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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.

The University of Rochester, city and state are pushing to spend more than $100 million to add a new interchange on Route 390 at Kendrick Road. The project would also make improvements to the congested Routes 15 and 15A.

The University of Rochester claims it cannot grow and add jobs without its own on-ramp.

There’s a guy who wrote a book called “Walkable City” who slams these kinds of arguments.

Jeff Speck calls traffic studies “bull—-” and talks at length about the phenomenon of induced demand. If you expand roads, more people will drive on them and you’re left with even worse congestion:

Induced demand is the name for what happens when increasing the supply of roadways lowers the time cost of driving, causing more people to drive, and obliterating any reductions in congestion.

(snip)

I was delighted to read the following recently, in Newsweek, hardly an esoteric publication: “demand from drivers tends to quickly overwhelm the new supply; today engineers acknowledge that building new roads usually makes traffic worse.”

(snip)

…you are paying to drive whether you drive or not, in which the more you drive, the less each mile costs, and in which the greatest constraint to driving, then, is congestion. While the cost of the trip will rarely keep us home, the threat of being stuck in traffic often will, at least in our larger cities. Congestion saves fuel because people hate to waste their time being miserable.

Speck isn’t necessarily arguing congestion is a good thing. Rather, he’s saying it’s silly to keep spending tax dollars to encourage more driving and create more congestion. The way to relieve congestion is something no one likes to talk about – public transit.

Meanwhile, the U of R scuttled the bus station component of the College Town project, even though in a recent Rochester Business Journal article, RGRTA said the college is its number one destination. The U of R and the college are still working on a transit plan.

Maybe that should be the priority, not an exit that will likely not alleviate traffic and could make it worse.

Links of the Day:

– RG&E and NYSEG were ripped by the state for managing on the fly and cutting staff.

– The gambling lobby is taking advantage of Hurricane Sandy and telling state officials casinos can help fill state coffers again.

– Say Yes, the organization that offers free college tuition to Syracuse and Buffalo students, often exaggerates its claims of success.

Hotels, some in historic buildings, sprout up in downtown Buffalo.

– The strongest housing markets are in walkable urban areas.

November 19 is World Toilet Day.