Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Transportation Should Not Trump Destination

New city to the left, old city to the right.
Of the original five squares in Philadelphia, only one of them is not a square today. Instead, Centre Square (also known as Penn Square) is occupied by City Hall. There are a bunch of smaller open spaces to the west of City Hall, including Dilworth Park and two plazas on the far side of 15th Street, one of which houses Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin (1976).

I think we should unite these shards of land to the west of City Hall to create a true square in Centre Square. St. Peter's in Rome has its square. City Hall should have a square.

We do this by closing 15th Street from JFK Boulevard to South Penn Square. To do this we will need to rework traffic patterns across a fairly large area, but before I get into the traffic weeds, let's have a look at how we got to where we are.

A Rare Opportunity
The area west of City Hall didn't always look the way it does now. Until the early 1950s there was an elevated train viaduct called the Chinese Wall, which ran from the Schuylkill River to a terminal facing City Hall (see map below). The terminal (designed by Frank Furness) and the Chinese Wall came down in 1953, and the City had a rare opportunity to redesign a large vacant space in the heart of a city that was already 250 years old.

The Chinese Wall, 1913.
I think it's fair to say that things didn't go as well as many people had hoped. There are a number of issues, but I'd like to focus on two things that I think underlie the traffic problems in the area - the street grid and the demands of the automobile.

The Street Grid
William Penn's 1682 plan for Philadelphia, with its rectangular street grid, recalls the layout of Roman military camps. The grid is a durable concept because it's useful, but we should remember that it was invented primarily with pedestrians in mind. Most Roman soldiers got around by walking. A few had horses; it helped to have a good seat, because stirrups hadn't been invented yet.

We should remember how good the Romans were at squeezing remarkable achievements out of very limited technical resources. For instance, how would you, as a Roman engineer, go about building a military camp, or castrum, on a rectangular grid? You used the Roman version of a surveyor's transit, which was called a groma.

The groma was a pair of straight sticks joined at right angles and mounted on a staff. Looking down one stick allowed you to shoot a straight line. Then, if you walked around and looked down the other stick, you could shoot a right angle. You could only shoot 90 degree angles with a groma. If I were an engineer, I would find that a pretty good argument for laying out an army camp in a rectangular grid.

The Roman castrum always came with two large streets that divided the camp into quarters. Where these big streets met, in the middle of the camp, there was a large open area. This was the parade ground, and the unit commander's headquarters was located on this square.

In Philadelphia we call these big streets Broad and Market; the central square is the home of City Hall.

I suspect that the grid worked pretty well for the Romans. At each end of the big streets, there were gates. A commander could readily mass troops along those streets and in the central square and then sally forth through any of the gates.

The main shortcoming of the grid plan is the lack of diagonal movement. In early modern times this issue was addressed by adding diagonal boulevards to the grid. Major L'Enfant did this in his plan for Washington, D.C., and Baron Haussmann employed them extensively in his reconstruction of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century.

Haussmann did not build the most famous Parisian boulevard, the Champs Elysees, which has roots extending back to the late seventeenth century. And it is the Champs Elysees which provides the inspiration for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

It's important to remember that the boulevard concept, like the grid concept, was born in a world without cars. These streets were for pedestrians and also people who liked to ride around in horse-drawn carriages.

Cars Change Everything
And then came the cars. It's tempting to blame the beginning of our traffic woes around City Hall on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (built between 1917 and 1926). Or you can blame City Hall (built between 1871 and 1901). Or I suppose you could go back to the original William Penn plan and say that the two big streets meeting in the middle was a good idea for a Roman military camp, but that the intersection in the central square would clearly become a choke point when the concept was applied to a larger settlement.

Here's a map showing the central part of Philadelphia in 1859. Notice that the central square is already unlike the other four squares. In the outlying squares, the streets skirt the perimeter. In the central square they plow right through the middle, dividing the square into four pieces. A little over a decade later, City Hall started to arrive in the central square, at which point traffic was pushed to the periphery.

Market and Broad intersecting in Centre Square, 1859.
What would have happened to the central square if City Hall had not arrived? I suspect that it would have become a very large traffic circle, similar to Logan Square. We can only hope that the middle of the square would have an equally attractive water feature.

The street system is not the source of our problems. The problems came with the cars, and the problems came from the cars. After the introduction of the Model T Ford in 1908, cars hit cities like a tidal wave.  Cars are big and heavy and fast. They needed more space to move than the streets had, and they needed places to park. Starting in the 1920's, cities began to rebuild themselves to accommodate cars.

Peter D. Norton, in his Fighting Traffic (2011), goes through what happened in magisterial fashion. (I have reprised some of his arguments in Cars and Bikes - The Back Story.)

