Rhetorical Dichotomies and Urbanism

I’m finding the process of writing a script for a documentary film especially interesting in regard to the canon of invention. Much of the advice I’ve been reading — because I’m a total newb at this — says the most you can do early in the process (the research/pre-production phase) is create a general outline.

Invention comes before outline. I’ve been doing research, i.e. reading to focus my idea. Previously described:

The Baby Boomers were children of the post-war suburbs and raised their own children in the sprawling communities at the edges of American cities. Owning an individual home outside of a city has long been an essential part of the American Dream.

That dream is changing. The Millennial generation is changing it.

Young people today are showing a strong preference for living in dense, walkable urban communities. And an increasing number of their empty-nest parents are following them.

I’m finding Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design to be especially helpful because I’ve created two useful dichotomies. “Useful” means rhetorically useful i.e. helping me say, persuasively, what it is I want to say.

In an early chapter about the history of suburbia, he identifies two philosophies driving suburban sprawl.

  1. The school of separation: The good life can only be achieved by separating the functions of the city so people can avoid “the worst of its toxicity.”
  2. The school of speed: Freedom is a “matter of velocity — the idea being that the faster you can get away from the city , the freer you will become.”

So I am asserting two (kinda) opposite schools that appear to be guiding a return to cities.

  1. The school of mixed use: This is one of the guiding ideas of the Congress for the New Urbanism. The good life can be achieved by living in areas where many uses intermingle.
  2. The school of proximity: It is better to walk, ride a bicycle, or take public transit to nearby places in a mixed-use urban area.

The whole point of what I’ll call a “rhetorical dichotomy” is to create a model by which you can compare things. In this case, the things are various issues of urbanism and suburbanism. A rhetorical dichotomy ought not, it seems to me, be used to over-simplify an issue. I’ll try not to. The three issues I’ll be examining (until I change my mind) are:

  1. Energy use: How much energy does one consume to live a suburban lifestyle versus an urban lifestyle.
  2. Commute: How much time and expense is involved in commuting to work or traveling to other important destinations?
  3. Infrastructure support: What needs to be built, and what needs to be maintained, to support new urbanism versus suburbanism?

There are, of course, many more issues from which to choose. These interest me now. More to come…

[Cross-posted on Rhetorica]

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Playing the Numbers Game, Part 3

For the final installment of this series, let’s take a look at manufactured right-turn conflicts in Portland, Oregon.

Two of the three general rules of safe movement are drive on the right and pass on the left. These simple rules are designed to, among other things, keep your attention directed forward into a right hand turn. It also means nothing is supposed to be on your right.

But in Portland they put bicyclists on your right. Take a look.

ex1

Here’s a green lane on a 1-way street. By law bicyclists must stay in their designated lanes and cars must stay out. So you get this right-hood conflict.

ex2

This is an interesting example. That’s a “protected” bicycle lane on the far right of the picture. The travel lane is on the far left. All that yellow paint in the middle is the barrier. So a right turn here requires an extra bit of neck stretching on the motorist’s part.

ex3

And one more example.

I don’t have much else to say except I believe such infrastructure is only possible when advocates, planners, and engineers are thinking far more about participation than traffic safety.

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Playing the Numbers Game, Part 2

So, yeah, dangerous infrastructure gets built in places that have good reputations for bicycle friendliness. On my recent trip to Portland, Oregon — a platinum level bicycle friendly community, according to the League of American Bicyclists — I saw infrastructure that violates the rules of safe movement or otherwise creates hazards worse than the street as is.

Let’s take a look at what happened at the intersection of NE Multnomah St. and NE17th Ave.

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The first picture shows a bicyclist’s point of view traveling west on Multnomah in the door-zone bicycle lane (bad enough as it is). At the intersection with NE 17th, the door-zone lane becomes a protected lane. But it requires the bicyclist to turn right toward the new lane. Notice how far the motorist must encroach into the intersection to see on-coming traffic. Notice how little of the intersection the bicyclist can see just a second away from entering it.

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The second picture shows a bicyclist making the turn and entering the protected lane. By law, he must use this facility so he must make this turn from a blind spot behind the parked cars.

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The third picture shows a motorist’s point of view from NE 17th entering the intersection. Notice how the parked cars block the view of on-coming traffic, including bicyclists that would be hidden because they are required to use the door-zone lane.

I watched this intersection for several minutes and saw five bicyclists make the required maneuver. Notice that there is a slight downgrade leading to the intersection. All five hit this intersection doing 12 miles per hour or faster. Not one slowed down either approaching it or negotiating it.

