April 19, 2006

Rush Hour, By the Numbers

Sorry to be so Seattle-centric...but this post about Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct got me thinking. If the Viaduct is closed--whether for construction of a tunnel or a new aerial highway, or to make way for green space and a surface street--what happens to rush hour?  Does traffic in downtown Seattle get hopelessly snarled, and stay that way for at least 3 years?  Or do city transportation have some reasonable options for keeping people moving through the downtown core, even without a Viaduct?

Traffic studies show that the Viaduct carries about 105,000 daily trips. But most of those trips are at off-peak times when the surface streets have plenty of extra capacity. Sure, a trip along the Viaduct-less corridor would take a little longer than it does now; but the steet grid could easily handle the load.

But at rush hour -- particularly the afternoon -- there's precious little extra capacity on the city streets. So the thorniest problem that traffic planners will have to face will be accomodating rush hour trips on the street grid and I-5, during the busiest part of the day.

So, how many trips is that, exactly? And what are the options for dealing with the added load?

Earlier this week, the helpful and responsive folks at the Seattle Department of Transportation sent me some data that may help shed some light. As far as I can tell, it boils down to this: without the Viaduct, transportation planners will have to figure out how to accomodate the equivalent of 11,000 rush-hour car trips through the busiest part of downtown. Can they do it?

First, the data. (Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs if you're not a traffic geek.) Each year, the city collects data on traffic flows on the major arterials around Seattle, including the Viaduct and its on- and off-ramps. The data include figures for average weekday traffic, plus the traffic volume during the one-hour morning and afternoon peaks. Based on those figures, it seems like there are about 12,000 total vehicle trips on the Viaduct during busiest one-hour afternoon rush hour peak.

Now, without a Viaduct, some of those peak-hour trips will take quite a bit longer -- so people will shift their trips to other times of day, other modes, or forego them altogether. Based on published estimates of how much an increase in travel time decreases travel demand, it looks like demand for car trips may drop from 12,000 trips to 10,000 during the afternoon peak hour.

But some of those trips already begin or end in the Pioneer Square-to-Belltown corridor. A car that currently gets on at the Belltown northbound exit may have travelled through Belltown or downtown. So the peak number of cars added to surface streets after the Viaduct is closed will be somewhat less than 10,000.

To get a finer-grained look at where the traffic problems might be most severe, you can break down the trips on the former viaduct corridor into zones--Belltown, Downtown Core, Pioneer Square/Stadium, etc.--and look at the actual increase in travel demand in each zone. To me, it seems that the real pinch occurs in the Downtown Core--roughly, from Yesler in the south through Stewart in the north, and Alaskan Way on the west through Boren on the east. That area is already pretty packed during rush hour. With no Viaduct, peak-hour travel demand will increase by somewhere between 6,100 and 7,200 trips. (Note, this is a somewhat conservative estimate -- I'm assuming that some former Viaduct trips will "disappear"--i.e., move to other times or destinations--because they'll take too long; but I'm not assuming the same for trips already on the surface streets.)

So that's the one-hour peak. Over the course of a rush hour that lasts at least an hour and a half, that means that transportation officials will have to worry about accomodating the demand for some 11,000 addtional trips in the busiest part of downtown, during the busiest part of the day.

So, 11,000 extra trips: is that a lot or a little? It's a lot less than 105,000. But in my mind, it's still a lot of trips. The existing street grid may be able to hold a few more cars than it currently does. Some tweaks to traffic enforcement ("don't block the box"), elimination of some street parking during rush hour, and so forth may increase throughput a bit more. Still, even with those improvements, the demand for 11,000 extra trips could really jam up the afternoon rush hour. Even if people eventually adjust to the congestion -- by changing schedules or jobs, or switching to transit -- the early months could be brutal.

But if you add in transit improvements, accomodating 11,000 downtown trips seems much more achievable. The bus system already carries 31,000 people out of downtown during the afternoon peak. So getting 11,000 people to shift from driving alone to the bus would boost rush-hour transit ridership by a little more than a third -- tough, maybe, but not inconceivable.

