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Everyone should read Jeff Speck’s “Walkable Cities: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.”

Look at the areas of Rochester where homes are most valuable. They’re in walkable neighborhoods including Park Avenue, Corn Hill, Browncroft, Lower East End and Highland. Speck writes there are four things that make a place walkable: The walk has to be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

The problem is we don’t have a lot of walkable places anymore. “In most markets, the demand for walkable urbanism dramatically outpaces the supply…more Americans are desirous of vibrant urban living than are being offered that choice, and those cities that can satisfy that unmet demand will thrive.” That is true in Rochester, where it is expensive to rent or buy in walkable neighborhoods.

Why don’t we have walkable places anymore? We’ve destroyed them with cars. “The car has reshaped our landscape and lifestyles around its own needs. It is an instrument of freedom that has enslaved us.”

Speck is no fan of widening streets and highways. “Traffic studies are bull—-…As long as engineers are in charge of traffic studies, they will predict the need for more engineering…Stop doing traffic studies. Stop trying to improve flow. Stop spending people’s tax dollars giving them false hope that you can cure congestion, while mutilating their cities in the process.” Speck points out induced demand fills up these new lanes quickly, erasing the intended benefit of smoother traffic. He also says people speed on wider streets, no matter the speed limit. Ford and Exchange streets are good examples of downtown Rochester streets built like highways – and that’s how people drive on them.

We’ve allowed cars to ruin our downtown. “In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers – worshipping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking – have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to, but not worth arriving at.” Speck says downtowns are vital, because they belong to everyone. Cities are judged based on the viability of their downtowns. “A beautiful and vibrant downotwn…can be the rising tide that lifts all ships.”

Of course, we need cars. But Speck says, “The key is to welcome cars in the proper number at the proper speed.”

He talks a lot about the high cost of free parking. Even your mall parking is not free. You consume gas to drive to the mall. A lot of trees were mowed over for those vast parking lots. Speck writes free parking “worsens air quality and water quality, speeds global warming, increases energy consumption, raises the cost of housing, decreases public revenue, undermines public transportation, increases traffic congestion, damages the quality of the public realm, escalates suburban sprawl, threatens historic buildings, weakens social capital, and worsens public health, to name a few things.”

More than a half billion parking spaces are empty in America at any given time. Does every store and business need their own lot? Can there be more sharing? Think about all of the lots gated after-hours in Rochester. When you visit Next Door Bar & Grill, signs in the empty Pet Smart lot threaten to tow restaurant patrons. We have a lot of asphalt in this region so everyone can have their own parking.

parking - featured 220x165

Downtown Rochester’s many parking lots.

Speck writes a lot about the need to price downtown parking appropriately and hide parking lots and garages as much as possible. Rochester’s downtown has a lot of “missing teeth,” parking lots between buildings that are ugly and break up a pleasant walk. He also writes about the importance of biking and public transit to walkable places.

Speck makes a compelling argument for making places walkable. He says we need to toss tax incentives to lure businesses. You want economic development? Make walkable places. You want healthier people? Make walkable places. You want fewer car crashes? Make walkable places.

Rochester could learn from this book! You won’t think about downtown, driving and parking the same.

Links of the Day:


– Hamburg. N.Y. wrested control of its Main Street from the DOT. Instead of widening the road, it was narrowed. A pedestrian-friendly Main St. has led to more development. (Penfield should take note.)

– The crackdown on “left lane hogs” strikes me as encouragement to speeders and road ragers.

– Bicycling takes off in Texas. “People who are trying to attract people and businesses to their cities get it.”

Tom Richards has a huge lead over Lovely Warren, 55-28.

– Trulia says Buffalo and Syracuse are among the safest U.S. cities from natural disasters. Not Rochester?

– A stunning interactive of the way New York City changed during the Bloomberg years is probably a glimpse into the future of digital newspapers.

– Waste some time today watching amazing videos of Serengeti lions.

30 Responses to Rochester, Read This Book

  1. So, a guy that hates cars blames cars for all of societies woes. It couldn’t be that cities have failed for other reasons, like gross mismanagement on every level with the same people constantly being re-elected, could it?

    And what about neighborhoods that are still walkable like Thurston-Chili? If walkability is the key to enriching a neighborhood, how is that explained? Perhaps correlation does no equal causation?

