urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Archive for the ‘Pedestrian’ Category

Chicago’s Pedestrian Plan: a West Town pedestrian’s thoughts

leave a comment »

The city of Chicago’s glossy Pedestrian Plan is pretty impressive. The plan’s substantive recommendations are broken down into safety, connectivity, livability and health sections. Given that pedestrian safety and accommodations are by no means evenly protected nationwide, it’s a timely subject. Closer to home,  my own Wicker Park/West Town pedestrian experience provides a lot of food for thought.

One very basic step that I don’t think is present is to simply repaint all the lane and crosswalk markings on the street. Many lane markings are already close to nonexistent, and given Chicago’s northerly location, there are large chunks of the year when traveling both before and after work are completely in the dark, only making it harder to discern where there are any stops. The stretch of Division Street between the Kennedy and Ashland is particularly badly painted, in my experience, and it doesn’t help that it’s next to a dank underpass.

Similarly, stop signs should be clearly visible for drivers, and care should be taken that foliage in the warm months doesn’t block the signs. I speak from personal experience: again on Division St, I’ve missed a stop sign (once), thankfully not hitting any pedestrians.

With regards to the yellow marked pedestrian signs, I like these insofar as they are remarkably visible from a vehicle. The one closest is to me is on the Paulina St sidewalk, between Bangers & Lace and Starbucks — anecdotally, I’ve found that drivers are more likely to stop for me in the crosswalk once that sign went in. My one concern is that these kind of signs can create the impression that these crosswalks are somehow “special,” when in reality all crosswalks should be treated this way.

I’m particularly interested in the city’s footnote on page 69, in its “Connectivity” section, that the city is considering creating parking maximums for locations within an eighth of a mile of a transit station. I’m particularly interested in this (having written about buildings close to transit stations before) as I’ve found that in Chicago, there are numerous rail stations that have pretty pedestrian-unfriendly development around them — not even counting the expressway

The three Blue Line stops of Western, Damen and Division provide a particularly apt continuum for comparison. Damen’s the “best” here, with relatively pedestrian-friendly development radiating out in most directions from the station. Western, just half a mile northwest, I’ve always found to be particularly unfriendly: from the elevated station, there are two surface parking lots on either side of Western and a McDonald’s with more surface parking, not to mention Western Ave itself, which is already a pretty wide street.

I always think of the optimal model in these cases being Arlington’s corridor model in the greater DC area, with density skewing downwards from each Metro station — at least in theory — all the way down to street. Of course, this is more easily said than done, particularly when large portions of Chicago’s rail system are decades older than the DC Metro — I don’t think tearing down buildings and mandating skyscraper construction around the L is going to work. But mandating that future development take transit proximity into account with regards to parking is a good start.

Finally, a suggestion that’s a little bit out of left field, but I didn’t find any mention of sidewalk trees in the plan. This is obviously costly. But research has definitely found that trees on a sidewalk, even when they are leafless in the winter, contribute to the pedestrian experience. My least favorite long stretch of sidewalk in my neighborhood is on Augusta Ave, precisely because it’s already a narrow, often poorly-maintained sidewalk that lacks any sort of street foliage cover.

The Chicago pedestrian plan is a good start, although as always these plans are more easily achievable on paper than they are in real life. But it sounds

Advertisements

Written by Andrew ACG

September 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Chicago, Pedestrian

The Grove, Disney parks and faux urbanism

with 2 comments

I just returned from a week in the greater Los Angeles area visiting family and friends. As usual, Los Angeles is an endlessly fascinating place, simultaneously the derided poster child of American sprawl and yet home to some of the biggest changes in urban life today.

I hadn’t planned to go, but when I finished the Rethink/LA exhibit at the Architecture & Design museum more quickly than I had anticipated, I drove over to the Grove, an outdoor shopping and entertainment complex at Fairfax and 3rd. Although my original goal of finding a Macy’s was thwarted, I was amused, as always, by how closely places and “lifestyle centers” of the Grove hew to urbanist tenets of city life:

A façade of an inviting streetscape

– Street-level retail
There’s a feeling of vitality all along the “city streets” of the Grove. The stores all open out onto the street, and there is a lot to see while strolling at street level. This being an August day in southern California, the weather was of course conducive to store doors flung open and people weaving in and out.