And in theory, at least, there's ample capacity to handle that many trips in the bus tunnel, which is now closed for service. Once the tunnel reopens, it will be able to handle about 9,000 rush hour trips that right now are travelling on Third Ave. And when light rail starts running through the tunnel, its capacity could grow by a third or more. (To my surprise, it seems that the tunnel may have been underutilized; one estimate, a few years old now, is that the tunnel could carry 18,000 trips per hour (scroll down a bit to find the claim), with everyone seated, in buses alone. If that's really possible, then the tunnel alone would be meet the post-Viaduct demand.)

And then there's Third Ave., which is currently closed to cars during rush hour. If Third reverts to being predominantly a car corridor, it'll handle at most 2,000 vehicle trips during rush hour. But if it's kept closed to cars, and is used to handle an extended bus schedule, it can handle at least three times as many passengers.

So, there are three options -- (1) surface street and traffic enforcement tweaks, (2) adding light rail to the bus tunnel, and (3) keeping Third Ave. as a bus-only street even after the bus tunnel opens -- that could accomodate most, if not all, of the added demand for rush hour trips. If those options are phased in, as the Viaduct is phased out of service, it could be that many folks wouldn't notice much of a change to their afternoon commutes.

Yes, it would be tough to get people out of their cars onto transit. But if city officials have their way -- and the Viaduct is closed for reconstruction -- they won't have much choice but to try. There really aren't many other options.

And, as I've said before -- if a combination of transit and street improvements can keep downtown traffic moving, or at least bearable, for a mimimum of three years, why not see if they'll work as a permanent solution? Why spend billions of dollars to fix a problem that the city's already solved?

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Sims Gets On The Bus

Bus_1Is it a miracle? Can it really be so? Did I just read about a transportation plan that's actually useful and affordable? That can happen soon but also has long-term benefits?

I'm stunned by King County Exec Ron Sims' proposal to increase the sales tax to fund better bus service. For an additional 1/10th of a penny per dollar, Sims believes the county can drastically improve bus service--increasing the frequency and speed of routes and adding capacity to boot. (The Seattle Times reports; the P-I editorializes in favor.)

I have no idea what prompted Sims' outburst of sanity. These days, Puget Sound residents are accustomed to pony up for outlandish schemes of miracle monorails, glammed-out streetcars, multi-billion dollar tunnels, and vast highway expansion measures. (Not to mention problem-plagued light rail, the one transit option that's almost a reality.) Buses, on the other hand, are not especially sexy and they don't come with big-ticket political bragging rights. They're just staid, effective, flexible, and affordable. And--oh yes--they're already working so well that they're over-subscribed, at least in the city.

So on the upside, Sims' bus boosting proposal will improve mobility in the near future. On the downside, it doesn't promise flying saucers or citizen jet-packs, and it doesn't come with a flock of crazy-eyed proponents. (I do have a non-humorous quibble; but more on that later...)

Improving bus service is critical to the continued health of Seattle and the rest of King County too because it makes density work. As the region's density increases it should be able to leverage ever more viable transit--with more people in a neighborhood, it makes sense to run more buses, more often.

This morning as I was shuffling onto the 28 Express--a double-length bus crammed so full that we were standing in the aisles the entire length of the coach and crowding up near the driver--I wondered for the billionth time when Metro would start running twice as many buses. I also wondered why I wasn't on my bicycle. And I wondered whether I should drive more often. I'll bet my not-especially-dense Ballard neighborhood could fill double the buses, especially as more frequent departures tapped latent demand. And as nearly every week reveals new townhouses going up in formerly low-density lots, and condos rising along busy corridors, I wonder if we couldn't fill triple the buses.

So I'm all for Sims' bus proposal. All for it. I just hope that it doesn't get swamped by the headline-grabbers like the Alaska Way Viaduct tunnel, the regional transportation improvement ticket that voters will see this autumn, and all the other kooky multi-billion dollar career-makers. I'm hoping that local leaders--and local voters--remember that bus service works and it's a bargain.