The reconstruction was managed by members of the new profession of traffic engineering, many of whom had gotten their start in municipal water departments. They effectively reported to the American car manufacturers and their allies. There were two key goals - a bigger pipe, and faster throughput.  The engineers knew how to move water, and they knew they needed a big pipe and high speeds to satisfy a demand that skyrocketed every year.

From this basic situation you get the Interstate Highway System, based on limited access, many lanes, and high speeds. This system actually works well out in the cornfields of Iowa. Drop it into a city that was designed in the seventeenth century, and there are problems.

It's not that you can't do interstates in the big city. Look at the Vine Street Expressway. I wish it were covered, and I wish the traffic volumes and number of crashes were lower, but you can do this. We could actually live with automobiles, if the car lobby were reasonable.

But what doesn't work is trying to turn local Philadelphia streets into fake interstates. And that's what's happening on 15th Street by City Hall.

The Nitty Gritty
Okay. I told you I would get to this, and here we are. Let's have a look at 15th Street by City Hall. The traffic engineers took one look at 15th Street, and they said "big pipe." I won't go through the history, but here's what's going on today.

Here are the feeders for the big pipe on 15th Street, which for out-of-town readers runs south past the west front of City Hall.

Let's start at the north, with the Vine Street Expressway. Both the eastbound and the westbound exits land you on 15th.

The Ben Franklin Parkway comes in by way of a little two-way section of Arch between 16th and 15th, just north of Love Park.

Arch Street between Broad and 15th, by the Municipal Services Building, is one-way westbound (we'll come back to that) and it also feeds 15th Street.

Just south of Arch, the 810-car garage under Love Park has an exit onto 15th.

At John F. Kennedy Boulevard, just south of the Municipal Services Building, Broad Street feeds into 15th by running around the northwest shoulder of City Hall.

And then Market Street butts into 15th on the west side of City Hall.

All this takes place in the space of five blocks.

I've written a bit about 15th Street by Love Park (for instance, Crossing 15th Street), so I'm going to limit myself to a comment on the intersection of 15th and Market.

Who thought it would be a good idea to have five lanes of traffic merge at a T intersection with another four lanes of traffic and then immediately split into three separate streams, flowing to 15th Street (south), Broad Street (south), and Market Street (east)?

The Furness Plan
This was a conscious decision. Previously there were two separate streets here - the street by the west side of City Hall, and then 15th Street. When Frank Furness designed the Broad Street Station, he preserved 15th Street by having it flow through the building. Here's his plan.

From James F. O'Gorman, The Architecture of Frank Furness (1973) p. 183.
The later arrival of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway created further issues, which I think have never been satisfactorily resolved. However, traffic on the Parkway has decreased since the construction of the Vine Street Expressway, and I think it should be possible to make things better in this area, provided people are open to new thinking.

A Different Approach
What happens if, instead of concentration and high speeds, we ask our street designers to look at diffusion and low speeds? In other words, let the grid do something it's good at.

Let's start with two easy ones.

Make the 1400 block of Arch two-way. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway ends at 16th and Arch. You can continue on to the 1500 block of Arch, north of Love Park, but then you are required to turn south on to 15th. Why can't you keep going east on Arch? Because it's one-way westbound from 15th east.

I think we should make Arch two-way down to Independence Mall at least. Then it could effectively serve as a distributor for the Ben Franklin Parkway east of Broad. But for now I'm happy to concentrate on the 1400 block, where we have some work to do.

I'm actually a fan of Vincent Kling's Municipal Services Building, but it does have some problems, not least of which is the remarkably self-indulgent porte-cochere on Arch Street, which takes up two traffic lanes and spawns a wide sidewalk that almost nobody uses.

Sidewalk and porte-cochere at Municipal Services Building.
I'd demolish this porte-cochere - it's actually a free-standing structure - and narrow the sidewalk and let motorists go both east and west on this block.

Close the Love Park garage exit on 15th. These exiting vehicles cause a lot of craziness as they try to move left - the lane they exit onto is a right-turn only lane. This block is currently hell on wheels for pedestrians and motorists alike. I'm amazed that people actually ride bicycles on this block, but they do. There's another perfectly adequate garage exit on Cherry Street.

Okay. Now for the heavy lifting.

Close 15th Street from JFK Boulevard to South Penn Square. In Vietnam there was a road that French soldiers called la rue sans joie, or the street without joy. Greta Garbo starred in a film of the same name in 1925.

Fifteenth Street west of City Hall is a street without joy. There's no fixing it, in my opinion. So we should close it and allow Dilworth Park to expand and occupy the whole space from City Hall to the Clothespin.

How you do this is a little complicated, so please bear with me.

Make Market Street two-way from 20th to 15th. It's already two-way west of 20th and east of City Hall. I don't know why it's one-way on this stretch. Make a nice turnaround circle at 15th Street.

Provide similar treatments for the stubs of 15th Street and South Penn Square that would provide access to the buildings on the southwest corner of this new plaza.

