dance, right on right vehicles turning into crosswalks, “obligatory right-on-green, and “worse” left-on-green signals. There are issues with push button crosswalk signals for blind people, and annoying delays for pedestrians at fixed signals with no car traffic. Pedestrians seemed doomed to have to stop at every intersection to wait for a signal.

P. 193 “In Copenhagen, most of the city’s major four-lane streets have been converted tot lanes plus two bike paths. As a sign of the city’s priorities, these bike lanes are always cleared of snow before the driving lanes are. The minimum recommended bike path width is over eight feet, which makes America’s five-footers look pretty dinky.”

P. 283 “But five-foot bike lanes up against car doors are nobody’s favorite, so the next question is whether there is enough room to build a separated path. These typically claim at least eleven feet of roadway, to allow for two adjacent four-foot paths protected by a three-foot buffer. If you haven’t seen them, these paths — the type employed in Brooklyn — take some getting used to. They are located between one curb and that curb’s parallel parking aisle, which gets pushed out into the street. The buffer is marked with striping and often hold vertical posts. Once you get the hang of these paths, however, it’s hard to go back to a plain old bike lane. My wife will go three blocks out of her way to take the new separated path in our neighborhood. ”

p. 217 (Step 7 Shape the Spaces)
“But fast-forward a decade and, at least in the academy, tower-in-the-park city planning is once again ascendant. This time it has taken the guise of “landscape urbanism,” the dominant ideology at Harvard and elsewhere, where the ostensibly overriding objective of enhancing each site’s natural ecology has led to a newfound disregard for creating well-shaped public spaces.”

“We can give the last word on this topic to Jan Gehl: “If a team of planners was asked to radically reduce the life between buildings, they could not find a more effective method than using modernist planning principles.” [Jan Gehl is the author of Cities for People and other related books.]

Fascinating discussion from pp. 218 to 221 on the issue of appropriate building height maximums. “Tiny is Tastier” is the section title. It cites Disney’s Main Street as being “famously built at three-quarters scale.” This I suppose also makes it more appealing for smaller children.

The author cites a book, as “In A Pattern Language: Towns, Cities, planing, the bestselling design book of all time, Christopher Alexander drew the limit at four stories, noting that “there is abundant evidence to show that high building make people crazy.”

“The fertile-minded Leon Krier, Luxembourger godfather of the New Urbanist movement, is likewise adamant in his dismissal of skyscrapers, with he terms “vertical cul-de-sacs,” arguing instead for cities limited to four stories, the convenient height for a walk-up.” [!!!!]

Wind speeds magnified by tall buildings is one aspect that Gehl does not like.

The typical American downtown is not faced with the volume of development, even in good times, that needs tall buildings to contain it. In most places, the challenge is the exact opposite: a preponderance of vacant properties and parking lots, the missing teeth that make walking so unpleasant. Raising or abolishing the height limit, as occurred in Baton Rouge, creates an outcome like Baton Rouge, where a single skyscraper lands on an empty block and sucks up an entire year’s worth of development activity, while all the surrounding blocks stay empty — or fill up with skyscraper parking.”

P. 227 discusses the issue of combined sewage overflows (CBOs). Mature trees absorb rainfall so planting trees helps reduce stormwater damage. Lest you think this a trivial problem, the author cites the cost to New York State for fixing their stormwater problem at “$36 BILLION over the next twenty years. . .”

He actually puts serious monetary benefits to planting trees and the payback is tremendous.

[I wonder though about our many densely packed and shrubbery river banks. It seems to me that some selective pruning and clearing out of some underbrush would be better for our city. ]

PP. 237-251 (Step 9)
This chapter is covered in multiple Post-it notes with stars to signify their important content. Starting with describing American downtowns as suffering from “the blight of boredom” and the tedious uniformity of national chains “who refuse to put windows where shelves can go.”

“These standards can be overcome, but only by cities that throw off the BEGGAR MENTALITY and outlaw the practice.”

