Will Autonomous Vehicles Be Good for Cities?

Google self-driving Lexus cars / AP Photo/Eric Risberg, via Curbed

A New Yorker can put their arm up in the street in Manhattan and flag down a taxi in a few minutes. Taxis are readily available because it’s a dense urban environment. But with a smart phone and an app like Uber or Lyft, anyone can experience the benefits of density without needing to live in it. Furthermore, autonomous vehicles (AVs) — which will likely travel in highly-efficient packs via routes optimized for demand — could bring even more of the advantages of dense places to those that aren’t. Rohit Aggarwala, former director of NYC’s office of long-term planning and sustainability and now co-head of Sidewalk Labs, wonders whether autonomous vehicles will then be good for cities. Will they further reduce the relative benefits of city life? Will they even encourage sprawl?

According to Aggarwala, who spoke at the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City, there are six primary attributes of density — three positive efficiencies and three causes of “friction,” or disadvantages. On the positive side, high levels of density mean lower consumption of energy, water, and carbon on a per capita basis. “If you have less space, you consume less.” There is also higher asset utilization — less space and resources are wasted. There are easier physical interactions. With density, the number of unplanned interactions — so critical to everything from market and community development to finding friends and a life partner — increase.

Frictions include a greater reliance on central systems, which can cause problems if those systems are over-capacity or break down. There’s also a greater need for courtesy. In dense places where people are nearly on top of each other all the time, people must expend more energy to avoid annoying each other. And there’s also the need for more coordination. “There are more hassles in dense urban life, hence the need for more coordination to resolve them.”

If there is a positive balance between the efficiencies and frictions, people move into cities. If the costs get too high, they move out, Aggarwala contends. Technology plays a critical role in maintaining this balance. Technology can either make urban living easier or, if these systems are poorly applied, add to the costs. And if they make the many benefits of density, such as physical interaction, less important, that also serves to undermine the value of places like Manhattan.

Aggarwala argued that the telephone, one of the most important technologies of the last century, “undermined physical interaction. The telephone became the agent of sprawl.” In the same way, Uber and Lyft also make hailing a taxi, which used to require physical interaction, something digital that “works in sprawl.” Over time, the “urban convenience of hailing a taxi has become universal.”

Now imagine a highly-efficient, high-speed, coordinated system of AVs, which could make access to centralized transportation systems even less of a necessity. There will no longer be a need to live near a subway, bus, or rail station, or even own a car, with a community sharing rides in AVs. Furthermore, “if everyone is their own transit stop, will we even need transit-oriented development?”

With delivery of products via drones or autonomous delivery services, there is also less of a need to live near a shopping district. “Shopping could just become a destination luxury experience.” With the rise of ubiquitous, high-speed broadband, working from home will be even easier, as employees can create tele-presences for themselves in virtual work environments. And with distributed renewable energy facilities, suburbs could become as energy-efficient as dense cities, removing the appeal of living an environmental lifestyle in the city.

With these expected changes coming, will the value of density continue to outweigh the disadvantages in the future?

For Aggarwala, it will be critical for cities to get technology right in order to further reduce the frictions of density and make future urban life as pleasing as possible. “We need to use big data to make centralized systems higher performing.” For example, that will mean using data to make New York City’s urban transportation system much smarter and more responsive.

Today, the city’s subway seems to be a near-universal source of frustration, as outdated systems mean a power outage shuts down whole lines for hours and rush hour congestion makes the daily commute nearly unbearable. The answer, for Aggarwala, is to “layer digital and physical infrastructure” to make these systems work better.

Furthermore, “we need apps that enable people to share things more easily. We need ubiquitous monitoring systems, so police will treat people better. We need to reduce the coordination problems.” We need subways and bike share systems to connect seamlessly with AV stations.

“Technology can make density more attractive or not, urban life better or not. And reduce demand for cities and increase sprawl, or not.” It will really depend on urban communities and their political leaders to drive improvements that will maintain the appeal of city life and save the environment from sprawl.

Visions for the Next Generation of American Infrastructure

Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, 2007 / AP Photo, Morry Gash via Wired

In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its infrastructure report card, the first in four years. After crunching the data, they gave the U.S. a D+, explained Tom Smith, executive director, ASCE, at the American Society of Landscape Architect (ASLA)’s mid-year board meeting. “We have a lot of infrastructure at the end of its useful life. And we have a $2 trillion infrastructure investment gap over the next decade.”