My brother points out that you could marry up South Penn Square, 15th Street, and Ranstead, which extends from 15th to 16th. I think this is a nice solution, although I prefer mine.

Market Street will no longer be a through street in Center City. However, if you think about it, neither Market nor Broad have really been through streets in Center City since at least 1871. We've just been pretending.

Make JFK Boulevard two-way for its full length. Currently it is two-way from 30th Street Station across the bridge to 20th Street, and then one-way westbound between 20th and City Hall. We need to reroute Market Street's eastbound through traffic to JFK Boulevard. Motorists could make this move out by 30th Street Station, or on the east side of the Schuylkill at 20th, 18th, or 16th.

With no traffic on the west side of City Hall, the streets on the north, east, and south sides of City Hall all need to become two-way.

Here's some of the upside. A motorist coming from 30th Street Station can run straight down JFK to the east side of City Hall, make a quick right and a quick left, and then continue on Market Street to the Arden Theater for a reprise of Sweeney Todd.

Similarly, a motorist coming down Broad Street to City Hall can make a few quick turns and again be on east Market headed to Christ Church, one of George Washington's hangouts in Old City.

Currently, a motorist coming down Broad who wants to go east on Market has to go around three-quarters of City Hall and brave some of the nastiest traffic in the city.

Use Roundabouts. I think a number of the intersections under discussion - for instance, the intersection of Broad with JFK on the north side of City Hall - would benefit from the addition of roundabouts. These are basically very small traffic circles. I've seen them in action. In my experience they slow traffic, encourage polite driving, and in general work very well.

It's a Lot of Work. What's the Payoff?
A walkable city. As the headline of this story says, transportation should not trump destination. We need to have a there there, when people get out of their cars or off the train or bus, or when they dismount from their bikes or just show up by walking, which is what I usually do. And the there should not just be inside. We need outdoor public spaces, and frankly Philadelphia does them very well. It just needs to do more.

Things seem to be headed in this direction. Recently there have been suggestions in New York City that it is finally time to close Times Square to cars. We'll see how that goes. So much depends on elections.

But I think the Schuylkill Banks in Philly show that it is possible to blend hard-core transportation with bucolic recreation in a way that is highly successful for both. The early plans for the Schuylkill Banks called for the rail lines by the river to go away, but they didn't. And so we have a riverbank park that is easily accessible across rail lines that carry volatile petroleum and smelly garbage, and after years of settling in, and many, many snarky conversations, and the construction of some pretty amazing blast walls, things seem to be going reasonably well.

I'm not saying it's nirvana, but I am saying this is the way of the future.

The two most successful Center City parks, aside from the Schuylkill Banks, are probably Rittenhouse Square and Fitler Square. Although they don't have the industrial challenges of the Banks, they do have to deal with cars, which is the issue up by City Hall. And the answer is, if you have a nice park with greenery and a water feature and benches and maybe a few statues that kids can climb on, and the park is accessible across streets that are not terrifying, and if the din of the car traffic is low enough to meld with other background noises, and if maybe you have a certain amount of programming, then you've probably got yourself a successful park.

I think we could have a very successful park filling the open space on the west side of City Hall. People will say, if you build it they won't come. This is Philadelphia, and of course people are going to say that. But I don't believe them.

Plaque located in the northern arcade of the Municipal Services Building. It commemorates the Reyburn Plaza Bandstand, which was demolished in 1962.

The maps reproduced in this story are from the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network.

See also Fixing Arch Street at Love ParkGordon Cullen and the Outdoor FloorLove Park Redesign: Why Are There Still Five Traffic Lanes on 16th StreetRichardson Dilworth, an Urbanist for the AgesRoad Diet by Love Park - a Natural Experiment.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Road Diet by Love Park - a Natural Experiment


16th Street, by Love Park.

Do you remember, way back in the design phase for Philadelphia's new Love Park, suggestions were made to expand the park's footprint to the west by eliminating the mandatory right-turn lane on 16th Street, which did not appear to be justified by existing traffic volumes? And we were told that all the existing lanes were necessary and removal of any lanes would cause the sky to fall? Or words to that effect.

Well, here's an interesting natural experiment: During construction, the right-turn lane has been closed and replaced by a pedestrian walkway. (The parking lane has been closed too, but the proposal was always to eliminate the traffic lane, not the parking lane.)

And, lo and behold, the sky has not fallen.

The same thing is going on to the south and east of the park, on 15th Street and JFK Boulevard.

15th Street.

JFK Boulevard.

Arch Street, north of the park, is unaffected.

I do need to comment a bit more about parking. There is an 810-space garage under Love Park. And there's plenty more parking just to the north. Let's look at the area between Broad and 17th - that's three blocks - and run up from Arch to the Vine Street Expressway - also three blocks. In those nine blocks there are additional off-street facilities with a combined capacity of more than 2,500.

