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Transportation and the Urban Form

The host of this site, Steve Patterson, and I are both passionate about urban design issues. One area where we differ is how the interaction between transportation options and the urban form plays out in the real world. Steve, and others, believe that requiring “better”, more appropriate and/or more restrictive design standards, through efforts like moving to form-based zoning and reducing available parking, will somehow convince the uninformed public to become more enlightened and to change their ways.  I have a different perspective, that available transportation options inform the urban form, including our land use regulations and their application on a daily basis.

I’m not going to go back to the discovery of the wheel, but I am going to go back 150 years.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution / the American Civil War, transportation options were limited to human, animal, water or wind power – you could walk or row, ride a horse or a mule, use a sailboat or “go with the flow”.  The result was a world made up of farms, relatively small settlements, seaports, river ports and a few larger centers of banking, trade and government.  There was no zoning, as we know it, but we did have our westward expansion, with land being given away for free to anyone willing to “tame the wilderness”, through farming, ranching or mining.

Cities were just starting to build rudimentary water supply and sewer systems, and elevators and air conditioning were non-existent.  You got an urban environment marked by row houses, small, local retail establishments and tiny signs.  You didn’t have drive-throughs or dry cleaners, computers or gas stations; you did have hitching posts and coal for heat, telegraph and manure in the streets, Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim.  You can find many preserved examples up and down the east coast, including Colonial Williamsburg.  And St. Louis started to grow as the Gateway to the West, primarily as a trading center and a transportation hub.  Examples around here include Soulard, Carondelet and Baden

The ability to capture the power of steam, through the boiler and the steam engine gave us railroads, cable cars and steam heat.  It also gave us the ability to run machinery with something other than water power, greatly expanding where factories could be located and how much they could produce.  More importantly, electricity was staring to be harnessed, with major improvements in generation, lighting and motors.  From the 1850’s through the 1890’s, city life changed rapidly.  Factories, along with their need for lots of workers, worked better in urban settings than in rural ones.  Cities like St. Louis became industrial centers as well as trading centers.

Quoting from a story in the 12/13/09 edition of the Daytona Beach News-Journal;

According to the Web site trolleystop.com, the first successful trolley system in the United States began operation in Richmond, Va. in 1887.  After the initial success in Richmond, almost all of the horse car lines in North America were converted to electric power.  The electric trolleys became so popular that the street railway industry experienced explosive growth almost overnight.  As the popularity of automobiles and buses boomed in the 1920s, however, most trolley companies began converting their lines to bus service.

That was certainly the case here.  We had multiple streetcar companies competing for riders and we saw explosive growth of streetcar suburbs, both inside and outside the city limits.

Streetcars and buses allowed workers to live further away from work.  You still needed to walk to the transit line, but it meant living within walking distance of your job was no longer an essential requirement.  People had more options, and many of those, that could afford to, moved out of the older, denser parts of town, leaving them to new waves of immigrants or to see them torn down and replaced by factories.  Retailers were still expected to offer home delivery, so stay-at-home moms (yes it’s a stereotype, but it was the reality) shopped for fresh food pretty much every day and kids walked or biked to neighborhood schools.  This was also the time when the first attempts at zoning started to occur, primarily to separate industrial uses from residential ones.

The next big “step forward” was Henry Ford’s efforts to produce an affordable automobile.  His success, in the 1920’s, was the next big step in the suburbanization of America and St. Louis.  Throughout south city one can find garages that are too small for many contemporary vehicles – they were built to shelter the vehicle that expanded Dad’s transportation options, Ford’s Model T.  The residential neighborhoods of that time were still walkable (with sidewalks) and they still had corner groceries, but they were growing less dense.

The next big impact on the urban environment was World War II, both directly and indirectly.  Factories moved from multi-story to single-story, sprawling structures.  The internal combustion engine became more reliable and synthetic rubber made tires much less of a pain in the a**.  Women entered the work force in large numbers and pent-up demand for consumer products continued to build.

