Friday, November 17, 2006

I'm walking here

While taking a tour of the Macalaster College campus area in St. Paul earlier this month, I noticed a nice planted median down some busy streets, with a cut-out to accomodate a pedestrian walkway at key points where the street bisected the campus. But there were no painted crosswalks and none of the cars were stopping for students waiting to cross. I inquired of my host, and it turns out there is no state law in Minnesota requiring motorists to yield to pedestrians in a mid-block, unsignaled crosswalk. The infrastructure for a pedestrian-friendly environment is there, but the laws work at cross purposes. I've been thinking about this a lot lately -- the way we're struggling with a better built environment in a problematic system of transport rules. I think it's clear more people want walkable, mixed-use, more urban neighborhoods, but they have to be able to walk around them safely and with pleasure. In Massachusetts, the yield-to-pedestrians law is routinely flouted. Coming out of the World Trade Center the other day on Northern (or I should say Seaport) Boulevard, I entered the bright-white crosswalk with the neon-yellow sign nearby indicating pedestrian crosswalk, and a westbound driver, on a cell phone, actually sped up and just missed me in the crosswalk. Rhode Island plates. No amount of visual regulation was going to penetrate our muscle-headed friend from the Ocean State.
What if the answer to rules that are ignored is to take away the rules? Europe is exploring just that -- the Dutch concept of the woonerf, which blends the turf of the car and the walker, and the even more intriguing notion that unsafe is safe: that if you take away the blaring signs and signals and rules and danger warnings, drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians will revert to a more natural state, of slowing down to assess each situation, make eye contact, and proceed with deliberate caution. The way you go slowly down Newbury Street, because there are pedestrians and all sorts of other activities all around. The safest intersection is the one without any signs or signals, where everyone has to figure it out every time. If there wasn't a law telling drivers they either had to stop or they didn't have to stop for people walking in a crosswalk, common courtesy and human nature might take over. When we make eye contact we can be incredibly deferential. The only question is whether it's too late in the US for a change in culture. Here's a link to a piece on the relevant conversation in Europe:,1518,448747,00.html

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Let it sink in

Post-election day musings:
  • -- The defeat of property rights ballot initiatives in Washington state, California and Idaho appeared to planners and smart growth advocates to be a triumph of common sense. Washingtons's Measure 933 was a version of Measure 37, passed with 62% of the vote, in neighboring Oregon. The basic idea is that if land use regulation negatively impacts the value of your land, you're entitled to compensation, or you should be able to build what you want. But voters seemed to view this notion with great caution. The most potent ballot measures combined the concept of regulatory takings with restrictions on eminent domain, part of the continuing fallout from the Kelo vs. New London Supreme Court decision last summer. More straight-up eminent domain restrictions passed in nine states.
  • -- The majority of transportation ballot measures including significant new investments in transit passed [], but many of them also included equally significant funds for future roadway expansion. Typical of these initiatives was in Minnesota, where transit got an unprecedented boost, right alongside new highways []. This of course flies in the face of the Fix it First policy (repair the infrastructure you have before you build anything new) in place in Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
  • -- Flying back from St. Paul after delivering the High Winds Fund Anniversary Lecture at Macalaster College -- a fine institution with impressive students who asked probing and tough questions (what about public schools? what if both sprawl and smart growth continue to happen? how can New Urbanism be for people who aren't rich?) -- I noted two New York Times stories, one on the single-family housing bust in Phoenix [ ], the other on the construction of new coal power plants in Texas []. In both cases, I expected a writing-on-the-wall conclusion, but in both cases, the upshot was closer to denial. The builders faced with the prospect of vast empty subdivisions acknowledged no shift in preferences for how we live, or any imperative for energy independence and reducing transportation costs, but instead assured themselves that things would get back to normal soon. The builders of the coal plants, TXU, didn't dwell on state-of-the-art emissions and carbon storage technology, but instead vowed to move ahead as quickly as possible before new emissions rules are put in place. There are 1,400 coal power plants in the pipeline in the years ahead, mostly in China and India. If they all use the old technology they'll dump as much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as we've seen since the industrial revolution.
  • -- A few days before the Minnesota trip, returning from Las Vegas, a very popular conference destination (keynote at the Land Development West conference), I left the glittering desert with two observations. One, the desirable places are downright Parisian in their cultivation of exclusivity. (I accompanied my wife covering the Paris fashion shows; the line most often delivered at the velvet rope is, "I'm sorry -- je suis desolee -- but you're not on the list.")(Even when you are). At the Palms I am met by a handomse woman at a podium and given an escort to the elevator up to Nove Italiano and its very lively bar. I am instructed to ask the manager on that floor to go up to the newly opened Playboy club. I acted like I was on a list and was in a suit and tie, but I must admit the screenings create an aura, and you gladly hand over $16 for a vodka martini. Observation No. 2: there's an awful lot of smoking in Vegas. Maybe it's coming from Massachusetts, but I was aghast as folks lit up virtually everywhere, even in elevators. I wanted to exclaim: you can't do that! But there is election day news on this front as well. Nevada voters approved Question 5 by 53%, which requires workplaces and public places to be smoke-free, with the exception of casino gambling areas and bars that do not serve food.