Now a quibble. Why sales taxes? Most King County residents are already paying 8.8 percent and sales taxes are regressive, falling hardest on those who can least afford them. That's a problem, I think, in a county that's struggling with affordability issues. (Admittedly, some of that regressivity is mitigated because the higher taxes pay for bus service, which is especially important to lower income folks.) Wouldn't a better way to fund buses be something ingenious like a fee or tax based on the value of cars. Something more or less exactly like the monorail fee? *

* Yes, I know that such a tax/fee would require enabling legislation from Olympia. Enable it already. It has a host of benefits: it's progressive (because owners of more expensive cars pay more), it's nicely symmetrical (because it provides an incentive to switch from car to transit), and it's deductible from federal income taxes. It's also potentially localizable, meaning that your car tab renewal fee could pay for transit in your neighborhood. If West Seattle gets drastically better bus service, then West Seattle car owners could pay the bill. But if you live in Duvall and don't see many buses anyway, your fee could be proportionally lower. In any case, it would probably be far, far cheaper than the current monorail fee that's just about to expire.

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April 13, 2006

Brazilian Whacks

It's interesting to see what Jaime Lerner -- the legendary mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, who created a world-class bus rapid transit system on a shoestring budget -- had to say about Seattle transportation, in a question-and-answer session with the Seattle P-I:

Is there a way to create dedicated bus lanes in a cramped city like Seattle?

"There are many ways, many corridors where you can have a really good system. ... Sometimes you think, 'Aaah we don't have enough space.' ... There's always a good solution."

How long does it typically take to set up a bus rapid transit system?

"You can build in two years a good system. It's not difficult, because it has not too much public works. It's very simple.

I tend to agree: bus rapid transit is far more viable than most people think.  It's cheaper, faster to deploy, and more flexible than rail.  Now that Seattle's monorail has been - uh - derailed, it's a solution that's worth considering for the corridor that the monorail was designed to serve.

And then there's this:

Some people say that if the viaduct were replaced with nothing but a surface road, heavy traffic along the waterfront would ruin it. Do you agree?

"If you provide good alternatives for public transport, you won't have traffic problems. ... Can you imagine how much better the city could become with 30 percent less of the cars running in the street? It's very easy. The main issue is having good public transport and after, if it's needed, the wall to protect the waterfront -- I don't have the answer to that. But definitely it's not the viaduct."

Seems as if the P-I editorial board may be inching towards the same conclusion.

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Mossback's Catch-22

Another week, another anti-city screed from the Seattle Weekly's Knute Berger. There's lots to pick apart in this week's column by "Mossback," but I'll restrain myself.

According to Berger, increasing density won't address sprawl on the urban fringe because:

Big growth in downtown Seattle won't be a sponge for regional growth. In fact, it will likely drive additional growth in the region—just look at the San Francisco Bay Area, which has sprawled endlessly despite San Francisco's higher densities and incomes. A Seattle boom will generate more sprawl and more density, in part because we don't have the strict growth controls in place to truly limit it.

Berger's argument is a lovely compliment to sprawl industry flaks whose mantra is: we can't have growth controls because there's nowhere to build in the cities. But Berger doesn't want density because the growth controls aren't strong enough. No density without growth controls; no growth controls with density. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle.

The obvious solution that Berger overlooks is that increasing density can indeed help corral sprawl. Can density solve the problem all by itself? Of course not. Does that mean density is worthless for controlling sprawl? Again, of course not. Growth boundaries on the urban fringe are important too; and so is smart planning. (That is, density is a necessary condition of growth management, but it's not a sufficient one.)

Definitive proof that density reduces sprawl is hard to come by, but I can get close.

