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A freeway-free city does not guarantee a walkable one

April 18, 2015 at 10:38 am

Of all the pretenses thrown around Vancouver urbanism/planning circles, “we have no freeways” is among the most unchallenged. No freeways traverse the 44 square miles of Vancouver proper (which is mostly true, as a small section of the Trans-Canada Highway does indeed enter the city’s boundaries), and someone will inevitably let you know this is why Vancouver is “so livable” or “Canada’s most walkable city” or something else along those lines.

But there are ramifications to being a city with North American freight demands, a large central business district inside the city, as well as a major bridge that moves traffic to the North Shore communities and beyond from all around the region (where most people still drive). The city is laced with a grid network of arterials that are unpleasant to walk along or across.

To give credit where its due, Vancouver does move a lot of people into its CBD and employment districts by transit, like many other North American cities. And a fairly large share of its own population travels on transit within its borders. You would think these factors, coupled with the lack of freeways, would make Vancouver a walking mecca on par with historic European cities.

This is the reality:

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Shaun Jacobsen.

Image: Shaun Jacobsen.

Vancouver’s downtown is one of the few parts of the city that is walkable and feels comfortable to walk around. There are a few neighborhoods here and there that are also comfortable to walk around, but they are isolate sections only reached by streets that look like the ones above.

Worse, these roads are designed to move traffic quickly. Signalized intersections with a flashing green light mean the signal is only changed when a person walking or bicycling on the cross street presses a button; that is, the lights are green by default. This is so traffic can move more quickly along the streets. Further, despite these streets being relatively narrow in terms of width, they pack in several lanes of moving traffic (4 or 6, depending on the time of day). The speed limit is set at 50 km/h (31 mph), but people normally drive at or exceed 60 km/h (37 mph). There is not usually a landscaped strip separating the (narrow) sidewalks from the roadway, and with few parked cars acting as a buffer, this means traffic is whizzing inches away from people walking or waiting for a bus. Finally, signalized intersections and painted crosswalks are few and far between when not in a commercial area, making crossing these streets difficult. Safely crossing can involve walking several blocks out of one’s way to safely cross these streets.

This does not stop at neighborhood high (commercial) streets either, which are often noisy due to four, five, or six lanes of through traffic moving at relatively high speeds. Neighborhoods like Marpole could make use of its wide sidewalks by having outdoor seating and other elements of vibrant outdoor public life, but there is little of it and I do not hesitate at thinking this is due to road noise.

Furthermore, there are no policy pushes by the city to put these streets on a “road diet,” as is being done in other cities around North America. This is likely because some of them are provincial roads or part of TransLink’s Major Road Network, which would make them similar to State DOT roads in U.S. cities. This is a disappointment.

Vancouver's share of the Major Road Network (blue). Highways are in red. Not all photos of arterial streets above are part of the Major Road Network. Image: TransLink.

Vancouver’s share of the Major Road Network (blue). Highways are in red. Not all photos of arterial streets above are part of the Major Road Network. Image: TransLink.

There are good walking streets in Vancouver. Notice that they all have one usable lane of through traffic:

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

 

And here are some decent walking streets in other North American cities (also, only two traffic lanes maximum):

Capture d’écran 2015-04-18 à 09.27.48

Andersonville, Chicago. Image: Google.

San Francisco. Image: Google.

San Francisco. Image: Google.

Brooklyn. Image: Google.

Brooklyn. Image: Google.

Montréal. Image: Google.

Montréal. Image: Google.

Hyde Park, Chicago. Image: Google.

Hyde Park, Chicago. Image: Google.

The point is that you can be a city with no freeways, but the cost could come in the form of a network of stroads (street/road hybrid, essentially a street that doesn’t work well for anyone) whose unpleasantness is spread across the city and therefore impacts more of its population. Few urbanists, myself included, like freeways running through cities. We can certainly do without them in our downtowns, their effects are incredibly unpleasant, and the history behind their construction is shameful. But it is disingenuous to assert that a city is somehow better off with several long, straight, high-speed arterials designed to move traffic quickly instead of one freeway which might be able to handle this traffic, giving way to narrower, calmer commercial streets through neighborhoods. It would also be less of a liability to run these arterial streets through the city if the it had planned its retail districts (i.e. neighborhood centers) on smaller streets.

This is an idea that should be thought over, not to make the case for building a freeway through Vancouver (which I do not think should be done), but instead to think about the ramifications of being a city in a North American region where the majority of residents still travel by car, despite efforts to reduce car travel by rejecting freeways and building transit instead. Unless it is balanced out with policies directed at taming arterial streets, it doesn’t appear to work all that well.

