Thursday, September 9, 2010

Top Reasons for No Car Free Neighborhoods in US?

The excellent blog maintained by Neil Takemoto of CoolTownStudios has a new post listing the top reasons for no car-free neighborhoods in the U.S. These include:
1. No developer has the guts,
2. The market hasn't demanded it as a market,
3. It's illegal in the U.S. to have a car-free neighborhood,
4. The internet is still relatively new,
5. Our financial markets aren't designed for the scale.
While I generally agree with the reasons, I think the post needs to be recalibrated. I'm not sure we ever need fully car-free areas like Venice or other tight, often medieval portions of European or Middle-eastern cities, or legislate against cars to the point where they are verboten. All we need is to prioritize the pedestrian, the human, the person, the mother, the children, and everything else will take care of itself.

By the way, yesterday in Plano, a resident said, "when I get home from my commute the last thing I want is to get into my car again to go somewhere. I want to be able to walk to services, events, parks, etc." That was an overarching theme in the workshop about the 12th street station and South Downtown Plano area, the citizens and stakeholders wanted more walkability, more safety from high speed traffic, and more of the kind of development that downtown Plano has been so successful with fostering.

There must be about 7 small renovation/new restaurant projects going on in downtown Plano. Figure out parking, design for the human-scale, and investment follows. It is pretty simple.

Which reminds me of the Observer post on Jack Gosnell of UCR-Urban being tabbed to recruit retail for the public sector. Gosnell, of course, has been recruiting retail downtown for years privately, since he manages most of the space downtown. And I like Gosnell, but of course he said, "downtown needs retail."

However, I question 1) the direction this pursuit might lead, and 2) the accuracy of the statement. Second part first: downtown actually has a lot of retail. I'd be interested to know the ratio of retail to residents within the downtown loop. Does that not make sense? There is no retail alive at the street, you say? As we know, it is all underground. As a wild guess, we probably have 3 times the retail that downtown really needs. Because it is so over-supplied, it all closes at 5 pm, if not 2 pm, after the office lunch crowd.

Now first part, second: pursuing retail always leads to wasteful spending and subsidies. The businesses come in, use up the subsidy then close down. Retail follows rooftops, aka people. Investment follows people. Design for people. Three blocks of Main Street are the truest urban place in all of Dallas. It works. The formula is right and the pedestrian has priority. You can jaywalk. I'm not encouraging it, but it indicates a place safe enough for the pedestrian to cross where they please. It is a level-3 "bonded" or tethered street, which maximizes synergies from one-side to the other, aka cross-shopping.

Here is what to do as simply as I can possibly put it:
  1. Close the tunnels over time. Amortize them much like I am hearing is being proposed with surface parking in downtown (huzzah! The kind of leadership we need is being shown!). Offer carrots for the first to go, cluster them to ensure success. The last to go, close the doors and turn on the hoses. I'm kidding. But I might not be kidding about converting the tunnels into a "Vice City" with legalized gambling, drugs, and prostitution. Hell, the Convention Center Hotel already looks like a Vegas Casino without the fun. It all happens anyway, why not localize it into our very own "Hamsterdam." What we puritanically want to keep below the surface, is literally below the surface.
  2. Continue the slow and eventual conversion of all downtown streets toward pedestrianization begun with the two-way conversions. We need more narrowings and "road diets" as well. If these street calmings are all downtown, how much does it really slow commute times? Thirty seconds? Oh well. Price you pay for a vibrant, safe downtown.