Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Will Google's self-driving cars turn your city into Charleston?

Perhaps! But your vision for the city will determine that. While the patterns of sprawl can not be transformed easily, I think self-driving cars have incredible potential to change what we will build in the future.

Reducing parking spaces per capita is one of the most promising ways, but by no means is it the only way. Planners need to be aware that the potential of self-driving technology goes much further than that. If Google's venture with self-driving technology proves implementable, how we practice urban design will change in dramatic ways. The consequences on urban form are not insignificant, and the ways we move about the city could receive vast gains in energy and cost efficiencies. How we plan and code for cities will certainly change, and so it behooves us city planning folk to begin thinking about this now.

If self-driving cars become ubiquitous, this Whole Foods on Magazine Street in New Orleans demonstrates how I believe all big box stores will relate to the street in the future. This store provides no off-street parking.   (corrected per anonymous comment).

Until very recently, I was openly skeptical about the potential for autonomous cars ("robocars" for short) to do much good for urbanism. In a previous post, for instance, I reflected on the potential of robocar traffic synchronization technology to promote freeway construction. Yes, I strongly suspect that robocar platooning might encourage expansions of freeways and engineering of roads to maximize free-flow conditions for high speeds, thus keeping freeways slicing through city centers. At the very least, they will encourage the proliferation of high speed interchanges. But will North American cities therefore stay fragmented and sprawly?

In that post, I was quick to suspect that they would for a number of reasons. This was because I was highly pessimistic at the time about the potential of automated driving to significantly alter the sprawl-loving lifestyles of most Americans. I also questioned whether autonomous taxis (ATs or "aTaxis") could do this even if they have a real potential to change American consumer habits for personal vehicle ownership.

I still have some doubts about ATs reaching high market share levels, but the growing clout of Lyft and Uber, coupled with urban lifestyle changes, are developments that make me pause to reconsider. I realize that the business case for robocar carsharing (be it ATs or peer-to-peer) is currently being forged and, indeed, is proving disruptively significant. Except for sport, some are already theorizing that it could become the only way we use automobiles. Carsharing and ridesharing, as performed by companies like Uber (including their UberPool service) and Car2go, are currently paving the way to carsharing with robocar fleets. They are already building that market, only with human drivers.

So from the moment Google's self-driving cars start entering the marketplace, I suspect Robin Chase is right to believe that much of the driving population will forgo vehicle ownership in short order. That day could arrive with a speed that may surprise us. The main reasons I suspect this are the advantages robocars can provide in sheer convenience coupled with the many raw benefits of the sharing economy. Moreover, any kind of carsharing that is able to reach efficiencies of scale with wide adoption could literally blow out of the water any rival form of automobile use, and robocars, for good reasons, stand a chance of capturing that kind of level of adoption - even if it is only a partial level of adoption by most individuals using them.

For one, automated driving helps us exploit much better the lost resource represented in keeping cars empty and parked all the time. It means the vehicle doesn't always have to be parked (at least not at the place where you actually disembark from it). No coveted spots to circle around. No repetitive circuits downtown trolling for an open parking spot. A robocar has an inbuilt valet service, and while it could continue circulating without you to go park itself, that situation lends itself immediately to the cost and energy benefits of sharing. The vehicle can now go on to serve another individual if not pick up someone else at the very spot you dismounted. Parked vehicles without occupants represent wasted space and rusting metal, not to mention human time and expense. Driverless technology puts the pressure on us to capture this latent resource, and I suspect Google and entrepreneurs will quickly move to exploit it. Many have realized that this simple move will drive down the number of vehicles we will need per capita (and if coupled with empowered transit services, I suspect significantly so).

But the convenience granted in the user's experience of robocars is the overlooked game-changer.  That is the salient factor that I completely missed before!

First of all, everybody can enjoy the equivalent of "Doris Day Parking" with robocars. Like Doris Day dismounting from her vehicle at the curb in front of her covered apartment entry, you will nearly always hop off from your robocar directly at the curbside before your destination. That kind of convenience is why even really well-off people heavily use taxis in places like Manhattan in the first place: the relative inconvenience involved in storing and retrieving personal automobiles most anywhere you want to go in Manhattan is simply too much to bear.

Since the advantages of not actually having to drive a car or park it is something taxis or Uber can provide us, the extra benefit granted to you by a robocar is the fact that you never have to worry again about maintaining your driving eligibility or insurability. Think about that! If you have a driver's license, you probably take this benefit for granted, but I will call this a great advantage, since it is actually not insignificant.

But when a robocar is shared, instead of personally owned, the convenience advantages continue to pile on. As a competitive advantage to vehicle ownership, carsharing reaching the scale of ubiquitous adoption is extremely compelling and disruptive, since, think about it, you as the user no longer have to worry about owning the car, maintaining it, nor housing it. Nor do you need to stay near its parked location. Your mobility becomes completely unlinked from the automobile. What's more, you no longer have to put up with the long-term necessities of ownership, such as worrying about accommodating the near constant mismatch between the vehicle you buy and your full array of vehicle needs.

So we have the following clear advantages with carshared googlecars:

(1) The advantage of foregoing driving eligibility
(2) The advantage of foregoing vehicle ownership
(3) The advantage of tailored and atomized automobility
(4) The advantage of freeing your rents and real estate from providing automobile storage

By "tailored and atomized automobility" I mean many things which we don't typically account for as  as car owners. These include being freed from personal investment in the long-term maintenance of a vehicle. A big one we don't think about is being freed from our invested choice in one or two vehicles we can own at a time. Being locked into one or two vehicles to serve all your typical trip needs is a large burden that locks us out of a full array of automobiles to suit a particular trip need very specifically - that could include adding a utility, making some trips more luxurious, or making others more efficient and cheaper.

All four of those benefits are actually one advantage: the advantage of having your mobility completely delinked from automobile ownership.

If you own a vehicle, take a pause here to think deliberately about your life without that advantage for a few minutes. Think about all the obligations in your life to address each of its burdens, and all the particular steps they involve, not only the scheduling and the payments, but their indirect repercussions on your life choices. For example, if you commute to your office job in an SUV or pickup, think of the outright waste and inefficiency that represents. What would happen should you suddenly be liberated from each of those deficits and demands, and you discover that, hey, you have just about the same mobility with a carshared service as you would with a personally owned car? In fact, your mobility may go up, if for no other reason than you can afford your mobility better and scale it to your actual needs. Carsharing with robocars may be able to afford you this kind of liberty even in the outlying scrublands of suburbia!

Are you sensing how radically your life could be reconfigured?

Now... Lets just begin to think about the land use and urban design changes that may be in our horizon...

Retail

If we share them collectively or use them as ATs, the potential of robocars to transform our sprawl pattern is quite significant because they would dramatically lessen the need for parking spaces. That has radical implications I don't have to explain.

But there is another important consequence we should anticipate and that is the fact that the needs of retailers to capture customers will probably change greatly - in fact, I speculate this need could catalyze the most dramatic consequence of automated driving on urban form and real estate markets. What matters here is not just that the parking can go away (or at least the provision of parking near most destinations), it is how uses are suddenly reoriented to serve their customers arriving via carshared robocars. What happens when you discover that the greater portion of your customers or users is now arriving via ancy robocars, which can park themselves or be traded off between entering and departing customers as if they were a public commodity?

