Over the years it seems that there is always something on the horizon that is going to solve all our urban design problems. In the early 1900’s the implementation of zoning ordinances was supposed to be the magic bullet that would solve the ...

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  1. Autonomous Cars - Are they a magic bullet
  2. Life around Stadiums
  3. Mixing Active Transportation, Transit, and Freight Service
  4. Anniversary Missed...
  5. What makes a Successful Public Space?
  6. More Recent Articles

Autonomous Cars - Are they a magic bullet

Over the years it seems that there is always something on the horizon that is going to solve all our urban design problems. In the early 1900’s the implementation of zoning ordinances was supposed to be the magic bullet that would solve the difficulties facing cities at the time. Then there were highways, exclusionary zoning, easy to get mortgages, urban renewal, and pedestrian malls among others that were all going to solve our urban problems. Today we know from history that while each of these things had their benefits, they also came with unintended consequences and in the long run did not solve our urban problems. Today we have a new magic bullet on the horizon that many feel is going to revolutionize the world and solve all of our urban problems – the autonomous car.

Autonomous cars could have a major effect on our cities but maybe not in the way many people think they will. My first planning professor had a favorite saying, “What do we know about the future…nothing” and when it comes to autonomous cars there are those that believe that the adoption of autonomous cars will revolutionize our cities for the better. But as with all technological advances there comes a cost and what the final cost will be we will not know for some time. In addition, the changes we see will be different than envisioned and like so many of the magic bullets from the past, the unintended consequences may be more severe than we expect.

According to the utopian dreams of many who think that autonomous cars will be the savior of our urban areas as they will eliminate the need for parking, eliminate congestion, and make our cities safer to walk and bike. There will be so little traffic on the streets of your downtown area that the urban area will just come alive. Of course this vision sounds wonderful and what urban designer/urban planner doesn’t want our urban areas to be transformed into the perfect place that people will want to be around.

There would be many benefits to the implementation of autonomous cars. For the elderly that should no longer be behind the wheel of a car, an autonomous car would allow them to have the mobility when driving is no longer an option. Often times the elderly can become isolated because of their loss of driving abilities, especially when they want to age in place in a built environment that was not designed for it.

Another example of a situation where autonomous cars would be an advantage would be parents with children. Rightfully Uber and Lyft do not allow anyone under 18 to set up an account or travel along in a vehicle. Being the father of two teenage girls I would not allow my daughters to travel alone in a car with strangers although there has been undercover investigations showing that drivers from both companies will accept passengers alone that are underage. However with autonomous cars, say a mother has a child that is sick, a car could pick up her children and bring them home safety.

However, what really happens will probably be something truly different. There is some that fear that the advent of autonomous cars will make things worse not better. There is the fear that the implementation of autonomous cars will cause the urban environment to become even more auto-centric than it already is.

Think about how our urban environment has changed with each development in technology. First you had the streetcar suburbs, then as automobiles became more the transportation of choice people moved farther and farther out. So will the implementation of autonomous cars make this situation even worse?

When it comes to the cars themselves, there are literally dozens if not hundreds of articles dealing with the problem of the cars themselves including privacy issues, a public that is skeptical, the lack of laws concerning the cars, lack of clear responsibility, moral and ethical questions on how the cars will respond to situations, and when hackers will start targeting the cars and what damage will be done.

Autonomous cars are coming and we have no idea how those changes are going to affect our built environment. What we should not do is expect autonomous cars to be the magic bullet to solve our urban design problems. While autonomous cars will help solve some problems they may create their own problems, like all technological advances. Instead of expecting autonomous cars to solve our problems we need to be working today on solving those problems and making the built environment a better place.


Life around Stadiums

Hundreds of Millions and even Billions of dollars are spent to build new sports stadiums around the country and each time it seems that the new stadium is more elaborate than the last one to be built. In 2009 the New York Yankees bought a new stadium that cost a whopping $1.5 billion dollars while in 2017 Atlanta built a new stadium for the football and soccer teams which came in at $1.6 billion dollars. Today I plan to talk about the football stadium in Minneapolis that cost $1.1 billion and the baseball stadium that opened on 2010 that cost a measly $555 million. While the cost can seem astronomical I am not going to be talking about the construction cost but instead I am going to discuss the urban environment around the stadium.