Given America’s infrastructure is nearly failing, how should we rebuild? And where do we find the money?

In a panel moderated by ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Smith argued “we can’t just rebuild our grandparent’s infrastructure. We can’t just add more lanes to the highways. We need to focus on land-use planning, sustainability, and resilience. Autonomous vehicles will also be huge.”

Patrick Phillips, Global CEO, Urban Land Institute (ULI), said compact transit-oriented development could “reduce the need for infrastructure.” He believes infrastructure in the future needs to be more smartly targeted to achieve economic development goals but also improve equity. A focus on inclusiveness can lead to new possibilities and a fairer future.

Rachel Minnery, senior director of sustainability policy at American Institute of Architects (AIA) wants to see new infrastructure investments help deal with climate challenges by improving our resilience. “We have a vast stock of existing buildings” that must be made more resilient. “We need a new era of visionary planning.”

“Parks and green infrastructure should be an investment priority,” said David Rouse, ASLA, research director at American Planning Association (APA), echoing APA’s official position on infrastructure. “Green infrastructure creates jobs. We can’t just recreate grey infrastructure.”

And Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs, ASLA, agreed, arguing that more investment is needed in “parks and national lands, which are also infrastructure.” National parks in particular are “overburdened,” said Smith, who noted that parks went down in the latest ASCE infrastructure report card. He added: “treating parks as infrastructure is an idea that resonates with people.”

Blackwell also made the case for increasing investments in “active transportation,” a term for infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike lanes, arguing that any major infrastructure investment must be comprehensive, and not just be about repairing highways and bridges.

So how to pay for the many trillions required for new infrastructure?

While states — even red ones — have raised gas taxes, the federal government hasn’t in decades and isn’t likely to in the future. President Trump has called for an increase in private investment in infrastructure through public-private partnerships (PPPs), but Somerville noted that PPPs usually privilege communities that can easily attract private investment. A private-sector led approach can then be expected to be leave poorer communities farther behind.

Phillips said there is “no silver bullet. We need a mix of private and public funds. Other countries are more effective at PPPs than us. Infrastructure can unlock opportunities in poorer neighborhoods. But, if poorly structured, a PPP doesn’t help.”

Minnery thinks the market will shift development and infrastructure investment patterns. Already the credit ratings of cities on coasts, which are most vulnerable to rising seas and storms, are taking a hit. As climate refugees increase in number and head inland, those cities will face pressure to increase development. “We have to think holistically as a nation about what this means.”

And, lastly, President Trump wants to speed up the process of building infrastructure. He is considering a new rule to requires states to start projects within 90 days of receiving federal funding. Is this possible?, Somerville asked.

Minnery said there’s often a delay at the state level, because of a lack of resources in planning departments. These departments have huge stacks of projects awaiting review. “Planning departments never recovered from cuts after the 2008 recession.” Rouse also noted that if the planned EPA cuts go through, “that stack of project reviews will get even higher.”

He said “successful infrastructure projects are rooted in local visions and strong regional planning.” To move projects forward quickly, communities must have planning infrastructure in place.

Blackwell wondered if more infrastructure project review responsibilities could be devolved to states. Through the FAST Act, federal lawmakers enabled California, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Utah to conduct their own National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews on behalf of the federal government. The Hill reports that Ohio saved $4.6 million in the first three months of doing the reviews itself.

ASLA Outlines Infrastructure Priorities

Queens Plaza in Queens NYC, 2012 / Sam Oberter

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) urges policy makers and stakeholders to support an infrastructure plan that not only addresses today’s crumbling infrastructure, but also creates tomorrow’s resilient systems. ASLA recommends that the infrastructure plan includes the following:

Fixing Our Nation’s Water Infrastructure

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award Recipient. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park. Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi / Wade Zimmerman

Our nation’s deteriorating drinking water and wastewater systems require extensive maintenance and repairs—more than $655 billion in investments, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Less-costly green infrastructure solutions designed by landscape architects naturally absorb stormwater runoff—the major contributor to water pollution and unsafe drinking water.

ASLA urges policy makers to support a comprehensive infrastructure package that:

  • Increases funding for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds. These funds provide critical resources to states, localities, and water systems to improve water treatment infrastructure and help implement green infrastructure projects.
  • Reinforces EPA’s green infrastructure and low-impact development programs and policies, such as the Green Infrastructure Collaborative, Soak Up the Rain, Campus Rainworks, G3, and others, which provide communities with tangible, cost-effective solutions to address water management needs.