I think businesses are suddenly going to sense a great need to immediately front the parcel with their entries in order to receive their customer competitively at the curbside drop-off point. At last, the new urbanist street section has a compelling advantage over the strip center in terms of the one factor that really matters in sprawl: the convenience to the customer!

This Walgreens on Magazine Street in New Orleans needs no exterior signage for the "Walgreens" brand. Instead, its cosmetics section is prominently situated at the storefront. Both this Walgreens and the Whole Foods in Uptown New Orleans (above top) have realized that linear feet of frontage near the curb is the resource that is vital. When you don't need to provide parking and signs to attract customers, as in the days before the car, all that matters is what you offer as an attractive experience. No more decorated shed nor duck. There is just "a shed with delights".

In terms of the way we value property with robocar carsharing in denser areas, particularly retail and commercial property, what this means is that we will probably return to the prewar era of primarily valuing property in terms of a lot's curbside frontage. Believe it or not, the shorthand way our predecessors evaluated relative commercial property values formerly was in terms linear feet of frontage (not building price per square foot). Indeed, that's the reason we repeatedly built urbanism before the world wars. It was simply the most important factor impacting commercial property value. It was the comparatively high value we placed on street frontage that compelled people to build right to the property line without setbacks, because that was where you met all your customers and where you competed with your neighbors for them. Building to the property line maximized building value.

As carsharing grows to allow stores and restaurants to cut down and even eliminate the need to provide off-street parking, expect linear feet of frontage to commensurably become more expensive in real estate terms. Exact dimensions of storefront length, actually, will more than likely be tied to customer turnover rates at peak shopping hours. A sufficient expanse of window space to catch the passersby's attention will be valued.  I suspect stores will start to become tall and multistory as a rule, like the urban department stores of the past. The Fifth Avenue effect. Many of these anticipated effects, in terms of real estate economy, strikingly resemble the forms of the pre-automobile era of urban development!

Environment

What the carsharing that is propelled by autonomous cars will enable us to capture at significant scales is the lost usable service potential of automobiles. Presently, only taxi cab and Uber/Lyft fleets currently capture this efficiency. Carsharing increases the number of trips an individual car can serve over its usable life. With carsharing, you are, in effect, capturing more trips per net pound of manufactured goods. In gross, the efficiencies gained from carshared vehicles really will add a net total benefit to the environment, enabling the same mobility to consumers for less impact, representing less wasted energy, less material life-costs (embodied energy) and less raw material intake for the same number of vehicle miles traveled. A lot of these gains are simply plugging in to the latent capacity that our present ownership-based transport system simply locks us out of. These are thus gains that can help us offset rising energy costs if we address latent demand for cheaper mobility effectively, using, of course, transit...

Transit

Does transit go away with robocars, by the way? Not at all! I believe transit will in fact become stronger if for the simple reason that divorced from vehicle-ownership, the economic advantage of using transit as part of your daily trip routines pencils out financially.

Where one can, one will save money sharing trips with strangers. That math could be easily compared with AT/carsharing apps that will more than likely be tailored to showing you your best route and trip options (Google-style) in terms of the bottom line: the actual dollar cost of a trip. Moreover, transit will be vitally important to reducing congestion in the peak times. To prevent hordes of robocars suddenly causing gridlock in the streets (since they won't necessarily be stored near their users any longer, remember), municipalities will probably build up their transit lines to move more people in and out of the downtowns and office centers. AT fleets will correspondingly charge higher rates to prevent gridlock and to encourage modal shifts (gridlock hurts them too - especially if it is gridlock produced by empty vehicles). In that situation, AT users entering the transit market will realize that the longer they manage to stay on transit for their commutes the cheaper and more reliable life gets. I think transit will suddenly be valued politically more evenly in a toe-to-toe contest with its main subsidized rival, the freeway.

Because of the dynamic of transit mixing, I think carshared fleets will operate in home "sectors" that circulate people locally, expecting people to plug into to high capacity transit lines for the longer/cross-town/peak trips. AT companies may prefer this situation because their fleets become more manageable when most of their vehicles are circulating near one another and they can store and service their vehicles more readily in the down times (otherwise they could be eating the costs of retrieving their empty vehicles from other home sectors and far away places). So, in the future, I strongly suspect carsharing and transit will work hand in hand. They will be thought about together as one greater system, rather than our present tendency to think of them as mutually exclusive "options". This gets to the core of what I mean by the benefit of "atomized" mobility. Yes, wealthier folks could use their shared or personally owned robocars for all trips, regardless of time or distance, but even they will benefit, because they will no longer be stuck in traffic with hordes of other people with a 9-to-5 job who have a latent demand for convenient transit, but are locked into needing to store and look after their own vehicles. This is important to realize. Folks that commute with singly occupied automobiles are commuting as much to take care of their car (because it must ultimately be stored where they sleep) as they are to get from point A to point B. Robocars free them of this. It cuts an invisible umbilical that many of us don't realize is suppressing our freedom. And when it does, transit will reap the benefits.

Urban Form

Without transit in the mix to limit congestion, self-driving cars will punish uses that centralize too much in the city, meaning similar uses will have to scatter geographically. Cities like Houston and LA and North Carolina's Research Triangle, with their scattered metropolitan centers, will likely be in a good situation to ease their way quickly into wide-scale robocar adoption. Both transit and robocar carsharing are more efficient in multicenter metros. In more centralized metros, like Charlotte, robocar carsharing will actually compel municipalities to devote more resources and attention to transit network improvements lest they will mire their cores in robocar gridlock at the peak times. I anticipate robocar commuting will be possible, of course, but quite expensive in these cities since AT companies will likely use dynamic pricing structures like Uber's to mediate supply and demand. Expect to see most people commuting into and out of job centers using high capacity transit.

Since self-driving vehicles will tend to be always circulating with or sans occupants, instead of spending their time parked somewhere off the street, they will always be in the street grid swarming to the serve their clients at their destination points.  People will sense the activity of an area by noting the rates of vehicle level changes on the streets and discerning where the swarm of vehicles are gravitating to, thus sending signals to everyone about the hives of activity in the city. They will make viscerally clear the exchange of human meetings and transactions geographically. The traveling "swarms" will give us an interesting new and dynamic "psychogeography" of our cities because traffic will no longer just represent humans moving through but the thickening of human activity, corresponding to the numbers of people entering and leaving specific areas. During business hours in the middle of the day, for example, vehicles will move out of the city center to disperse into the city and then start congregating downtown again at afternoon peak time. What will be the new behaviors, land use distributions and urban pathologies that will emerge? What words will need to be invented to describe these? Urban designers should try to anticipate what they might be, and what all of this entails, sooner rather than later!

