CNU London Transportation Summit Notes

Since I'm living in Europe this year, what better time to attend the CNU Transportation Summit in London? I am a Fulbright Scholar studying sustainable urban planning at the Berlin Technical University and active member of the Next Generation of New Urbanists. Here are my reflections on the summit.

Day One
Street Design Guidelines

What do the countries do differently when creating street design guidelines? Plenty. The comparison of the U.S. CNU-ITE Context Sensitive Street Design Guidelines Manual, the U.K. Manual for Streets and the Australian Livable Neighborhoods Design Code and Policy, provided a thought-provoking contrast.

One of the most interesting things about the CNU-ITE guidelines is how they were shaped by the negotiated process. There is the FHWA’s requested chapter 11 that has all street options for everything not-urban. (Not exactly context sensitive). The things that are needed for future development for the CNU-ITE guidelines include networks, modeling, residential streets & alleys and green streets. The last one caught my eye, as I think it will be interesting to see how the idea of “green streets” moves forward parallel to LEED-ND. Streets are thought of as a functional place to collect stormwater, but with an expanded role as a place to retain and purify stormwater then urban streets may be challenged to new levels.

In Andy Cameron’s presentation on the U.K guidelines, he had a good quote on streets, “Good streets need to be like a good relationship.” There is always inherent tension between modes but yet they can and do exist together well.

The Australian guidelines provided an interesting contrast in process with the U.S. approach. The Australian guidelines where shaped by as a clear manifestation of clear principles, resulting in a more consistent approach than the CNU-ITE process that was a negotiated compromise between different sets of principles. Another great idea from the Australian guidelines is the “Integrator Arterial.” Yes, it is an arterial (easy to understand the function and place in the order) but it has completely different land usage than the “Divider Arterial.” So yes, the Integrator Arterial connects both sides of the street as offers a pedestrian friendly crossing between sections of the neighborhoods. And the Divider Arterial is the standard suburban road that no one can cross, which is discouraged by the guidelines. Overall review of the Integrator Arterial: easy to use, understand and incorporate. We need to keep using that term.

Congestion Charging

Since congestion charging began, transit and bicycle use is up and car use is down in the center of London. Some of the key things noted that were important to the initiative’s success included the strong leadership, radical measures, increased funding for walking & cycling and 300 extra buses.

How it works: cameras check license plates to see if you have paid online (or maybe elsewhere?) or are otherwise exempt. On a side note, I learned that there are many cameras around London that check to make sure that people aren’t speeding – apparently that is not illegal here although it has been ruled unconstitutional in Minneapolis (although the city is appealing the decision now). The city has total gross revenue from fees and fines of £213 million, less operating expenses of £90 million for total net revenue of £123 million. While that is a mere drop in the bucket of their streetscape improvement pot of £6 billion (60% from transit fares and 40% from “government funding”), it still is a good positive net gain.

The influence of trying to have a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions was another factor in driving the plan. They are seeking to reduce the 42% car mode share down to 30% in the future. Challenging, perhaps, but doable. Since people are sitting in traffic less, they reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted while idling. Some of the benefits of emissions related congestion charging include an increased awareness of vehicle emissions, awareness of the impact of individual choices on the environmental, modal switching and a change in automobile fleet composition.

It was noted that while central London has good public transport, other areas aren’t well served and it would be difficult to switch modes. Additionally, it was noted that London needs significant extra public transport – 40%. Wow, that’s a lot by American standards.

Kensington High Street Tour

The tour of High Street was a new perspective for me. One of the main goals of the project was to simplify the streetscape – reducing the amount of visual street clutter by decreasing the number of street fences, bollards, street markings, sidewalk pavement types, benches, trash cans, etc. From my experience, this was a new approach to me. When I was working as an urban designer on mostly suburban new “downtown” sites, adding visual clutter was one of the things we focused on.

We spent time doing preference surveys on types of matching light poles, benches, trash cans and planter boxes to try to get neighborhoods excited about adding that to their local “main street,” so it looked a little less bleak and desolate. With some new streetscape improvements often came more restaurants with outdoor seating (encouragement of that was also often adopted with the streetscape improvements), outdoor displays and indeed the pedestrian experience was often improved if only by some small details.

While the reduction of visual clutter ran counter to my thoughts about streetscape planning, it made sense in context. As my eyes followed the action on High Street, there was more to absorb than I could possibly take in. Every shop front had a store with a big display from H&M to lingerie shops to electronics, all light up and tantalizing. The street was full of people on the sidewalk and cars and buses in the roadway. Traffic count numbers were 2,000 cars per hour for the street and 3,000 people near the Tube station. Space not used for bollards and fences could be filled up easily with people. And to top it off was three to five story ornate Victorian architecture full of curly-cues, patterned brick and complicated rooflines. Considering how much was happening here, reducing street “décor” made sense – it provided visual relief to potential visual overload.

