Monday, April 20, 2015

Complete Streets are Complete for Everyone / Jan Moser

This new post from Strong Towns offers a helpful take on creating streets that are universally accessible. Written from the perspective of someone who both implements streets for people with disabilities and uses a wheelchair herself, the post from author Heidi Johnson-Wright highlights some of the key elements that make a street "work" for someone in a wheelchair (not to mention those of us who push strollers, etc.). Here are some

Build wide sidewalks
For me, the ideal accessible pedestrian path of travel is as wide as the sidewalks lining the great avenues of New York City. Plenty of room for walkers, wheelers, babies in strollers and then some. Lots of space for me to safely pass around slow walkers when I'm in a hurry.

Keep paving in travel ways smooth
...smooth concrete with narrow stress joints works for me. I also love wide, flat flagstones like the ones used throughout Barcelona. I dislike even the smoothest of pavers and despise brickwork. What looks like tiny seams to walkers means major up-and-down bumping for wheelers.

Avoid "cookie-cutter" curb ramps
...differences in terrain and limitations of space require different ramp designs in order to be compliant and safe. Level landings at top and bottom are essential...And please: TWO curb ramps per corner instead of a single diagonal ramp.

Keep sidewalks clear of obstructions, even temporary ones
Coordination between local public works, transit, utilities, and state DOT is essential to preventing obstructions caused by landscaping, light poles, street signs, signal boxes, bus shelters, bus benches, newspaper boxes, bike racks, etc. Just as bad are sidewalks suddenly blocked off with little or no warning...I mean many months of torn up or obstructed rights of way due to long-term construction projects which provide no alternative, accessible, safe pathway.

If you take a look at the street from last week's post, you'll see it follows the bulk of the these rules. The sidewalk could be wider, but paving along travel ways is smooth, two curb ramps are in place, and obstructions are pushed to the edge of the sidewalk in the "street furniture zone."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Complete Streets, Ecuador Style

I was browsing through some of my non-American transportation pictures when I came across this photo of an amazing street in Baños in Ecuador. Isn't it great?

But before I break down the details of what makes this street so awesome, a note on why I was looking at streets in Ecuador in the first place: So often when we point to examples of the best complete streets, we're showing places in affluent (read: white) neighborhoods in Europe or the US. At the same time, we're often working in neighborhoods that don't exactly share those demographics. It's worth noting that Copenhagen and San Francisco don't have the monopoly on walkability.

For the record, I'm just as guilty as the next planner of doing this-- thus my perusal of South American streetscapes. Which brings us back to the street above. First, let's look at land use: two stories of residential over street-level storefronts. This keeps the density relatively high while maintaining a "human scale:" the buildings are probably about 35 feet high and are proportionate to the width of the street. The variety of commercial uses on the ground floor serve residents in the neighborhood, making it easier to accomplish daily errands without driving.

About those commercial uses--notice how they're set up with outdoor displays, café seating, and windows to engage people walking down the street. You can see at a glance that this street would be interesting to explore. Importantly, those outdoor displays and café tables aren't blocking the sidewalk, and neither are the planters and benches on the other side of the travel way. I especially like how there are decorative tiles in the street furniture zone of the sidewalk, but not in the pedestrian pathway. Decorative paving looks great, but it can be tricky to navigate (e.g., try walking on cobblestones in heels).

Friday, April 10, 2015

How 15 mph Makes a Difference

I've written before about how critical slower speeds are to pedestrian safety, and this week has a great post that pulls together a lot of important information about vehicle speed and safety. I especially liked this graphic that shows the difference between what a driver traveling at 30 mph sees vs what a driver traveling at 15 mph sees.
Notice how all the pedestrians on the sidewalk disappear at the higher speed. As Bill Lindeke writes in the post,
"If you look at the average speed of traffic on a urban commercial streets, there are a lot of things that begin to change when you slow down cars from the 30 to 35 mile per hour range into the 20 to 25 mile per hour range. Most importantly, perception, reaction time, and crash outcomes are far better at 20 than at 30 mph, while traffic flow doesn’t seem to change very much."
Even thought risk of death and injury is dramatically higher when vehicle speeds exceed 20 mph, most local roads (especially older ones like those in my neighborhood) are designed to encourage much greater speeds. Until we address this problem (admittedly a challenge, given the cost of retrofitting roads to narrow them) speeding and the dangers it presents will continue to be a problem for pedestrians. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Lawsuit forces LA to maybe do something about its sidewalk problem

Let's begin with one of my favorite (I should say least favorite) pictures of a sidewalk in the neighborhood where I used to live, deep in LA's San Fernando Valley. No, this is not a picture of a dirt path next to a road where there should be a sidewalk. There is an actual sidewalk underneath all that dirt. If you squint you can see a little piece of it at the bottom of the embankment in the middle of the picture.

Lest you think this is unusual, here's another:

I probably have a few hundred similar shots, just from the area right around my house. And I lived in a "nice" part of the city.
Given that this is the typical state of LA's sidewalks, it should come as a surprise to no one that an ADA lawsuit against the City has resulted in what's described as "the biggest agreement of its kind in US history." The deal has yet to be finalized, but as part of the settlement the City will pay $1.3 billion to fix problems like the ones shown above.
That sounds pretty great, and is definitely a win for advocates pushing for improved mobility for people with disabilities (not to mention the rest of us who'd like to be able to use our sidewalks safely). But...let's not get too excited. First of all, the $1.3 billion in spending is over 30 years. In other words, it's possible that my grandkids could still be walking on the same decrepit sidewalks I walked on when I lived in LA--only 30 years worse for the wear.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Paradox of the Cul-de-Sac

Last week I posted this article from The Atlantic about how urban design--specifically long blocks and meandering street patterns--can lead to less walking and poorer health for residents. The cul-de-sac in particular gets a bad rap, a feature that leads to homes that are literally and figuratively cut off from the surrounding environment. So reviled is the cul-de-sac that they are often banned, or at least discouraged, in newer planning codes. I've recommended such code language myself.

But I have a confession to make: I live on a cul-de-sac.

Actually, here's the real confession: I love living on a cul-de-sac.

This sits uneasily with me, given my extensive knowledge of the reasons I shouldn't like cul-de-sacs. I know my cul-de-sac interrupts a grid network that's clearly desirable, given the number of people who hop the neighbors fence at the end of the cul-de-sac. I realize that I have to travel an extra three blocks every time I leave my house to go to the grocery store, and that I'm more likely to drive because of those extra blocks (well, I'm probably not more likely to drive, but my neighbors might be).

Even so, I love the fact that there is (seemingly) less traffic on my street. I love that my kids can play soccer in the space in front of my house, and I love that our neighborhood can do things like, say,  shut down the street with orange cones and set up an obstacle course for toddlers as part of an annual block party without getting grief from the authorities or needing a street closure permit.