Continued on-street parking in the immediate vicinity of Love Park doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The total on-street parking capacity is trivial compared to the off-street resources, but these curbside spots take up a lot of space in an area where space is at a premium. After all, Love Park is basically across the street from City Hall. This is a densely developed area.

Some of these on-street spots could be converted to loading zones, but I think the primary use of this real estate should be to make the area safer and friendlier for people who are not in cars. Expanding the footprint of Love Park would be at the top of my list. As currently configured, the park is still surrounded by oceans of asphalt teeming with cars. Crossing the street in this neighborhood can be a heart-stopping experience.

The garage below Love Park remains open during construction.

But some people are above parking in a garage.
See also Love Park Redesign: Why Are There Still Five Traffic Lanes on 16th Street? In addition, Love Park Garage: Close the 15th Street Exit and Crossing 15th Street.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Do We Secretly Want Ugly Cities and Dangerous Streets?

Fountain, Three Logan Square.
Roger Starr was a man of many opinions and several careers. Born in Manhattan, educated at Yale, Starr served in the OSS in World War II, then spent quite a few years running the family's barge business, developed an interest in housing, served New York City's Wagner, Lindsay, and Beame administrations in various housing roles, and eventually wound up writing editorials for the New York Times.

I hadn't thought about Starr for years. But then I was reading an old book by Bernard Rudofsky called Streets for People: A Primer for Americans (it was published in 1969), and I was almost at the end (page 340, to be exact), and there Roger was talking about a pedestrian street in Rotterdam called the Lijnbaan.

Starr finds that the Lijnbaan "is attractive, colorful, cheerful; I had looked forward to shopping there, but discovered that for me, something was missing; after a while, I concluded that I missed the tempo of traffic, the variety of shapes and colors of automobiles, trucks, taxicabs, motor cycles; instead of relief of having escaped from them, I found myself thinking that I was not in a city, but at a summer resort, a place in which, for all its charms I would not want to transact serious matters." (P. 340.)

I was sufficiently appalled by this quote that I decided to check the original source, just to be sure there was no mistake. I asked the Free Library to get its copy of The Living End (1966) out of storage - the process only took a couple of days - and when I got the book in hand I went straight to page 194. And there was the quote. No mistake.

(By the way, it appears that the paperback edition of this book travels under the title Urban Choices. The two titles share the subtitle The City and Its Critics.)

An Influential Gadfly
Starr was something of a gadfly in New York City planning circles. An occasional sparring partner for Jane Jacobs, his most famous comment was a 1976 proposal - at a time the city was confronting monumental problems - in which he suggested "planned shrinkage" for troubled areas like the South Bronx.

I see him as basically a defender of the status quo circa 1956. This status quo involved clearcutting of densely populated poor city neighborhoods for new housing and highways, something similar to what was going on in suburban areas, but there most of the population being displaced was cows.

This was a status quo which had only recently evolved, and for which the various downsides were only beginning to emerge. Key drivers were the federal housing acts of 1949 and 1954 and the interstate highway act of 1956.

Of course, if you want to knock a lot of stuff down, it helps to claim that what you're knocking down has no value. Pennsylvania Station in New York had been designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White and completed in 1910. The above-ground portions of the station were demolished starting in October 1963.

So here goes Roger: "Whether or not one admired its style (I did not), it was one of the city's most impressive structures. But what does one do with an impressive railroad station which has ceased to be of value as a railroad station? In a dying city one boards it up, and watches it become ruins; ultimately shepherds sit on its eroded columns and goats graze between the tracks. In a living city one first prostitutes it into a more efficient machine selling commuter and race track tickets, and then into an architectural billboard, hanging signs, kiosks, and booths from its Roman vaults. Finally, the day is reached when someone decides it is worth more as land than as structure, and down it comes to be replaced by an office building or a sports arena, or both." (P. 142.)

Why would you hang a kiosk or a booth from a ceiling? Sorry. Maybe they did. The real issue here is looking at an important public structure simply as a real-estate investment. And I think that's a significant subtext in Roger's story. He's a businessman, after all. And so he thinks, as so many businessmen do, that his method is the only method. And the only real question is, Does it pencil? How much money can we make on this deal?

And so an admittedly very tired structure got pulled down, and with it went not only a grand entrance to the city, but a space that allowed people to feel like people, instead of rats scurrying in a maze, which is what the current station feels like.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your Wharton MBA.

And it is widely accepted that the historical preservation movement began at Penn Station. Paris lost Les Halles in 1971, but by then people had started taking the past seriously; the Gare D'Orsay, slated for demolition in 1970, became instead the Musee d'Orsay, and Grand Central Terminal in New York was protected by a 1965 landmarks law. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of New York's landmark law in 1978. And in general, historic preservation in New York City has been aided by progressive expansion of the concept of air rights transfer.

Wrong side of history, Roger. Also a bit too much in love with your own prose.