“Finally, in their quest to become more sustainable, cities need to remember that, for the typical pedestrian, the most mundane storefront is still more interesting than the most luxuriant landscape. A determination to increase walking mean NOT ALLOWING THE GREENING IMPULSE TO UNDERMINE THE CORE QUALITIES OF URBANITY that draw people downtown in the first place.”

Invisible Parking”  (4 Post-its with 3 stars on one) discusses various alternatives to the “I am a parking garage” look of the things. For example, mixed use with retail on ground floors. Setbacks and architectural elements for aesthetic embellishments create visual appeal.

More Jan Gehl observations discuss “sticky versus slippery edges.”

He remarks on a proposal he and others called “the Traditional Neighborhood Development Ordinance that would replace land-use and statistical orientation of conventional coding with a focus on the physical form of building: how they met the ground, the street, and the sky; how they handled the transition from public to private realms; and how they HID their parking. “

“Since this [1980] writing, this type of ordinance has come to be known as a “form-based” code and hundreds of cities and towns have enacted them. . . The most prominent version of this ordinance, called the SmartCode, is a piece of open-source shareware available for free download. (www.transect.org/coes.html by the Center for Advanced Transit Studies)

P. 246 He does not care for one of my favorite architects, Rem Koolhaas (for his creativity, not necessarily functionality). He calls such “starchtiects.” The reasonable criticism is that they are egotistical and care not one whit for the functionality of their buildings and less for the people who try to use them.

P. 254 presents a brilliant idea of how to decide where to develop first. “The answer, as obvious as it is ignored,  is on streets that are already formed by building that have the potential to attract and sustain street life. ”

“In contrast, there is little to be gained in livability by improving the design of a street that is lined by muffler shops and fast-food drive-thrus. When you’re done, it’s still the auto zone and not worthy of our attention. Let it go. “

P. 256 has a good story about the great fix for Columbus, Ohio and the resulting awesome Short North district. I can attest to the success having lived in the area for a number of years.

My favorite paragraph has to be this one from p. 35:

The conventional wisdom used to be that creating a strong economy came first, and that increased population and a higher quality of life would follow. The converse now seems more likely: creating a HIGHER QUALITY OF LIFE is the first step to attracting new residents and jobs. This is why Chris Leinberger believes that “all the fancy economic development strategies such as DEVELOPING A BIOMEDICAL CLUSTER, an aerospace cluster, or whatever the current economic development ‘flavor of the moth’ might be, do not hold a candle to the power of a great walkable urban place.”

Walkability means more than simply creating barriers to car use. It includes landscape architecture, housing near transit, density — but not necessarily 6-story high multifamily dwellings! Density by CLUSTER HOUSING, attached homes, and variations to fill the need for the “missing middle” between the multiple bedroom single family dwellings for people with children and 400 unit rental developments.

A different word would do better at expressing the complexity of urban development other than the discriminatory “walkability” since it ipso facto precludes parking ramps when car use forms the most efficient, reliable, immediate, and BEST METHOD FOR PEOPLE to get from point A to B (work), plus stops at grocery stores, picking up kids, getting to the dentist, going to friends’ homes for dinner, and picking up some prescriptions at the drug store ALL IN ONE DAY’S JOURNEY.

The built environment is NOT KILLING US: overwork and zero time to live life is killing us. Walking takes a lot of TIME; time contemporary people do NOT HAVE TO SPEND. Forcing us to walk simply coerces us to WASTE PRECIOUS MOMENTS OF OUR LIVES for a pointless “exercise” ONLY FOR POOR PEOPLE, never the affluent.

The biggest flaw in the concept, especially for my town, rests on the FALSE ASSUMPTION that the majority of people CAN ACTUALLY WALK without adverse consequences, personal toll on physical well-being, and have the time to “enjoy” shop windows featuring unaffordable merchandise or shrubbery that requires constant cost for maintenance.

I think “walkability for health” should be encouraged by PROVIDING PAID TIME FOR PEOPLE TO exercise for their health, WITH THEIR FAMILIES and FRIENDS as a shared social activity. Community centers that provide services for the COMMON GOOD paid for by property taxes like public schools would be a major improvement to people’s lives contrasted with forcing them to walk to bus stops and to work from bus stops and walk to grocery stores, and walk back to bus stops and so on — while charging $$ for each leg of any journey PER PERSON.