Stacked big-box development: Chicago’s next urban design challenge

April 13, 2015 at 8:59 pm

In Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin laments a new sort of high-rise residential development going up in and around downtown Chicago: stories of parking at the base, with residences four, five, and six or more stories above ground, far from being “eyes on the street” of any sort.

The difference between a condo tower in New York and one in Chicago is that the Chicago tower will have a base, roughly four to nine stories tall, that houses a parking garage where condo and apartment dwellers store their cars and SUVs. The apartment floors begin only after the parking garage ends.

It’s a small difference with large consequences. It means that in New York, you look up from the sidewalk to the second floor and you see somebody’s curtains. In Chicago, you look up and see, in most cases, a blank wall of concrete or opaque glass, because the city requires buildings to cover parking garages rather than leaving them exposed.

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

The book is a compilation of articles that Kamin has written over the years; that excerpt was written in August 2003. While this trend may seem to have slowed, River North and West Loop in particular are riddled with this sort of development. The parking being between the ground plane and the residences is not as obvious as it is with Marina City, but it’s pretty bland. Above is a pretty egregious example; not only is the ground plane wasted on three banks (BMO Harris is not pictured, to the right), there are at least 4 levels of parking above the Chase.

Parking garages in developments like those shown above, and which Kamin bemoans, likely exist because it is cheaper to build parking above ground than below it, and nobody thought much of it. Fortunately, new development does not tend to include aboveground parking structures at the street-facing side of the building, and we are seeing more transit-oriented developments with much less parking.

A trend I have seen more recently is development that has parking on the ground floor (even worse), with retail on top. This was something I first noticed at the Target on Division St:

Image: Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Parking is accessed around the corner, on Larrabee:

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

This is terrible urban design, for a few reasons: The parking on the first level provides two blank walls to stare at while walking by. There is no opportunity for other retailers to open on the ground floor, or even windows where passers-by can look into the store (the only windows afford a view of escalators to go up to the second floor, where there is retail). There is no chance that anything along this block will ever be “active.”

It’s concerning, because the Wilson Yards Target is better:

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

Target still occupies quite a bit of the block, but there is nonetheless housing above the rest of the retailers that exist on the other half of the development. Another small enhancement is the café section of Target, which has a window looking out to the street giving passers-by something to look at. I don’t think this would have happened if this Target were built on its own, however. The fact that it is a part of a larger TIF-funded development likely helped. It does help to show, however, that the ugly urban design of the Division St Target is entirely avoidable.

Here is another example of a poorly-designed big-box development, about a 15 minute walk west:

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

This new Mariano’s grocery store, next to the Metra UP-N Ravenswood station (the busiest non-Loop Metra station in Chicago), has a sidewalk-fronting entrance which takes you straight upstairs to the rest of the store, unless you want a coffee or flowers, which are the only items sold on the first floor.

The parking structure, accessed from the cave shown above, is above the store. But what is particularly bad about the design of this development is that its smaller occupant, LA Fitness, can only be accessed from behind the store, through the driveway to the parking garage.

Image: Google Maps.

There is no entrance to LA Fitness from the sidewalk. Image: Google Maps.

In my opinion, fitness clubs should be located on the second floor if possible, since many of them usually throw up an opaque screen for some reason (probably to prevent people from looking inside), which is antithetical to good pedestrian-oriented design. And good pedestrian-oriented design is exactly what we should be calling for on Lawrence Ave, considering it was recently the beneficiary of a much-needed road diet, which not only makes the street safer for people walking but should also be conducive to more people-oriented urban design.

Which brings me to the reason I wanted to write this post, which is a new development proposed on Montrose Ave just two blocks from the Wilson Yards Target. A former neighbor tipped me off to a DNAInfo article regarding a Ross discount clothing store wanting to open shop on the site of former Dearborn Foods, which has sat vacant for some time at 918 W Montrose Ave. Here are the renderings:

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Let’s start with the good, because it will be quicker: At least there is space for two small retailers.

The bad should be obvious: ground-floor parking (73 spaces proposed), with second-floor retail. Even worse is that, unlike the Target on Division, the parking is not even closed off by a wall that could have something on it to look at. The developer touts “strong traffic counts” as an asset.

Is it better than the vacant store there now? Sure. Is it better than the Jewel-Osco across the street, with it’s large surface parking lot? Maybe. But it sure isn’t good urban design.