    And narrowing the streets have done nothing for Batavia. Narrowing 63 (Ellicott Street) through the city causes more congestion and the oh so touted bike lanes are always empty… and that’s a walkable neighborhood too (complete with a $60k grant paid to a doctor to refurbish two apartments downtown in a building he owns). Batavia even has a walkable mall right in the heart of downtown.

    I know you love the city and you love living there, but isn’t it possible that a lot of people DON’T like city living and blaming cars is just grasping at straws because you see them as an impediment to the type of life you prefer?

    And isn’t it possible that you have the cause and effect of gentrification backwards? People put stores where they can thrive because the locals have disposable income and would prefer to shop closer (not to mention the high home prices help keep out the people that would be detrimental to a business with loitering, shoplifting, tagging, selling drugs on the corner, etc), rather than the idea that home prices go up because there are stores and a sidewalk nearby?

    • August 18, 2013 at 5:17 pm Rachel Barnhart responds:

      He says safety is a key to walkability. The problems in our urban neighborhoods were made possible by cars/sprawl, which led to concentrated poverty.

  2. August 18, 2013 at 5:35 pm Elmer, the downtown worker responds:

    Before I actually worked in downtown Rochester, I thought that I’d be able to take the bus to work. After all, there’s a bus stop only 1/4 mile from my house. However, something bad(TM) happened when I actually landed a job downtown. The bus schedules and routes do not lend themselves to me being able to do things like go to a doctor appointment, stop at a grocery store, stop at a bank, go to a meeting or service at church, go to a class, etc, (all of these places are on bus lines for me, BTW) without some combination of being stranded late in the evening with no transportation except for a taxi or “call my wife”, or taking 4 hours plus for something like a 15 minute doctor appointment. We’ll never get people to buy into “keeping cars in their proper place” unless we have a public transport system that actually works.

  3. August 18, 2013 at 5:37 pm James Simons responds:

    The more walkable neighborhood is, the more “eyes on the street” there are. This is a classic Jane Jacobs concept, which she developed based on the Village in NYC. When there are people walking around and more people watching the actions on the street, it leads to safer overall neighborhood.

    Where is crime more apt to happen: On a wide road, with no one on the sidewalks and cars speeding by with no desire to stop or a more condense neighborhood street with people walking, jogging, walking pets, or simply people-watching?

    And this isn’t just something that Rachel prefers, it is a growing trend that this country is leaning away from typical suburban development and starting to seek out more sustainable, walkable neighborhoods. Which is why even the suburbs are trying to copy it.

  4. It’s circular reasoning.

    It’s like saying what we need are fewer parking lots and more stores sharing parking lots. You know, like the mall… one parking lot for lots of stores.

    But not like a mall, because they’re bad.

    If people want a city lifestyle, more power to them. The problem is the assumption on their part that everyone wants a city lifestyle and people outside of the city should either be forced into it or forced to pay for it (like with a metro government or the non-city taxpayers being forced to provide extra tax money to the city).

    At a minimum, the urban lifestyle proponents blame anyone that doesn’t want to live in the city for the downfall of the city, again, mixing up the cause and effect.

    See, the problem is, when someone has an agenda, any agenda, they tend to get blinded with things like confirmation and selection bias, omitting sources and articles they disagree with while using the ones that they do agree with to bolster their argument in their own mind. And it’s not just this issue, it’s numerous issues all across the political spectrum.

    • August 19, 2013 at 8:33 am Rachel Barnhart responds:

      Who is talking about forcing people? This is about meeting demand and making places better for everyone.

      And yes, we can blame the exodus from the city on cars and sprawl (and racism.) That directly contributed to the downfall of urban centers across America.

      Now people miss walkable neighborhoods – wherever those neighborhoods are located.

  5. oh and walkability has nothing to do with eyeballs on the street… taking pride in one’s community does. Again, the Thurston/Chili area is pretty walkable but I wouldn’t say those eyeballs have done much good. In fact, it isn’t very hard to look back and find out why that area decayed the way it did, but again, there’s an agenda in minimizing discussion of that topic in the broader media as well since it doesn’t fit the worldview of the gatekeepers.

    Good neighborhoods are good, first and foremost, because the people there care about their community. Things like shopping and walkability come way after that. And the good neighborhoods that were pointed out are good mostly because the trouble makers can’t afford to live in those neighborhoods due to gentrification and the fact that the community won’t tolerate any nonsense when they visit.

  6. Walkability isn’t what makes a neighborhood nice, it is a feature of a nice neighborhood.

    As phantomlord points out, we have many walkable neighborhoods like Lyell Ave, Jones Park, Thurston/Chili that aren’t congested with traffic and parking, yet they are not flourishing.