Mapping for Traffic Control

One problem limiting Google's ability to introduce its autonomous vehicles is the mapping infrastructure that is needed. But I think Google can largely crowdsource the mapping from the early adopters who will have every incentive to do so. After early adopters, cyclists will chip in, eager to create de facto "bikeways" by cartographically indicating street zones where cars better bugger off, thank you very much.  We will see an amazingly innovative period in street design using signalling and feedback from Google Maps and the manual input of robocar users. This feedback will eventually allow every street to "teach itself" how the traffic should best navigate and flow through it. Urban Design is going to get much more organic and decentralized. Google's robocar mapping could empower local constituencies, or, on the other hand, it could empower the mandates of dictatorial DOTs. It depends on who first uses the tool effectively early on. As urban designers, we need to move in quickly to ensure that we implement inventively to empower locals in the Wild West period of robocar introduction and to make sure that we demonstrate the raw of potential of allowing self-adapting, organic paradigms of traffic control to emerge. 


There's still lot's more to say on all that and more, but it will have to wait till another good evening...

To wrap up, while the new tool of autonomous driving will have many upsides, it can serve sprawl and conventional ways of doing things every bit as much as its latent ability to do great things for walkable, more congenial and humane fabrics like the Charleston peninsula. The potential to sprawlify or to make Charleston with this tool is equally there. Planners and urban designers can't be lazy. We must be ready to spring to action when robocar fleets arrive to do what can make us prosperous in a new day. So, let's start thinking harder about these potentials!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Forays into an "Incremental Urbanism": Mashing Lean Urbanism + Strong Towns Resilience + Frequent Transit Grids

"Lean Urbanism" in Charlotte. My team's Park(ing) Day parklet, a shipping container "homestead unit" + microfarm.

It has been quite an active past week and half!  This event-filled September has granted me experiences that pique my interests with new possibilities. For the first time, I think, I sense that I have a story arc and trajectory that can tie together my hopes for my career in city planning. How exactly I can contribute to that arc is still unformed, but I know I'm at the cusp of new beginnings in my practice. What's more, I am finding a "home" of sorts, finally, in the streams of planning and design schools of thought out there. At times, I've felt adrift, without a fraternal abode I could call my own. At various times I've leaned late-modern Dutch and ecological and at others more infrastructure based and "new urbanist light". My intellectual grounding is still in what I call the "Kevin Lynch school", for lack of a better name. What I got from Lynch was an appreciation of the need for signposts and settings to check our conventional hubris, to recalibrate and think about how we think about the city, and to craft more nuanced design processes that enable designers to utilize feedback and, even, reversal.

I find this ethic at work in three young currents emerging in planning thought. These are Andres Duany's solidifying thoughts on "Lean Urbanism", the Strong Towns "math" of Chuck Marohn and Joe Minicozzi, and Jarrett Walker's goal setting approach to transit network planning.  Each leading front, obviously, focuses on the professional lens of these experts, so the first is not accidentally honed primarily on architectural processes, the second on the interphase of civil engineering and productive growth, and the last, obviously, on transit effectiveness.  While these are each most effective, I think, keeping their primary focus on the interests of their leading thinkers, they each complement each other quite nicely with the nascent tools they are developing and the goals and ledgers they are progressively clarifying. An urban designer should appropriate the language they are working out, if simply to test it.  What each incorporate into their lessons and techniques for planning practice is an appreciation for making effective strides incrementally, removing, or at least circumventing, the hubris and the waste of processes based on failed paradigms and the irresponsible chasing of growth with big projects. Andres is right: the need for PPPs has pole-vaulted to the apex of planning expertise today because we have regulated and expertified away fiscal clarity, bottom up pipelines for nimble-footed, resilient, incremental growth.

I'm alert to how all three movements will inform and complement urban design practice and take it to a new place. Despite their independent trajectories, these three vanguards are to a great degree pragmatic and rational, discursive in their clarification of the problems they face, and revelatory in their way to think about the goals (Jarrett Walker's post "abundant access: a map of a community's transit choices, and a possible goal for transit" is one of those rare language-shifting works of cut-to-the-chase rhetoric for distilled understanding that one only comes across a few times in one's professional life).  But they are not unconventional and revolutionary movements in their respective scopes. Indeed, Andres, Chuck, Joe and Jarrett are instead highly conscious about how to rejigger conventional processes in a thoughtful, successive and thoroughly professional way.

My excitement is that I'm beginning to see how the three movements can each independently contribute to a practice honed to synergize with their insights... call that convergence of the triad maybe "Incremental Urbanism".  I'm going to call the convergence L-M-N-O-P Planning: "be Lean when you can", "do the Math", "try the Network", "be Open" (to change my thinking), and "be a Planner, silly" - focus on planning for successive stages and don't do the opposite thing and create plans and ordinances that actually outlaw change. Incremental change is what cities often do and should be allowed to do, hence, why we actually need planners. (Zoning for "no change" is what creates sprawl, stupid.) Admittedly, the last two "O" and "P" points are my personal commentary.

Just be alert.  In their ways, these three will each succeed, and that path will look very differently for each.  But, quietly, beginning with precedent setting, they will begin fraying the edges of conventional and Ponzi-like approaches to city growth.  Those of us bouncing deep in the bowels of the heavy armored artillery will begin to notice the pockmarks with the daylight of the three movements shining through.  To the extent I'm allowed, I'm eager to bring in their methods into my activities, if not into my paid work in this early moment, then into my civic attentions.

By the way, if you are scratching your head and wondering how Jarrett's work of late appreciates an "incremental" approach to urbanism, I invite you to carefully read Chapter 15 "On the Boulevard" of his book. Jarrett's strategy actually addresses the "stroad" retrofit for incremental urbanism. We're quite fortunate to be witnessing the paradigm shifts that appear to be emerging in planning today. What an incredible time to be doing urban design.

We love Nicollet Av. in Minneapolis!
THIS new light-footed trajectory in my thought has been percolating to the surface of my reflections since last weekend, when I felt the refreshing embrace of brother/sisterhood with planing activists and transportation people (who actually think like me!) at the Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis.  Yes, I actually attended a conference-like convergence on my own dime for the first time. It was an easy sell, not only because I'm a Strong Towns "Advocate" but, well, because this registration cost was in the low, low three figure range.  It was thus cheap because Jim Kumon, the organizer, has, shall we say, a "lean" approach to event planning. Which means that at the cost of the holiday I planned to have with my brother anyway, I could actually attend without having to beg someone for money. How refreshing. How bottom up. I actually did spend some money, of course, but I got to spend it pumping it into all the delightful restaurants and local businesses I could on Nicollet Avenue and its diverse environs.  As luck would have it, that Sunday at the conclusion to the Gathering, Open Streets Minneapolis closed off Nicollet Ave. to traffic, and my brother and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in the midst of what is surely one of the great neighborhood streets in the nation.

Jane and Jezebel provided modeling services.
On the heels of the Gathering, this weekend saw my first foray into "lean urbanism" in Charlotte during Park(ing) Day 2014. Along with Klint Mullis of Center City Partners, two of my Neighboring Concepts coworkers, Sandra Grzemski and Maria Floren, and the Lawrence Group's power duo ladies Aleksandra Borisenko and Keihly Moore (who both organized the entire event), we erected a homesteading greenhouse/"living room" and container microfarm.  It was more symbol and tactical than "lean", true, but at least we put the meme out for homesteading with a shipping container provided by Boxman Studios (last year's fastest growing business in Charlotte) and a microfarm kit, chicken coop and all, courtesy local outfitter/supplier Microfarm Organic Gardens. As Andres Duany likes to say, every parking surface is a ready-made footing for light-imprint settlement, and I hope we made that argument at least visually. You want to homestead on your local vacant mall parking lot?  No worries, we can get 'er DONE right here in Charlotte (Eastland Mall, we're looking at you).

