Lecture Notes: What to Do About the Automobile?

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What to do about the automobile? Last Friday I listened as planners, architects, developers, policymakers and others asked themselves this question in a breakout session at the Design for Livability conference, hosted at Seattle Center by AIA Seattle along with the Cascade Land Conservancy and Allied Arts.

We're facing an interesting time, when the ideal of personal car ownership – a classic metaphor for freedom and the adventuresome American spirit – is tumbling from its pedestal. Residents of the world's largest cities have long viewed cars as a mixed blessing, with the high cost of parking and insurance as well as general inconveniences like city traffic, searching for a parking spot. But popular focus on climate change has made driving a source of guilt for many, with big cars become a source of utter embarrassment. And of course, residents of more rural areas are now feeling the most practical pressure to drive less, as gas prices continue to skyrocket.

As session host Mark Hinshaw of LMN noted, more change is imminent. "Roughly 10 years from now the first baby boomers will lose their licenses … and yet will live into their 90s," he said. "Huge populations are coming up who will be continuing to work at least part time, and will not drive cars. Whether we want it and whether we believe it in, it's going to change people's lives."

Despite this concert of motivating factors, sharp growing pains will accompany the demise of a status quo that has stood unquestioned for so long. I was interested to learn from different points of view what must change, what can change, and how things are already changing around Seattle.

The first speaker, SDOT Senior Transportation Planner Peter Lagerwey, briefly described how we got ourselves here in the first place. For example, by abandoning the grid and developing streets in a "lollipop pattern" where routes don't connect and often lead to dead ends, we force auto traffic onto a few main thoroughfares that consequently frustrate drivers and intimidate cyclists and pedestrians. Another problem, he added, showing a slide of a big-box plaza parking lot surrounded by pedestrian-hostile guard rails and long driveway routes, is that we have designed commercial spaces on a scale that is auto-sized rather than human-sized, to relate to the auto-dominated streets where these developments are concentrated.

And visual cues play a major role also, which is one main reason why buildings, streets and sidewalks must work together to create the right environment. A parking lot between a building and the sidewalk, for instance, signals to pedestrians that they are not welcome. Eliminating street trees and widening streets by several traffic lanes ensures that most travelers will stay inside their cars.

But, Lagerwey says, fairly rapid building turnover rates for commercial corridors means there is real hope for noticeable change even within a decade. He gave specific recommendations for returning car-free mobility to a level of importance approaching that currently assigned to our vehicles. For example:

1. Site buildings close to the street, with few exceptions. Parking lots, when necessary, should be in back or underground. Increase infill to add more buildings and more interest.
2. Connect communities with smart land use planning and street design, including small lot sizes, mid-block alleys and other routes that offer multiple paths from one destination to the next.
3. Add trees and texture to the landscape, including bike lanes, street trees, and median strips to reduce the emphasis on traffic. Lagerwey argued that rather than impede traffic, medians can actually help the flow, by taking the place of the often-congested center turning lane.
4. Build homes that communicate with people, not cars. A front door with a stoop sends a different message than a two-car garage door as a home's main entrance.
5. Never build environments that repel people, such as single-purpose parking garages or big-box stores wedged into downtown spaces. Instead, build housing units on top of all new commercial spaces, parking garages and other developments. "This [proximity to shopping and activity] will be the answer for our seniors in the future," Lagerwey said.

The session continued with a presentation by developer Graham Black of gProjects. Black, a former attorney, switched careers six years ago after being inspired by the growing trend of compact urban residential communities that encourage neighborly interaction. Although he conceded that he would not yet consider building a development without any parking stalls, he has committed to de-emphasizing the automobile in his communities, in large part because of his desire to increase face-to-face interactions.

Inspired by the Dutch woonerf (which we've written about on Worldchanging), Black has identified a few key strategies for turning parking into a community asset:

Picture%201.jpg1. The ideal driveway and community road width is 10 feet, demanding slow speeds and careful attention.
2. Aggressive use of plants to break up the driving space requires drivers to pay even more attention and drive even more slowly through community spaces.
3. Use of the right materials is key, including varied colors to designate pedestrian space as separate from auto space, and pervious paving solutions like reinforced grass turf, gravel and recycled paving stones, to signal a mindset that's different from asphalt (along with the benefit of natural stormwater managmenet).
4. Providing reasons for residents to walk and interact, including centrally located mailboxes, courtyards landscaped with edible gardens, community P-patches and more, will make them enthusiastic about walking.

"We tell people, 'you're going to have to walk from your car to your house … but there are really good reasons to get out of your car and walk,'" Black said. So far, he's had no trouble selling the units. And, he added, by making driving a little less convenient, the community design might encourage residents to walk for short external trips also, rather than taking the car in and out of the development just to visit a restaurant a few blocks away.

Picture%203.jpgBut the future of development like this, concluded Black, Lagerwey and Hinshaw, depends in large part on what happens at the policy level. "If parking is still linked to land use," he says, noting that there are outdated minimum parking requirements in many urban residential areas, "we won't get very far." Attendees agreed, also commenting that it remains difficult to get financial backing for a project that may not offer as much parking as the development next door.

Several ideas were then discussed around the room, including less popular ideas like maximum parking restrictions (vs. minimum parking requirements) to ensure that developments with less parking won't need to worry about competition, or charging buyers the true cost of their parking spot (as much as $50,000 per stall in some places).

But ultimately, two primary changes seem to be the most reliable and inevitable solutions to providing cities that facilitate life without a personal car: density and mobility. Increased densities – and we're talking two- to three-story developments, not endless corridors of high-rises – would provide the population to support important amenities like supermarkets within a four- or five-block walk of most residences. And access to a variety of clean, reliable public transportation options will allow residents to truly understand that life without a car can ultimately be more of a liberty than life with one.

Photos courtesy of gProjects.

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