Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"I can hear the birds again..."

Photo by H├ędi Benyounes on Unsplash

The impact of the US virus shutdown on everything has been stunning. On the phone with the pediatrician (yes, we're one down), she remarked that she never heard the birds before because of all the traffic noise - and she's pretty far back from the road.

We don't have issues with pollution, but I'm sure many cities have seen dramatic changes. No traffic counts are valid after March 13th because the volumes are nearly non-existent. Gas prices are as low as they've been since 2003, but no one notices.

I sat out on our front porch this morning and saw at least 7 different sets of neighbors, some chatting on phones, some walking dogs, some just playing with their kids. Most of them I knew. Some I met for the first time.

My son is out on the front driveway with his buddy just hanging out 6 feet apart because I took away his keys. He's been getting stir-crazy and trying to figure out how to hold his tutoring sessions online.

Life is more digitally connected, but I see people being far more intentional about physical connection too. The choice to stay home takes on new ethical ramifications. We miss what we can't have. The wake-up call is good.

Dads are spending time with their kids - Heck, moms are spending time with their kids too (guilty). Dinner is at home together instead of on the run - or at least mostly together - Katie is double quarantined so I had breakfast with her in her bed. She's pretty happy about nearly unlimited Disney+ time, but misses her teachers and friends terribly. We're beginning to think about what it looks like for a cognitively disabled child to be employed digitally. Our church small group is going to meet via Zoom at our normal Thursday night time. Another group is meeting outside at a coffee shop and planning how to deliver supplies to those who are quarantined at home. Small towns mean close neighbors and dense support networks. Big towns are working on creating the same connections.

We have been blessed. We continue to work from home and have little disruption to our lives or futures. Many are rightfully scared about what the future holds both for life and making a living. Many who have been content just making it may realize that they need to catch up digitally and find new careers. Grocery store workers are esteemed as highly as police and firefighters. Nurses and doctors are heroes again. We all contribute to the whole and none of us are expendable.

Life will go back to normal, but I'm hoping it won't be the same normal. I could be content with some of these changes being permanent.

#Covid19 #NewNormal #grateful

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

How will CoVID-19 change communities?

Winter Garden, FL  Photo: PJ Tice

I just got back from my small town polling place. There were lots of discussions about the virus, but no fear. The elderly folks from the Lion’s Club that man our polling place were just as friendly and cuddly as ever — it’s a hugging town. Social distancing was more of a joke than a panic. As a small urban space west of Orlando, where there are already two confirmed deaths, you would think that they would be more concerned, but they’re not.

Downtown, people are far more reactive. Our mega-church has cancelled in-person meetings for the rest of the month, resorting to Facebook and YouTube. Many of us created informal watch-parties with our small groups to get together around breakfast last Sunday. We’re planning to do it again next week.

This is where small-town America has the edge over Urban America. In our small town, we will see a few hundred people a day, who see the same few hundred people. As I chatted with one of the candidates at the polls, her mechanic husband greeted nearly every person that passed us by name. The risk is greater at WalMart where several thousand people move through the space on any given day, but again, it’s the same few thousand people. It’s two orders of magnitude less than moving through a transit station that may have seen hundreds of thousands of people in a day from around the world or a downtown that serves 8 million people.

I read a trend article a few weeks ago that started with “people will continue to move to cities” and then followed with 9 other items that made urban life unnecessary like telecommuting, deliveries, and digital transitions. Living in a large city is hard. It’s emotionally draining. It’s expensive. Crime rates are higher. More to the point, social support is much less and the potential for disease transmission is exponentially higher than lower density areas.

I do think small towns will pick up more more urban characteristics. Small urban is very different from typical suburban development. Mile-long cul-de-sac projects and gated subdivisions are just as isolating as the most dense urban areas. As people become more digitally connected, the value of a unique place and strong human connections becomes even more critical. Even in the suburbs, where driving is king, congestion is a pain. Mixing land use at a local scale means your trip can be only a mile instead of five. Kick in a scooter or bike and that one mile trip doesn’t need a car at all. That means that small communities with good walking and biking infrastructure and a nice land use mix provide all the advantages of an urban area with much less risk.

There will always be people who want to live with the excitement of a large urban area. There’s a great energy being surrounded by so many different people. The question may become, is it worth it and can we do it differently? The current pandemic isn’t a huge risk to the majority of the population. We are taking precautions to care for those who are at risk. The 1918 flu hit the youngest and strongest. Small urban places will remain fairly isolatable, while large urban centers will remain risky. Transit systems can be sanitized. but the sheer number of strangers you encounter on a daily basis amplifies the risk in a way that is much harder to counteract.