During both weekends, I got to make new friends and meet very exciting people from whom I hope to learn more from.  At the National Gathering, I got my introduction to Sara Joy Proppe, Edward Erfurt and Hans Noeldner, and had crazy good discussions, the kind I rarely have, with many others. This weekend was also my chance to work with the Lawrence Group girls to erect four new Little Free Libraries in Charlotte, contributed by the participants of the Park(ing) Day parklets plus a few others (every parklet came with at least one LFL - so a more permanent tribute to our creativity lives on). This included the one in Keihly Moore's and my neighborhood, Wesley Heights.  We still have five more to put up.  I look forward to working more with Keihly (pronounced "Kee-ly") and Aleksandra.  They blog at Complete Blocks and contribute to PlanCharlotte.org.

Keihly (right), along with Wesley Heights Neighborhood Association President Shannon Hughes, inaugurates our Wesley Heights Neighborhood Little Free Library. This sharp design was the work of UNC-Charlotte students.





Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Savannah Dream

Recently, I awoke from a dream realizing that I had spent the entire dream wandering through a city with a grid patterned after Savannah's. Even in the densest areas of this city, where the structures of a Manhattan-like downtown had taken over the areas of entire wards, here the signature square layout of Savannah was architecturally integrated into the interior spatial layouts of high-rise megablocks. In the dream, the distinction between building space and open space seemed to have thoroughly blended, so that what carried through was the cohesion of the pattern rather than the clear-cut delineation of space. The squares of the city had taken extreme forms and qualities... a grotesque Savannah.

This Savannah was perhaps real Savannah's alter ego, in carnival drag. In real life, Savannah can't repress her natural stabilization: a mixed use, genteel and low-rise format which diversifies uses through the characteristics of streets and the countervailing pulls of its fabric dynamics (an interesting and measurable quality for situating diversity resiliently, urbanists).

But in the dream, distortions and extremities were the norm. Not just in terms of density. Some squares were pristine clearings still, filled with dewy light and new faux-Victorian homes just being erected, smelling like freshly cut timber.  Another square, littered and abandoned, was domed over by a cavernous Hagia Sophia-like structure, with large facades of glass through which blue-ish, silvery light poured through. Another square was similarly domed but filled with chandeliers, mirrors and gilded furniture, and packed with revelers. There was even a spooky area where the city had collapsed in on itself and had reverted into a live oak wilderness. The sulking presence of swamp creatures could be felt as they coiled into crevices in the shadowy brick piles.

As usual, nothing that was occupying my attention in the dream made much sense upon recollection. One doesn’t apprehend the comedic logic of dream events while one is experiencing them usually. My city dreams, in particular, have the quality of tragic-epic pilgrimages, for, as in most dreams, the quest always seems curiously tottering and perpetually side-tracked. In this dream, it involved crossing the variegated city with a band of acquaintances, like a poorly planned, shoe-string expedition of urban explorers recruited on Craigslist.

My first realization in my bedside review of the dream was that the only mode of travel that was allowed in the city was walking, perhaps my internalized credit to the walkable superiority of Savannah's form. However, striking to me here was the fact that in the dream the walking excursion was curiously obstacle filled. Movement was frustrated primarily by carnivalesque throngs of people and the animated skeletons of, well, what must be classified as former pets. There was, however, a singular interlude through a bottomless hall-like section where passage was afforded with the help of trapeze acrobatics. (Is that a mode? Call it "catenary enabled pedestrianism"... except without streetcars, ha.)

What does this dream tell me about Savannah? Is Savannah now an urbanist folly lodged deeply in my subconscious?

I don’t know. All I can say is that dreams spent roving about through strange cities in festival time recur frequently for me. This, however, is the first time Savannah's grid featured tenaciously from the point where I could recollect the dream to awakening. Perhaps it is my subconscious guilt, a gamely kick in the pants from my Id, to revisit my glacially paced study of Savannah's grid? This kind of format, on a blog, is perhaps wrong for it. But I might revisit the thought.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Our future with robocars: our future with guaranteed sprawl?


Planners and technophiles have begun to think a lot about autonomous vehicles or “robocars”. Some are even creatively deliberating the possible upsides to this technology for green urbanism and land use. (There are some upsides, supposedly.  See here.)  Most of these visions even entertain a vision of a future where no one owns a vehicle anymore or even knows how to drive one manually.  So great things in store for vehicle share, apparently.  Folks will simply hop on “automated taxis” (ATs) and zip around town purposefully to meetings on dew-drop shaped permutations of MIT podcars. Their attentions no longer demanded at the wheel, the imaginary occupants of these curiously slender cars (even traveling two or three to a lane we hear!) will now spend their time caressing their electronic devices, if not attending teleconferences in their capsule, at least writing a good bit of code, blogging about new products, or dreaming up their next start-ups. The fact that “productivity” benefits for robocars crop up while paying scant heed to their cultural underpinnings and land use implications is, well, interesting.


Whatever the inevitability of automated driving might be, the belief that autonomous vehicles will lead to a future of pervasive carshare is not all that convincing to me.  Yes, I am aware that the percentage of kiddos these days who are eschewing vehicle ownership apparently is on a steady trajectory to reach Edwardian era levels. Should the driving boom be over indeed, however, it is too early to confidently predict the widespread disappearance of vehicle ownership just because people stop “driving”. Nor will robocars helpfully mobilize our efforts to convert infrastructure and development pattern to a car2go utopia, even if they are used predominantly as ATs. I suspect, in fact, the opposite. While carsharing in itself can remove vehicles from the road in per capita terms, we need to better factor here what automated driving represents in two aspects: in the cultural one, especially in how people and machine transition together toward full automation (if indeed they ever manage to), and, secondly, in consideration of the potential commuting dynamics of automated driving.


First the latter aspect.  Possibly the most distracting transport models to talk about in discussing robocars are carshare systems and personal rapid transit (PRT). Distracting because both carsharing and PRT favor compact, walkable urbanism to support them and (at least in their early versions) outright confine their use to certain home areas. They have thus the problem of range. That is exactly the aspect which makes them favor urban and walkable environments. You need to walk to access them. But this is not a geographic limitation facing automated driving at all! In fact, it is a limitation automated driving, or a hybrid version of it, is perfectly suited to overcome. A more strongly correlating transport model to compare with are the mixed-mode carriage systems once proposed in the 60s.  These transport models, now seemingly forgotten, were proposed in the heyday of the PRT-visioning years to serve low density development patterns.  Basically these are like dual-mode PRT systems but adding the de-linkability of the vehicle so that the vehicles can be the conventional gas-guzzling, owner-operated kind.