Check out this report, using Census data to track growth in 14 US cities during the 1990s. The cities that do best at controlling sprawl are also the ones boosting their density. Take Portland, Oregon. If Portland had grown like a typical city in the study--that is, if newcomers to Portland had spread out in the typical low-density fashion--the Rose City would have swallowed an additional 150 square miles of rural land. How did Portland spare so many farms and forests? A paired combination of density and growth boundaries. Seattle--with weaker growth controls during the period and anti-density Bergers in the mix--did worse than Portland, but not nearly so badly as places like Charlotte or Nashville.

Berger's argument is, in any case, weirdly perverse. He implies that density will actually speed growth into the Seattle region because--why?--people find density appealing? If people like density enough to move here, I suppose one strategy to prevent growth would be to outlaw density. Or we could try a massive urban uglification campaign, perhaps driving away current residents to boot. Even easier, we could just get rid of cops and fire departments and see how the region grows then. That'll show 'em. 

Truth is, I actually agree with Berger sometimes. I just wish he would stick to making claims he can support instead of getting carried away (see here and here, for instance). He's right to caution against damaging Seattle's historic and architectural legacy. And he's right to remind us, in a general way, to preserve the best of the old while we build for the future. But ranting about paying for parking (in urban neighborhoods, fer gosh sakes!) or "privatizing" sunlight by permitting skyscrapers (no, I'm not making that up) sounds less like civic smarts and more like incoherent ranting.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

April 07, 2006

Say It Ain't So, Joe

I picked up a copy of the March issue of Seattle Magazine the other day, and happened across an article (print only, I'm afraid) by the estimable Joe Follansbee.  The article claims that Seattle suffers from an inferiority complex:  whenever Seattle residents compare their home town with Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC, they always decide that Seattle comes up short. Follansbee argues that Seattle should just learn to love itself just as it is, rather than falling victim to sibling rivalry.

Interesting enough idea.  But there's one thing that sticks in my craw:  in trying to puncture the reputation of neighboring cities, Follansbee claims that Portland has an unusally low number of children, compared with its neighboring metropolises:

Portland's downtown Pearl District, hailed as the embodiment of "smart growth"...had only three more children living there in 2000 than in 1990, according to demographers.  What's "smart" about a city without children?

Do we [i.e., Seattle] want to be like Portland, childless and..."proper"?

Enough already! This factoid--that Portland is devoid of tykes--is simply false. It doesn't even pass the 5 minute Google test; that is, it takes less than five minutes of web searching to see that it doesn't hold water.  And yet, it's a theme I hear again and again in discussions of Portland and smart growth generally.

It's high time to roast this chestnut.

As it turns out, what's true for Portland's Pearl District -- that there aren't many children -- doesn't hold true for the rest of Portland.  Take a look at the Census Bureau's Portland "quick facts." As of the last Census count, 21.1 percent of the city's residents were children under the age of 18, compared with 24.7 for Oregon as a whole. 

So the city does have fewer children than the state as a whole, by 3.6 percentage points.  But take a look at the Seattle "quick facts."  Minors account for just 15.6 percent of the city's population.  In comparison, Portland is teeming with kids -- 40 percent more, measured per capita, than in Seattle.  And the gap between Seattle and the whole of Washington is 10 percentage points -- nearly 3 times wider than the gap between Portland and Oregon.

So it makes absolutely no sense -- none -- to ask whether Seattle wants to be "childless" like Portland.

Admittedly, Portland has fewer kids than many US cities.  But it's pretty much on par with Denver and Minneapolis, has a few more kids per capita than Pittsburgh, and far more than San Francisco (where under-18-year-olds are just 14.5 percent of the population).  In Vancouver, BC -- often held up as an exemplar of family-friendly urbanity -- children under 18 made up only 15.5 16.6 percent of the population in 2001. 

Diving into the Vancouver numbers a bit deeper, it seems that there's no major part of Vancouver -- not downtown, not the west side, not even the semi-suburban south end -- that has a kids-to-population ratio that's as high as in Portland.  And the kid-to-population gap between Vancouver and the whole of BC is wider than for Portland and the whole of Oregon.  Vancouver's denser neighborhoods have a reputation for having lots of kids, and in large part they do -- but only because they have lots of people, period.  As a share of the population, though, Portland has far more kids than "kid-friendly" Vancouver.