    While sports stadiums seem to create a lot of excitement when they are proposed and cities are willing to throw whatever money they can to get a stadium built in their location, like convention centers they often sit empty a majority of the time and can create dead zones around them. While on a trip to Minneapolis last summer, I was able to a take a close look at the area around the stadiums and see exactly what the urban environment looks like today.

    First let’s take a look at the new football stadium. The stadium opened in 2017 and hosted the Super Bowl in 2018. For those not familiar with Minneapolis the stadium sits to the east and slightly to the south of downtown Minneapolis. The biggest activity center around the the stadium is a light rail station which is the primary station for passengers to transfer between the two light rails. There are a few buildings nearby, mainly the county Juvenile detention facility and a hospital which are not exactly the best attractions if you want to build a walkable community.

Green line light rail train arrives at station in front of the stadium. 

Looking at the empty plaza in front of the station. 

Another look at the plaza with the stadium to the right and light rail station to the left. 

Looking north from the light rail station toward the parking garages which is the closest use to the stadium. 

Looking northeast along Chicago Avenue. 

Skywalk leading from the stadium to the parking garage. 

Light rail train going under the skybridge. 

Looking north toward the Wells Fargo buildings which have no active uses. 
A closer look at the Wells Fargo Building

Looking northwest through the commons are toward downtown. 
Taking a look at the good map and the accompanying pictures you can see that from the light rail station you are facing a pretty desolate setting. Looking northwest from the station you have two open spaces which in themselves are good if there is something to bring life to them, however except for one apartment building along Fifth Avenue there is not much. Turning south there is the Juvenile Detention center, the county hospital and a lot of parking lots. Going north from open space you have two bank office buildings with nothing on the street level, and a parking garage. The good news is once you get to South 3rd Street and Park Avenue there are restaurants and hotels but you have to get past the parking garage first which also has no ground level activity to put more people on the street.

      Continuing northwest toward the downtown area things do not get better right away. The blocks between 4th Avenue and 3rd Avenue are lined with city, county and federal offices which can also be a killer to the urban environment. Most of these buildings are only occupied during the week between 8 and 5 and have no ground level activities. There are a couple of plazas, one in front of the Federal Court House and the other in front of the county government center, but once again there is not enough street life to make these plazas valuable most of the time.

Juvenile Detention Facility

Looking southwest along Park Avenue. The Juvenile Detention Center is located to the right and parking lots to the left. 
Looking along S 5th Street toward downtown
Looking northwest across the Commons. 

  Now turn your attention to the baseball stadium that is located on the northwest side of the downtown area, basically on the complete opposite side of downtown from the football stadium. There is probably no ideal spot for something like a sport stadium or convention center, but the baseball stadium in Minneapolis probably comes as close as you get.

     The stadium is located between a highway, an elevated street, a power plant and another elevated street. The baseball stadium has even better transit access than the football stadium as it is the terminal of the Northstar Commuter Rail and both light rail lines. Eventually both light rail lines will be extended beyond this area but both have been controversial. These light rail stations can be extremely busy during rush hour with passengers transferring to Northstar and of course during baseball games but beyond that there is little activity in the area beyond one office building located north of the stadium and the light rail stations.

Light Rail train at the light rail station in front of the baseball stadium. 
Looking southeast along North 5th Street past the stadium toward the parking garage and interstate. 

Looking toward the Northstar Station entrance. 

Looking northwest along North 5th Street. 

Looking southeast along baseball stadium. 

Looking toward the north from the baseball stadium. 

Looking past the baseball stadium toward the parking garage and downtown. 

Office building across the light rail tracks and North 5th Street from the stadium. 

Looking toward the second office building across from the stadium. 

The advantage the baseball stadium has over the football stadium is that you have a much shorter walk to get to a booming urban environment. If you leave the stadium area from the North 5th Street side with the light rail station you do have to walk past a parking garage which once again brings no life to the street but it is also serves as a cap over Interstate 394 so it can be considered an improvement over having to walk over a barren highway overpass. The largest entrance to the stadium empties out onto North 7th Street and using this entrance you do have a slightly longer walk to reach a thriving urban environment. From that entrance you cross over a semi-cap over Interstate 394 then pass the parking garage on one side and the basketball arena on the other to reach a flourishing urban environment. Fortunately you only have to pass a corner of the arena to reach restaurants and other urban life where there is much more activity on the street.

