This IS my neighborhood

We have a big firework show in our downtown every Fourth of July and the traffic jam after the show, as one may imagine, is significant. While we tend to walk or bike because we live so close, most people have to drive. Last night we arrived home and realized that a lot of people were turning down our street to avoid traffic jams on adjacent roads.

Now, I’m a big fan of the idea that public streets should be available to all members of the public. I have no problem with people driving down “my street” provided they drive slowly and watch out for pedestrians. However, late last night as we sat on our front porch, a line of cars began speeding down our street.

No problem, I thought. I simply started flagging down cars and asking them to drive a little bit slower. Most people were pretty cool about it, apologizing and dropping their speed down. Until the guy and his wife in the SUV.

“Hi, do you think you could slow down a bit as you drive through the neighborhood?”

“I’m not driving through a neighborhood.”

I was taken aback. What do you mean you’re not in a neighborhood? We have front porches and dogs and backyard barbecues on holidays. Of course we have a neighborhood.

“But this is my neighborhood.”

He rolled up his window and drove off.

I was furious but what became clear to me is that our street didn’t match his view of what constitutes a neighborhood. We have no winding roads or cul-de-sacs designed to discourage vehicular traffic.

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Instead, ours is a traditional street grid associated with urban centers and streetcar suburbs. These are highly walkable neighborhoods but also very easy to navigate in a car. In fact, the straight streets make speeding a snap (no doubt a reason why suburban neighborhoods were designed to deter and slow cars–and are popular with families with kids.)

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Would I trade the traffic for a suburban-style development? Absolutely not.

Would I take a bag of our recycling and set it in the street to force people to slow down and navigate around it? Why, yes I would.

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Crowdsourcing Traffic Studies

As my organization prepares to create a corridor plan, I’m spending much of my time surveying the street and benchmarking current conditions. At some point we’ll have to think about measuring traffic counts but I find the current technology a bit limiting. The old-fashioned approach involved throwing a sensor across the road to count cars. That’s a good start if all you’re interested in is volume but it tells you very little about where all those people are actually going.

The key to a successful corridor is connections. While it’s useful in some ways to have a thoroughfare that people travel down to get someplace else, what we really want is a street people go to rather than through. That’s where the idea of connections comes in. Where are people coming from? Where are they going? What routes do they take to enter and exit the corridor? What streets do people take instead of this one?

I’ve spoken to a few people about cameras installed on key intersections to collect some of this data and while it will help identify collectors and direction of  travel, it’s still a far from comprehensive understanding of travel patterns. That’s why the trend of wearables offers such potential. Can the quantified self help with city planning? If people are already tracking themselves via apps like Strava or MapMyRun, can we draw on this data for urban planning efforts?

For instance, below is the cycling heat map for Columbia. It’s immediately clear where all the trails are—they show up bright red. The corridor I’m looking at is the east-west running gray line just south of the interstate. And yes, gray means that no one bikes on it. Looking a little closer though shows that people are biking through the neighborhoods just south of the corridor. We can clearly see the routes running parallel to the corridor and can see the points of connection. For a planner, the question then becomes how to enhance those connections to make them safer, more visible, and more welcoming. By doing so, perhaps we can start encouraging more biking along the corridor itself.

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Strava also has a option to map runs but that doesn’t quite address the question of how pedestrians use a city or, importantly, how cars move around a city.

Human is another tracking app, but one that is designed to track all types of activities. They’ve also started tracking 30 cities across the world and providing time-based visualizations of movement in and around these cities. Here’s their maps of Los Angeles:

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Motorized Transportation

 

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Biking

 

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Walking

 

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Running

While motorized transit in Los Angeles is still clearly the preferred (or necessary) mode of travel, the maps do give us some interesting information. A surprising amount of people are biking, although largely along the coast and in the areas around Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Van Nuys, and Pasadena. Certainly income plays into this but looking at the map of LA, these are also the areas with grid street layouts. Those areas also rank higher on walking, likely for the same reason. It’s much easy to bike or walk in areas with traditional street designs. Notice though that people seem to have found small walking and running routes all over the city. Even the motorized transportation data can be illuminating by showing the heavily trafficked freeways and the routes people choose to exit or enter. And imagine color-coordinated layers where we could see the vehicle/bike/pedestrian interaction points.

Of course, people using tracking apps on iPhones are not necessarily representative of the entire community. However, one thing we found when we were mapping out bike routes for Columbia was that regular cyclists had a much better understanding of the best bike routes in town—which streets you took to avoid hills, where the wider bike lanes were, what neighborhood short cuts would help you avoid the most traffic, and so on. Even the occasional cyclists without fancy GPS tracking apps would intuitively choose these routes because they were easier, safer, or more pleasant. In that sense, the hard-core enthusiasts served as trail blazers for those only out for a relaxing bike ride with the family.

Given that, these tracking apps can help planners learn the best routes for various modes of transportation and discover the areas most in need of infrastructure investment. And as far as my empty gray corridor is concerned, it comes as no surprise that the area is in need of infrastructure—and I now have a literal road map for determining the best places to start improving the corridor.

Digital Graffiti

Digital Graffiti at Alys Beach | 2015 from Pure7® Studios on Vimeo.

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Cheers to the big beautiful #doggy #dining room at the @idlehour !!! … Now time for a drinkie !!! …

A photo posted by Charles Phoenix (@_charlesphoenix) on

The Problem with Pears

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As I was walking the dog, I was reminded once again that Bradford Pears were planted for people in cars, not for people on foot. Once one of the most popular landscaping trees in America, most now bemoan the weak branch structure or the invasive nature of the Bradford. Any pedestrian though can tell you the beauty of its white flowers is only eclipsed by its terrible smell.

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via GIPHY

Activating Alleyways

My former downtown office was adjacent to a pedestrian alley known throughout the city as Alley A. Shops, restaurants, and apartments open up onto the walkway and it’s become a lively pedestrian thoroughfare.

54218d28e95aa.imageIt wasn’t always this appealing. Drainage was a huge problem and the alley became a skating rink during the height of winter. Prior to the historic renovation of the adjacent buildings, the back doors doors were designed for employees only and cars often double parked in the alley for hours at a time.

The property owners came together to commit funds to improving the alley and I gave an impassioned speech to the city council about the benefits of a public-private partnership. The city came on board and alley improvements began. Interestingly enough, one of the main obstacles was that the alley was unnamed and thus no building permits could be issued. “Alley A” was intended as a stop gap but by now the name is far too embedded in the community to change.

On a recent visit to Detroit I was absolutely blown away by an alley lined with art. Not just what you normally consider public art—murals, statues, and so forth—but large canvases suitable for a galley.

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Now of course, alleys need to remain fairly utilitarian to handle the necessary city services that simply aren’t appropriate for the front-facing part of the building. Trash containers, recycling bins, telephone and electric wires, and even parking are all better suited outside the back door than the front. On a trip to New York, one of the most surprising sites was the pile of trash blocking the sidewalk outside the restaurant we visited.

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The question then becomes how we can make even basic alleys more interesting, even though they are being used for these run-of-the-mill purposes. The goal shouldn’t be a glossed-over, Disneyland version of an alley. The goal should be to create spaces that are both interesting and utilitarian.

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City Shots