Once the war ended, we experienced several decades of unprecedented prosperity, from the mid ’40’s through the ’70’s.  We built the interstate highway system and moms learned to drive.  FHA and VA loans favored single-family homes, primarily new, suburban ones, over denser, multi-family options.  We went from single-car families to 2-car families.  We embraced the suburban shopping center and the enclosed mall.

Just because it was a whole lot easier, people chose driving themselves over taking public transit.  They chose living in the new suburbs over living in established urban areas, especially those that had experienced decades of deferred maintenance (the Great Depression followed by wartime rationing).  Employers, schools and retailers all responded by offering more and more “free” parking, either by planning for it from the start, in new suburban developments, or by buying up and tearing down existing buildings in more-established urban areas.  This mobility also resulted in the Euclidean zoning that many of us are questioning today – it codified a preference for convenient parking over both density and walkability.

The end result is the world we live in today.  It reflects the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Americans, as reflected by the actions of our elected officials.  We trade sprawl and congested highways for the “freedom” to live where we want, work where we can find jobs and to shop at generic chains who have mastered the worldwide logistics supply chain.  We have seen St. Louis lose both population and jobs.  And we have two choices – we can continue to become more suburban, building more shopping centers, single-family homes and “free” parking.  Or we can redirect our efforts, differentiate ourselves from our suburban neighbors, encourage density and create viable transportation alternatives.

To attract people out of their cars and trucks won’t be easy.  There’s a real attraction to privacy, control and convenience.  But, as a big believer in the Law of Unintended Consequences, I find it interesting that more members of the Generation Y are willing to embrace mass transit.  It turns out that people who text, tweet and surf the mobile net would actually rather let someone else do the driving, IF they can figure out how to make it work.  Whether that involves reinventing Metro’s system and creating a market for higher densities or developing a taxi infrastructure that mimics that in New York, it appears that we may be on the cusp of a another significant change in how people want to live, work and commute.  Combine that with the growing success of, and the reliance many people have on, online shopping, and in many ways we’re returning to the “home delivery” model of yore.

Steve’s belief in the need for form-based zoning could very well be reflected in actual change, just not one driven by direct logic and/or nostalgia.  I doubt that we’ll see the imminent demise of the suburban shopping center or the type of store Schnuck’s or Direbergs typically builds.  But I can see a future where Transit Oriented Development will gain traction on both the residential side and on the employment/educational side – it’s actually slowly playing out here locally at the Barnes campus on Kingshighway.  The single-occupant vehicle could very well become an anachronism for the daily commute, saved only for shopping, recreation and regional out-of-town trips.  Whether it ends up being garaged for days at a time or rented only when needed will be a personal decision.  But these decisions will inform what “sells”, and in turn, what gets built, and ultimately, what our legislators will see a need to codify.

– Jim Zavist

 

An argument in favor of shared parking

November 12, 2009 Car Sharing, Downtown, Parking 9 Comments

Last Sunday I was walking from my place to the London Tea Room. I went the long way to look at old cars lined up on 17th for the Veteran’s Parade.  So I crossed through CPI’s parking lot which is just North of my building.

I noticed a driver get into an SUV after pulling two notes off the window.  Pulling away I saw the car pictured above with the same notes. Basically CPI doesn’t like residents from surrounding buildings parking on their lot overnight.  I was very pleased to see the notes could be easily removed rather than those requiring elbow grease and a razor blade.

But it brings up a question about how we use our land.  The above image shows their parking lot thinning about 4pm on Monday. Washington Ave runs left to right in the background.  !7th Street and CPI’s building are on the left.  This is one of four parking lots for CPI.

The parking lot continues over to 16th Street (right).  The massive Ely-Walker building is across 16th. It has underground garage parking but I think some residents have more than one car per unit.