    Corn Hill is a nice walkable area, but there’s no place to get a `good lime’. Cars will still be needed, and in Rochester if you want your street passable in the winter, onstreet parking is limited so some parking lots may be needed.

    The hot book of the week preaches that if there is traffic and parking problems, then it must not be a good neighborhood. I’m going to hazard a guess that Times Square in NYC will invalidate that argument. Many people pay LOTS of money to live in Manhattan, which has lots of traffic but is still walkable.

    Walkability doesn’t make a neighborhood great just like eating Wheaties doesn’t mean you’ll win a gold medal in the Olympics. The concept sounds good and sells books, but as we know, it takes a lot more.

  7. August 19, 2013 at 11:59 am Peking Humonculous responds:

    “And yes, we can blame the exodus from the city on cars and sprawl (and racism.)”

    Ah, yes. RACISM. It can’t be the failed Democratic leadership that has had this city circling the drain for many, many years now. No, don’t ever even look at that. Just say that magic Liberal word: RACISM.

  8. August 19, 2013 at 7:23 pm Orielly responds:

    We have TONS and I do mean TONS of urban walkable safe, neighborhoods. You can live in a city type house, walk down the street get something to eat, drink, buy bagels get an ice cream all with in a 1/2 mile even shop in some stores. Never a problem or mugging. Where?
    Brockport, Spencerport, Fairport, Pittsford, Victor, Webster, Penfield … VILLAGES.

    But thats not the cool city so it doesn’t count right? ITS THE SAME THING. In fact its called the competition to city living in this area. Those villages and their housing are doing VERY well.

    People’s desire to not want to live in the CITY downtown is not due to racism. Its because of the violence, that statistics (you know –facts) show occur in the city and in minority community at a very high rate. You can call that racism.. most would call that just being smart.

    But if you think its racism, I encourage you to walk by yourself late at night in some neighborhoods in the city known for crime. DO it for a number nights, by yourself. And then come back and calls those safety concerns based in racism.

    • August 19, 2013 at 7:31 pm Rachel Barnhart responds:

      All of these crime comments ignore something stated up front – safety is a component of walkability.

      Villages are excellent examples of walkable places. Webster is trying to become even meow walkable now, given the monstrosity of 250 cutting through.

  9. August 19, 2013 at 7:58 pm Orielly responds:

    I believe you’re likely referring to the 104 “monstrosity” cutting through Webster. That 104 has beautiful paths on both sides and a major park added as well. IT is very difficult to not see people walking or riding on those paths at any time of day or year.

    Traffic moving to the east and into Wayne County to the lakeshore for Sodus, Port and Fair Haven Bays as well, making living in those areas and working in Rochester very possible. It extends the wealth into those rural areas that were struggling. THAT 104 has added tons of shopping and stores in easy to get to in Webster as well. I guess it’s cool to help minority poor in the city but wrong to help rural poor in Sodus.

    I find all that very positive and much nicer that walking down university avenue.

  10. The major thing hurting the city right now, is the school district. Anyone that wants to talk factually about the problem, knows that there are many neighborhoods like the suburban villages that are held on this high pedestal. The problem is your kids go from a great neighborhoods into a school system dragged down by some of the worst poverty in the state. Mix those suburban neighborhoods schools with the horrendous city schools and pittsford, penfield, webster, fairport, etc will empty out quicker than Detroit after NAFTA. That needs to be fixed and the City will bounce back like a bouncy ball covered in flubber.

    The safety component is an excellent example of the racism that is in this region. Many City neighborhoods are safe, but because its the “City” it must be dangerous and lumped into several high crime neighborhoods that could be narrowed down into several high crime blocks. Irondequoit, Greece, and Gates are closer to some high crime areas than nice city neighborhoods, but they get a free pass because of an imaginary geopolitical line.

  11. @Orielly

    I’m fairly certain that any urbanist will be very happy to sing the praises of Pittsford Village. This “city vs. suburbs” narrative is, predictably, coming from you (and “phantomlord”), not from Ms. Barnhart, not Mr. Speck, etc. The concept at issue here is creating walkable places that are worth inhabiting or visiting. Pittsford Village is one of those places. Its popularity merely proves the point you thought you were refuting. People love walkability and human-scaled architecture; they will pay for the privilege of living in such places. The “walkable urbanism” concept applies equally to downtown Rochester, PLEX, Honeoye Falls, Lyell-Otis, Maplewood, Webster, 19th Ward, Brockport, Geneseo, Pittsford, Spencerport, Albion, Medina, Brighton, Hilton et al. The concept of walkable neighborhoods applies everywhere, regardless of the antiquated city/suburb label. Similarly, sprawl is a problem everywhere, as evidenced (equally) by completely automobile-dependent, low density developments across Monroe County, from Five Mile Line Rd. and Plank Rd. in Penfield to “Brooks Court” off of Genesee Street in Rochester; “City Gate” on Westfall Rd. in Rochester to “The Reserve” in Brighton.