Pedestrian-friendly "streets"

– Small blocks
There isn’t any grid or blocks, so to speak of, at the Grove, as it’s far too small (even though its host city of Los Angeles actually has a fairly strong, if oft-interrupted, street grid). But there are frequent corners and intersections onto other streets. While I have no idea if “corner lots” at the Grove attract higher rent than the street lots, it still encourages a sense of vitality and exploration.

One wonders what the ridership per mile figure is.

– Pedestrian-friendliness
I suppose, strictly speaking, that the Grove is a pedestrian mall, as there aren’t any cars along the road. There is, in fact, even a trolley that runs along tracks laid into the ground. But all in all, there are few impediments to pedestrians, sidewalks are wide and there’s a parklike feeling in the middle.

***

The overriding thing to keep in mind, of course, is that the Grove is completely sheltered from the city block around it. I drove there, as I imagine the vast majority of shoppers did as well, and the “Welcome to the Grove” sign is at the bottom of the bank of escalators as you exit the parking structure.

Places like the Grove, and Los Angeles in general, are often derided for being ersatz and “Disneyfied” versions of so-called “real” places. There’s no doubt that the architecture at the Grove, for instance, is a mishmash of traditional European architectural styles; the developer claims to have incorporated Los Angeles vernacular architecture into the design, but there seems to precious little red tile on the roofs.

But ironically, places like Disney parks and the Grove offer more of a feel of traditional urbanism, even if it’s only the surface level. Faux architecture and artificial weathering aside, the Main Street at Disneyland and the outdoor dining next to the fountain at the Grove offer an urbanist sheen, even if it’s through a painstakingly corporate-crafted lens. While there are certainly no actual apartments above any of the stores of Main Street, it is certainly more walkable than Wilshire Blvd! And I’d venture to say that at least in look and feel, if not substance, it certainly brushes up close to violating much of the Euclidean zoning present in American cities today.

I wonder, in the end, what kind of effect these places have on the urbanite and suburbanite psyche. Part of me thinks that there’s a positive effect in showing (versus telling), and that there’s something to this whole urbanist mumbo-jumbo. On the other hand, I think it also has the effect of ghettoizing this sort of development into carefully scripted and constrained locations. It seems bad to set up a sense that this type of development is limited to playground-type locations and separate it from “real life”: counterproductive in the log run.

Written by Andrew ACG

September 11, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Pedestrian safety and million-dollar parking lots

with 2 comments

I just returned from a trip to New York and am still getting my life back in order, but after I do I’d like to give a roundup of some of the urbanist/transit-related things I was able to see there. In the meantime, the last couple of days seem to have been a bonanza for pedestrian safety and parking news, so a roundup:

Both the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times covered pedestrian safety recently. The Tribune‘s study finds that four-fifths of car-pedestrian crashes happen in crosswalks, that drivers turning left unsurprisingly are involved in the highest percentage of crashes at a signalled intersection, and that fatalities have declined in recent years.

The Times‘ piece discusses how Florida, and the Orlando metropolitan area in particular, is one of the most dangerous places in America for pedestrians. Excessively widely spaced crosswalks, large arterial streets and poor transit make for a very difficult environment for pedestrians. The story also mentions the Raquel Nelson case, which I mentioned in a blog post last month about how drivers cross streets.

Pedestrians in the Times’ story also comment on aggressive drivers actually speeding up when they see them. I remember reading once that drivers are less likely to collide with pedestrians when pedestrians don’t make eye contact with the driver, because the act of making eye contact serves to acknowledge that the pedestrian has seen the driver, who is then more likely to charge ahead*.

I have to admit that I’m one of these individuals: I certainly don’t blindly step out into intersections without looking at all into the street, and when I cross at a corner I am almost always aware of who is coming into the intersection. But I have found that even here in Chicago, a relatively pedestrian-friendly place, drivers will ignore crosswalks and turn right in front of pedestrians already in the street.