Buildings like this cannot continue to pop up like weeds across Chicago’s landscape. Thankfully, this looks like it is the first rendering, and it has not gone through any sort of public review process. Recently re-elected alderman James Cappleman should reject this style of development and insist that the only type of new development that should be built in Uptown be pedestrian-oriented, not only on principle but also because over half of households in this area have no vehicle and most people commute via transit (source). Traffic-choked Montrose should not be subjected to development that will induce more automobile trips and re-introduce conflict points between people walking and driving with a curb cut on a busy street. Finally, we should expect better when a $200+ million Red Line ‘L’ station renovation is being constructed just down the street.

Chicago already has a tool that can fight back against this sort of development, it just needs to be applied more widely. The Pedestrian Streets ordinance (17-3-0500) is a wonderful law that ensures existing “streets and intersections that are widely recognized as Chicago’s best examples of pedestrian-oriented shopping districts” remain that way. However, it needs to be expanded to include most, if not all, commercial streets instead of covering only those that are currently human-scale, pedestrian-friendly shopping districts. The three developments (Target on Division St, Mariano’s on Lawrence Ave, and the proposed Ross on Montrose Ave) I showed in this article would not have been built as they are had they been on designated Pedestrian Streets. Transparent surfaces would be required on 60% of the sidewalk-facing walls, entrances must be on the primary street, and curb cuts are prohibited.

Chicago Pedestrian Streets, relatively few and far between, are also inequitably distributed. Image: City of Chicago Data Portal.

Chicago Pedestrian Streets, relatively few and far between, are also inequitably distributed. Image: City of Chicago Data Portal.

33rd ward alderwoman Deb Mell fought a developer who wanted to build a standard-issue, auto-oriented Walgreen’s at the site of an existing mixed-use building, as I reported last year in Streetsblog Chicago. Cappleman, and many other aldermen and women throughout Chicago should be rejecting the same type of development in their own wards, and you should be pressuring them to do so. The higher initial cost, if any, to a developer is worth it in the long run if our new development resembles less of a stacked suburban big-box design, and more of the human-scale shopping streets we’ve come to appreciate in several Chicago neighborhoods.

Some unseen insights into the 2014 Divvy trip data

March 10, 2015 at 9:23 am

There are a few interesting insights into the 2014 Divvy trip data that I didn’t share in my post yesterday. These are either insights that are hard to find in the visualization, or that can only be found by querying the dataset. For instance:

The longest median trip duration was from Calumet Ave & 18th St to Wells St & Erie St, at 102 minutes. There were only 14 trips made, the longest being a little over 14 hours (this could be an error). Google says this trip should normally take 24 minutes by bike; of the 14 trips, 2 were made by annual subscribers, who clocked in right around 25 minutes. Calumet Ave/18th St is near Soldier Field, and Wells St/Erie St is in River North.

27.9 minutes is the largest trip savings over public transport, from Lake Park Ave & 47th St to Fort Dearborn Dr & 31st St. Google calculated this trip as taking 50 minutes by public transport (using buses 6, then 3), while the median Divvy trip was 22.5 minutes. There were 490 trips made in 2014. The reason this trip takes so long by public transport is because the #6 is an express bus to the Loop, where you would transfer to the #3, a local, and backtrack to 31st St. The same trip by Metra Electric is 22 minutes, but runs less frequently.

The largest time savings loss over public transport, where the median Divvy rider was 57.7 minutes slower than public transport, was from Blackstone Ave & Hyde Park Blvd to Millennium Park. The #6 bus takes 22 minutes, but the median Divvy trip took 80 minutes. Google says this trip should normally take 37.5 minutes by bike.

Only 34 station pairs require two or more transfers (e.g. bus > L > bus) to make the journey by public transport.

Trips between 67 station pairs involved taking Metra, the commuter rail system. Nearly all of these were on the Metra Electric line on the south side.

The shortest median trip duration was 90 seconds, from Paulina St & Montrose Ave to Ravenswood Ave & Montrose Ave. It was a little over 1 minute slower to walk; the distance between these two stations is just under 2 blocks.

The station pair with the largest amount of hours saved was from Theater on the Lake to Streeter Dr & Illinois St, where 4,898 riders saved a collective 1,085 hours over taking public transport. This is also a perfect tourist bike ride along the lakefront to Navy Pier, and the best transit option involves 30 minutes of walking and a bus ride.