Americans have always wanted to have their cake and eat it too. Small urban spaces may provide just what we needed.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Engineers Week 2020: Moving Forward

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash
I became an engineer because I had already made it past the hazing (Differential Equations). I remain a transportation engineer because for the first time in my life I see hope.
Traffic seems to be a universal complaint that guarantees job security for all of us. Roman soldiers were probably complaining about the rabble in front of their chariots thousands of years ago and it’s difficult to imagine a time when congestion of some kind will not be an issue, even if it’s digital. (Hey honey, why’s the internet so slow tonight? — Everyone’s watching the Superbowl. Come look at this cool commercial!).

The obvious solution was to move people out of their cars. Since I fell in love with transportation policy 25 years ago, the driving thrust has been mode shift: Can we get people into transit? What about walking or biking? One summer in Maine, I biked 5 miles in and out to work every day. Old Town is lovely in the summer and I didn’t have a car. I whined at first, but by the end of the summer I looked great and I felt even better. Back in Florida, I tried getting the same exercise, but a stationary bike is not the same. Biking from my apartment was (and still would be) a dance with death. Mode shift? Great idea, but probably wishful thinking.

I’ve seen painted buses, HOV lanes, slugging, critical mass, complete streets mandates, and literal gas station bans. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, and you’ve got to be kidding. None of these could compete with a baby in a carrier, a squirrelly ten year old boy (let’s call him Squirrelly Stevie), or the security of my safety accredited SUV parked right in front of the store’s door. I remember wishing that my post office had a drive through window (I still do).

So what has changed? Why the hope now?

I gave up on shifting the work trip about a decade ago. I worked from home most of the time anyway, and people work where they work. People choose where they live with their workplace in mind, but their choice is driven by the other 60% of their lives and trips. So what about that other 60%? Drop the school size and it will be close to home. Drop the store scale and it can be close to home (thank you, Amazon). Scatter parks everywhere and soccer is nearby. Take-out can be down the street. Distribute the mega-churches into local campuses. Even freight can be neighborhood scale at Christmas. Incorporate a complete streets analysis into every resurfacing project and bike lanes appear overnight — they’re not suitable for Squirrelly Stevie, but it’s a start. Incomplete networks won’t get used, but getting to a complete network is only a matter of time.

Then I saw an e-scooter. On its own (say in the 1990’s when Razor came out with the first kick scooter) it’s not that earth-shaking. By the time I saw my first e-scooter, I had spent nearly a decade with decreased mobility. Time, autoimmune illness, and a sedentary lifestyle had not been kind to my body. The 1/4 mile walk to my office was a struggle, but a scooter could make a huge difference, especially if I didn’t need to carry it inside with me. I liked biking before, but how was I going to store it or fit it in my car? It was a pain to get my leg up over the seat after all those years. Ugh. A scooter was lightweight, portable, and the shared scooters could be readily available when and where I needed them without getting in the way of the rest of my life. Babies could still be a problem for some people, but Squirrelly Stevie was better at it than I was. Suburbanites were beginning to flock to golf carts in the better designed areas, so a transition to a single-person conveyance was not as far-fetched as it had been. Coupled with all the other changes that have been happening, I was beginning to see that mode shift could really happen, for the first time in my life. Scooters could be the gateway drug that suburban people need to transition to a different lifestyle.

Unfortunately, we can’t solve traffic congestion with the same thinking that caused it. Many place the blame on suburban design patterns, but the first suburbs were still very walkable/bikable community clusters. We compounded the suburban spatial scatter with roadway designs that gave place to the car alone. Since John Forester wrote Effective Cycling in 1976, bike lane design has been geared toward serving cyclists that act, move, and think as motorists. In essence, we have placed the safety burden on the talent, training, and care of the cyclist and have paid a dear price for it: 857 bicycle fatalities in 2018 alone. It’s no wonder that mode shift has been a pipe dream for all but a daring few. Is it any surprise that where only cars exist, single use zones can span miles? In contrast, several auto-dominated European countries redesigned their systems so that kids could safely bike. To be sure, their land use was already pretty mixed in many areas, but any new development that ensued maintained the land use mix at a bikeable scale.