Meanwhile, on the Street
As things go with buildings, so things go on the street. Starr just loves the way things are right now (that is 1956). He thinks a monomodal transportation system focused on the private automobile is just dandy (and I think that is probably one of the reasons why he had no interest in preserving a monument to the railroad age).

There are three primary flaws in car culture. They can be ameliorated, but they cannot be fixed. They are congestion, crashes, and air pollution.

Starr is actually pretty good on air pollution: "We do know, of course, that the automobiles may ultimately kill us all, unless a way is found to control the poisonous gases that come from their exhaust pipes." (P. 203.)

As for crashes, and the attendant death and injury, he simply doesn't mention them. It's not like traffic safety wasn't in the news. In 1966, the year The Living End was published, the U.S. Department of Transportation was created, and 50,000 people died in crashes. In 2015 the death toll was 35,000, and people didn't think that was very good.

And here's what he has to say about traffic jams. "I am not primarily troubled about the time wasted by drivers and passengers in private automobiles during rush hours; the decision to use their cars at rush hours, rather than public transit, is their own." (P. 200.)

There's more. He suggests that the car is America's last refuge for the rugged individualist. "The satisfaction is that each man at the wheel is master of his own destiny, captain of his own soul. On an objective scale it may be ridiculous that anyone should be reduced to inflating his amour propre by sitting at the wheel of an automobile wedged into a mass of other stalled machines. At the wheel of each sits another man feeling equally self-determined. But the absurdity makes the feeling no less real; on the contrary, the absurdity merely emphasizes how few are the occasions in modern life when one has the opportunity to exercise that individual control and individual choice which the philosophers of democracy and the sellers of soap agree are the most import attributes of free men." (Pp. 189-190.) (See also Rugged Individualism: From Daniel Boone to Barack Obama.)

But that's not my favorite quote. Here he is making a rather odd comparison between modern architecture and automobiles: "From a distance, the modern commercial office structural machine, its glass sparkling in the sunlight, provides something of the artistic splendor of a new automobile. Yet the automobile, poised to conquer and control the world, is more magnetic." (P. 155.)

In case you were wondering, yes, Roger Starr is a car groupie.

How Do You Begin to Fight This?
Roger Starr's defense of the status quo is so broad that it puts me in mind of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, who thought that everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds. To which Bernard Rudofsky replies, Well, there are other possible worlds, and it's just possible that they're better.

Rudofsky's Streets for People: A Primer for Americans, is a lovely palette cleanser. It starts with the two ideas that streets should be clean and well made, then takes us on a bracing tour of Italian hills towns, North African souks, Greek islands, Rome for its fountains, Milan for its Galleria, bridges in London and Paris that aren't there anymore. Porticoes, canopies - imagine walking outside and being protected from the rain.

Perhaps this book is not as important as Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) or Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker (1974). But still it's a valuable addition to the bookshelf, and it came at an opportune time, in the late sixties, when people were beginning to be more open to new approaches in many aspects of American life.

Yes, our streets don't have to look the way they do. What is here is neither inevitable nor irremediable. There are options - good options.

Rudofsky's book is obviously very different from Starr's. They do, however, have one thing in common. I read them both pretty carefully, and as far as I can tell, neither one ever uses the word bicycle. I think it's a sign of how far we've come.

Fountains and Pools
Rudofsky is a great fan of the fountains of Rome, and speaks lovingly of the Piazza Navona, regaling us with tales of how, in the days before air conditioning, the whole piazza would be flooded to a depth of several feet, and the gentry would ride around splashily in their carriages to combat the summer heat (p. 296).

He basically accuses Americans of not doing water features, and this may have been a valid criticism of New York City, where he lived after emigrating from Europe. But I wish he had come to Philadelphia, where in certain sections of town I think we do water very well.

There's the Ben Franklin Parkway of course, with the statue of George Washington at Eakins Oval standing in a pool of water; the Swann Memorial Fountain at Logan Circle by Alexander Stirling Calder; and the new water feature in Love Park, which will replace the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial Fountain. In the parkway's neighborhood you have the water feature at Dilworth Park, the fountain and the children's water park at Sister Cities Park; reflecting pools at the Rodin Museum and the Barnes Foundation. There are also water features at One Logan and Three Logan Square. Then there are the water features in Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square, the fountain in Fitler Square. Even in South Philly there is the Singing Fountain on the triangle formed by East Passyunk and 11th, just north of Tasker. I'll stop here.

No I won't. There's another triangle further up East Passyunk, where it crosses 6th and also Christian. It's currently vacant; I've heard there are plans to build on it. I can envision, because of the shape of the site, that a creative architect might have fun designing a pizza shop for the space, but I really think it should be a neighborhood fountain.