Upgrading to a Multimodal Transportation Network

ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award of Excellence Recipient. Portland Mall Revitalization. ZGF Architects LLP / ZGF Architects LLP

Our nation’s roads and bridges are crumbling and in need of repair. Using expert planning and design techniques, landscape architects are helping to create less costly, more convenient transportation systems that also include walking, bicycling, and public transportation options.

To meet the demands of today’s transportation users, ASLA urges policy makers to support a comprehensive infrastructure package that:

  • Supports active transportation programs, like the Transportation Alternatives Program, Safe Routes to School, and Recreational Trails programs. Together, these programs are providing much-needed, low-cost transportation options for individuals, families, and communities across the country.
  • Enhances the Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants program, which, with increased funding, will successfully assist more states and local communities with building multimodal projects that address congestion, improve safety, and expand economic opportunity.
  • Invests in transit and transit-oriented development to meet the growing demand for expanded public transportation and intercity passenger rail systems across the country. Transit-oriented development is also critical to jump-starting local economic development.

Recognizing Public Lands, Parks, and Recreation as Critical Infrastructure

America’s national resources / istockphoto

America’s natural infrastructure should be protected, preserved, and enhanced. Our public lands are also economic drivers and support critical jobs, tourism, and other economic development, yet there is a $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog of projects. Landscape architects design parks, trails, urban forests, and other open spaces that enhance communities and augment the value of other types of infrastructure.

ASLA urges policy makers to support an infrastructure plan that:

  • Invests in our nation’s public lands, including providing for construction, maintenance, and restoration projects at the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service.
  • Increases funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which provides critical assistance to urban, suburban, and rural communities for local park projects. Community parks are essential infrastructure that address stormwater, air quality, heat island effect, and public health issues.
  • Bolsters USDA’s Urban and Community Forestry program, which focuses on the stewardship of communities’ natural infrastructure and resources.

Designing for Resilience

ASLA 2016 Ohio Chapter Award of Excellence Recipient. Scioto Greenways.
MKSK / Randall Schieber

Communities are increasingly faced with addressing hurricanes, tornadoes, severe flooding, wildfires, and other natural disasters. Landscape architects have the education, training, and tools to help these places rebuild homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure in a more resilient manner.

ASLA urges policy makers to support an infrastructure plan that:

  • Employs a sound planning and design process that incorporates disaster planning, which could greatly enhance a community’s resilience to extreme weather, sea-level rise, and other natural events.
  • Provides adequate funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to continue efforts that help communities adapt to and mitigate coastal hazards.
  • Expands the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design competition for additional regions affected by natural disasters. The Rebuild by Design competition is a multistage planning and design competition that uses the expertise of multidisciplinary design teams to promote resilience in the Hurricane Sandy-affected region.

Also, see a PDF version of the proposal.

ASLA Statement on President Trump’s Budget

Uptown Normal transit-oriented development’s traffic circle, financed in part by a 2010 TIGER grant, Uptown Normal, Illinois / Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) released this statement in response to President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal:

“We are disappointed with President Trump’s budget blueprint, which calls for dramatic cuts to many of the federal programs and resources that strengthen our nation’s infrastructure and economic development.”

President Trump’s recommendation to completely eliminate two critical community development programs, the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and the Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants program, is short-sighted. TIGER has been one of the most successful and popular programs with lawmakers, communities and transportation planners like landscape architects – the number of applications far exceeding the amount of available funding.

ASLA is also extremely concerned that President Trump’s proposal would drastically reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by a staggering 31 percent, thereby severely crippling key air and water quality programs and critical climate change research and resources. The budget recommendation purports to increase funding for EPA’s Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds by $4 million.

However, the budget also eliminates $498 million from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Water and Wastewater loan and grant program and instead recommends that rural communities access EPA’s State Revolving Funds, thus leaving State Revolving Funds with a $494 million reduction in funding.

The Society recently released recommendations for updating and strengthening all forms of infrastructure, including enhancing the TIGER grants program, expanding State Revolving Funds, increasing funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and others. Together, these recommendations will help provide communities with the much-needed infrastructure upgrades to become more livable and resilient places to live, work and recreate. Unfortunately, if enacted, this Trump budget proposal would leave many communities vulnerable.