I'm sure this post won't put an end to the urban legend of Portland's childlessness (although it may perpetuate the impression that there aren't many kids in the Northwest's other major cities).  But I hope it helps.

On a deeper level, I'm puzzled by all the hand-wringing about childless cities.  As of the last census, families with children comprised less than one in three Northwest households.  And the number of childless households is growing for good reasons.  We're having kids later in life, and fewer of them -- largely because of better educational and job opportunities for women.  Plus we're living longer, so seniors are making up a far larger share of the population than they used to.  For the large and growing number of childless households, urban living has a strong appeal -- they're the ones who appear to be flocking to housing in dense urban centers.  So to the extent that the trends towards "childless cities" is real, it's largely driven by demographic changes that we'd be foolish to want to reverse.

What do the angst-ridden commentators lamenting the lack of children downtown want people to do? Have kids even if they'd prefer not to? Die before they get a chance to down-nest?  Move their families to urban condos in order to save some single-family detached houses for hipsters?  Help me out here, folks.

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Parking Paradigm Shift?

Parking_meter_000000040193 Editor’s note: This post was contributed by Todd Litman, author of “Parking Management Best Practices," and founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. For more information see his free summary report (pdf), Parking Management: Strategies, Evaluation and Planning.

A great example of the maxim “no free lunch” is the common struggle over parking. Motorists often assume that parking should be abundant and free at nearly every destination, and any deviation from this is considered a problem that must be solved by developers (who are forced to construct ever larger parking facilities when building or upgrading buildings) and governments (who are forced to provide subsidized public parking).

But—as noted in these three recent Planetizen op-eds (and previously in this blog), none of this parking is really free. We all pay double through higher rents, higher prices, higher taxes, increased traffic problems and sprawl. These practices are also inequitable since they force non-drivers to subsidize parking costs, reduce travel options for non-drivers, and reduce housing affordability.

The good news is that a fundamental shift in parking planning is gaining momentum. Communities and planners are beginning to adopt the “no free lunch” approach to parking. They’re developing policies and programs—called parking management--that use parking resources more efficiently. And they’re reaping benefits ranging from more-vibrant downtowns to more-affordable housing to a greater variety of transit options.

Here are some examples of successful programs.

Downtown Pasadena Redevelopment: During the 1970s Old Pasadena’s downtown had become run down, with many derelict and abandoned buildings and few customers, in part due to the limited parking available to customers. Curb parking was restricted to two-hour duration but many employees simply parked in the most convenient, on-street spaces and moved their vehicles several times each day. The city proposed pricing on-street parking as a way to increase turnover and make parking available to customers. Many local merchants originally opposed the idea. As a compromise, city officials agreed to dedicate all revenues to public improvements that make the downtown more attractive. A Parking Meter Zone (PMZ) was established within which parking was priced and revenues were invested.

With this proviso, the merchants agreed to the proposal. They began to see parking meters in a new way: as a way to fund the projects and services that directly benefit their customers and businesses. The city formed a PMZ advisory board consisting of business and property owners, which recommended parking policies and set spending priorities for the meter revenues. Investments included new street furniture and trees, more police patrols, better street lighting, more street and sidewalk cleaning, pedestrian improvements, and marketing.

This created a “virtuous cycle” in which parking revenue funded community improvements that attracted more visitors which increased the parking revenue, allowing further improvements. This resulted in extensive redevelopment of buildings, new businesses and residential development. Parking is no longer a problem for customers, who can almost always find a convenient space. Local sales tax revenues have increased far faster than in other shopping districts with lower parking rates, and nearby malls that offer free customer parking. This indicates that charging market rate for parking with revenues dedicated to local improvements can be an effective way to support urban redevelopment.

Tri-Met Parking Management in Portland: The Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District, which manages transportation in the Portland, Oregon area, has implemented various parking management strategies around transit stations to minimize costs and support transit-oriented development.