Who’s Faster? A look at how Divvy riders perform compared to public transport

March 9, 2015 at 9:41 am

Like last year, I am preparing an entry for this year’s Divvy Data Challenge, for which both my projects received honorable mentions last year. I needed some inspiration, so I looked around the Internet for other bike share visualizations and stumbled across this visualization for Hubway, the bike share system in Boston. It also used D3.js, a JavaScript library that helps visualize data. I’ve become enamoured with D3 because it helps me learn JavaScript, and people have made a wide variety of awesome visualizations with it.

This year, I took the Hubway visualization and created a version for Chicago, with a few improvements. You can view it here.

Capture d’écran 2015-03-07 à 17.48.45

In short: This visualization shows the median amount of time it took a Divvy rider to ride between two stations (a station pair) compared with the same amount of time it would have taken to make the trip by public transportation (or walking, if that was faster than taking transport), for Divvy trips in 2014.

The screenshot above demonstrates that nearly all of the 5,489 Divvy trips to/from the Divvy station at Clark St & Leland Ave were faster than taking public transportation. We can infer some or all of the following:

  • Bicycling in Chicago is usually faster than taking public transportation, even on Divvy’s heavy and somewhat slow bicycles
  • Divvy riders are making trips that they would either
    • Normally take via transportation, or by walking, and are therefore saving time, and/or
    • Normally not make at all, but are now making because there is a new, faster option available

There are certainly other conclusions we can come to by looking at this data; please share your own!

Reading the Data

Since there is so much data, the website visualization starts off by displaying only the top 1,000 station pairs in terms of rides taken. Selecting “All Stations” from the drop-down list at the top will load all pairs, but it takes a while. Selecting individual stations is much faster, and more insightful since there are fewer data points.

The radius of each circle on the graph is a function of the amount of time saved in total (total trips × minutes saved).

A map is provided to show the start and end station for each pair. Those not familiar with all of Chicago’s street names will find it easier to read the data with a map. Small blue dots are Divvy stations, white dots are CTA ‘L’ stations, and the coloured lines are CTA ‘L’ lines. The silver-coloured lines represent multiple lines (e.g. the Loop).

Processing the Data

The process of getting to this point was long and involved a lot of data cleaning, and to help understand the data better, this was my process (or what I can remember from it):

  1. Clean Divvy’s trip data file in Excel (formatting dates correctly, etc).
  2. Import all of Divvy’s trip and station location data into a MySQL database.
  3. Run a database request to get the count of all trips between each possible station pair (there are a total of 58,087 pairs among the 300 stations)
  4. Write and run a PHP script that calls the Google Directions API to get both transit and bicycle directions for every station pair. These are the same directions that you get when you get directions from Google Maps, except the results are loaded into my database, instead of displayed on a screen. For the purposes of data consistency, transit trips are calculated for noon on a Monday. Bicycle trips are obtained to get the on-street distance between stations.
  5. Write and run another PHP script that gets the median Divvy trip duration for every station pair. While getting the average trip duration is faster thanks to a built-in MySQL function, in this case, the median is a better measure of central tendency. Divvy riders, especially 24-hour passholders (e.g. tourists), take longer trips than someone would on their own bicycle (according to Google, anyway). These outliers can impact the average trip duration, so the median was chosen instead.
  6. Export the data as JSON to be run by the D3 script. The D3 script will only display station pairs where the start station is not the same station as the end station and the amount of time “lost” by taking Divvy is greater than 10 minutes (that is, the “minutes saved” is greater than or equal to -10). I chose to not display trips where the time “lost” is 20, 30, or 40 minutes because these trips make up a very small amount of trips, and throw off the Y-axis.

A Few Observations

I did not edit the data to remove outliers because this is meant to show actual trips as taken by all Divvy riders. That’s why there are anomalies like this:

Capture d’écran 2015-03-07 à 18.13.04

It would not take most bicyclists 13 minutes to bike one block. However, both stations are next to Millennium Park and Michigan Avenue, and we can assume that many of the riders using these stations are tourists who likely rode the bikes around a nearby park, went to the Lakefront Trail, etc. Therefore, the median trip time is about 10 minutes longer than it would be if we relied on Google’s bike directions, which say that this trip should take 3 minutes.

Known Issues

The map sometimes does not display both points on it. It is programmed to only show the two markers (green for the starting station, and red for the ending station) on the map, but does not always function properly. Hovering over other circles should “reset” the map so both markers are shown again.

The Future

In the future it would be interesting to see how the time saved changes between Divvy’s annual subscribers and 24-hour passholders, or at other times (e.g. peak hours).

