Six ideas from Jeff Speck that are as plain as the cost-benefit nose on a banker’s face.

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This 2011 article provides an outline of Speck’s book to come (“Walkable City”). As I read through them, I keep hearing bankers talking about “cost-benefit analyses,” and I feel much the same way as when I see people looking at their iPhone weather apps rather than looking out the window


Quality of life “no-brainers”? Here are six. Can you take the time to read them, please?

Recipes for Great Places: Jeff Speck On Six Ideas That Are Changing the Planning World, by Kevin Pozzi, (1000 Friends of Oregon)

Walkability

A consistent theme throughout Speck’s discussion, walkability is a key focus for planners, consumers, and business people today, as evidenced by popular sites like Walkscore.com.
“It really all comes down to walkability. It’s a great way to tell if your city is doing something right,” Speck said, detailing that pedestrians desire a safe, comfortable, enclosed, and interesting walk. “So how do you get people to walk? You give them a reason to walk—a mix of uses.”
As walkability consultant for Oklahoma City, Speck’s firm advanced the city’s downtown transformation through the successful Project 180 initiative, retrofitting many of the city’s wide arterials to improve walkability and add bikes lanes and on-street parking.

Urban Triage

The next concept Speck introduced, a Duany-coined term known as urban triage, acknowledges that most American cities are dominated by auto-oriented land uses, likestrip malls, and big box stores.  
Because these uses will be around for the foreseeable future, Speck advocates for a thorough analysis of street quality in targeted areas like downtowns, focusing resources on what will ultimately have the most amount of impact.
“We need to get people to walk by choice and to create walkable places,” he said. “And to reference a Duany quote, the first place to do that is in our downtowns, because downtown is the one neighborhood that belongs to everyone.”

One-Way Versus Two-Way Streets

Speck also discussed the impacts of one-way streets versus two-way streets. He described how the uninterrupted mass momentum of vehicles in one direction harms the retail environment by obscuring visibility of shops from view and distributing vitality unevenly throughout the urban landscape.
He mentioned Vancouver, Washington as a prime example of a city that experienced a remarkable transformation of downtown street life and business activity after modifying its one-way thoroughfares to two-way streets.
“ODOT’s boilerplate solution to everything seems to be speeding traffic through downtowns,” Speck said, referencing the prevalence of one-way thoroughfares in smaller towns and cities throughout Oregon. “It really should be changed.”

Road Diets

Related to the one-way vs. two-way distinction is the concept of road diets,an approach that reduces the amount of lanes on thoroughfares in an effort to increase safety and encourage active transportation.
Most of these adjustments retrofit streets from four lanes to three, allowing space for bike lanes, wider sidewalks, landscaping, and on-street parking. Studies show that these modifications don’t significantly alter overall capacity and are a cheap solution that improves the overall safety of the street.
The video from Streetfilms explains the concept further, and includes some impressive examples from around the country.
“Four lane roads are extremely dangerous. T-bones come from cars turning left into lanes that you don’t see,” Speck said. “If you have a three lane road, there is simply no more danger of being t-boned.”

What We Know About Parking

Transitioning the discussion to stationary vehicles, Speck detailed the latest on parking through the lens of Donald Shoup, a Yale urban planning professor who has written extensively about the intersection of parking and land use.
 “Parking is a public good that must be measured properly if downtown succeeds,” Speck said. “It is important to price parking so that one space is empty at all times, mirroring individual choices to maximize utility.”
Speck explained that underpriced parking leads to crowding, which can then lead to a loss in customers and quality of life issues.
Of course, discussions about parking prices can generate considerable debate. So how can municipalities price parking in a politically feasible way? Speck suggests that they create a public benefit district to transfer generated revenues back into the neighborhood.

Greenwashing

Speck concluded his discussion with the topic of greenwashing, citing numerous examples of initiatives that may seem environmentally friendly, but often consist of green gadgetry or misleading spin.
Speck argued against what he calls “gizmo green,” the addition of accessories to buildings in an effort to fulfill an obligation to be environmentally friendly. While not advocating against these retrofits, he is concerned that many of these ‘sustainable’ buildings are located so far from walkable neighborhoods and transit corridors that they are completely dependent on automobiles.
“By far a human being’s greatest carbon footprint and environmental impact is from driving,” he said.

Conclusion: “Details Matter”

As a respected author, consultant, and advocate, Speck’s voice has been very influential in the smart growth and New Urbanism field. While seemingly critical of certain dogma within the profession–namely his discussions around certain “green, sustainable” improvements and street couplets–he consistently champions the creation of walkable cities designed for all modes of transportation.
Speck’s overall argument might be condensed down to the phrase “details matter.” It matters to pedestrians if the journey is interesting enough to actually walk, it matters to businesses when commuters can only see their storefronts one time of day, and it matters how we price parking spots. Most of all, it matters how communities locate, connect, and design their neighborhoods, businesses, and services, to create transportation options and a thriving local economy.

Oregon Stories | October 2011

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