There’s nothing difficult about bicycling on Multnomah. It would be a rather easy street to ride even for a novice with just a bit of traffic training.

What traffic problem does this infrastructure solve?

Answer: No problem existed on the original street that needed solving.

Take another look at the first picture. The safest way to drive a bicycle through this intersection (with no infrastructure present) would be to control the lane. The bicyclists would then be far enough left to see, and be seen by, traffic entering Multnomah from NE 17th.

How does something as dangerous as this get built?

Answer: At the request of participation advocates who believe that something is better than nothing and that we must accept the bad with the good to get something.

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Playing the Numbers Game, Part 1

I was recently in Portland, Oregon on a vacation. I did not rent a bicycle and ride it around on the various types of infrastructure, but I did walk around and take pictures. This is the first in a short series examining what I saw.

As I have discussed before, I believe there are generally two types of bicycle advocates: those primary concerned with safety in traffic and those primarily concerned with increasing participation. There are, obviously, many nuances and complications to this bifurcation. But it works for sake of discussion.

Portland has achieved a bicycle mode share in the neighborhood of 7 percent — best in the United States.

Why?

My answer, the one I’ve also discussed here many times, is culture — the same as Amsterdam and other places that have achieved high mode share. In other words, I think participation is far more a matter of the cultural value a particular people place on bicycling than it is a matter of offering bicycle lanes or other dedicated infrastructure.

That is not to say that infrastructure won’t or cannot lead to an increase in participation. I’m not sure a good study of this yet exists. And, further, I don’t think it matters much from my perspective as a traffic safety advocate. I’d rather have fewer people ride bicycles if the alternative is to build dangerous infrastructure.

I saw dangerous infrastructure in Portland, i.e. infrastructure that created situations more dangerous than if nothing had been built.

I am not claiming that all bicycle infrastructure in Portland is bad, just as I have never claimed that all infrastructure in Amsterdam is bad. The larger point for me is this: If these two cities, and others, allow bad stuff to be built or stay built, then other cities may copy the bad stuff.

This happens. And it should not happen. Examples: Door-zone bicycle lanes and bicycle boxes.

Thus, my negativity ;-)

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Happened In The Wild

I had a bunch of errands to run this morning around the urban core of Springfield and to the suburbs — namely the Battlefield Mall to buy veggies at the farmer’s market. So I drove my bicycle on downtown streets, residential streets, collector streets, 3-lane streets, and a 4-lane arterial. I covered about every type of street you can cover hereabouts. I did the bulk of my bicycle driving today between 7:45 and 10:30.

I controlled my lanes all morning as was proper given the circumstances of each street.

Every motorist that encountered me changed lanes (or substantially so) to pass except one.

That one motorist close-passed me — making no attempt to use even a small portion of the adjacent lane.

Clearly marked on the side of that one motorist’s automobile: Springfield Traffic Services.

Hmmmmm…

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Bicycling is Such a Hassle

So I’ve beenwalking_feet living in a loft in downtown Springfield for a year now.

Best. Move. Ever.

But there is something odd going on. I don’t use my bicycle quite as much as I used to. Sometimes it seems like a hassle. I mean going to the garage, unlocking it, riding it a couple of blocks, locking it, unlocking it, riding it a couple of blocks home, opening the garage (automatic door, of course), parking it, locking it.

So I just walk ;-)

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Urban Boom: A Documentary Film

From: Carbon Trace Productions and The Rhetorica Network

The Baby Boomers were children of the post-war suburbs and raised their own children in the sprawling communities at the edges of American cities. Owning an individual home outside of a city has long been an essential part of the American Dream.

That dream is changing.

The Millennial generation is changing it. Young people today are showing a strong preference for living in dense, walkable urban communities. And an increasing number of their empty-nest parents are following them.

The Carbon Trace Production Team today announces its first, full-length documentary film project. The working title is Urban Boom. The film will tell the story of Baby Boomers who are leaving the suburbs to find a new American Dream in the cities.

The film will cover the social, political, and economic issues involved in this trend and deal with the problems associated with challenging the past 70 years of cultural mythology.

You may follow production news and details on our Facebook page.

Follow us on Twitter @UrbanboomDoc.

I will also post updates here from time to time.

Want to help? Please “like” our page, tweet our news, and help us find stories to tell. We are now looking for interview subjects — Boomers who have left the suburbs to live in cities. We need a range of experiences and rationales. If you know someone, if you are someone, who would like to contribute a story, please contact me by any method.

