Archive | June 2010

Bumping the Back-up Plan: Making Walking and Biking Your Plan ‘A’

In my last post, I mentioned that a better future commute involves getting to work via transit, particularly light rail. While rail is a good solution for those living further out from the Central Business District (or from wherever their places of employment happen to be), others living near their jobs have an option that is not only less expensive than rail travel, but healthier.

Walking and biking to work has been shown to have tremendous benefits, particularly for a culture that’s growing ever more horizontal. According to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, this type of physical activity can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and can also improve mental health, among other things.

Sure, there are many reasons why non-motorized transportation is impractical today in most places. For starters, our cities are designed around the almighty car—or more accurately, to accommodate large trucks and emergency vehicles at high speeds. As roads get wider to withstand the growth in vehicular traffic, they become less friendly to anyone unprotected by gobs of steel and sheet metal. Sidewalks have narrowed or disappeared altogether, and bike lanes have become the strip of pavement where we store our broken glass, random debris, and parked cars—that is, if a bike lane exists at all.

And, when the above is coupled with unpredictable weather patterns to contend with, it’s easy to say “forget it” and grab the keys. But when proper pedestrian and bike infrastructure are combined with bus and rail options in a comprehensive multi-modal transportation strategy, owning a car becomes not just unnecessary, but undesirable.

What about long-distance travel or other trips that simply are not feasible without a car? As part of a robust transportation plan, neighborhoods would include car-sharing programs that are easy and cheap to use, and car rental companies would realign their marketing and pricing strategies to embrace this new market. If cities were better designed to foster pedestrian/bike access, the costs of “using” a car would be significantly lower than owning one. According to The Auto Channel the average cost of ownership* for a typical mid-size sedan is over $35,000. Even if you used a Car2Go or ZipCar vehicle for one full day per week, as an example, you would spend less than half that amount in 5 years! If that’s not enough incentive, may I remind you of all the oil changes you could avoid, or the number of tires you’d never have to buy?

What might it take for you to consider walking or biking to work?

*The average cost of ownership is defined as the amount to cover depreciation, fees & taxes, financing, fuel, insurance, and repairs & maintenance during the first 5 years of ownership. This was calculated for 2010 model year Ford Fusion SE, Honda Accord LX, Toyota Camry LE, and Chevrolet Malibu LT vehicles.


The Future Commute: Which Would You Choose?

Waco is fortunate in that its reality doesn’t look like the first scenario above. Most residents here might gloat about not having to wait at a red light more than twice and almost never dealing with stop-and-go traffic. I am one of those lucky ones now, though it was not always that way for me. I once worked in a Rockville, Maryland furniture store, commuting about two hours a day for a job that didn’t pay nearly enough to justify the “Beltway Blues.” Day after day, thousands spend mornings and afternoons on the D.C. Beltway, inching their way to their destinations, sacrificing precious time with their families, time for themselves, and quite possibly their health. And that grind looks sadly familiar in urban areas across the country.

Waco isn’t far behind, though. It may seem hard for residents to swallow, but the area is growing steadily, and its population is expected to surge in the next 40-50 years. Where will all those people go? My prediction is that up to half of that growth will occur downtown as demand for the urban lifestyle continues upward. And, I don’t know about you, but the second scenario above is much more appealing to me than simply following suit with Washington, Seattle, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

To leave my car and its costs behind is a dream I share with many out there. However, making that dream a reality seems far-fetched unless certain things change:

1. Housing must be convenient to transit options.
2. Work must be convenient to transit options.
3. Essential services must be convenient to transit options.
4. A backup plan must be available at any time.
5. The transit options must be affordable, comfortable, and safe.

What would a neighborhood look like if those conditions existed?

Imagine this: you leave your office and cross the street to the new downtown grocery store to pick up ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Because you scanned your groceries using your smart phone, checking out is a breeze, which means you can catch the 5:30 train that boards directly outside the doors of the grocery store. A 10-minute train ride takes you to a stop that is adjacent to a row of brownstones, one of which is your home. By 5:45, you’ve got dinner on the stove, and by 7:15 you’re back on the train to catch the 7:40 showing of that movie you’ve been dying to watch. By 10:00 you’re back in the front door of your home, comforted knowing that there’s no car payment to worry about, no car insurance to keep active, and no stopping at the gas pump necessary. Now, how does that sound?

Oh, Suburbia, how you have failed me.

This past weekend my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting several houses on the Parade of Homes tour here in Waco. In typical Texas fashion, the homes were large, with grand entrances, high ceilings, loads of stone and cedar, and garages resembling a small parking lot. In spite of their super-sized McMansionism, though, I was impressed with the unique character that a few of the homes had. Some builders included thoughtful touches that we could see incorporating into our future dream house. What won’t be incorporated, surely, are the footprints (and carbon footprints) they leave.