We understand that this proposal is the start of a long legislative process. The Society will continue to work with legislators to ensure that funding is available for sound infrastructure solutions that American communities are demanding.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16 – 28)

Chicago’s Martin Luther King Drive transformed by driverless cars / The Driverless City Project and Illinois Institute of Technology, via The Chicago Tribune

Driverless Cars Could Change Urban LandscapeThe Chicago Tribune, 2/17/17
“If self-driving cars lead to a significant drop in the number of vehicles on the road, parking garages could be turned into apartments or stores. Curbside parking could be converted into rainwater-collecting bio swales that help prevent sewers from backing up. Roads would narrow. Sidewalks would widen.”

Wastelands Reborn CityLab, 2/17/17
“As my colleague Laura Bliss explores in her story about New York’s Freshkills Park, some of the best parts of certain metropolitan areas are literally built on dumps. There’s a whole genre of these parks, from César Chávez Park in Berkeley to the Tiffit Nature Reserve in Buffalo.”

Ten Finalist Teams Named for U.K. National Holocaust Memorial Competition The Architect’s Newspaper, 2/23/17
“The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation has announced its shortlist of ten teams to design the new National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center in Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent the Palace of Westminster and in the heart of London.”

Planners Across America: McDermid Manages New Oklahoma Land Rush Planetizen, 2/27/17
“Planning Department Director Aubrey McDermid discusses planning’s role in the Oklahoma City’s ongoing reinvestment and revitalization.”

Pershing Park and the World War I Memorial: Moving Beyond an Accumulation of Pieces The Huffington Post, 2/27/17
“One of the most important parks on the most significant stretch of America’s Main Street – Pennsylvania Avenue between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, known as the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site – remains under threat.”

Book Review: NACTO Global Street Design Guide

NACTO Global Street Design Guide / Island Press
NACTO Global Street Design Guide / Island Press

The Global Street Design Guide is the latest in a series of publications from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) that re-imagines our urban streets as more multi-dimensional, aesthetic, efficient, safe and enjoyable spaces. The Global Street Design Guide uncovers what works in cities around the world, the cities that are trying to use streets for place making and city building. This invaluable guide brings together extremely useful information and metrics that can assist city administrations, urban designers, planners, landscape architects, and the public in forging new directions in street design. That said, this guide really needs to target city administrations and their engineering departments if it is to truly become an effective, transformative tool.

There still is a formidable battle going on out there between those who see streets as the domain of the automobile and those who don’t. For many cities, this polarized view has become extreme, perhaps, ironically, more so in progressive cities that have tried hard to integrate alternate forms of transportation and uses into the existing network. This guide can help make the case for multi-modal or, as otherwise known, complete streets.

Global Street Design Guide / NACTO
Global Street Design Guide / NACTO
Simple, clear plan diagrams communicating instantly the accommodation of people moving that could be achieved when a shift from a car oriented to multi-modal street is pursued / NACTO
Simple, clear plan diagrams communicating instantly the accommodation of people moving that could be achieved when a shift from a car oriented to multi-modal street is pursued / NACTO

Because many cities have differing standards, customs, and uses for their streets, this book cannot serve as a template for a specific design (nor do I think it’s intended to be). However, this guide contains all the background data, standards, and dimensions needed to help any designer build a layered, competent, and thorough street design in any part of the world. At the very least, it will help in reducing the guess work and sometimes incorrect assumptions that many designers make when it comes to how streets really work.

My own experiences in China highlight that streets there are very different than from those in Western countries. For example, it is not uncommon, along both major and secondary streets, to see commercial frontages, with widened pedestrian areas planned as public places, be partially or wholly taken over by parking. This parking then disrupts pedestrian flows and the ability to use streets as public spaces. Designers must deal with this reality and patiently try to transform practices.

In China, city planners typically set broad goals for better street design, but decisions to proceed one way or the other are made at a political level, then filter back down to the administrative level, before becoming a part of the design parameters of most streetscape projects. Nonetheless, things are changing. I can see the information in this book as being extremely helpful with developing strategic opening salvos during the preliminary stages of large scale streetscape projects in cities where I currently practice.

Additionally, the practical dimensional information in the guide should be well received by city planners in Asia, where in most cities Western urban design ideas are held in high regard. Because the information contained in this book has been guided by some of the world’s leading thinkers on city building, transportation, and open space design, it becomes an even more potent and convincing arrow in the urban design quiver.

There is a chapter on phasing and interim strategies that I found particularly compelling, since from experience, this is indeed a good way to build consensus with nervous or skeptical stakeholders.