These include:

  • Sharing parking with Park & Ride and other types of land uses, including apartments, churches, movie theaters and government buildings near transit stations.
  • Using lower minimum parking requirements around transit stations.
  • Allowing Park & Ride capacity near transit stations to be reduced if the land is used for transit-oriented development, thus allowing walking and bike trips to replace car trips.

More Accurate Parking Requirements in Vancouver: Vancouver, British Columbia, is developing a more flexible approach to parking requirements for multi-family dwellings to support efficient transportation, smart growth and housing affordability objectives. The program is loosely based on the LEED TM Green building rating system. Developers receive credits for reducing the number of parking stalls, providing parking spaces for carshare vehicles, and providing annual transit passes to building occupants.

Rich Sorro Commons, San Francisco, California (USEPA, 2006): Rich Sorro Commons is a mixed-use project with 100 affordable units and approximately 10,000 square feet of ground floor retail. Conventional standards would require 130 to 190 parking spaces for such a building, but it was constructed with only 85 parking spaces, due to proximity to high-quality public transit services, the provision of two carshare parking spaces in the building, and the fact that the building provides affordable housing, with tenants who are less likely to own a car.

Reduced parking supply freed up space for a childcare center and more ground-level retail stores. Just 17 avoided spaces allows the project to generate $132,000 in additional annual revenues (300 square feet per space at $25.80 per square foot in rent), making housing more affordable. Two carshare vehicles are available to residents, giving them access to a car without the costs of ownership – a particularly important benefit for low-income households.

Austin Parking Benefit District: Many neighborhoods experience parking spillover problems, including difficulty finding parking for residents and visitors, concerns that public service vehicles cannot pass two lanes of parked vehicles on the street, or that parking on the street reduces neighborhood attractiveness. These problems become an opportunity with the establishment of a Parking Benefit District (PBD) A PBD is created by metering the on-street parking (either with pay stations on the periphery of the neighborhood or with the traditional parking meters) and dedicating the revenue, minus City expenses for maintenance and enforcement, towards improvements in the neighborhood that promote walking, cycling and transit use, such as sidewalks, curb ramps, and bicycle lanes. Charging for parking and promoting alternatives reduces parking in neighborhoods and helps fund neighborhood benefits. The PBD may be used in conjunction with a Residential Permit Parking program to ensure that parking is available for residents and their visitors.

Using Parking Revenue to Support Transit in Boulder: Faced with a shortage of parking for customers, Boulder, Colorado. developed a program to encourage downtown employees to use alternative commute modes. In 1993, Boulder’s City Council mandated restricted downtown parking and appealed for parking demand management for the city’s commuters. The Central Area General Improvement District (CAGID), made up of many of downtown’s 700 businesses, responded to the Boulder City Council’s demands by creating a system using revenue from downtown parking meters to pay for free bus passes. The passes are provided for all of the district’s 7,500 employees, and cost $500,000 each year. The City of Boulder offers deeply discounted Eco-Passes to businesses outside the CAGID, and to residents, and encourages walking and bicycling. The program has changed travel behavior, freeing up valuable customer parking spaces and reducing parking costs, congestion, accidents and pollution emissions.

  • Employee carpooling increased from 35% in 1993 to 47% in 1997.
  • The district’s employees require 850 fewer parking spaces.
  • More available parking has increased retail activity in downtown Boulder.

Although individual parking management strategies often have modest impacts, typically reducing parking requirements by just 5-15%, their effects are cumulative. A cost-effective, integrated parking management program can often reduce parking requirements by 20-40%, while improving user convenience and helping to achieve other planning objectives, such as supporting more compact development, encouraging use of alternative modes, and increasing development affordability. This can increase profits and help address a wide range of transportation and land use problems.

P.S. For more information, see VTPI’s summary report, Parking Management: Strategies, Evaluation and Planning

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April 05, 2006

One Mile from Home

(Editor's note: See the two other posts in the walkability series, "Carless in Seattle" and "Dead Man Walking.")

