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Car Free in Carrboro

Living without a car in small town NC

Event to Watch: U.N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development

The United Nations’ Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, commonly called Habitat III, will be held in Quito, Ecuador, from 17 – 20 October 2016. The goal of this third conference is to “reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable urbanization” and set new global standards for sustainable urban development.

I hadn’t heard about this conference until my roommate, who coincidentally has been to Quito, sent it to me via Nature magazine. I wish I was farther along in my career when attending would be feasible – hearing a global perspective (literally) on urban growth would be amazing. And the Habitat conferences only come along every 20 years.

I’m excited to hear what comes out of the conference. There’s already some great implementation plan commitments (search them here) at different level of scope, responsibility, topic, and location.

Anyone going to Quito next week (or know of anyone who is) who can offer some insights into what you’re expecting from the conference? If you’re not going, what would you hope to see come out of Habitat III?

Update October 17, 2016: Check out CityLab’s beginner’s guide to Habitat III.

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Land Use for the Non-Traditional Family and the Caregiving Economy

I’m still discovering that planning is everywhere. For example, one place I never thought it would show up was in a publication by the AARP. Now that I’ve looked into it, it makes sense. But I think that I (and unfortunately, many other decision-makers and folks in planning) didn’t “get” how aging impacts what our cities and places should be.

The piece that inspired this line of thinking is an article about how land use could be made better for women, families, caregivers, and older adults. AARP interviewed Mildred Warner, a professor of planning at Cornell, and she shared some fascinating insights into how planning and land use has failed us.

Historically, segregated land uses (meaning, for example, that an area can be residential and nothing else) have prevented childcare services from being located near homes and prevented the development of mixed-use centers where you can live, work, and play. This reflects a bias toward planning for commerce and not the informal economy of parenting and caregiving. It also reflects a lack of interest in explicitly planning for children or the elderly. For example, while we all know that parks are great for communities, have we really thought about what constitutes an amazing environment for a child or an elderly person? That environment probably includes a park, yes – but if it’s a park you have to drive to or that doesn’t have good paths or connections to surrounding services or schools, how well is it really serving us?

I think the new movement toward walkability and livable communities puts us in the right direction. There’s money and economic development in deploying those strategies in your community, sure – but there are also the benefits of an increased quality of life for those who are growing up or aging in place. We all were children, and some of us will be lucky enough to grow old, and our communities should be places where we can live and be taken care of regardless of our economic contributions, mobility, income level, etc.

To put it bluntly, land use regulations need to reflect a variety of living situations (e.g., cohabitation by people other than nuclear families with breadwinners), allow for zoning that enables walkability and a mix of uses, and requires a land use-transportation connection for accessibility and mobility.

I also loved Mildred’s parting thoughts on family definitions. She asks:

“Who are we to decide what constitutes a household or a family? Is it really appropriate for planning and zoning to restrict how people live together?”

I couldn’t agree more.

Carfree in the backcountry…not so much

This summer I took an amazing trip to the Pacific Northwest. I spent two weeks out there, some parts solo and some with friends. It was a wondrous, restorative, exhilarating trip for many reasons – and there was a lot to enjoy from a car-free perspective, too. I explored Vancouver BC by bike, took Amtrak Cascades (twice!), and rode multiple bus routes in Portland OR.

I mean, how gorgeous is this view from my train?

However, portions of the trip would have been impossible without a car (requisite disclaimer: I’m not anti-car. I simply recognize that there are times and places for them). For example, my friend LT and I hiked in Olympic National Park for three days and two nights. The cover photo for this post is a picture I took from our campsite at Moose Lake. Incredible, right?

In order to get to Olympic National Park, LT and I had to rent a car from the Seattle airport, where we were, and drive about 2.5 hours to Port Angeles, where we stayed the first night. Then, once we were in Port Angeles, we had to drive still another 30 minutes to the Olympic Visitor Center, and then another 30 nail-biting minutes to the trailhead. After all those miles of driving, our hike wound around the mountains for about 4 miles until we reached Moose Lake. It was secluded, breathtaking, and everything we wanted from our National Park. And there was so much driving to even get to the part where the hiking began.

Why is this a problem? Well, I took it for granted that driving is just how people access our National Parks, until I read this article by Andrew Carpenter over at Mobility lab. In the article, he lays out why this is a problem and what can be done about it. Andrew says:

A system that is so favorable to cars places a burden on itself and visitors for that very reason. With growing numbers of visitors, surpassing 300 million in 2015, the National Park Service is struggling to maintain its infrastructure as millions of cars wear down the roads. In addition, despite diversity initiatives – about 78 percent of visitors are white – indicating national parks remain inaccessible to many underprivileged and minority Americans. As the Park Service explores its options, the existing driving standard forms a barrier to many of these goals.