At their heart, mixed-mode carriage systems were intended to resolve the “modal dilemma”, the impossibility of having an efficient mass transit system that can service far-flung suburbs extensively, flexibly, and cheaply. And so the transit visionaries of the 60s and 70s proposed to create carriage guideways to link cars to belts or put them on trains, thereby lending automobile use some of the virtues of mass transit by escorting linked vehicles rapidly through densely traveled areas. But, as Kevin Lynch pointed out, “this not only requires a very expensive carriage and control on the main routes, but also that individual vehicles be made compatible with that device” (in K. Lynch, Good City Form; Camridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981, p. 423).

One can see the enormous physical barriers to overcome in implementing such a carriage system, and easily deduce good reasons why automobile manufacturers would be averse to adopt it to begin with. Autonomous driving systems, however, not only can potentially virtualize the entire carriage and control system, they remove the need to standardize vehicles for physical linkage. They also can, crucially, decentralize the control system and make it much less computationally complex.  Robocars have the sensory controls needed to “platoon” them together safely at relatively constant high speeds, all you have to add is the vehicle to vehicle communication system to lend platooned traffic a super-human synchronization that prevents it from backing up. Information, in effect, then replaces the “carriage”.  The carriage problem thus is 100% solvable. What’s more, the decentralized aspect of the system means that it can also be modular - adjustable locally so that if one link slows or breaks down (as vehicles are wont to do), the system can more easily handle mishaps safely and insulate a local disturbance from the performance of the whole.

Because the robocar “carriage” is virtual, furthermore, it has an inbuilt flexibility unavailable to any physical system. Thus, for example, access to a high-speed guideway is a much more fluid and safe dual mode transitioning process than its physical counterpart ever could be. So long as spacing is not too tight, vehicles can simply merge into and exit the guideway at any point.  Platooned vehicles merely need to preserve a local “springiness” to receive and dispel individual vehicles in their group so that they will not hurt the overall speed of traffic traveling in the system. If and when local capacity is reached at any point, further merging into the guideway is simply disallowed.  

While it appears complex, the mechanics of carriage-like synchronization become a matter of programming, probably a matter no more complex than can be handled by the programming capacity that is already inherent in automating vehicular driving, I imagine. (I’m no expert of system dynamics and control systems, of course, but reading E.O. Wilson’s descriptions of ant colony communication, I’m quite positive the coding solutions to such complex system-wide control dilemmas will surprise us both in their simplicity and in their elegant results.)

The big hang-up, of course, is convincing humans to yield control of their vehicles, to, well, other vehicles.  It kind of screws with our sense of ownership, control, and even privacy. Yet, I would never underestimate the capacity of early adopters to sacrifice much in their personal sense of self to demonstrate the merit of technological innovations.  Why Google and carmakers are not already testing autonomous freeway platooning is puzzling to me, because it seems to be the low-hanging fruit within the scope of robocar technologies. But, possibly, they may have already realized the immense cultural jump it requires in terms of user adoption. They may have deduced that you need full automation at the outset before people are eventually acculturated to use it on highways. Besides, a dual-mode stage of operation has unique dangers. Google may just not be wanting to waste its time.

Which brings us to the cultural questions surrounding automated vehicle use. Cultural adoption with the robocar guideways described above is easy to imagine incrementally.  If reserved lanes for robocars can be deployed cautiously for early adopters in limited areas as a way to address the most hopelessly congested urban freeways, perhaps by using existing HOV lanes, progressive success with these will no doubt encourage further reservation of travel lanes for the system.  The matter may be a deceptive fix, however, because all it does is displace the congestion to the entry and exit points of the system where guideway traffic will inevitably have to return to surface streets. It will thus drive the need to take even more space for ramps and merging lanes and even creating larger interchange loops to make them robocars keep their speeds going.  In other words, we will be doing (and even adding to!) this kind of scary stuff...


Maybe we can, like, spin robocars right into the streets? A "turbine" interchange improvement project. Source.


I hope I’m wrong.  I do hope robocar control systems somehow prove smart enough to reduce congestion while not adding lanes and speed-fixated freeway infrastructure.  But if so, what’s to stop sprawl at the ends if increased capacity induces demand, as the iron law of freeway capacity improvement dictates? The need to continue improving and adding to limited-access roadway capacity within the city center will certainly not go away once it is clear that the mitigation of highway congestion using the superhuman and decentralized control systems of robocars is feasible. Horrifying as the thought is to me, cities whose current planning trajectory is to improve the speed and capacity of downtown freeways, such as my hometown of Charlotte, N.C., will be vindicated for poo-pooing the freeway-removal, “Ringstrasse” dreams of urbanists such as myself.

The capacity of robocars to extend the geographic range of work commuting and serve the expansion of sprawl should give every land conservationist pause (by the way, land/water resource and wildlife conservation is a primary reason I am an "urbanist").  Sprawl serves travel patterns that are already no longer confined to a metropolitan catchment area but are, increasingly, operating in a regional one. The interurban pulls of the Megalopolis are very real. As a private sector consultant, I’m not only attuned to the scale of far-flung development, I’m also constantly amazed by how much my own industry of urban development continues to transform - even in its operating bases - from a city-centric one into a regionally dispersed one. One of my projects here in Charlotte, for example, is managed by a developer who lives in the Raleigh area, who manages projects both in Charlotte and in Richmond, VA. The general contractor is based (and wisely so) in Greensboro, N.C., and its management team thinks it is nothing to expect its Triad based subs to mobilize teams to Charlotte.  Two hour daily commutes are nothing to all these folks.  You can forget slender pod vehicles. Most of them are the type of individuals who are served only by beefy looking pick-up trucks, as you might expect. And they are operating regionally, like, right now. Because of LEED, the materials that arrive to the job site often have a net transport life cost that is less than that exerted by the workers banging them together on any given day. What do you suppose automated driving represents for these folks? What do you think it means for other industries, however local their attentions?

The potential of another cultural transformation needed to support robocar use is important to note. It has more to do with how we relate to our vehicles. Driver attention and the communication between machine and driver is actually a subtle technical horizon to overcome in the progressive evolution toward full automation.  Innovation in this area is critical because the more dangerous mode of driving is not the human-operated kind and certainly not the fully automated kind but the hybrid in-between form of it where some capacities are automated and not others. (Humans also need to change the way they relate to smart objects, here-to-fore notoriously untrustworthy. But what if we improve the driver-vehicle communication too much?  Will we, in fact, ever get to fully hands-off automation if that happens? What happens if we find a hybrid middle, or even semi-automated “enhanced driving”, more important to human emotion, especially to our notions of safety and comfort? What infrastructure, for example, will we need to build to handle what happens when a car system “crashes” digitally? Will we be caught in a perpetual adolescent lurch toward full automation?)

I don’t think the auto industry will also ignore the latent capacity of enhanced communication to feed our endless ability to personalize our vehicles.  With enhanced communicative traits, won’t vehicles, in time, become more pet-like? Remember KITT? Enhanced to discern your mood and to chat cheerily with you, they may become rather compellingly ownable extensions of personal and family identity, it seems to me.