The Schuylkill Banks
I think the very best of our recently created water features is the Schuylkill Banks. Getting it built was a long process, and, having read Starr, I think I have a better understanding of why. It has to do with what President George H.W. Bush referred to as "the vision thing." It's just possible that important people couldn't wrap their minds around the idea that you actually could build a park in a disused industrial area cut off from the inland by a working railway line. The best they could imagine was replacing an urban wasteland with a traffic sewer, which of course is what happened across the river with the Schuylkill Expressway.

I have to go back to Roger Starr on this: "I can hardly think of a large city whose cargo-handling waterfront is laid out so that its pedestrians can visit it with impunity. If automobile highways do not cut them off, then railways do, carrying freight to and from the piers. If, unfortunately, there are no railways, heavy trucking performs the same office." (P. 187.)

Having a little trouble envisioning a post-industrial city. And yet it got done, here in Philadelphia.

Fifty Years On
It's roughly fifty years since the Starr and Rudofsky books were published. So how are we doing? Cars still dominate the streets, and landmarks still get the wrecking ball. But there is no longer unanimous consent, and the objectors are often quite vocal, if not always effective, and it seems that the constituency for reimagining the streets, at least, is growing.

Some developers are starting to see that you can make good money by reworking old buildings instead of knocking them down. And it appears that the highway lobby is weakening, at least partially because all those people who were lured to the suburbs report that the daily drive into work, and back home again, is easily the least pleasant part of their day.

There are still plenty of developers whose reflex is to create a brickyard and move on from there. And there are still plenty of powerful streets engineers who insist on having a lane or two beyond what current or foreseen traffic requires, "just in case."

But I think the real problem lies not with the lobbyists or the bureaucrats, but with our political leadership. And that leads me to my final question. What do the members of the Philadelphia City Council actually think about the future of cars and moldy old buildings? Are they still mired back in 1956, with Roger Starr, or has their thinking evolved?

I have no idea how to extract candid answers to this question. But I think it's an important question.

And here's the plaza at Three Logan.
See also Gordon Cullen and the Outdoor Floor, Richardson Dilworth, an Urbanist for the Ages, This Isn't Just Any Alley.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Intermittently Terrifying

Slate has a nice story about this picture.
I find bicycling in Philadelphia to be intermittently terrifying. I know that our streets are not actually a war zone. I've read the statistics, and I understand that the chance of my dying on a bike is smaller than when I walk to the grocery store.

But it doesn't feel that way. I've had my eye out for some actual data on this topic, and on April 4 help arrived from England.

Peter Walker has a simply nifty new book entitled How Cycling Can Save the World. He's a writer for a very good English newspaper called the Guardian, and he regularly covers biking issues. (He also worked as a bicycle messenger shortly after getting out of college, in both London and Sydney, Australia.) I suspect that this book will become one of the standard texts for people interested in reimagining our public spaces, along with Jeff Speck's Walkable City. It's aimed at the general reader, but it's also crammed with the latest research results.

The Near Miss Project
Those research results include a 2015 British study called The Near Miss Project that neatly fills the gap between crash data and our perceptions of danger.

The study was led by Dr. Rachel Aldred, who teaches at Westminster University, which is located in London. She and her colleagues recruited 1,532 participants from across the UK. The participants kept a diary of their cycling on a preselected day and rated any incidents on a scale of 0-3, starting with annoying and ending up with very scary.

According to the researchers, the data from the Near Miss Project "can represent a missing link between 'perceived risk' (how risky people think cycling is) and 'objective risk' (how risky it actually is, in terms of injuries and/or deaths). This is because they may tell us about 'experienced risk' - how risky cycling feels. Studying experienced risk could help us understand why perceived risk seems much greater than objective risk." (From the report entitled Cycling Near Misses, page 6.)

And indeed experienced risk does deepen our understanding. The researchers calculated that a cyclist was likely to encounter one "very scary" incident every week.

Drivers do thuggish things to bicyclists on a regular basis. And we now have the data to prove it.

So my personal perceptions were not overblown. It really is scary out there. If, once a week, you find yourself inches away from turning into road kill, then I think you have a legitimate beef. (For examples of life on the road in the UK, see this article in the Guardian.)

Control Bias, Familiarity Bias
As the Near Miss researchers suggested above, there is a suspicion that bicyclists have been overreacting. If you look at fatality rates rather than absolute numbers of fatalities, you will probably be less inclined to see overreaction. But I concede that it's a subtle argument. And standard psychology suggests that it's reasonable to at least look for overreaction.

In 2012 John Pucher and Ralph Buehler pulled articles together from 21 scholars on four continents and put them out as a book called City Cycling. There's a very interesting chapter on women and bicycling.

I was quite taken with how normal psychological processes may increase the perception of danger. "In particular," the authors note, "familiarity bias and control bias may reduce the perceived risks associated with car travel and increase the perceived risks for cycling." People tend to like things that are familiar and over which they feel a sense of control.