The code is not so specific that it can be used only for Chicago. I would love to make one for New York City while it still has a relatively low number of stations (332), and therefore fewer possible station pairs, or  for Washington, D.C. Were I to do one for Paris, for example, which has 1,230 Vélib’ stations, the total number of station pairs would exceed one million, and displaying this data would crash your browser.

The code is online at GitHub.

Conclusions

Please send constructive feedback and any errors you encounter to transitized [at] gmail [dot] com or tweet @transitized. Please leave your insights into the data in the comments for others to see!

Bike share might be able to work in separate nodes

February 27, 2015 at 2:37 am

Streetsblog recently posted about Jon Orcutt, a former Director at the NYC DOT, writing that bike share works best as a continuous network of stations, as opposed to “nodes” of stations throughout a city or region.

He’s right, in most contexts. I know that Bay Area Bike Share has stations in San Francisco as well as some suburbs south of it. Chicago’s Divvy is still wholly located inside the city, but adjacent, denser suburbs Oak Park and Evanston will get stations shortly. There may even be cases where splitting the system within the city is still okay.

A Divvy station next to a Brown Line ‘L’ station in Chicago.

Vancouver, BC, is still awaiting a bike share system (and is among North America’s largest cities without one). Part of this is because of bad timing — Alta, who managed several North American systems, sold its bike share business which is now called Motivate — and because of British Columbia’s all-ages helmet requirement law.

There has not yet been a map released of potential bike share station locations in Vancouver, but a few sources believed that the stations would mostly be located downtown and in the West End. If this is true, it’s a terrible idea.

The West End and downtown are both on a peninsula, are the densest areas of the region, and have very high walk-to-work mode shares. However, they have low bike commuting rates — usually rationalized with topography, since a large hill somewhat separates the two neighbourhoods.

The West End neighbourhood, in pink, compared with the rest of the city, in maroon. Image: Inside Vancouver.

I’m not saying the hill is the only deterrent, but they do create problems for bike share. I believe that putting bike share stations initially in the downtown peninsula is a bad idea because it’s already very walkable.

Many large swaths of the rest of Vancouver are nowhere near as walkable. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the result when most of the city is zoned for single-family homes with few commercial areas:

Vancouver zoning: grey is single-family, yellow is two-family, orange is multi-family, and red is commercial. Image: We Love East Van.

Which brings me to Orcutt’s assertion that bike share can’t work in nodes.

South of, say, 16th Avenue (an east/west avenue, along the north end of the pink zone in the map above), there are some neighbourhoods that are relatively walkable. Some of these neighbourhoods are also anchored by or are near to transit — but many people take bus transit to these stations, instead of walking. In my own scenario, walking to the Canada line takes 20 minutes because I detour to avoid a busy, six-lane arterial (Marine Dr). A bus ride takes about 7 minutes, but runs every 10-30 minutes, depending on the time of day. I could bicycle, but that involves getting my bike from behind two locked doors in my building’s parkade, riding along an industrial road (to avoid the arterial), then locking the bike, worrying about theft, etc…

Would you want to walk or bike along this? Image: Google.

Would you want to walk or bike along this? Southwest Marine Drive, Vancouver. Image: Google.

This is where I tote the incredible convenience that is bike share.

Residential density in Vancouver: concentrated in the north, but pockets in the south and west. Image: UBC.

Residential density in Vancouver: concentrated in the north, but pockets in the south and west. Image: UBC.

Were there enough bike share stations — more than 10, perhaps — in my neighbourhood, Marpole, people could bike to the station or to many other places (like shops on Granville and Oak or the Fraser River Park) which are now at least a 15-20 minute walk away. You can bike to the station in the morning, and take the bus home when it’s raining in the evening. It would also assist in connecting people from the denser areas of Marpole with new development taking place at the Canada line station. East Vancouver neighbourhoods near SkyTrain could have increased accessibility to rapid transit with bike share. Bicycles can help put more people within access of rapid transit over a larger distance. That could mean fewer stark towers around stations and more context-sensitive, human-scale development that is dense but tolerable.

The problem is that neighbourhoods like these wouldn’t see bike share for years, if at all, because they’re separated from Vancouver’s core by dozens of blocks of single family homes where there’s just nothing to do, see, or go to. Instead, bike share stations will likely go to neighbourhoods where walking is already easy and safe, transit is abundant, and bicycling rates are low despite a well-connected network of bicycle infrastructure.

Vancouver isn’t the only example, and maybe someday it’s neighbourhoods will be more connected with stronger commercial districts and denser neighbourhoods. Until then, I think we should keep an open mind to the idea of node-based bicycle share systems here and elsewhere.

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