     Another facet of both stadiums that robs street life is that all the parking garages for the stadiums are connected to the respective stadiums via skywalks. While you can argue that it is necessary for the football stadium due to the weather in Minneapolis during the winter, it is a little harder to argue that point for the baseball stadium. Looking at the street view image shows that moving automobiles was put ahead of the pedestrian environment.

      Let’s make it clear I am not disparaging the stadiums themselves. While I was in Minneapolis/St. Paul during the summer I attended a game at the baseball stadium. The stadium itself is terrific and like many purpose built baseball stadiums over the last 20 years, no matter where your seats are you are close to action no matter where you sit. Also, while I am not a fan of the way many stadiums get financed and I question that they really bring the economic development some people feel they do, there is no reason why the stadiums cannot be built and designed to better create a more vibrant urban environment.

      In time the urban environment around the football stadium may greatly improve. The owner of the football team Zygi Wilf has stated he is interested in redeveloping the area around the football stadium. Hopefully this will bring a better urban atmosphere to the area.

    The two stadiums in Minneapolis are a perfect example of how stadiums can create dead zones in the urban surroundings. Most cities have something that will create dead zones such as a sports stadium, convention center, music halls, live theaters, or other similar uses. However, it does not have to be a dead zone if it blends into a vibrant urban environment. But if it’s in a sea of parking, or in an area where few people walk, it will contribute to being a dead zone instead of bringing more life to the area.


Mixing Active Transportation, Transit, and Freight Service

Nederlands: Luchtfoto van Nederlands hoofdkant...
Nederlands: Luchtfoto van Nederlands hoofdkantoor Bosch Rexroth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most difficult jobs of effective transportation planning, is the compromise between creating good environments for active transportation and transit while at the same time taking into considerations the need of freight carriers such as trucks that provide an important economic tool for many communities.

A great example of the problem areas for this compromise is in industrial areas. Industrial areas see a large amount of freight traffic (hopefully both on rail along with trucks) but you also need workers in industrial areas but they can be extremely difficult to serve with transit. Many transit advocates don't see the need for industrial areas and would love them to just go away. The problem with this line of thinking is that industrial areas tend to be the best sources of jobs that can lift people out of poverty. They provide a good paying jobs that do not require a college education.

The question is how do you serve industrial areas with transit and consider the last mile problem? One of the problems with transit service in these areas is that most of the ridership occurs only during shift changes which means if the industrial area is the primary point of travel for a transit line, it will only be busy during certain times of the day and run empty the rest of the time. There is a couple of solution to this problem.

One is to ensure that the industrial area is not the primary destination of the transit route. For example TriMet route 16 in Portland travels through the Northwest  Industrial District but also serves downtown, the St. Johns area, Linnton and Sauvie Island. Two other routes the 15 and the 77 do terminate in the area but they are long routs and the industrial district makes up only a small portion of their total route mileage.

A second solution is to provide a shuttle service to the industrial area from a major transit stop. Companies such as Intel and Nike provide shuttle services from MAX light rail stations in Portland to their transit unfriendly campuses. Another example is the Burbank, CA Metrolink Commuter Rail station that sees a large number of company vans providing service from the train station to their offices although in this case they are not in industrial unfriendly industrial areas. In the cases cited the service is only provided by a specific company for their employees. A third example is in the Chicago Suburbs were employers pay the PACE transit agency to provide shuttle service from train stations to their businesses and these can be used by anyone willing to pay the fare.

Another problem presented by industrial areas is access by active transportation such as walking and bicycling. While few people will probably walk all the way to the industrial area from their homes, they may have to walk a distance from the bus stop to their place of employment and many times there is few if any sidewalks. A bigger problem is the conflict between trucks and bicyclist. Industrial areas can be congested with truck traffic that makes it dangerous for bicyclists. Trucks are large and have a hard time seeing cyclist in their mirrors. The best solution in this case is to provide dedicated infrastructure for bicyclists so they are separated from the trucks but not may not always be possible.

When bicyclists and trucks do have to share the road one of the most dangerous times is when a truck is making a turn because once the cab of the truck is at an angle it is very difficult for the driver to see what is on his right side. While there is no fail safe solution to this the problem, there is some relatively inexpensive things that can be done to increase safety. One would be to install mirrors along driveways giving truck drivers an additional way to see in their blind spots and the other would be put up more signage warning bicyclist and trucks of the dangers. A final idea would be an educational campaign that would teach both truckers and cyclists how to be safer around each other. The problem here is reaching the large number of long distance truck drivers who may come into the area only occasionally.