I appreciate the book’s graphic style. The many illustrative drawings include diagrams, plans, sections and well-modeled, 3-D birds’ eye views. They are unadorned, factual, simple, and clear.

3D models, bird's eye view / NACTO
3D models, bird’s eye view / NACTO

Clear, concise sectional geometry options and how they respond the various user needs. This type of tool could be helpful when deciding which geometries could serve a particular project best.

Clear, concise sectional geometry options and how they respond the various user needs. This type of tool could be helpful when deciding which geometries could serve a particular project best / NACTO
Diagrams / NACTO

But I also found a few faults with the book. Including many global urban case studies is helpful and informative. However, from my own experience, there are many more good examples out there. Appreciating that a book like this simply cannot feature them all, perhaps a more comprehensive listing of lesser known, but exemplary global examples could be included in the next edition. Readers could then search more on their own.

The overall quality of the photographs is somewhat lacking. They could have perhaps been better placed, higher quality, and more impactful. In some cases they just didn’t seem like the right shot to communicate the idea. A few of the two page spreads register rather poorly along the spine margin resulting in some of the information irritatingly obscured.

All in all, the NACTO Global Street Design Guide should finds its way onto the shelves of all design and planning firms responsible for improving urban streets, regardless of where they practice. As important, it should also be in the hands of politicians, administrators, and engineers who collectively are very much in control of the direction our cities are heading.

Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, is a principal at PFS Studio, a global planning, urban design, and landscape architecture firm based in Vancouver, Canada. In addition to his North American and European work, he often undertakes large-scale planning, design and streetscape projects in Asia with Conglian Landscape Architecture and Planning Shanghai Ltd., a strategically allied joint enterprise with offices in Shanghai, Ningbo and Guangzhou, China.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 1 – 15)

capture
Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston / Tom Fox, SWA Group via Curbed

Mapping the Urban Tree Canopy in Major CitiesCityLab, 1/4/17
“MIT’s Treepedia reveals where the streets are greenest, and which ones could use more work.”

Just for Three Weeks, Cars Will Make Way for People on Biscayne Boulevard Downtown Miami Herald, 1/5/17
“Biscayne Green aims to make the city friendlier for pedestrians by temporarily transforming parking lots into parks in Downtown Miami.”

7 Ugly Urban Underpasses Now Functioning as Public Parks Curbed, 1/9/17
“When Manhattan’s High Line opened on the west side in 2009, locals and visitors alike flocked to the revitalized railroad trestle to marvel at its transformation into a gorgeous and walkable park.’

Governor Cuomo Announces 750-mile Empire State Trail across New York StateCurbed New York, 1/10/17
“Imagine a trail that connects the metropolises, small towns, historic landmarks, and parks of New York State—and know that it’s not far off.”

Paris Mayor Unveils Plan for New Citywide Electric Tramway and Pedestrianized Streets The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/11/17
“Over the past few months, Paris Mayor Anne Hildago has rolled out her plans to reduce the number of private cars in the French capital by half.”

What Can We Learn from Copenhagen?

Copenhagen bicyclists / Citi.io
Copenhagen bicyclists / Citi.io

In Copenhagen, Denmark, nearly 50 percent of people commute by bicycle. No matter if it’s a beautiful summer day or a blustery winter one, Danes use their beloved bicycle network, because it’s the fastest, most convenient, healthiest, and cheapest way to get from point A to B. In a discussion organized by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Embassy of Denmark at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., we learned how Denmark made bicycling the most popular form of transportation, and how other cities can create a culture of bicycling.

Klaus Bondam, a jolly artist and former politician, now runs the Danish Cyclists’ Federation. He explained that in Copenhagen 17 percent of all trips are made by bicycle and some 50 percent of destinations can be reached by bike.

Danes learn to love biking early on. Parents bring their kids out into traffic in bike carts when they are toddlers, and their kids begin navigating traffic on their own bikes starting around age 5 or 6. This is all possible because of the investments the Danes have made to make their bike infrastructure safe for everyone.

Mom and child bicycling / UCI
Mom and child bicycling / UCI

Their infrastructure is mostly comprised of protected, segregated bike lanes. “Building proper, curbed lanes” is crucial, according to Bondam, as that enables women and kids to feel comfortable.

Copenhagen bike lane / NPR
Copenhagen bike lane / NPR

The Danes built their lanes as part of a comprehensive network, which “connects the inner city to the suburbs, radiating out 25 kilometers.”