Walkability as a measure of social benefit simply becomes the new force causing greater inequality. People who can’t walk or walk poorly or have to carry burdens or have kids in tow ARE NOT PICTURED in the illustrations of walkability. The days are always sunny, the services and transit are always available, and the TIME people have to spend on any given journey is without limit or personal cost.

Walkability is suspect as a social policy on many levels. But the Ivy Tower planners, joined by environmentalists, and the affluent who WILL NOT BE HAVING TO USE TRANSIT, all have conspired to push this notion against all rational and realistic understanding of the lives of the 90% of us. We regular people WILL NOT HAVE A CHOICE to use cars in the near future if this juggernaut is not called out for what it is: bad social policy.


Satire and Great Read: Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

satire going postal by Terry Pratchett one of the best books everGoing Postal by Terry Pratchett [RIP, you are very missed]

Alas, I do not remember which of his books I read first. But Going Postal is my favorite among all the books I have ever read. Last year I had learned that the Brits made a video of it and was able to get from the library and it was respectable job, but to my recollection, did not capture what Pratchett’s writing manages like no other I have read: half the content of the book is not WHAT HE WRITES but what he DOESN’T WRITE. I have tried to put my finger on this for years without success. Until now. Now that I LISTENED to the book on CD read by a masterful narrator. He captures more than the words; he captures the meaning behind the words that is often different from what the words as written are actually on the page.

HE IS MY FAVORITE AUTHOR AND NOW I UNDERSTAND WHY! He makes me snort and laugh and giggle and have wry smiles and nod appreciatively and gasp in amazement when something so minor, so thrown away chapters ago becomes significant and masterfully portrays the cleverness of a particular character, or their steely determination, or their ability to read between the lines themselves.

In art it would be called negative and positive space. A good painting or photograph illustrates some subject, flowers or whatever, but the background — negative space — is incidental, or meant to disappear, hopefully in harmony and balance and not disjointed from the main subject. A great image integrates the negative and positive space so that the parts NOT THE SUBJECT are EQUALLY IMPORTANT TO THE COMPOSITION. For example, the space between the curve of a woman’s arm and her waist that forms a diamond that is repeated by the position of a space between her dress and the wall. The negative space defines the positive space as much if not more than the other way around.

Ordinary, even very good authors are excellent at positive space. Putting the words on the page, putting the best word on the page is even better, and using techniques like ending chapters on cliff hangers and switching scenes in the next so you have to go on to learn what happens. Even better authors gently and subtly put little hints of things to come, or more often state their intentions baldly, “If only I had known then. . . ”

Terry Pratchett’s writing is more like a weaving than a flat page in a book or a photograph.

As an example of ordinary writing, consider mystery stories. They start out with x, toss in a murder, throw in some red herrings and obstacles, and proceed to resolution, usually with the protagonist’s life being threatened, or loved ones, because the drama is presumed to be in the threat level. You can flip to the end and see if you guessed the antagonist correctly and decide if the journey is worth making or not. Too often lately, I have decided not, and turned to non-fiction. Even when I know how those books end (e.g. history), the pleasure is in the details of how we got there, with very frequent completely unexpected twists, and most shockingly to me, things happened in plain sight during my lifetime when I thought I was paying attention but it turns out I was clueless.

Terry Pratchett makes you enjoy every sentence, every word as if each were a treat to savor and listen to or read over again and again and still laugh anew (or feel sorrow, or rage, or satisfaction) every time in Going Postal in particular. Not a false note, nor too many, and every word serves a purpose.

Continue reading Satire and Great Read: Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

The Dystopia of “The Circle” by Dave Eggers

book jacket red cover white circle logo of storyThe Circle by Dave Eggers (c 2013)

Dystopia in the near future described as the hell it would be if the “share everything” becomes a coerced “share everything” panopticon world of my worst nightmares described in this book.

The is the book that received a perfect 100 score referenced by a previous post and discussed on Book TV, The Bestseller Code. This book was a bestseller and received a perfect score of 100 based on the computer algorithms by Archer and Jockers.

