This discussion is necessary because, since midcentury, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking zones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers--worshiping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking--have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.I would characterize the book as a collection of well-footnoted facts assembled into a coherent narrative with compelling, clear prose. It was enjoyable and quick to read. You will be better informed afterwards. He lays out the case for walkability, and then follows it with advice for achieving walkability in your city. Being familiar with the topics, I knew about most of the facts presented, but did learn a bunch as well, including (but not limited to):
- Portland, Oregon residents drive 20% less and save an estimated $2.6 billion because of that, which finds its way into the local economy instead of being pumped abroad.
- Massachusetts residents with the lowest body mass index averages were located in Boston and the inner ring suburbs, while the highest averages were found outside the I-495 belt.
- Toronto has the most linear feet of successful retail-fronted sidewalks; Sweden has the highest share of urban trips going to walking instead of driving; and sidewalk cafés stay open all year round in Denmark.
- "Landscape urbanism" is actually a return of the dreaded "tower-in-the-park" style city planning that caused so much misery in the mid-20th century.
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. Were it not for congestion, we would drive enough additional miles to make congestion. So the traffic study has become the default act of planning, and more than a few large companies can thank traffic studies for the lion's share of their income. They don't want you to read the next few paragraphs.
Traffic studies are bullshit.Indeed. I've written about the problems with traffic studies several times. Jeff goes on to enumerate three main reasons. The first one is what we in the computer science business would call "GIGO": Garbage In, Garbage Out. The models are only as good as their inputs, and their design, for that matter. They can easily be tweaked to suit whatever agenda the modeler has in mind. For example, most cities assume 1% to 2% "background traffic growth" (here in Boston it's usually 0.5%) even when traffic levels are falling. The second objection is the old "conflict of interest" story: the firms which produce traffic studies are often the firms which get hired to implement the "solution." Hence they are motivated to call for more spending which will be routed into their own coffers. And finally, almost never do traffic studies consider the phenomenon of "induced demand", even after it has been observed and studied for over fifty years.
I would also add another problem with traffic studies: they focus on "vehicles throughput per hour" or "vehicle delay" instead of considering the flow of actual people. So the bias against buses or carpools continues. Although, nowadays traffic studies around here do tend to include some token mention of "pedestrian delay", "bicycle throughput" or "transit access" it's usually a short bit and tucked away.
I agree with much of what he writes, and he also relies heavily on the great work of others, such as Donald Shoup and Hans Mondermann. But I have to take issue with a small selection of ideas in the book; nothing that affects the larger point, but a few things that should be pointed out.
- Jeff: Urbanity [in public transport] means locating all significant stops in the heart of the action, not a block away. Me: Yes and no. You definitely want to keep it convenient, but there's plenty of examples of successful transit which requires walking a block or two "from the action." Practically all subway stations (except for the shallowest cut and cover) require some amount of walking around to access. People will walk further to higher quality transit.
- Jeff: Frequency is the thing that most transit services get wrong. [...] 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. Me: He's absolutely right about the importance of frequency. But "getting a van" is not a solution to the high cost of frequency. First of all, the primary operating cost is paying a driver; and there's no discount for "van driver" over "bus driver." Second, if you are a public transit agency, then you have a fleet of hundreds of buses. You are probably not interested in adding yet another model of vehicle that needs its own maintenance manuals and technician training. You are definitely not interested in extra deadhead trips back to the garage because you need to switch out a van with a bus. In fact, it probably will end up costing you more money to equip a route with vans than with the buses you were already using.
- Jeff: Few sidewalks without parking entice walking, yet cities routinely eliminate it in the name of traffic flow, beautification, and, more recently, security. Me: I was scratching my head over this one for a while, since there's plenty of examples of sidewalks without parking that are great. But I would say that they are mostly on small streets where people freely share the roadway (such as in the North End), or the sidewalks are plenty wide, or there is some other circumstance protecting walkers from traffic. I agree that if the street is too wide and there is fast-moving traffic, then a line of parked cars is better than a travel lane. But that's a workaround to deal with a bad situation. Unfortunately, the idea of putting street parking everywhere leads designers to create totally new streets that are way too wide in order to accommodate parking on one or both sides. Even when those streets could have had the opportunity to be smaller, calmer "shared streets," an idea which Jeff also promotes.
The book is pitched at smaller cities, places trying to pick up population and compete with Boston, New York, San Francisco, etc. But I would say there's plenty Boston could still learn from it, and I'm sure folks would agree about some of the other "star" cities as well. If more city planners read this book, great. But it's also written for a wide audience, so just about anyone with any interest in cities, or walkable towns, will find this book enjoyable and enlightening. And that really could be anyone; we are all affected by the fate of the cities in our economy. And if city planning (and traffic engineering) of the last century has shown us anything, it's that the people with the most credentials can sometimes have the least sense. We need ordinary people to become informed and involved.