Perhaps robocars can be enhanced for share-ability by lending them the communicative qualities of Jane Jacobs’s “public characters” - quirky, talkative but not nosy, and precariously self-maintained.  People may come in time to recognize some of their favorite AT personalities and create public nicknames for them (especially if some units are known to be moody).  Preserving and caring collectively for them then better becomes a kind of public trust. They might even help with our sense of community. But if this be a tactic to get buy-in for ATs, not only is it strange to think it can replace vehicle ownership, we’d still have to ask toward what end if we succeed. The green merits of ATs, while lessening the need to own and park cars, are actually quite dubious compared to car2go enabled urbanism since ATs also remove the need to walk to parkspots. Like I said, that is the barrier automated driving is good at removing. Think of an AT fleet not only as carshare with valet service but carshare for the cul-de-sac.

For all those reasons, I don’t think the green advantages of carshare will lend themselves necessarily to our future with robocars. Neither in curtailing vehicle ownership and storage needs much and especially not in changing our infrastructural promotion of sprawl. In fact, I fear dedicating lanes to high-speed robocar commuting may endanger reserved BRT lanes, due to political pressure to convert them to an automotive use that is perceptually “equivalent” to rapid transit. As Jarrett Walker points out, exclusive lanes of successful BRT systems appear often as “empty” (and thus implicitly inefficient and share-able) to vehicle owners.   

The only thing robocars could possibly guarantee to conserve our environment is allow us to park more efficiently in space-saving ways, but how in the world could that possibly offset the exurban sprawl they will no doubt induce?  Let me know if I’m missing something here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Low Slung Texas-style TOD overtaking Charlotte's South End

Image by Sean Busher © Neighboring Concepts
A LYNX Light Rail stop in Charlotte's South End



The cover story on last Sunday's edition of the Charlotte Observer profiled the apartment development boom continuing in Charlotte's South End. The interesting point it raises is the relationship between land prices and density. The higher the land value, the higher the density developers have to pack into apartment projects, so market cycles are basically reflected in the density realized by Transit Oriented Development projects.  At least in Charlotte. The Observer's Kerry Singe recounts amusingly how Proffitt Dixon Partners, the developer of the Fountains at New Bern (overlooking the New Bern LYNX station), took advantage of the market swing:


"The firm bought the land at a discount from the lender, cut the number of units and added a lounge where tenants can wait for the train."

Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2012/12/07/3711178/light-rail-attracting-apartment.html#storylink=cpy

Singe quotes firm partner Wyatt Dixon: “We bought the property at an attractive price; we had a great design for the site, and we weren’t forced to pay so much for land where we had to over-densify.” Of course, the article makes a reference to the premium added to apartment rents by the "convenience" represented in the light rail. Numbers of similar reports on the South End tend to credit the light rail for the entire effort, but it is worthy to recount some of the development history in the corridor to follow up on this topic with a bit more nuance.

In the early 90's this district which had previously borne no name was rebranded the South End, an old textile mill and warehousing district just a ten minute walk from Charlotte’s bank town skyscrapers. (Leticia Huerta's cotton bulb mosaics in the base of the transit shelter columns on the image above commemorate that past.) Light rail service was still two years away, but when I first arrived in Charlotte in 2005 to begin working for an architecture firm involved in the South Corridor project, the newly minted TOD zoning district category was shortly to be recommended for much of the South End.  (Though I myself arrived too late to have a part in it, my firm co-designed the LYNX stations with Sasaki.) A year before I arrived, the Charlotte Trolley restoration effort had reintroduced rail transit to Charlotte by linking the South End to Uptown using an abandoned rail line the City had purchased for the planned light rail.

In anticipation of the light rail, this trolley-served strolling district was in 2005 in the midst of a condominium building boom representing almost half a billion dollars of private investment. That it was primed to do so already says nothing exceptional about the South End. Like many previously neglected old mill districts in central areas of cities, the South End became a hot market for new and adaptive reuse development when design firms began moving in and converting the mill buildings to good uses.

Moreover, the district occupied the transitioning edge between two distinct prewar neighborhoods, Dilworth and Wilmore.  The former had revitalized in the 80’s and was among Center City Charlotte’s most affluent neighborhoods. The latter, Wilmore, was challenged with high poverty rates and, arguably, was just beginning the gentrification process. The South End was thus at that seam of change in cities that prove enormously attractive to developers, not only because of the favorable economic factors driving regeneration, but because much of the property available is in large lots that are easy to purchase and assemble due to accrued obsolescence, property underutilization or vacancies.

But according to Mary Newsom, "South End's development was sparked...by a small-time, volunteer trolley run. So it was the hope of light rail, and a modest little rail ride, rather than mass transit service itself, that was key" (to South End's TOD building boom).


Another new Texan-style TOD apartment complex in South End
For many urbanists, mass transit is merely useful as a symbol. But the action of developers, apparently, bear Mary Newsom out. Consider the story of the Fountains at New Bern mentioned in the Observer article.

The sales information cheat sheet on the City's property records website indicates that the prime corner piece of the property for the Fountains at New Bern had changed hands numerous times between speculators, beginning with the first $2.6 million purchase of the property from a land holding company in October 2006, well over a year before the LYNX inaugural run.  Just a short while later, in the height of the South End's condo building bubble and still a few months away from light rail service, the property commanded a $9.25 million purchase price on August 7, 2007. LYNX service began in November of 2007, but shortly thereafter the bubble burst. The property was therefore dumped for $5 million in April of 2009 just as the LYNX was hitting its peak ridership numbers, which were hovering back then over 19,000 daily boardings (they have since slumped down to 15,000 apparently).  In June of 2011, Wyatt Dixon's LLC bought the land for a cool $1.567 million, which is a whole mil less than the initial price spurred by TOD speculation in 2006! 

Other properties with new development on them indicate a similar pattern of property exchanges.  So, the early hopes for light rail brought rampant speculation for TOD development that neither the symbol nor the reality of transit was able to deliver to Charlotte. The actual rail service itself has little to do with any of this. It is the public will for higher density development that indeed drives the market, and that has a lot to do with other forces intrinsic to market dynamics and the politics of the area itself.

I would thus insert to Mary Newsom's take home lesson this: the City’s participation in the effort is something that did matter greatly. The light rail transit vision compelled the City to purchase the right-of-way, and it was that vision that fanned the flames in plans, in zoning, in capital improvements and in policy changes. These things don't control the outcomes but they really matter. By merely becoming associated with the symbol of transit, the tracks that had recently symbolically divided the well-off neighborhoods on the east side from the somewhat struggling ones on the west side were now speeding the governmental choices promoting the development activity between them.

The Observer article makes the pertinent observation that the South End caters to the young professionals that are somewhat averse to long commutes and mortgage traps and that makes it therefore ideal for higher density apartment development. Judging by the gated, Texan-style apartment products being built, it is these car-based yuppies, more than the light rail service itself, that are the compelling force behind "Transit Oriented Development" in Charlotte.