It goes without saying that pedestrian safety is something that’s vital to walkable and transit-friendly cities. A transit system is only as good as the pedestrian network that surrounds it, or the “last mile” problem. As the Times mentions, many of the bus stops in Florida and other pedestrian-unfriendly places are places where passengers would be hard-pressed to try to cross the street or really walk anywhere.

It’s ironic, in a way, that Florida boasts some of the most pedestrian-unfriendly communities in the nation, as it’s also known for being a haven for senior citizens. The Times recently painted a rosy portrayal of the lives of some of the elderly in Manhattan: rent control and affordability issues aside (and it’s a big aside, as that helps to drive up rents for those not lucky enough to be part of it), New York’s walkability and transit system help to make it relatively elderly-friendly. In most of this country, including Florida, when you stop driving, you lose your freedom to get around. It’s a cruel irony that a place with much softer winters and many more elderly citizens is so unfriendly to them as well.

***

In somewhat pedestrian-related news, a 10,000 sq ft. parking lot in Manhattan has apparently sold for $21 million, a staggering $2,100 per square feet. My guilty favorite the Daily Mail has a characteristically loud headline screaming, “100ft by 100ft PARKING LOT in Manhattan sells for $21million in latest sign of real estate madness returning to New York,” while the subdued Wall Street Journal just lets us know that the parking lot has sold for $21 million.

This is certainly a really high rate, and the Mail‘s headline in particular is incredulous that a parking lot would sell for so much. But it makes sense, if you think about it: a surface parking lot is a spectacularly poor use of land in the most urban environment in the entire country. It doesn’t do anything for the pedestrians who walk around it, and the tax revenue that a hotel or other business venture could bring in would be far more valuable than the parking lot.

*This might have been in the excellent Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, but I’m not entirely sure.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 16, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Sidewalks: bad for the neighborhood?

with one comment

Not so nice in the burbs?

Does the lack of sidewalks make a suburban area feel more “high-end”?

A coworker mentioned yesterday that his suburban subdivision had no sidewalks; I speculated that it was a cost-cutting measure by the developers. He agreed, but then mentioned that it might also be because the developer wanted to project the image of a “high-end” area, adding that the subdivisions in the affluent northwestern Chicago suburbs to which he hopes to move also lack sidewalks.

It’s a curious thought. Most of the Los Angeles suburbs that are familiar to me have sidewalks, even if they are solely used for recreational purposes and cars are used for all essential trips. I’ve noticed that many of the lots in the newer, affluent favored quarter of the northwest Chicago suburbs lack sidewalks, though.

Perhaps a lack of sidewalks indicates that the residents of that subdivisions can all afford cars, and so they don’t need sidewalks to get around. Upon reflection, this is a little bit too involved and conspiracy-like for my thinking. It also seems strange that there wouldn’t be any sidewalks for young children — who presumably comprise a large part of the population — but perhaps the thinking is that the lawns, grassy areas and parks in the area suffice.

A lack of sidewalks could also create a sort of quasi-bucolic setting, which is what many suburbs aspire to anyway. I’m reminded of a 2009 Washington Post story that describes the controversy over the installation of sidewalks in an affluent northwest District community. Some were quoted as saying that the installation of sidewalks makes an area safer, because it forces drivers to slow down for children and other people in the street; they also argued that the installation of sidewalks would make an area more urban in nature, via replacement of greenery with concrete.

Perhaps it’s a combination of all of these: developers don’t develop sidewalks because residents of these high-end suburban areas don’t demand them, subconsciously wanting to get away from an urban “feel.” Other developers aiming to create similar high-end subdivisions build similarly, and the sidewalk-less pattern replicates itself.

I’ll freely admit that it’s hard for me to see a sidewalk-less suburban area and think “high-end,” but that is probably a function of my urbanist leanings and my upbringing and its surroundings.

Written by Andrew ACG

July 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Posted in Chicago, Land use, Pedestrian, Suburbs

Tagged with