He goes on to categorize our National Parks’ transportation concerns in three ways: getting around, getting in, and finding our parks. Some parks (e.g., the National Mall in DC and Grand Canyon National Park) have great non-car mobility inside the park, while others struggle and even have congestion (e.g., Yosemite). There are some parks that do a decent job of getting people to the parks with connections to transit like Amtrak. And Andrew acknowledges that for large, remote parks, a personal vehicle may still make the most sense for getting around.

Some of you are probably thinking: duh. Parks are really large, devoid of infrastructure, and lacking the presence of people/industry/commerce, and that’s what makes them amazing natural resources that we should preserve. I totally agree. Building a Metro to Moose Lake would be nonsensical to the mission and imperative of Olympic National Park.

But.

Everything has a trade-off. LT and I spent hundreds of dollars renting a car that stood idle for 3 days while we hiked, and which people with lower incomes might not be able to afford. We shared the road with dozens (maybe hundreds, maybe thousands) of other people on their way from Seattle to Olympic, causing traffic for locals as well as for other vacationers. We released fuel emissions into the air outside and inside the park, contributing to global warming and decreasing air quality.

This is a topic with no silver bullet solution. Obviously cars are going to continue to be a good option for many parks and for many people. But it’s worth thinking through these issues of mobility in our National Parks, especially as they remain under-funded and inaccessible to many populations. My thoughts:

  • If vehicles are the best way to get around many parks, what are the options to reduce the # of vehicles and increase access? Strategies could include shared vehicles like shuttles, reduced-price rentals for low-income folks who want to access the park, dedicated low emission vehicle fleets for park visitors to use, and entrance fees that reflect the true cost of driving/parking and incentivize those who bike/hike up to the entrance. Some of these solutions are contradictory, so the National Park Service and local planning organizations would need to assess which combination is the best fit to meet their specific goals.
  • How does the state of transportation in and around our National Parks reflect auto-centric biases, as well as biases about which types of visitors are attracted to the parks? For example, snow removal policies on paved roads vs. paved trails enable and prioritize motorist access but not cyclist access (see GGW’s great piece on Mt. Vernon Trail snow removal by the National Park Service).
  • How does our national attitude toward physical activity contribute to automobile traffic and congestion, particularly within the parks (e.g., people driving around the Grand Canyon’s rim instead of getting out and walking down into the canyon)? How accessible should our parks be for those in cars vs. those exploring on foot/bike/shuttle/kayak/etc.? And importantly, how can we make our parks accessible for those with mobility issues while also balancing the need to reduce congestion?
  • What are the trade-offs and benefits for each park in the long and short term: financially, environmentally, socially, etc.? Calculations are needed for the long-term expense of road maintenance versus alternatives like investing in shuttle systems.

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A win for better zoning from the White House

Earlier this week, the White House released a Housing Development Toolkit with recommendations that are supposed to spur more affordable housing development.

Exciting for me is that the White House says: “smart housing regulation optimizes transportation system use, reduces commute times, and increases use of public transit, biking and walking.” Yes! In lay-person-speak, the White house is saying that housing should be located near transit (sounds like a “duh” moment, but just think about how many new housing developments are built wayyyy out in suburban and rural areas instead of in transit-served locations).

Another thing that I love about the toolkit is that it makes explicit the link between multi-family housing and walkability. How are the two connected, you ask? Well, single-family housing is less dense, so destinations are farther apart. Taking an extremely reductive personal example: when I was growing up in New Jersey, I could walk to my friend AG’s house which was across the street and 3 houses down, and it probably took me a few minutes. But when I lived in an apartment in Virginia, walking to see my friend KF in my building meant a 30-second walk, tops. Extrapolate this to a city-wide level and clearly the denser we can build, the more walkable things will be.

The last thing about this toolkit that I love is the recommendation to eliminate off-street parking requirements. Parking can cost $5,000 per surface spot and $60,000 per underground spot to construct. These costs are, of course, passed along to the residents whether they own a car or not, and they reduce housing affordability.

Streetsblog also has a great summary of the White House’s recommendations if you’re interested in reading more.

Thanks, Obama! (But really).

Smile, You’re A Self-Driving Car

One of the questions I get as a planning student interested in transportation is “what do you think of self-driving cars?”