Seeking more than crap? New commercial development spurred by the South End apartment boom.
Trendy apartments, indeed, are great magnets to attract the Creative Class set and the associated development that population helps spur. I do think the hipsters and the faithful taco trucks that the South End attracts are a huge benefit for the corridor. For one, large numbers of young, affluent people are likely to sustain new commercial activity along South Boulevard (think: light rail bar crawls, Saturday markets and pet breed clubs). Hopefully this brings much better quality, public realm enriching, mixed-use new development to what our former mayor Pat McCrory (now governor-elect) called a "corridor of crap". To that end, I look hopefully to the creativity in the halls of Government Center.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The "Grain" of a City Grid and What That Means for Mobility

Drayton
Not long ago, reflections on Savannah's Historic District prompted a study to examine the street roles of Savannah’s Historic District grid. The broad aim of my attempt to classify her street types is to produce a kind of working classification system of urban streets that I call an“odonomy”, a taxonomy of grid streets giving names to distinctions that tend to remain unobserved due to present ways of thinking of streets. Just providing names can provide a starting point for further reflection regarding their interdependent roles. This is needed because when it comes to grids, urban designers tend to focus only on quality of connectivity and intersection density, but then allow traffic engineers to dictate the section of the streets, who I believe apply the inappropriate functional classification system of branching networks to grid streets.  A devastating lack of awareness thus exists in how you lay out or modify streets to actually create a traffic behavior supportive of fine-grained urbanism and multimodal balance. With a working and deepened odonomy, in contrast, a project team can employ network-defined categorical distinctions for street types from day one of design work and remain highly conscious of network roles and the subtle advantages their functional strengths can provide for development. Trade-offs can be described and opportunities be made visible. For the context of what follows, I recommend reading posts tagged in The Odonomy of Savannah Series. I especially recommend these two short posts on The Invisible Signs of Savannah (on Intersections) and The Avenue in order to get a flavor of what this study is about. 

An Odonomy of Savannah Recap: The "Grain" of a Grid and What That Means for Mobility

Savannah’s historic grid affords clarity for the challenge of creating an alternative to the “functional classification” for the street types of grids, since it is almost unique to grids in the fact that it consistently differentiates many types of grid streets. The functional diversity of Savannah street types guides the evolution of Savannah’s urbanism in a way that can be easily read and brings their virtues to the surface. Thus far, I’ve uncovered two sets of obvious contrastive relations distinguishing Savannah streets from one another. Before I advance my odonomy of Savannah, a little review is in order. In this post, I shall review and build upon the first distinction I observed.

The distinction immediately evident in Savannah’s street grid is the distinction between the streets traveling along the predominant “loading grain” of the grid and the streets traveling perpendicularly to that grain. Below is a conceptual representation of the predominant grid condition we find in North American cities:

The “loading grain” is the orientation of the grid along which most of the “street address” streets are traveling, the street orientation that is favored for frontage.  Previously, I called the grain traveling streets collectively “Loading Streets” and the cross-grain traveling streets simply “Avenues”. I have decided that the far more descriptive and accessible terminology will be to refer to the former collectively as “Grain Streets” and to the latter as “Ray Streets" or the "cross-grain" streets.


The contrastive term I've chosen for "grain" is "ray", a reference to the medullary rays in wood.  These are ribbons or sheets of cells that radiate outward from the heart of a tree trunk.  If you look at the end-grain section of a cut of wood, these rays are the slight striations crossing the growth rings perpendicularly.  (I thought also of using the term "Check Streets", in reference to the "checks" or radial splits that you often see develop in wood stumps, but I think this term would be far less accessible and lead to unhelpful associations.) I think "ray" is appropriate metaphorically also because I like the fact that medullary rays help with structural support and help protect the inside of the trunk by conveying resins to check and destroy pathogens.  However, I mostly like the term "ray" because, in the general meaning of the term, it suggests directness. By using these botanical referents, moreover, notice that I am conveniently avoiding the use of terminology that leads to thinking of grids in purely orthogonal terms.  A grid system can be thought more carefully as a polar system dependent upon the curvature of grain streets. Frederick Law Olmsted and John Nolen employed curvilinear street networks this way to create adaptive grid-like street patterns that curve with topography (the results are there for you to enjoy in the streets of Nolen's Myers Park Neighborhood in Charlotte).  Therefore, we can talk about curving "grain" and converging "ray" orientations for curvilinear fabrics as well.

The "curvilinear grid"of John Nolen's Myers Park - a curvilinear variant of the Simple A-B Grid type.

The Grain Streets are the streets that prominently serve and access uses by providing the primary frontage for the majority of the parcels. The Ray Streets, on the other hand, primarily serve the grid by facilitating travel mobility in the grid. While Ray Streets take up real estate (the main reason these streets are largely absent in the street networks of postwar suburban subdivisions), having lots of these in your grid has a tendency to amplify transportation mobility, since, besides multiplying travel options, they typically remove or soften the conditions that lead to queuing and friction impeding vehicular movement. When employed well for their natural virtues, they not only distribute traffic efficiently throughout the grid, they actually help it move faster for all modes.

Those ray street virtues are amplified even more in Savannah by treating the avenue traffic as one-way flow on north-south couplets bounding the cellular wards.  Indeed, observing Savannah’s one-way, two-lane avenues in action affords the easy realization that these streets do not have to be wide to move large volumes of traffic rapidly. Clocking my travel times in my vehicle during peak times, I noticed it took on average close to half as long to travel in the north-south cross-grain direction of the Savannah grid as it did to travel the same distance in the east-west direction on grain streets such as Liberty Street and Bay Street (except on those few occasions when I was lucky to catch all the green lights on Bay Street).

Remarkably, those ray streets in Savannah also do not pose much of any barrier for either pedestrians or vehicles crossing them since one-way traffic “platoons” enough to offer sustained breaks for crossings. Drayton Street, pictured in Flickr user adamtrevillian’s photo above, as well as in my “Proper Scale” banner at the very top, is one such street. Notice how quiet and easy to cross it looks - that is often the predominant experience of the street to pedestrians encountering it, believe it or not. The traffic appears to be "missing" much of the time. Indeed, the photo above exudes the lonesome quality of Charles Sheeler's or Edward Hopper's precisionist works. You wouldn't know that this is one of Savannah's most heavily traveled streets. (But notice, in the distance, the traffic platooning behavior in action in the far right of my banner image.)

While much of Savannah's avenue efficiency is gained by treating the internal avenues as one-way couplets (such as the Whitaker Street and Drayton Street pair), in fact, the "ray street" function in itself has a role in keeping traffic moving along speedily. The predominant distinction of ray streets in the A-B Simple Grid is that they have many more intersections on average for the same length than grain streets. Queuing is minimized in Savannah's ray streets not only by removing opposing traffic for left turning, it is also the result of the fact that these streets cross a tremendous amount of intersections, allowing traffic to enter and turn off at more points than just at major intersections, hence allowing vehicles more options or more direct routes to their destinations. In other words, queuing through traffic needs to wait less on the Ray Streets than it would otherwise need to do at major intersections. Astoundingly, the abundance of minor intersections is not a great hindrance for avenue traffic because crossing grain street traffic must yield to these streets everywhere except at the crossings with major grain streets, which only occur every 1/8th mile or greater.  From Liberty Street to Gaston Street, avenue traffic doesn't have to stop on Drayton at all, a distance of almost a third of a mile! (A remarkable feat for a grid with a 600+ intersection per square mile density.)