    You, however, are too distracted by the label “city” or “urban” to see the big picture here. As a result, your post did nothing more than gratuitously beat up a straw man.

    In opposition to your outdated world view, consider that we urbanists want more Pittsford Villages and more Park Avenues. We want to foster the commercial activity on Dewey Avenue and we want the government to both support this and crack down on the gang violence that plagues several of the streets in the Dewey/Driving Park neighborhoods. We want to preserve the architecture of “downtown” Albion *and* downtown Rochester. We want Monroe Avenue to be a walkable commercial corridor from Union Street in Rochester to Boughton Avenue in Pittsford. We want “Rochester” (inclusive of all I’ve just mentioned) to be globally competitive in the current century, not the previous one. The folks who built and inhabited these places for 100 years gave us a leg up. Then, your generation ruined it. The (lowercase) new urbanists are just trying to get back to par, but its a monumental task.

    And, finally, @Peking Humonculous:

    In addition to the above, we also recognize that racism is still a problem, as racial disparaties in both educational opportunity and criminal justice enforcement are too unconscionable to ignore. We also recognize that the overt racism of the 1960’s has been redefined by your generation with racially charged terms like “good schools,” “thugs,” “welfare,” “democrats,” and “urban.” So, you’re not slick, bro. When you attempt to deny that racism exists, or when you deny that years of racist public policy have had any impact on America today, don’t get indignant when people outside of the echo chamber reject your ideas.

    • August 21, 2013 at 9:45 am Orielly responds:

      oh wow..
      Urban sprawl is bad? I like it, I love it. You can live in the city go for it. I did.
      But I moved to the burbs where I can do 100s of things you can’t do in the city. Walk a dog at night, have your kids ride a bike by themselves a mile or more to a friends house. ..the list is endless. I like my neighborhood for nice long walks. Last night I fixed a 8yr old girls bike chain on my street as she and her mom went for a ride. Not a car or parked car around. What to bet she doesn’t lock the bike at night and leaves it out in her driveway? How many nights are we woken up with gun shots, sirens, loud parties, drunks, fights? NONE, never happens.

      With out the name calls, you can live where you want but your extremely naive to think the city will come back and be walkable in most areas in your or mine or the baby born today’s life time.

      And you want get rid of gangs and make street safe? How you going to do that without charges or racial profiling accusations? Its impossible to do with liberal opposition.

      With the burb villages we have what senior or DINK with a brain would choose to live in city when they can live in the any village? Besides all the wants of city living offered in the village of Pittsford, your far closer to a Wegmans or Eastview.

      But most importantly … what “WE URBANISTs want” what you REALLY want— are ignorant guinea pigs to move into those areas, invest in housing or business’s and risk their lives, their kids lives and education, and for a business their investments all for you to try and make walkable city “urban” neighborhoods … all because you don’t like cars?

      Anyone who cares about their kids or their investments or their own life and daily peace of mind, the risk is not worth the reward. Its not even close.

      But hey go for it, if you think you can change the world. Lots of people try it and usually change their tune when a love one is harassed, mugged or worse. Most of “those” crimes are never reported or the purps ever found or brought to justice.

  12. I never hear gunshots in my neighborhood, in fact those romantic images of suburban life you bring up happens in my city neighborhood every day. Very rarely hear those other things, sirens from time to time, but thats thanks to the staffed firehouse around the corner. Maybe I hear a party, but never drunks or fist fights. My neighborhood is quiet and nice. The only thing that you wouldn’t like in my neighborhood is its in the scary city.

  13. These dystopic views of city living are hilarious. I live in a great walkable city neighborhood. I know my neighbors, there are lots of kids, we ride our bikes around with no fear, we walk to the playground, library, bagel shop, etc. There is no crime and it is quiet at night. Yes, you can live in the city and have a nice life. Knowing what I know, I would never live in the suburbs. Sorry to crush your myopic world view, orielly.