I haven’t fully thought out whether I’m for/against self-driving cars. I think any over-reliance on the automobile is problematic, and I wonder at what point we’ll reach the tipping point of adoption where we’ll see wider benefits (e.g., less storage needed for traditional cars). I also think that the proponents of self-driving cars should consider equity and who exactly will reap the touted benefits.

One concern that I do have from a pedestrian safety perspective is how would pedestrians be able to discern whether or not a car was aware of their presence?

As Adele Peters describes in this Co.Exist article, you know the dance: 1) You approach a crosswalk. 2) An oncoming car seems to slow down (“wow, might they possibly be obeying the law and letting me cross?” you wonder). 3) Then the driver gives a wave or head nod and you know that it’s okay to walk in front of them and they’ve seen you. 4) The car comes to a full stop and you safely enter and exit the crosswalk. You might even give them a friendly wave in return (“thanks for not running me over, neighbor!”).

But with a self-driving car…how will this work? In a brilliant answer to this problem, Semcon, a Swedish engineering firm, has developed a “smiling car” concept to communicate with pedestrians. Watch below:

Isn’t that cool?

Semcon notes that at this point, it’s just a concept. There need to be international standards for how self-driving cars communicate with their surroundings.

Photo Journal: Pedestrian Experience of Asheville

Try Transit 2016

Remember, September is Try Transit Month! With the recent gas shortage causing long waits at the pump, it’s a good time to try taking transit around the Triangle area. Or, switch to an active mode such as biking or walking, at least for a portion of your trip (which extends the life of your current tank of gas, too). Check out gotriangle.org/trytransit or ask me how!

GoTriangle

trySeptember is Try Transit Month! We want you to get reacquainted with your city, your community, and your commute when you get out of your car and onto a bus.

Planning a trip can be intimidating, and we are here to help! The infographic below is your first step to getting on the bus. Follow us on social media to be the first to get resources all month long! Facebook | Twitter | Instagram 

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Thoughts from the APA-NC Conference

Last week I had the privilege of attending the North Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association’s conference in Asheville, NC. I wasn’t originally planning to go, but how could I pass up a trip to Asheville?! In addition to the gorgeous mountain setting, vibrant downtown (with breweries aplenty), and a roadtrip with new friends, there would of course be the chance to meet practicing planners and to hear from folks outside of the UNC/Chapel Hill bubble.

I was at the conference for 2 days along with about 20 of my fellow DCRP students. I attended 5 sessions and made a connection with 4 practicing planners (yay, networking!). I also ate 3 biscuits and visited 2 breweries but you’ll have to ask me about those separately (omg the biscuits…).

Here are some of my takeaways from the sessions I attended:

  • Ensuring that community members, stakeholders, planners, developers, elected officials, etc. are speaking the same “language” when it comes to discussing options for planning is critical. One way to do this is to include terminology sessions in the community outreach process. For example, the community cannot make decisions about prioritizing a transit system’s ridership vs. its coverage without knowing what those two terms mean first. This is something we’ve also talked about in my PLAN740 class and it was cool to see it put into action in Wake County. —Strategies for Building Community Vision – The Wake County Transit Plan Process (Tim Gardiner, Teresa Gresham)
  • Walkability is measured in many different ways. One way I hadn’t heard before was to think about planning for walkability in terms of 1) adjoining land uses, 2) connections to other modes, and 3) barriers such as missing sidewalks. I also got to hear about Durham’s Station Area Strategic Infrastructure Study (SASI) where they are assessing pedestrian and cyclist circulation around future planned light rail stations (10+ years out!). This is wonderful because the light rail project won’t spontaneously generate adequate pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, so it needs to be planned for ahead of time in order to make light rail successful. This is the opposite of what they did with the silver line Metro stations in Tyson’s Corner, VA. —Is Your Community Really Walkable? Find Out and Fix It (Dick Halls, Paul Joyner, Garrett Artz, Scott Whiteman)
  • Another session was a panel with a few of the authors from the Carolina Planning Journal‘s 2016 issue on just creativity (emphasis on “just”, as in justice). I found the discussion of the American Tobacco Trail’s history as a divider of the community fascinating, and an example of great regional planning that was missing local level engagement, thus the project is not as successful as it could have been. Throughout the panel discussion were critiques of Richard Florida’s Creative Class and the missing ingredient from his agenda for the city, which is justice. I’m biased because the Carolina Planning Journal is run out of my program, DCRP at UNC, but it was the best session I went to all week.  —Just Creativity: Perspectives on Creative Placemaking (Julia Barnard, Kofi Boone, Ben Hitchings, Carly Hoffmann, Adam Levine, Rachel Wexler)

