Monday, January 30, 2012

Social & Economic Exchange - Failing Both

As I wrote last week, the city and therefore the subset of its streets are meant to facilitate social and economic exchange. Ideally, this should be accomplished as cost and energy effectively as possible, for both the public sector providing that platform of infrastructure as well as private individuals seeking to meet their daily needs and wants (social and economic exchange) similarly as efficient.

As I also wrote last week, the manner in which we plan, design, and fund our transportation network badly fails in facilitating social exchange utilizing the work of Donald Appleyard. So that is one of the two-parts where we are failing. But what about economic exchange? When do streets perform better?

Our friends at Fortworthology and the Near Southside in Fort Worth tell us that sales receipts are up over 500% on Magnolia Avenue since the installation of bike lanes and bike parking along the street. The significance isn't so much about the addition of bicycle infrastructure and that all of a sudden bikes appear, but that the narrowing of traffic lanes, the slowing of traffic, the increase in both pedestrian and bicycle activity, creates a true center of gravity.

The main street of any neighborhood is its energy source, so to speak. If the energy "current" is moving too fast, it will be repulsive. When you slow that energy, you create a literal attractive environment, where people attract more people. It is a case of "traffic" being a net positive rather than car-only traffic which is rather universally seen as a negative. At the very best, a push-pull tension exists where the traffic is desirable for business but the mode of traffic instills a defensive posture to the buildings and their uses. Think of traffic like cholesterol. There is good and bad traffic. Bad traffic is car-only, inhuman. In a way, this is always forced traffic. Onto certain roads, in certain types of machines (cars). It isn't natural, nor is it authentic. It is also dangerous, noisy, and spatially consumptive.

Last year, sales receipts numbered about $2 million worth. This year, that number is up over $10 million. That is some return on less than $100,000 in infrastructure, yet the manner in which it was planned and designed is opposite that of the conventional modus operandi for both traffic planners as well as economic development, which adhere to a bastardized version of Keynesianism where road expansion = growth. Bigger isn't better. Better is better. Smarter is better. Legitimate grids where choice in mode and route is built into the system and the actors can be smart, making their own choices appropriate to their needs.

The outward expansion due to road expansion fools us into thinking it is growth. If it is a growth, it metastasizes like a cancer cell, feeding off the host organism. At best it is cannibalistic.

We get to this broken system in two ways, which I've spelled out a million times. One is the thoroughfare plans, federally mandated, with financial incentives for bigger roads. Meaning, cities get more money for having bigger roads. The irony is that they get more money upfront for construction projects, yet hurt their overall economy long-term. The second way, road expansion is encouraged is by the conventional formulae and projections used by traffic planners, mostly just as a supposedly objective justification to accomplish the previous money grab, to show numbers suggesting a bigger road is necessary.

These formulae are based on speed. Magnolia moves too slowly for them. They grade it an F, maybe a D if we're lucky. And meanwhile, it facilitates social and economic exchange better than just about any road in the entire metroplex. The city, as a system, cares nowt for speed, but efficiency, mostly thru time and energy. When things start moving fast, the city becomes spatially stretched, everything is further apart. Because longer distance movement is easier. The response is perfectly rational. The goals however are not.

However, in terms of the way cities are actually meant to function, Magnolia gets an A+ for both social and economic facilitation. And you begin to see why the entire system is profoundly broken, that the logical city is the exception to the rule, not the rule. Only when it becomes the rule, and we plan, design, and finance public infrastructure at the level of the urban network to achieve the specific goals of facilitating social and economic interaction, which eventually bears itself through increased opportunity for local business, embedded within more complete neighborhoods, will the market deliver the kind of cities that work for people.