Bicycle superhighways / Metrhispanic
Bicycle superhighways / Metrhispanic

Within this network, there are “bicycle super highways” that include the fantastic bicycle bridge that take riders through the urban core.

Bicycle skyway / Dissing + Weitling, Photographer: Rasmus Hjortshøj - COAST Studio
Bicycle skyway / Dissing + Weitling, Photographer: Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST Studio

To accomplish all of this, the Danish government created a national bicycle strategy and bicycle fund. As Bondam noted, if you spend the money and build it they will come. “There are 24 percent more cyclists where there is new infrastructure.”

Copenhagen took several generations to get to where it is now. Investments in the bicycle network started around the turn of the 20th century. It took more than 75 years for Copenhagen to get to nearly 50 percent.

A panel discussed how American cities can learn from Denmark’s example. Washington, D.C. has gone from 1 percent of people commuting by bicycle to 4 percent in just a few years. Leif Dormsjo, the head of D.C.’s department of transportation, said the city has made major investments in bike lanes and connective trails, and sees building complete streets — which work equally as well for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — as a primary strategy moving forward. Also, the D.C. government is investing in educating riders early on. A new program teaches every second grader in the city how to ride a bike.

While Bondam and Dormsjo noted the great progress in D.C. since he was last year in 2002, Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA), wants to see more bike lanes transformed into protected, segregated cycle tracks. “On a sunny day, the 15th street cycle track gets 3,000 riders, which is about 30 percent of total traffic.” With more separate lanes, bike number could go up throughout the city.

15th street cycle track / Dull men's club
15th street cycle track / Dull men’s club

Sam Adams, former Mayor of Portland, Oregon, and now US director at WRI, said Portland was long stuck at a plateau of around 4 percent commuting by bike. Getting to 8 percent, where they are now, took hard work. The city had to convince women, aged 18-40, to believe biking is safe. They targeted the top 25 most dangerous intersections. Adams found these intersections were almost always dangerous for more than one mode of transit. “Redesigning these intersections created multiple benefits.” Another key element was boosting the budget for bicycle infrastructure from $1 million to $17 million.

Safe bike box, Portland, Oregon / WBUR.org
A redesigned street with safe bike box, Portland, Oregon / WBUR.org

But everyone on the panel admitted that in an era of very tight budgets, increasing investments in bicycle infrastructure isn’t easy. As lanes for cars shrink and parking is removed, “some car advocates will argue their freedom is being taken away,” said Bondam. “But I feel my freedom, as a bicyclist, is taken away if I’m stuck in a car.” Adams said Portland’s increased spending on bicycle lanes, especially on the basic safety of lanes in communities further out from the inner-core, was “highly controversial.”

Moving bicycle infrastructure forward takes leadership. Dormsjo said it was important U.S. department of transportation secretary Anthony Foxx sees bike lanes as a priority in terms of federal investment. In D.C., the “sophisticated” city council has many bike riders, and Mayor Muriel Bower understands the issues, so there has been headway.

For Billing, the next step is to implement Vision Zero, which calls for zero traffic fatalities in the district. “We need to change the transportation system to prevent fatalities. Nobody should die trying to get somewhere.” Regionally, D.C. has had 450 deaths by cars in the past year, with pedestrian and bicyclist deaths at higher proportions than their share of street use. A new report from Smart Growth America — Dangerous by Design — outlines the latest data and steps that can be taken.

And more need to benefit from bicycling. Hon. Craig Iscoe, with Cycling without Aging, promoted the use of bicycle rickshaws to take seniors stuck at home, or, worse, old-age homes out for a ride.

Cycling without aging / syklingutenalder.com
Cycling without aging / syklingutenalder.com

And Billing argued bike lanes need to be better spread throughout poorer parts of the city. As part of this, an education campaign is needed to change the perception of bike lanes and bike share as an “agent of gentrification,” said Tommy Wells, director of D.C. department of energy and environment.

Bondam quoted President John F. Kennedy, who said “nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” Focusing on safety, communities can use a mix of investment and education to spread that joy to everyone.

A Smart Streetscape for a High-Tech Corridor

Kendall Square, before / Klopfer Martin Design Group
Kendall Square, before / Klopfer Martin Design Group
Kendall Square, after / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square, after / Christian Phillips Photography

Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the center of technological innovation on the East Coast. But you would have never known it walking the broken-down, dated, 1980s-era brick streets. Home to MIT, Google, Microsoft, and many other start-ups, Kendall Square needed a new look that reflects the cutting-edge thinking happening in the buildings lining Main Street. But Cambridge, a historic district, also has a highly restrictive, limited palette of materials to chose from.