I think perhaps this may be a unique problem for the area and I don’t think it’s going to be happening for a while in most American cities. If only we could get enough shops and people on the street that the visual clutter needed to be reduced – now that would be a nice problem to have.

Day Two
Roads: Technical and Theoretical Ideas

The first part of second day gave me some food for thought about why we build roads the way we do from a technical and theoretical standpoint. Lucinda Gibson’s presentation looked at the analysis of the Washingon DOT’s conclusions for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which found that the increased travel projected by the DOT was not a result of the actual model but rather an adjustment made by the engineers. The model actually showed no significant change in travel and also didn’t take transit into account properly. But as she concluded, the EIS process is developed using raw data with selected data used to support the desired conclusions and then presented as an “analytical” process.

The new paradigm for urban street design that was presented by Yodan Rofe included an interesting discussion of the multi-way boulevard that can move an equivalent amount of traffic as an arterial street while also allowing access and pedestrian activity at commercial and residential uses. The key to these boulevards is that the pedestrian realm needs to be used, with at least 50 percent dedicated towards the pedestrian realm. The section of the boulevard presented had a central section for through traffic (two auto and one transit lane each way with a central median) and a local section separated by a median with one lane of auto travel and another lane for on-street parking on each side. This type of boulevard has 54 intersection conflicts where one car meets another which is not acceptable with conventional engineering but can create a better urban street.

Transport, Urbanism, Climate Change

The second part of the day was about transportation, urbanism and climate change. Both Norman Garrick and Hank Dittmar used the phrase “the convenient remedy for the inconvenient truth,” referring to the change of transport and land use to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Some interesting facts from Norman Garrick: the amount of transportation energy that the US uses per capita is 2 – 3 times other countries. From a 1995 statistic, US cities use 220 percent more gas per capita than European cities. Of that difference, vehicle technology accounts for about 30 percent and the other 70 percent results from mode choice and vehicle miles traveled. So even if the US would have very efficient cars, there still needs to be a mode shift away from auto use AND a reduction of miles traveled in order to achieve substantial reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

So how can this be done? Urbanism - that provides more transit, walking and bicycling options along with connectivity that reduces the distance from one place to another.

Hank Dittmar questioned the goals of congestion charging; whether relieving congestion should be the appropriate goal or if encouraging a mode shift is a better goal. Another study he mentioned correlated residential density, access to transport and block size with energy or gas use (I need to find this study before I reference it again). However, the point that changing these urban design factors can change our environmental impact is important.

The best new study of the conference came from Shelley Poticha. This study correlates the type of urban pattern with per capita carbon emissions. Daily VMT was slightly higher than daily per capita carbon emissions for each neighborhood type. And sprawling areas had the highest per capita carbon emissions (surprise, surprise), followed by TND; infill; good transit only; mixed-use TOD; mixed-use & mixed income TOD, etc., etc. This was the most compelling case I have seen for changing our urban form yet.

And for Jackie Grimshaw’s proposal influence the national transportation agenda, tying climate incentives to value proposals, well, I couldn’t agree more. When SAFETEA-LU is up for reauthorization (or a new bill?), it has the potential to change funding formulas so that they require projects to address climate change. I think is an important issue that needs to be addressed in the coming year; however a lot of work needs to be done to see that this happens.

Day Three
Poundbury Tour

Walking through Poundbury, the quality of the building materials struck me as did the traditional architectural style. The buildings were built to last and truly do look like they are from another era. Most of the streets were very small and narrow, with one curb not quite parallel to the one on the other side of the street. This leads to an interesting feeling of expanding and contracting space as you move through the space.

I find it interesting that Poundbury took a different approach to roads than some of the other presentations. The auto, bicycle and pedestrian traffic volumes of Poundbury are quite low - going mostly around the development itself and over to the small town center of Dorchester, so the streets were able to be very small and carefully designed. Poundbury has a few buses and some bicyclists; I did not see many bicycle facilities available. While this model may be applicable for a residential neighborhood, it does not include a viable system of mass mobility that a large metro area needs to get from one side to another in a reasonable amount of time is vital to its residents.

I asked about the stormwater management at the site. For the first phases that were built over 5 years ago, it was a basic curb and gutter system. The Upton phase which occurred after the introduction of SUDS (sustainable urban drainage systems) did implement some of the SUDS practices; however that was not part of our tour. Poundbury had some small pockets of greenery along with about a foot or so between the sidewalk and most of the houses for some plants. Overall, there were not a lot of trees in Poundbury and it kept mostly to an urban hardscape. Our tour guide said Leon Kreier’s philosophy is to keep a distinct separation between city and country, with the buildings, the stones, the roads within the town and the natural plant life outside of the city. Whether you agree or disagree with this philosophy, I personally would have liked to see some more trees – they clean the air, provide shade in summer and add beauty.

As Rick Hall commented, Poundbury had a lot of things in its favor that allowed it to be built as it did (e.g. a Prince). But Poundbury certainly has a sense of place like none other – it is the most unique new development I have seen in quite some time.

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