Reading the book jacket text frames the expectations of a book so you can guess if things that seem good will turn out to be rotten or have a happy ending. A few are unpredictable journeys and this book is one of those.

WARNING: SPOILERS Continue reading The Dystopia of “The Circle” by Dave Eggers

The American Way of Poverty by Sasha Abramsky

book jacket text on cardboard photoThe American Way of Poverty: How the other half still lives by Sasha Abramsky (2013)

The book is full of tales of woe, so much so that you would think that politicians could not ignore such a reality. I considered suggesting sending this book to legislators, but their collective entrenched delusions would not comprehend these stories as FACT. Neither would they see this situation as SYSTEMIC. The few unfortunate cited are exceptions, not the standard way of this great America life, contrasted with their own economically secure collective multimillion dollar personal life experience.

The tyranny of the majority now in government at state and federal levels is deliberately eliminating every possible aspect of the common good. Proudly dismantling the safety net. The stupid people that voted for the monsters remain deluded that they will be better off.

The American Way of Poverty is divided into two parts. Broadly speaking, the first part of the book tells the stories of the impoverished people I met around the country, whereas the second part of the book maps out a broad set of policy discussions and connections between issues that any meaningful national level attempt to tackle poverty will have to include. These include tax reform, the welfare system, wages, access to healthcare, changes that could be made in the criminal justice system, changes in how America deals with addiction and mental illness, reforms in the foster care system, and many other area that overlap with poverty. (p. 330)

Note the link in the paragraph above goes to the web site for the book and contains some of the interviews and oral histories.

Continue reading The American Way of Poverty by Sasha Abramsky

Raising the Floor by Andy Stern

book jacketRaising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream by Andy Stern (2016)

This is a good book. I am buying this book. I do not agree with everything he says in the book, but the writing is clear and broad in scope. I was reminded of something I knew, that Alaska changed their state constitution to provide a basic income to all resident citizens from the money oil leases and such brought into the state by putting all that money into a dedicated fund to share the wealth. And a Republican governor did it.

I have some doubts about the purported takeover of technology for jobs, but that is probably a prejudice or failure of imagination on my part due to my lack of education and experience (pre-females being allowed to take shop in public schools). It is like watching magic to see a video of the automation that puts car parts together, or the mind blowing details of how the new Bay Bridge was built. Or when I saw the giant machine used to drill out the tunnel under the English channel. For that matter, every day I took the New York subway, especially though the tunnel under the water from Queens or when I drove through the Holland Tunnel and did not drown, well, it just doesn’t seem possible that mere mortals could figure out how to make tools and how to use them to accomplish such feats.

We have people who cannot make change correctly so cash register machines had to be modified to contain a function that simply told workers what the correct change should be. Icons are used instead of words, although I have to say, from a user interface point of view, this actually is a good thing on many levels: multilingual, faster, and more accurate. Translating the abstract concept of FRIES by having a little graphic of french fries in the container eliminates a lot of cross-brain work translating the letter symbols into a word and then punching a value of numbers in the register.

Trust is the number one criteria for people to accept a lot of the mechanization and technology. As a grocery shopped, you select a product based on a posted sign for a particular price. When the item is scanned at the register, can you remember the price of all the items selected to ascertain if the automated system actually priced it as the sale take listed or maybe it added a penny or a dime. Who actually watches the $$ values that are being rung up and are confident enough in their recollection to contest a price? Peer pressure of people standing in line waiting for you, the inability of the register clerk to know anything beyond what the computer tells her is right, having to call a manager over to assess the situation and go back to the shelves to check the sign, all to save 2 cents on a $2.00 purchase. Not a scenario to encourage questioning the accuracy of the technology. Even self-serve registers have this problem, or worse, because you have to do the scanning yourself while watching accuracy and then do the bagging too, again with people standing there impatiently waiting while you try to figure out why your credit card swipe is demanding a pin number you don’t have and it just seems wrong to push the red cancel button to continue.

Continue reading Raising the Floor by Andy Stern