Most notably, the majority of the homes on the route were located in a typical suburban subdivision, as if that were a prerequisite for entry in the Parade. Though the houses were architecturally interesting, none were located in a neighborhood where I’d actually want to live. The neighborhoods either lacked services and amenities that would be practical for residents, or they were simply too far away from anyplace useful. Roads were wide and trees sparse, yet, throughout the literature readers will find proud descriptions of all the features that make their homes greener than the competition. I’m sorry, but spray foam insulation and Energy Star-rated appliances alone do not make a house green.

As I have begun reflecting on the current situation in the Gulf region, I am reminded of our mortality as a culture. I mean, the way we are going about our daily lives simply cannot remain as it is. Environmentally, economically, and relationally, the status quo must change. As a future planner and developer, I feel a personal responsibility to treat our planet the way God intended; that is, to be good stewards of our land. While we continue to push the envelope, engineering new ways to deplete our resources more quickly, I can’t help but sense that there is another way.

I posed a question about the oil spill on my new favorite planning site, and was both encouraged and saddened by some of the responses (which you can read in full here). When I asked how those in the profession believe the oil spill would affect the planning of our cities and regions in the long-term, some felt the same burden I do, believing we should join the post-crude crusade. Others plainly suggested that only the fanatical environmentalists would change.

Though a hopeless optimist, I understand the reality of our existence in the sense that we must take from the land. It is most practical to build homes of wood in our economy. Owning a car is a practical need for most of us. And, sometimes the chemicals we’ve developed as a society are just plain necessary to keeping us healthy. But, as a people, we should feel compelled to question what’s in the products on our shelves, what exactly we’re putting in our bodies, and why we need to live where we do. Why do we subject ourselves to living in a 4,000 square foot house that we use one-third of, sited on an acre of land we rarely play on? Why do we pave 50-foot wide roadways for a neighborhood of only 50 homes, then wonder why flooding is a problem? And, more, do we enjoy these places any more than our ancestors did, in homes one-fourth the size? Do we really think that driving everywhere is better than what could be?

Sure, the field of planning may primarily focus on the built environment; after all, we interact with it 24 hours a day. But, planning means considering every area of life itself, accounting not for how we live today, but how we might live tomorrow if only we were given the chance.

Where We Left Off:

When writer’s block strikes, there is simply no predicting how long it will last. And, before you know it, you realize your last blog post was over a year ago! I guess when life gets busy with weddings (including your own), a new job, studying for the GRE, and simply doing life, blogging tends to fall by the wayside. Nevertheless, I feel like I have been sharpened within that year. Since beginning my job with the City of Waco last September, I’ve honed in on what fuels me most: the city.

I’ve always been enthralled with cities—the architecture, the landscape, the sounds, the food, the people. As a child I imagined creating my own city from nothing, picturing its beauty, its activity. As an undergrad at Maryland, taking urban studies courses excited me and stirred my thinking more than any of my architecture or psychology classes did.

Since arriving in Waco nearly two years ago, my love for cities has grown even more deeply. I’ve been studying Downtown Waco, learning its strengths and weaknesses, dreaming up projects for vacant or underutilized land, reimagining the layouts of its streets, and attending meetings in hopes that others have caught the same bug for this city. And, some have.

In just two years, many projects have cropped up within Waco’s downtown boundaries. The condos in Austin Avenue Flats have opened and fully leased, the Heritage Quarters student housing project has completed, the Roosevelt Building was renovated and reopened with class-A office space, the old Waco High School was converted to affordable lofts, and new restaurants and bars are getting a fresh start here. The convention center renovations are in full swing, as is the construction of Hotel Indigo, which has promised to be one of the most unique and modern hotels in town. The urban fabric is being restored in a truly fascinating way.

So, what does this all mean? My desire to be involved, to share my gifts, to offer my love for the city to the city, has brought me to a crossroads of sorts. I have begun the pursuit toward graduate school for urban/community planning. The thought of immersing myself in planning courses and design studios gives me something to look forward to. The thought of a career that allows me to turn these visions into reality is just amazing. To me, this is the most natural next step, and I can’t wait to dig in.

As I’ve been spending my time thinking about how to improve not only Waco but other cities, I’ve had this feeling that I should share those things here. So, in my future posts I will discuss some of those things I’ve come up with. I hope you enjoy them and are challenged and inspired by them the way I have been. Here’s to Downtown…