Burley_compressed_1Last week, I displayed the wreckage of our 1986 stationwagon; this week, its replacement: our 1996 Burley stroller/bike trailer. (It’s Cascadia-made in Eugene, Oregon.)

The kids have long-since outgrown the thing. But since we decided to experiment in car-less living, we’ve resurrected it to haul groceries, library books, and (recently) a broken vacuum cleaner.

The Burley’s range is only as far as you want to push it. And for my family, that limit seems to be about one mile. Less than a mile is a comfortable walk; more is a burden. (To extend the range, we can fit the Burley to a bicycle—on which, more another day.)

A one-mile perimeter, therefore, defines this car-less family’s pedestrian travel zone—call it our “walkshed.” Fortunately, because we chose to live in a compact community, our walkshed turns out to be well stocked.

We can stroll to scores of shops and services—248 to be precise. I know because I counted. You can, too, in less than 60 seconds. I’ll tell you how in a moment.

Sunset_bowlAmong the establishments in our domain are a bowling alley, a produce stand, a movie theater, and a hardware store, plus public institutions such as our post office, swimming pool, farmers’ market, and skate park (new and very cool!).

We’ve got pairs of independent booksellers, thrift stores (we know them well), and bakeries (ditto). Three pharmacies, three yoga studios, and three video stores offer us medication, meditation, and mesmerization, respectively. Five grocers and six dry cleaners compete for our appetites and our wrinkles. Nine barbers eye our locks. Dozens of specialty shops hawk their curiosities in the range of our Burley: one sells only flags, another only gifts from Norway, a third only old magazines.

True coffee houses number six, only one of them a Starbucks (which, because it's so low, may be the most surprising number in this tally). Restaurants? We’re provisioned with 54! (And there are 151 within two miles: we’ll walk farther for great eating.)

Two neighborhood ice creameries are counteracted by an astonishing 42 dentists (none of them covered by our insurance, sadly). Two local smoke shops are outnumbered by an even more astounding 74 doctors (again, not covered by our insurance). And then there’s our one neighborhood orthodontist: he has straightened or is straightening all three of our kids’ teeth, for which we've paid him enough to buy three used Volvos or most of a new Prius.

I should perhaps note that, despite these large counts, we do not live downtown. Far from it—-in fact, five miles from it. Our neighborhood of Ballard is a typical streetcar community developed largely in the 1920s and replicated in every North American city of similar age.

I should also probably note that our neighborhood is definitely not Mayberry. It's got 44 auto shops, 10 taverns, and a liquor store. Oh, plus two sex-toy shops and two strip clubs. (Or so the signs say -- I’ve never been inside. I swear.)

All of these counts I did in my head or using the yellow pages, and you can do the same for your home if you live in the United States. (4/10 Update: This tool is really only reliable in states where Qwest offers local phone service. Elsewhere, the count is incomplete. Here's a map of their area. Tip of the hat to Joseph W., in comments, for this catch.)

Here’s how:

To get a fairly complete count of businesses (in Qwest's 14 states), go to this Qwest online phone directory, select the business listings, type “all” in the category field, click “near a street address,” type in your address, and choose “1 mile.” (Sorry, Canadians, I have yet to find a .ca that performs this trick.) If you’re lucky and the database gods are smiling on you (the site is temperamental), Qwest will promptly reveal how many businesses there are within a one-mile walk of your front door. Call this your Walkshed Index, your Burley Score.

Ours, as I said, is 248. There are two hundred and forty eight places where my family can do business within a mile of home, not counting public facilities. That number is not remarkably high: the walkshed index at my downtown office address is 6,623. Nor is it remarkably low: one suburban family I know has a score of 0. But it means that living car-free is more viable for us than it would be for many families.

What’s the Burley Score where you live?

P.S. More than one quarter of car trips in the United States are shorter than one mile, as we noted in Seven Wonders. One quarter!