Strangely, this first-order differentiation just described between "Grain Streets" and "Ray Streets", as obvious as it might be, hardly seems to penetrate the consciousness of planners and road designers. I suspect this is the fault of thinking within the framework of the normative arterial-collector-local (branch-network) classificiation system.Yet this is the most important distinction between Savannah’s street types. These two characters also comprise the two predominant street types of most grids since almost all grids exhibit loading grains subarea to subarea. In truth, the distinction between grain streets and ray streets is not as important for the common "gridiron" Simple A-A square grids, especially the large block gridirons such as the one found in Uptown Charlotte, where the loading grain tends to change so often it could be irrelevant. But it is important for the common U.S. Land Ordinance or streetcar grids, which typically contain blocks twice as long in the loading grain direction as they are wide (660’ x 330’- a furlong by half a furlong). Savannah’s grid makes such an importance patently obvious. Try as hard as it may, Drayton Street can never become a Broughton Street, and there are several very good reasons for this that have little to do with travel lanes, sidewalks, building relationships and width. The functional strengths of each street are simply different for reasons of grid geometry.

The functional classification systems used or being modified by engineers and planners today are terribly misguided for many reasons when applied to urban conditions, but one big deficit they all seem to share is that they tellingly ignore the Ray Street as a distinct urban type that needs special attention. I’ve argued that the humble, no-frills, frontage avoiding, utilitarian avenue, in fact, is the most urban of streets. Without it, you tend to create grids that behaviorally imitate the branching street networks of the suburbs by attempting to maximize the loading condition (Jarrett Walker introduced an apt term for these tree-like suburban networks: “dendritic” street patterns). Urbanists seem not to be aware that the default street setting that they depict in their street sections actually imposes dendritic behavior into grid networks. Sometimes New Urbanist leaning planning departments codify frontage relationship by law regardless of street function.  Such form codes will invariably encourage the creation of grids exhibiting dendritic behavior by stiffening access management, creating street sections that are friction prone (slowing transit), funneling traffic flows in grids and thus creating heavier queuing conditions at intersections (making pedestrian/cycling crossings problematic), and eroding mobility overall by cavalierly removing vehicular through connections. Even New Urbanists who are aware of network advantages keep themselves boxed in the same paradigm as their engineer brethren by distinguishing urban arterial streets primarily by width. Really? How helpful can that classification strategy be when what a street needs in terms of multi-modal capacity is primarily dependent on the transportation network and the area context? In my opinion, their latest papa-bear, mama-bear, baby-bear urban arterial classification system applies, properly speaking, only to the default setting of suburban street networks.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Sketching the Duke Energy Center

The Duke Energy Center, a few weeks ago after a shower (taken from the rooftop of my office building).
The recent CNU ballyhoo over the attack of the "vertical cul-de-sacs", has got me thinking about my love affair with tall buildings. My most recent crush is Charlotte's most recent addition to the skyline, the Duke Energy Center (DEC). Locals call it the "Voltron Building" because its outlines can glow every color on the spectrum throughout the evening (anticipate that it will be given frequent media play during the upcoming DNC Convention).  These colors can represent causes, home games for our local teams, community events, and so on. On special occasions, the building grants variable light shows.  Voltron even has its own twitter handle, @WellsLightsCLT, which daily tweets the color topic of the night.  An email address exists where one can send requests for an evening's color treatment in order to represent  your local cause or event.

You can sort of think of DEC as a civic "weather-vane".  Though I hardly ever go watch the woeful Bobcats play in the Arena, I do kind of like the fact that I know a home game is in progress by spotting the tell-tale blue and orange pride colors on the skyline.  Not only is DEC an indefatigable civic booster, it's Charlotte's chirpiest (and brightest) fan. 

But the thing is...I already loved DEC even when it was just a pile of green slab and cement core methodically inching up the skyline.  Luck had it that at the time I was subletting in a townhome in the South End that had a direct view to the construction site.  Every pleasant evening I would go out to my balcony to take account of the progress.  Eventually, when I had an hour to spare, I started sketching the progress of the skyline, attempting to sharpen my skyscraper drawing skills. Because I'm one of those sketchers without the patience to draw straight lines, this took an act of excruciating mental concentration and page-orienting calisthenics.  But I stiffed it out for the sake of the record. My first result:



The DEC is on the very left.  Unfortunately, I didn't date the above sketch, but I estimate it was executed sometime in the Spring of '08, based on the adjacent material in my sketchbook.  The next sketch, however, is from the 9th of September of '08. Notice that as the DEC got taller, the other buildings seem to have self-consciously grown as well:


...I love the aloof attitudes of the resting cranes...their enormous beak-like arms slung out there hundreds of feet in the air so casually.  They survey Charlotte with an air of unimpressed self-possession, like cowbirds perched on water buffalo.

 The next sketch, executed not long after, took full appraisal of a new situation.  This time, it was the appearance of the next row of townhomes in my development, which would partially block my view to the DEC construction permanently (you can sort of see it partially behind the townhouse).



Since the DEC's construction completion, strangely enough, I haven't felt the lighthearted need to go out and sketch the results, although I've taken many photos of it, like the one at the top.  Perhaps I'm such an architect type that I find the act construction itself the main event.

I think the reason for my fascination with buildings undergoing construction is simply that I'm cognizant of the fact that I'm a kind of construction archivist, recording a passing event that will forever remain unrepeated. For some reason, that needs to be rescued in documentary amber.  Notice that my archivist's compulsion went to the extent of recording the state of the sheathing and curling house wrap on the sprightly townhome... I can't keep myself from doing that.  I want to state: This is where the construction stood at this time. This is when this building was green. It existed this way. You may not believe it, but the cranes used to hover over it like fussy attendants, coaxing it along impatiently.  "There is so much to do here," they said.  "So much to go over while we peck and preen"...

I'm reminded of a Louis Kahn quote: 

"A building being built is not yet in servitude. It is so anxious to be that no grass can grow under its feet, so high is the spirit of wanting to be. When it is in service and finished, the building wants to say, 'look, I want to tell you about the way I was made.' Nobody listens. Everybody is busy going from room to room"...


But enough of that. More than anything, I'm just fascinated by my changing city. I know that I'm seeing first-hand a small speck of what Spiro Kostof called the generative order of the "urban process", which tends to transcend the city's formal origins in such ways that even the careful historian cannot help but to marvel at these sometimes.  This is why I remain unimpressed by spontaneously generative ("emergent") theories of urban design when wedded to formal theories of order.  Such theories must thoroughly supplant the super-ego of the designer with a cosmology. Which is what Christopher Alexander's system is: a cosmology.  It is hard to say whether this is an improvement, however elegant a fractal appears. His is a hybrid of the "cosmic model" of urban design being brought to the normative organic model.  But the only truly "emergent" (spontaneously organic) model of city form may actually be the speculative grid, if anything.

Regardless, Spiro Kostof's gentle reminder is always my forceful recourse of reflection: "...a city, however perfect its initial shape, is never complete, never at rest".  That is good news. Representing that in sketch form, perhaps, is my delight in drawing.