Working with real estate developers, the university, and other entities, a team led by local landscape architects with Klopfer Martin Design Group and engineers at HDR came up with an inventive solution, taking the standard Cambridge brick, concrete, lighting and building materials and coming up with something entirely new. The results are as innovative as anything created by the techies who work along the street.

As Kendall Square has experienced rapid growth over the past few decades, it also had to better “perform as an inter-modal transportation hub,” said Kaki Martin, ASLA, a principal with Klopfer Martin. The high-tech firms and university alike wanted easier inter-connections among the subway station and sidewalks, bike lanes and bikeshare system, and corporate shuttles and buses.

“Increased commercial development with lots of food establishments also meant that the streetscape had to not only reflected the character of the place, accommodate increased inter-modal transportation, but also become a place to not just move through, but also to linger and eat, meet up and gather.”

The design team removed the central median with “dated flag poles” to give more room for bike lanes.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Along the streets, new spaces were created for “furnishings, bus shelters, farmer’s market tents.” Scattered around major entry points are more contemporary benches, pre-cast concrete star-shaped benches, and unique bike racks that came out of a competition organized by the city’s % for art program.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark

A custom cover and bench was created for an “immovable vent pipe” the subway system needs.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Klopfer Martin layered in double rows of trees in order to create “spatial structure.”

Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark

The most interesting part of the project is the new palette of bricks. Klopfer Martin worked with the city’s brick supplier to create “custom palettes of varying percentages of the darkest and lightest bricks in the city’s standard mix,” set within 10 feet-by-10-feet swatches.

As Martin explained, “we went with a pixelated pattern for its techy connotation, and because there was no preciousness to the pattern.”

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Furthermore, the random pattern is very low maintenance. “When the head of the Department of Public Works asked me how I would feel when a gas line repair comes through the brick and messed it up, we said, ‘it didn’t matter.’  The brick could just be put down again without concern, because it’s about the percentages between darker and lighter bricks in a 10-foot-by-10-foot zone, not about a specific pattern.”

Use Video to Tell the Story of Landscape Architecture

Landscape architecture is well behind the curve of using video to distinguish itself in the digital age, a trend I don’t see changing anytime soon. However, the opportunity is there for the taking. And if you don’t watch out, other design professions will seize the moment before landscape architects do. We’ve already had Architecture School, a Sundance TV miniseries, but that was six years ago and not much has been offered up since. But mark my words, it’s coming, and this is precisely where my own passions have intersected in recent years.

As a landscape architecture graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I opted to make a documentary film for my capstone thesis instead of creating a landscape design. I was interested in hearing what people on the street had to say about an urban design project going on right under their feet. I completed the 25-minute long documentary This Is Market Street about San Francisco’s Better Market Street Project, a multi-million dollar streetscape project that will eventually replace 2.2 miles of San Francisco’s most prominent thoroughfare.

An issue that stuck with me was the danger posed by car traffic to pedestrians in a walkable city like San Francisco. The pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Francisco, which helped me promote the documentary, has been at the forefront of advocating for a safer, more walkable San Francisco since 1998. Last year, they commissioned me to create a public service announcement about Safe Streets for Seniors, and I jumped at the chance to use film to talk about cities once again.

My team and I created a 3-minute long short film, There’s Always a Way, using stop-motion animation to tell the story of a young boy whose grandmother is killed at a busy crosswalk (see video at top). We built models reminiscent of design school projects, studied traffic design solutions, constructed tiny crosswalks, and even fabricated some angry drivers for good measure. The process was analog, with us cramped in a tiny studio for weeks of animating and inching model cars along painted roads, frame by frame. The response has been exciting and supportive. To my satisfaction, the video has encouraged a discussion about our lives and environments.

Stories are the tool missing from the landscape architecture, a field which intertwines with people’s daily lives. Stories can get lost in the policies, the plant lists, and the concept drawings. We should pause to hear stories more often, and, if so inspired, make some of our own.

This guest post is by Darryl Jones, ASLA, who recently worked at PWP Landscape Architecture in Berkeley, California, and is now a filmmaker based in Oakland, CA. More of his film work is available at darryljonesfilms.com.