When you're riding a bike in traffic with cars, you are not in control. Of course a network of protected bike lanes would increase bicyclists' sense of control and decrease the perception of danger.

The familiarity argument is, to me, less straightforward. The basic idea is that if you do something more often, you become more familiar with it, and with familiarity comes a rising comfort level.

I think Dr. Aldred's data can lead us to a different view - one where regular exposure to very scary incidents can lead to a major increase in the fear factor.

Once again, however, a network of protected bike lanes would significantly decrease the ability of motorists to create "very scary" incidents with bicyclists, and bicyclists would tend to become more comfortable as they used the lanes more.

(See Jan Garrard, Susan Handy, and Jennifer Dill, "Women and Cycling," in John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, eds., City Cycling, MIT Press, 2012, pp. 211-234, at 225.)

Choosing Our Future
As I've said before, I personally think that a network of protected bike lanes could quintuple the number of people bicycling in Philadelphia.

But do we, as a city, really want to do that? I'm not at all sure.

Such an increase in bicycling would change the city dramatically - and I would argue that the changes would be good. But others, I fear, are clinging to the failed dream of the car. Detached house, a car or two in the driveway, picket fence. But no traffic jams, no deadly crashes, no smog. They're not part of the dream. Of course they are part of our reality today.

If you're still clinging to the dream of the car, you need to make the connection between your car's tailpipe and the asthma inhaler in your child's pocket. You need to stop dreaming, or at least recognize the nightmarish aspects of your dream.

And I think that's going to be a stretch for a number of people, some of them quite powerful.

See also A Sense of Perspective, Death as an Acceptable Outcome, Vision Zero in PhiladelphiaWe Should Not Overestimate the Driving Skills of the Typical Philadelphia Motorist, Zombie Arguments in Bike Safety.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Citizens of the Planet


University of Pennsylvania, 1984.
Long before the current wave of globalization, there was something called the British Empire. Britannia ruled the waves and also quite a lot of the land - from Australia to India (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) and something called Mesopotamia (the Brits called it Messpot; we call it Iraq), through huge swaths of Africa and on to Canada in the western hemisphere (next to the thirteen colonies that got away).

Inside this rather capacious grab-bag of an empire, people got used to moving around. And it wasn't just upper-class Englishmen who had this global mobility. Mohandas Gandhi, born and raised in western India, studied law at the Inner Temple in London and worked as a lawyer in South Africa for 21 years before he went home and became known the world over as Mahatma.

Fast-forward to Groundhog Day 2017, Dilworth Park, Philadelphia. There I was, standing with a couple of thousand mostly young people, mostly Comcast tech employees. And they were from all over the planet. They were a cheerful bunch, actually, but they weren't very happy about the first Muslim ban, which had hit a few days before. And I said to myself, I think Donald has just organized a whole new political constituency, and it's not on his side.

It wasn't just the recent arrivals who blew me away. There was a young man who said he was Irish-American; his family had come here generations ago, and his grandfather had fought in Normandy in World War II, to protect our freedoms. And he suggested that it was now time for all of us here today to fight to protect those same freedoms.

Closing the country down is an interesting proposition when just about everybody in the country came from somewhere else.

The people I was standing with weren't the typical immigrants that Americans are used to. The classic view of migration is the movement of poor people to a new area of greater opportunity - the huddled masses and wretched refuse trope, as encapsulated in the Emma Lazarus inscription at the Statue of Liberty. The people I was standing with are well educated, affluent, connected, and not accustomed to being treated like dirt.

This is what Steve Bannon ran into at the nation's airports when he started treating people with valid papers like dirt. And he didn't know it was coming. Shame on him for being ignorant. It seems he's like his boss in that regard.

But let's get back to what I occasionally call the globally mobile business class. I admire them, but I'm not like them. The biggest move I ever made was from New York City to Philadelphia. The idea of moving to another country is, I confess, something I have never considered seriously.

The globally mobile are just that - globally mobile. Migration for them is not a one-way trip to a fixed destination. An Indian computer programmer may go to the United States to work. She may wind up settling permanently in the United States. Or she may return to India, where her experience could make her a good candidate for a management job and increasing levels of responsibility. Or she might decide to relocate to Hong Kong. Or, during the course of her career, she may do all three.

Their mental map spans the globe. Mine, frankly, does not.

My father was actually better at this moving-around stuff than I am. He was born in southern Alabama before World War I and moved to New York City to go to medical school. And there he stayed, put down roots, and had a family, including, in due course, me.

Dad wasn't exactly globally mobile. But he did go home quite often. Sometimes all of us would go. Sometimes he would go by himself. He maintained those connections.

Here's a word of advice to Donald and his aspiring thugs. If you want to be a popular president, don't tell a young man he can't go visit his mother.