Pete Yauch chuckled at me two weeks ago for being a “plangineer” and giving up hope on operations. He’s right. I have. Operational refinements including signal systems, CAV’s, and the like can give me 20% increased capacity on a good day. I need 200% or more. Improved operations and connected vehicles that are aware of users around them will help with incidents, but they can’t fix the congestion. We need low speed mode systems that can serve squirrelly 10 year olds like Stevie across the entire community and we need to take land back from parking (gulp). The laws of physics have been a great ally in designing high speed roads, but they are no help in controlling the behavior of a driver in an urban setting. Urban designs in mixed mode areas need psychological design criteria that we are only beginning to understand.

Transportation engineers are a rare breed. We use science, human behavior, and politics to manage the movement of life around us. We will always need arterials and will likely always need cars to some degree, but the focus on only one mode has been problematic for years. Our bodes rely heavily on blood flow for survival, but also have internal transportation systems that work at smaller scales in the body to get what was in the blood into the brain and other tissues. A body with great blood circulation will die without spinal fluid and lymph systems to transport what the blood can’t. We’ve spent my entire lifetime creating the most dynamic, resilient roadway system the world has ever seen. It’s time to work on recreating and connecting those smaller scale transport systems in a more efficient, life-giving way.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Why urban designers need to study suburbs

Image by Bernardo Ferreria from Pixabay
Cities are sexy. They’re all adventure and possibilities. Risking it all for the chance to hit it big. They have a daring, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere!” vibe. They are the siren in stilettos or the beefcake on the cover of the raunchy novel — they get your heart going, but they’re not the one you settle down with and marry.
Is it any surprise that the statistics show Millennials moving away from their hipster city digs toward suburbs as they reach their 30’s and have kids? Turns out that the “right one” is not only safe, they’re a cheap date too — housing prices in the suburbs can be 1/3 of the cost of their boujee counterparts. Still, it’s not just the price tag that drives the migration.
It’s panic.
The panic of watching the toddler who has captured your heart dart out into a busy street. It’s the panic of trying to get somewhere safely with a little one in tow. It’s images of Bruce Wayne and his parents in that dark alley, pearls strewn across the pavement. Cities are not safe. That’s all well and good when all you have to look out for is yourself. It’s unacceptable when you are watching out for people you can’t bear to lose. A thousand discomforts can be managed. A single real danger is a deal-breaker. Maybe that explains why my pediatrician swore that “nesting” for dads means buying a new house. Even Iron-Man chooses a cabin in the woods to raise a daughter instead of a high-rise in the city.
The good news for urban designers is two-fold. Migrants to suburbia still want urban connectivity and features. They care about the planet, they just aren’t willing to endanger their loved ones — and they shouldn’t. Multi-generational sustainability is useless if your kids can’t survive their childhood. Second, you can have it both ways if you’re careful. Urban hasn’t always meant big cities with extensive transit systems. Most of the early suburbs would have been considered very urban by today’s standards — walkable, bikeable, and close to everything but the family’s employment. With digital work connectivity, distance to work may become less important anyway. Small scale land use mix and local scale retail/services are key to surviving the retail apocalypse as well as making active transportation feasible.
In the meantime, urban designers could take a lesson or three from observing suburban settings with an eye for what they have done right — the features that make them safe and convenient for the most vulnerable users in the society. It’s nice to live on a cul-de-sac or loop street. It’s even nicer when that dead-end street becomes a live-end street because it has pathways connecting through the dead-end.


Buffer the connections with landscaping, fences, and lighting. Make sure bikes and people can get wherever they want but cars can’t. The resolution of the network for each mode needs to fit the scale of the mode: connections at 1/8 mile or less for ped/bike, 1/4 mile for scooters, e-bikes, or golf-carts; 1/2 mile for cars. Drive-throughs are not the bane of our existence — for a mom with a sleeping baby, they’re a God-send. Let’s figure out how to do both. Those babies don’t stay little forever.
I am fascinated by the transformation the Netherlands made from car-centric patterns to bike and walk modes that are safe for children as young as three or four. The choice was intentional. Rather than trying to fit bikes into a car-oriented culture, training bikers to think and act like a car, they chose children as their design priority. When children can bike, everyone can bike — and they do. The transformation was driven by moms that were horrified at children being killed in the streets. We now have an entirely new generation of millennial moms that we have trained to love urban environments, including walking and biking as a normal part of life. When they figure out that it’s a lot harder to keep the weight off when they’re driving everywhere, they’re going to want to see change, but not without serious safety precautions.
Rather than suburban, is it possible to create small-urban? Why not?
What strategies can you think of that can bridge the gap from suburban to small-urban?