What I’d like to see is shared use of the lot.  For a fee, a fixed number of residents could be allowed to use CPI’s lot from 5pm -7am weekdays and 24/7 on weekends. I hate seeing this lot sit mostly vacant evenings and weekends.

Ideally CPI would do well to explore ways to reduce the number of employee’s vehicles each day. Offer employee’s $25/month if they didn’t bring their car to work.  This would prompt some to look at transit or carpooling.   The money paid out to employee’s would come in from fees collected from others using the parking on off hours.

A CPI-sponsored WeCar vehicle (car sharing from Enterprise) could help employees that use transit or carpool if they need a car to run errands at lunch.  The many residents living in this part of downtown might become members as well.  The nearest WeCar to us is 7-8 blocks away.  With a close WeCar some 2-car households might drop down to one and some one-car households might go to zero.  A sponsor covers the cost each month if a vehicle is not rented by members often enough each month.

Promotional video from Enterprises’ WeCar program:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDhHo3bJ9bM

Know that I’m not picking on CPI — they are a good neighbor.  I’m just suggesting ways in which they might alter how they view the land around their building used for car storage.

– Steve Patterson

 

A Year of Driving

A year ago today I bought my first post-stroke tank of gas. The 9 months prior to my stroke I did not have a car — my motorized transportation was a 49cc Honda Metropolitan scooter that got around 90 miles per gallon.  A year ago I felt guilty about going back to driving a car. I’m over the guilt although I want to, someday, go back to not having a car.

So the day I buy gas for the first time in nearly six months just happens to have been the day gas prices peaked in St. Louis.  I paid $3.979/gallon for basic unleaded. By December 30th I paid a low of $1.339/gallon – a 66% drop. I tracked each fuel purchase and my mpg on an application on my iPhone:

Cold winters and recent a/c use took a toll on my average MPG.  My last fill-up was on a return trip from Chicago – 70mph with a/c.  Pretty good numbers.

During the year I drove 7,200 miles which included a trip to Oklahoma and the recent one to Chicago.  Take out those two road trips and I drove about 5,500 miles around town.  Admittedly I have a big advantage of working from home.  But I also have a compact life shopping locally as well as combining trips. Even as the price of gas dropped I continued to conserve.

The above chart shows the price per gallon that I paid over the last year.  Yes, I’m a nerd by charting this but I’m a visual person.  As we seen the price per gallon has steadily increased in 2009.  It is still a long way from where it was a year ago – the climb up is much slower than the drop off.  But the prices from last summer will return at some point.  There will be a point in a year or two where $4/gallon seems low.

By the end of 2010 I hope to have another scooter — perhaps a hybrid or all-electric scooter.  Like before, I’ll go a couple of years having a car and a scooter before going to scooter-only.  This time I will be able to join Enterprise’s WeCar car-sharing program for those times when I need/want a car.

– Steve Patterson

 

Enterprise Rent-A-Car Debutes WeCarâ„¢ Car Sharing Plan In St. Louis

January 15, 2008 Car Sharing 24 Comments

Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the rental giant based in the St. Louis Region, has finally announced a new car sharing program called WeCar™.  First up, Washington University:

Washington University in St. Louis’ Parking & Transportation Services and Enterprise Rent-A-Car© have partnered to bring WeCarâ„¢, a car-sharing program, to the university’s Danforth Campus.

The program, the first of its kind in the St. Louis area, allows Washington University students, faculty, staff and employees of qualified service providers over age 18 to rent vehicles at an hourly rate. The vehicles will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  (Full press release)

The press release indicates is an all-hybrid program.  Initially WashU’s campus has four Toyota Prius hybrid models and two Ford Escape hybrid SUV’s.  Sources tell me that downtown St. Louis locations will soon be announced.

At this time the wecar.com website just lists an email address to contact for more information.  However, at the Wash U version of site is a tad more info.

I cannot begin to express how excited I am by this announcement. Being car-free in St. Louis just got easier.

 

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