College Hall, University of Pennsylvania, 1985.
I'm reliably informed that the Greek inscription on the 1878 Ivy Day stone above may be translated as "Not to live, but to live well." Thanks to Ashley Opalka and Emily Marston.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

$50 for 31 Minutes? Surreal Parking on Schuylkill Avenue


I stumbled onto the opening day of the new CHOP building next to the South Street bridge - March 20 - and then I hadn't been back until today. Progress, of a sort, had been made. There's an open-air parking lot on Schuylkill Avenue that is apparently open to the public. The first 30 minutes are free. Then 30 minutes to 24 hours cost $50.

Okay.

Who are these people?

Stop, Bill. Just report.

Here's a picture of the main building. I rather like it.


And here's the entrance to the garage that opens onto the South Street bridge.


It was open on March 20, but when I went by today, April 2, it was closed.


Not sure what's up with that. Here's what I think is the Schuylkill Avenue entrance.


If it's open, I think you get to it by going through the same entrance that gets you to the open-air lot.

Just to round out the story, here's some of the retail up on the bridge.


Here are the switch-back ramps on CHOP's version of the Spanish Steps. I think it will look nice when it's done. Have no idea how people will use it.


And here's the bridge across the railroad tracks to the Schuylkill Banks.


Here's a shot of the interior of the bridge.


And here's a view of the Schuylkill Banks extension under construction.


And that's what I have so far.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Legacy Street Signs


Have a look at this street sign at Waverly and 19th. I know. It's seen better days. But still it gives me the thought that we lost something when we handed the signage over to the car guys.

The big green signs we see everywhere come from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or MUTCD. I think I have a problem with MUTCD, or at least with the way it's applied in Philadelphia.

I don't mean to be unkind, really. The green signs are supposed to be visible, and dear God they are that. And I gather they're reasonably inexpensive.

But they're also an invasive species. In much of Philadelphia, they have nothing to do with their surroundings. Don't get me wrong. I think these signs do great out on the Interstates, which is their native habitat. But in the older parts of Philly, let's just say they aren't great respecters of context.

Up in New York City, in the historical districts, they at least make the street name signs a pleasant rust brown, which goes well with all the brownstone buildings they have up there.

My thought for Philly is that maybe we don't need so many of these big green signs.

An option
There are other ways of doing street signs. There's that slender little pole on Waverly, with its equally non-aggressive sign. Philly still does street signs like this. Here's one just off of Rittenhouse Square.


The skinny signs have the merit of not getting in the way of the view, the way the big ones do. This is nice when you're admiring architecture, and it's also nice when you're looking for a restaurant.


I still think I would prefer rust brown to the green.

And it's also true that the skinny little street signs are not going to solve all our problems. Here we are at Waverly and 17th.


The utility wires are a definite buzz kill. You'll notice they're buried up around Rittenhouse Square. But I digress. There are a fair number of these skinny signs in the Rittenhouse area, but in my opinion there could be more.

A Second Idea
Here's a second idea. Say you've had the thought that a lot of sidewalks seem overly cluttered with street furniture - traffic signs, parking signs, parking meters, utility poles and wires, fire hydrants. Hold on. Let's keep the fire hydrants. And the bus shelters. But it does seem true that stuff keeps getting added, and hardly anything seems to go away.

Well, you could put the sign with the street name on a nearby building. Here's a nice one on Ringgold Place, which replaces Waverly at 19th. The building you're looking at was built around 1862. Note the period after the word place.


Below is a much less ambitious sign. It says S. 19th St. This is at Waverly, quite close to the pole sign at the beginning of this story. I really like the blue with the white lettering. Gets the point across without being annoying. Works well with red brick.


And here is some rather elegant signage at 17th and Addison. An old Bell Telephone building.


Here we are at the Curtis Institute, back up on Rittenhouse Square.



People are still doing this. Below is a corner of the new Schwartz-Siegel building at The Philadelphia School, Naudain and 25th.


My thought is, if there's existing signage, maybe we don't need to put up the green signs.

Think about it. The motorists who turn down these streets generally know where they're going, and frankly these are very low traffic streets. I often enjoy walking up the middle of them for blocks at a time, without encountering a single moving car.

So maybe we should treat them as the byways that they are - and should be. More discreet signage, on a more human scale and more respectful of context, would still be able to to guide pedestrians and confused motorists, who as an added benefit would probably have to slow down to read these signs.

Think for a minute about the visitor from Kansas or New Jersey as he's tromping up 18th Street somewhat in excess of the speed limit, late for a meeting and looking for Pine Street. Better to discourage him from turning on Addison or Waverly by not marking these streets as if they were part of the Interstate Highway System.

And then our streets could be just a little bit more about art, and finesse, and a little bit less about the roar of 18-wheelers.

Imagine. A hierarchy of signs for a hierarchy of streets.

Just a thought.

See also Alleys, A Tale of Three Alleys, My New Favorite Alley, This Isn't Just Any Alley.