  14. As I’m reading and re-reading these comments I see that the initial posting is directed at cars and traffic. The amount of cars and traffic downtown make it a less-walkable place. Neighborhoods that are walkable like Park Avenue have narrower streets, slower traffic and no large parking lots or ramp garages.

    The towns and villages that people have mentioned have similar traffic situations.

    Referring to DOWNTOWN, Rachel writes, “Why don’t we have walkable places anymore? We’ve destroyed them with cars.”

    I guess I’m stumped as to how to solve that. Initially every town and city had their center of commerce located `downtown’ which was presumably centrally located. For years and years Rochester was that way. The largest department stores (Sibley’s McCurdy’s, Forman’s) were located there along with the headquarters for banks and commerce (Kodak, RG&E, Rochester Tel) and international law and accounting firms. The County Clerk’s office is still there as is City Hall, the Federal Court House and the County Hall of Justice.

    For entertainment a great philanthropist built the Eastman Theater. Later we built a large memorial to our veterans and it served as a venue for numerous sports events, concerts and conventions.

    A structure that, at the time, was the largest indoor mall was built to foster community growth and commerce and it was the center of holiday activity with numerous events and even a monorail for children to ride in.

    All of these things are/were a part of what made Rochester what it is today. Downtown was a vital part of the city.

    People went downtown to shop and to conduct business and to eat and to be entertained. They came from all around the city and county. They drove to get here. Cars were needed.

    Many of these things I’ve mentioned have left this world, let alone downtown. Others have relocated. Some of those that stayed have downsized.

    The area is changing because change is inevitable. Now the area is becoming more residential. It will develop a new look and a new feel.

    Cars didn’t ruin downtown from becoming a walkable neighborhood. Downtown never was a walkable neighborhood. It may soon become one though, and if it is to be, then those who want to be there must be the ones to change it.

  15. August 24, 2013 at 9:33 am Orielly responds:

    I can drive or bike ride miles from my house and be safe, all the time, in any direction, can you in the city or do you have to pick the direction to go?

    Are there safe nice areas in the city? Sure. Are they growing, expanding? No. Do they have random incidents of theft and violence and sure so do the burbs. But far far far less often in the burbs.

    There is a reason why 100s of thousands moved to the burbs. Its called quality of life.

  16. I can drive or bike ride miles from my house and be safe, all the time, in any direction, can you in the city or do you have to pick the direction to go?

    Yes, I can bike miles from my house in the Park Ave area in any direction and be perfectly fine. I do it every day. I promise the Scary Black People are not out to get you.

  17. If you have a bike, you should try it sometime. Take the Genesee River Trail anywhere in the city and outside you want to go. Stop at the zoo and check out the view from the Veterans Memorial Bridge. Bike down East Avenue all the way from downtown to East Rochester. Bike the El Camino trail and check out the Wall/Therapy murals. Take Culver to the Durand-Eastman Park. Bike around the Southeast Quadrant, admire the wonderful old buildings and stop at one of Rochester’s many independent coffeehouses and cafes. Go over the High Falls bridge. Take a tour through Corn Hill or around the UR River Campus. The possibilities of urban cycling are endless.

  18. Tom, Downtown was built as a walkable neighborhood. Starting in the 50s it became less and less walkable, until we have the abomination we have today. Downtown had residential inside of it and immediately adjacent to it. We ruined downtown with urban renewal, burying your head in the aamd about it doesn’t change it. I see your point about changing downtown for the age of the car, bt we completely over did it. Parking and highway capacity far beyond what was needed while at the same time dismantling our public transit options. We replaced walkable moxed use neighborhoods in the southeast part of downtown with a horrendous sea of asphalt and public housing towers and the strong museum also surrounded by asphalt.

  19. August 26, 2013 at 11:19 pm Orielly responds:

    Elliffe == ride the bike two miles down park ave… past Union cross river take a left….go one mile 3 murders in the last week and numerous shootings. But hey your cool so have your loved ones take that ride at 10PM. Remember my comment… any direction? Ok dont cross the river get to St Paul and go right for two miles. Go the other way to culver ride down a few miles

    Want to call me any other names? Go for it … but I am not stupid or naive. Perhaps you are. So then leave your bike outside your house on the front lawn unlocked all summer long. Want to bet who’s bike lasts the longest and doesn’t get robbed, mine at my house or you at yours?

  20. August 31, 2013 at 2:37 am Bruce Smith responds:

    Excellent article on walkable places.I have to walk in the road.

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