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Solar Roadways Cannot Happen

Here’s the idea:

These solar panels might find limited use in some specific types of projects. But roads? In anything but limited and isolated situations?

Joel Anderson, writing for equities.com, offers a stinging take-down of this latest dumb and desperate idea to keep people driving automobiles.

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Surviving in the Urban Jungle

OMG! We’re number 5!

skull

Springfield, Missouri is ranked 5th most dangerous among mid-sized cities, according to some number-crunching by Movoto.

This little bombshell dropped on 15 May. I’m only now getting around to mentioning it because … yawn.

I feel safe living downtown. I do not feel threatened in this urban environment. The reason for my comfort has a lot to do with why such lists can be less-than-true while also being 100 percent accurate: there is a geography and a sociology to crime. For a middle-aged, middle-class guy such as me to be a likely victim of violent crime, I would need to hang out in places where such crimes regularly occur and hang out with people who regularly commit such crimes. I do neither. So I walk the streets without fear.

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Pedestrian Fatality Map

Check out the map of pedestrian fatalities at Smart Growth America. Here’s a screen shot drilled down to Springfield:

ScreenHunter_24 May. 21 09.49

 

There’s nothing surprising here. Pedestrians tend to take the hits on arterials with high volumes of traffic and higher speeds.

The city has been building and improving sidewalks all over town. That’s a good thing. The problem, as I see it however, is not a matter of sidewalks but a matter of priority. Motorists and their machines are the primary consideration of our traffic designs. Gotta keep ‘em rolling at speed because anything else is just unthinkable. You just won’t hear any solutions that include making motoring more difficult or inconvenient.

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Interesting

There is a new sign on the parking garage near the Heer’s Building:

Are there many electric vehicles in Springfield? Do there need to be in order to start offering services such as this? Will this encourage anyone to buy an electric vehicle?

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Video Just For Fun in Downtown SGF

Here’s a draft of a little thing I’m working on — entirely produced on the iPhone:

The soundtrack is just something I found for free on YouTube. The final version of this will have something more noir ;-)

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Positive (local) Economic Benefits

Check out this infographic from the recent American Planning Association conference (via Planetizen):

So, basically, in general, the fewer cars people own the better it is for local economies.

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Culture Studies and Disciplinarity

I earned my Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary program at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. When asked my discipline, I simply say “rhetoric” because that’s entirely true, and it’s a shorter answer than explaining I also took courses in communications, linguistics, and political science because, well, you know, rhetoric is a really big thing encompassing all of human communication and therefore all of human action, and so I ended up studying why it’s important for students in the humanities and social sciences to write publicly.

Yeah, rhetoric.

I’m the quintessential interdisciplinary academic animal.

So I’m totally down with the idea that urban planning is/should be interdisciplinary.

Let me suggest another discipline that ought to be considered in planning the “equitable” city (or any other kind of city that strikes your rhetorical fancy): culture studies.

Because … the study of culture explains things that, say, engineering cannot (just as engineering explains things culture cannot). One of the things that culture studies explains is why, for example, the Dutch ride bicycles so much for basic transportation. I have argued many times (with success?) that their mode share has less to do with infrastructure (especially the terrible stuff in Amsterdam) and more to do with culture (I don’t agree with the spin of this article, but the importance of culture comes shining through).

So listen up urban planners: culture studies. Check into it.

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Going Down Hard

It’s tough to be a pedestrian.

But three cities are getting grants to make walking safer. From the USA Today article:

Every two hours, on average, a pedestrian is killed. One is injured every seven minutes.

“This is not something that just happens in some other place,” David Friedman, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), said in an interview. “That’s somebody’s child, somebody’s grandchild, somebody’s grandparent.”

As more and more people choose to walk, federal transportation safety experts are trying to figure out how best to keep them safe.

On Friday, the NHTSA and the Federal Highway Administration will award grants totaling $1.6 million to Louisville, Philadelphia and New York for public education and enforcement programs designed to improve pedestrian safety.

The hope is that programs developed in those cities will eventually serve as models for other cities, Friedman said.

While the article almost certainly does not mention all the strategies under consideration, the ones mentioned seem to me to be more of the same ol’ same ol’. In other words: More pasting of stuff onto a car-centric system. Examples: pedestrian education, designated safe walking routes, better enforcement of crosswalk laws, police training, and social media alerts about dangerous areas.

It is the system itself — the car-centricity — that’s the problem. It’s the culture that believes that streets are for cars, not people, that’s the problem.

We have to be willing, as a culture, to inconvenience motorists more.

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