Industrial zones are important part of our economy but create unique transportation challenges especially when trying to serve them with transit and adding active transportation. It can be done but it takes cooperation from all parties to make a system that works.


Anniversary Missed...

A couple of months ago a major anniversary took place that I let pass by without any fanfare mainly because how busy I have been over the summer and continue to be. The anniversary that took place on August 4th when this blog turned 10 years old.

Back then it was called Transit in Utah and was started to discuss transit issues in the Salt Lake region and other parts of Utah. Having been a transit and rail passenger advocate for many years, it was an opportunity to discuss some of the things I have learned over the years and saw as opportunities to improve transit service.

As the blog matured I became interested in how land use and transportation have interacted over the years and how we have ended up with the land use patterns we have today. I have also become very interested in Urban Design and how our built environment works and doesn't work.

It only took a short time for this blog to start focusing on issues outside of Utah considering I have plenty of transit experience outside the region having grew up in Pasadena, CA and having lived in Spokane, Seattle, and Charlotte over the years. However, it took until 2011 when I moved to Portland to officially change the name of the blog to something that more reflected what this blog is about.

Sadly over the last few months I have not been able to post as frequently that I would like and cannot see that changing before next June at the earliest. I have plenty of ideas for stories and will try to post when time allows.

Thank you for reading over the years and I hope you will stay tuned for the articles to come.


What makes a Successful Public Space?

Hotel Portland, since demolished
Hotel Portland, since demolished (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Pettygrove Park in Portland, Oregon. ...
English: Pettygrove Park in Portland, Oregon. Created by Lawrence Halprin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Occupy Portland protest at Pioneer Co...
English: Occupy Portland protest at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland, Oregon on October 6, 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes a good public space? One that people want to use and is used by a large number of different people? The Project for Public Spaces is a good source for information about what a successful public space should have, today I am going to look at two public spaces in the city of Portland Pettygrove City Park and Pioneer Courthouse Square.

The latter one is known as Portland's "living room" while the other languishes despite being close to office buildings and residences.
Pettygrove Park is the oldest of the two public spaces having been created during the Urban Renewal period that went from 1949 through 1962. Pettygrove Park and its environment pretty much shows everything that went wrong with the Urban Renewal projects.

The Park sits in the middle of several super blocks that broke up Portland's well known short blocks, to the west sit suburbs in the sky high rise apartment complexes that have no street life and office buildings that turn their backs on the square. The park sits between two pedestrian right of ways that also represent the failures of Urban Renewal projects because the pedestrians streets have no activity centers located along them.

I pass through Pettygrove Park at least twice a week and often four or more times a week when Portland State University is in session. Despite being located on the border of the school, several office and residential  buildings there is rarely more than a few people near the square, most of them usually just taking a smoke break from the nearby office buildings or walking dogs if they live in the surrounding residential.

While I pass through this park many times I never find a reason to actually stop here and stay. While there is a few benches around the number of seating areas are limited and for those looking for a quiet place it works beyond that there is little activity to bring people here. Even during the middle of the lunch hour few people walk the 3 blocks from the 4th avenue food cart area to this park, even at its peak it feels like an empty place.

On other hand while there is no residences near Pioneer Courthouse Square (although a new project is now being built a block away), the square is surrounded by activity including a major transit node with stops on three sides by Tri-Met's light rail lines. There is also two major retailers nearby with Nordstrom's and Macy's with Pioneer Square Mall located only a block away on SW 5th. The park was opened in 1984, after being a parking lot for many years after the Hotel Portland had been bulldozed.

If you pass Pioneer Courthouse Square you will usually find people in the square. There is plenty of informal places to sit and do a variety of activities. Along the east side of the square that faces Pioneer Courthouse is a low wall that just invites informal sitting. I will often sit along this wall, eat my lunch, read a book and observe the variety of people walking by. In addition there is a three food carts located in the square so you do not have to travel far to get something to eat although I have to admit I have never actually bought food from these food carts as I prefer some of the other carts that are a few blocks away.

It takes more than a spot of land to create a successful public space. Pioneer Courthouse Square has become the major focal point of downtown Portland while Pettygrove Park languishes despite being close to Portland State, residences and offices. However, Pioneer Courthouse Square is design to take advantage of its environment while Pettygrove Park sits largely ignored by neighboring buildings. Once again the Project for Public Spaces has a great listing of elements that are needed to create a great public space.

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