DCRP students are, as a rule, brilliant and social justice oriented. As such, we identified some things about the conference that we’d change, if we ruled the world:

  • Lack of racial & ethnic diversity of conference presenters and attendees. I couldn’t find demographic information for APA-NC members specifically, but according to the Census data, North Carolina is about a quarter non-White. The panelists didn’t reflect this, but it is imperative to hear from people who are representative of the state’s makeup, especially as we continue to grow and become increasingly diverse.
  • Lack of gender diversity of conference presenters and attendees. Of the 5 sessions I attended, 3 were all-male panels and another session had only one woman. If DCRP is any indication of what the future of planning looks like (lots of women among the first years), in a few years this should be in balance.
  • Absence of social justice in the conference session topics. The only session that discussed equity and justice openly was the one (mentioned above) put on by the Carolina Planning Journal. This shows me that justice is not at the forefront for many practicing planners in North Carolina. If equity was a major aspect of projects it would be something we’d hear about at a conference, right?

Overall, a great conference and I’m glad I went! I also had many observations about Asheville itself, including the walkability, reflections on how the city is growing, the walkability, the beg buttons and crosswalks, and the walkability. It deserves its own post, so look for that in the coming days!

Trip: Carrboro to Asheville (round trip)
Total trip time: 3.5 hours x2
Total trip distance: 217 miles x2
Mode: Car (Note: there is no public transportation option between the Triangle and Asheville, except for an airplane)
Line: N/A
Frequency: N/A
Cost: $10 contribution to gas
Level of crowding: Traffic was light both ways
Trip quality: 4 of 5 stars
+ for convenience, speed, and gorgeous mountainous country route
– for no public transit option

Happy Park(ing) Day!

Today is International Park(ing) Day! This is a day celebrated around the world by converting on-street parking spaces to mini, temporary “parklets.”

It’s a form of tactical urbanism and is intended to show communities that their public space can be greater than just a storage spot for cars. Particularly in cities where on-street parking is common, Park(ing) Day openly challenges the idea that cars should be stored in the public right of way. Park(ing) Day asks, “What else could these spaces be for?” “How else could this public street resource be used for our community?” “What are the costs to having our streets lined with empty cars, instead of filled with people?”

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Park(ing) Day 2016, Chapel Hill

This event also contributes to the growing awareness of the [negative] impact of driving on our communities, health, economy, and mobility. If people didn’t have to drive (and thus, didn’t have to park), what could those spaces be for? And if we minimize the available parking (and thus the induced demand for driving), what other benefits might we see from increased pedestrian or cyclist activity? The research suggests (thanks, people at Bike East Bay for aggregating these studies!) that walking and biking have greater economic returns than driving – as one measure, people who walk or bike to downtowns spend more and stay longer than people who drive.

Today’s local Park(ing) Day event is being held until 8:00pm on E. Franklin St., close to the intersection with Columbia Road across from UNC’s campus (approx. in front of 109 E. Franklin St.). I stopped by there earlier and was so excited to meet some of the undergraduate masterminds behind the parklet and to hang in the space. One thing I realized is that parking spaces are huge – this particular parklet takes up 2 parking spaces, and there’s a whole picnic table, sets of couches, minigolf, some other chairs, and a chessboard game in there now. You could comfortably fit about 20 people, and that’s incredible compared to two empty cars just sitting there normally. Check it out for yourself! Stop by, say hello, and enjoy the space. Update: If you missed Park(ing) Day in Chapel Hill or want to learn more about how it got set up, check out the Carolina Planning Journal’s Angles blog post on the subject.

If you’re not in the Carrboro/Chapel Hill area, use this map below to find the park nearest you.

Further thoughts on this topic: beyond the scope of this particular post, I’d like to have a conversation about whether money-making is really the best way to drive the decision-making around the use of our public space for parklets vs. for parking. When you think about it from a social welfare or health benefits point of view, there are clear arguments in favor of parklets and not parking. But in a capitalist system the best way to convince people that something is “good” for them or that it “should” be done is to show them that it will make them more money. So that’s how we end up with studies showing increased sales from walkers & cyclists instead of drivers. Businesses do generally end up supportive of Park(ing) Day, as shown in DC’s Georgetown neighborhood, for example. Three local businesses are sponsoring parklets in front of their establishments.

 

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