Urban Planning and Design

This page will be focused on discussion, news and articles dealing with Urban Design; Urban Planning; and all the facets of making a city functional and aesthetically successful.

The Car Has Failed

Early in it’s life the car appeared to be a betterment of the horse and buggy. A way to go farther, faster, in greater comfort. It played on the rural beginnings of the US. The frontier spirit. The urge for wide open spaces. You could get there in a car.

They needed paved roads. They needed gas. They needed maintenance. The government was up for subsidizing the first two – and continues to this day – making thousands of miles of highways and byways available and providing gas at a rate that allows most people to move about. The free markets took care of the maintenance by opening garages every thirty miles along the government provided roadways. Feeding off the inevitable failing of a product pushed to do things it was not designed for.

The American dream morphed from piling your family into the wagon and heading west looking for treasure to piling the family in the Model T and heading out looking for adventure, to piling the family into the station wagon and driving to the grandparents for the holidays.

Slow as it may have seemed the government also continued to make the roads smoother. Installing more barriers to keep people on the smooth roads and kept upping the speed. Designing 1,000 mile stretches of road with nary a curve or even vertical rise. Cities and towns followed suit not wanting to provide substandard roadways and thus limiting anyones mobility.

In the rush to build the world flat, fast and straight America forgot people.

No actual humans live here

The irony that a mechanical device designed to move people around has, in it’s first century of existence, ended up injuring or killing almost 100 million people cannot be overstated. Scratch the surface a little and it becomes clear how the majority – if not all – of the injuries and deaths have come about. In our haste to make things easier for the car, to be able to easily and quickly move about, we have allowed our urban fabric to be designed for the car and not for the person behind the wheel.

The Design Flop

Streets dominate cities and towns. The movement of cars takes precedence to the movement of people in nearly all cases. In moments where cities and states have redesigned their streets to accommodate the free movement of pedestrians the backlash has been substantial. From even the most unlikely corners: Fire Chiefs claiming they are concerned about delays in accessing the very accidents that ‘poor road design’ has caused. Even Disney is not exempt: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/osceola-county/os-celebration-on-street-parking-debate-20170323-story.html It would seem that we have ceded our urban street planning to fire chiefs which is absurd.

It’s not just the increased speed of traffic that has degraded the quality of life in cities in the US but the ease of movement. With smooth roads, fast speeds, long lights, and the ‘enhancements’ to automobiles from cruise control to automatic braking the requirement for a driver to actually participate in the act of driving has been minimized. Many people cannot even park the cars they drive. This progressive disengagement leads to stories of teenagers playing video games on their phones while driving and amazing footage of distracted drivers flipping their cars in single car accidents.

It’s a safe bet she’s still texting and driving

There are many social points that can be discussed as contributing to this problem (our inability to not be doing something; etc.) but the crux is really the application of all of these human failings to a mechanical device designed to go faster and faster with less and less attention.

We like to call them ‘Distracted Drivers’ but in truth we have crossed a threshold where the person behind the wheel is barely driving or required to drive. We have built a system where it is perfectly safe – for the driver – to drive 80 mph and play a video game.

Again this is derived from a street design mentality that puts the automobile above all others in any environment. Rural or urban. After more than 100 years of this thinking there is a very long way to go to get back to a more human centric design focus. We will need to remember that people are the priority. As has been said before no one ever bought anything while driving by a store, they have to get out and walk in. People spend money, cars do not. Cars in fact spend nearly 95% of their existence just sitting, awaiting our using them for the other 5% of the time. And distracted pedestrians are of little danger to anyone except themselves:

We look like drug addicts

Space for Cars

A rarely addressed byproduct of this car centric design legacy is the amount of lost space within the average American city to the automobile. Between roads, parking, setbacks and things like drive thrus cities are unnecessarily sprawling just to make it easy to drive through them.

This gif put out by the International Sustainability Institute and published in the Washington Post in 2015, looking at Seattle’s Second St, might be one of the best visuals to grasping the space given over to cars:

There has been much discussion recently about the deferred expenses piling up from decaying infrastructure in the US. The amount of money spent by governments on highways alone, including national, state, and local roadways, bridges, and tunnels amounted to $165 Billion in 2014 alone. That is a staggering figure especially when considered in light of the fact that drivers in America are paying less than 51% of the costs of driving. So, double the $165 Billion number to get closer to actual monies spent. We have roads that are nicer than the average American’s home and cost more – per mile.

The good news is that there are a number of people and cities pushing back hard and putting people first. Paris is working to reduce cars in its central city as are numerous other European cities. The US? Not so much. There are small ”New Urbanist” developments (Seaside in Florida being the most well known) that are being developed with a people first strategy but these remain the exception and not the rule.

We have a design problem in America and it starts with the car.

In Montreal, Ste-Catherine Street is one of the streets off-limits to vehicular traffic in the summer. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)