P.P.S. Realtors provide detailed information to prospective home buyers on schools and resale values. They could as easily report the Walkshed Index-—high scores translate into thousands of dollars of potential savings in fuel and car payments.

P.P.P.S. According to one map-making friend, creating walkshed maps and yellow pages would be a relatively simple Google Maps “Mash Up.” Anyone know of such a tool? Anyone volunteer to do this project? I’d love to have a detailed map stowed in the “glove box” of our Burley of all 248 businesses in my home zone. (I can get close with the Qwest online directory, plus the cool mapping tools at Map24, Google Local, and Windows Live Local. But these tools are designed for car drivers, not walkers.) Ideally, I would want a walking map or PDA application that shows me the whereabouts of public restrooms, water fountains, bike racks, curb cuts, bus stops, and benches. Besides, the Qwest tool is clunky and imprecise. (My total score of 248 is inexplicably less than the sum of all the categories of establishments listed above!)

UPDATE: A reader points out (in comments) that Canada411.ca will calculate a metric version of the Burley Score. Leave "category" blank, choose 1 or 2 kilometers, enter your address, and you're set. I calculated a 2-kilometer Walkshed Index of almost 7,000 for  an address in Vancouver's West End.

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March 31, 2006

Surface With A Smile?

I wouldn't call it momentum, exactly, but there seems to have been a bit of movement on the idea of replacing Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct with a surface boulevard -- a modestly-priced alternative to an aerial rebuild or tunnel. Now, just to be clear, I'm still not convinced that this is an ideal solution. Transportation is complicated, and while other US cities that have removed downtown highways (San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Portland) have never suffered the gridlock that skeptics predicted, the unique layout of Seattle's traffic corridors, industrial areas, and job centers might mean that losing the Viaduct's capacity would create nightmare rush hours for people working (and living) downtown.

Except there's this:  the current plans for the tunnel and aerial rebuild already assume that the city can make do without the Viaduct for three to four years.  That's how long it will take between the moment the existing structure is closed for demolition, and the new one is open for traffic.

Now, I've heard plenty of people argue that traffic will come to a standstill if the Viaduct is replaced by a surface boulevard.  But I've never heard anyone from the city or state admit that their prefered options will do the exact same thing, for at least three years.

So either: a) transportation officials aren't being up-front about this -- and the replacement options have a hidden downside that nobody's talking about publicly; or b) they don't think it's really all that much of a problem, and that they'll cobble together some combination of transit incentives and surface street improvements that will keep traffic flowing.  And if it's the latter, then, goodness gracious, if it can work for 3 years, then why not 10, or 20, or longer?

More to the point, it seems to me that there's pretty good reason to believe that downtown traffic won't have to come to a halt if the Viaduct is closed. 

The official figures say that the Viaduct carries 105,000 trips per day.  But during much of the day the Viaduct is lightly travelled, and there's usually extra capacity on surface streets and I-5. 

The real problems might come during rush hour, when just about every traffic conduit in downtown is full.  But in reality, not that much traffic actually travels on the Viaduct during rush hour.  With only 2 lanes, the Battery Street Tunnel carries at most 10,000 vehicles into downtown during a typical morning rush hour, and 10,000 northwards at the end of the day.  (This is assuming 2.5 hours of rush hour, and a generous 2,000 cars per lane per hour.)  So that means -- from the North anyway -- that the transportation system needs to deal with about 10,000 round trips that would no longer be able to go on the Viaduct.  (I haven't thought things through, but I bet it's a similar number of round trips from the south.)

That's still a lot of trips, but it seems a lot more manageable than the official figure of 105,000.  And there are lots of options to keep people moving.  A new boulevard could handle some of the car and truck trips. Sound Transit may take some pressure off I-5 and other surface streets once it opens.  Improved bus service -- more buses combined with priority timing for buses at traffic lights -- could carry many of the commuters.  Tweaks to the street grid could help keep traffic flowing a bit better.  Some people will simply opt to take their trips at different times of the day, or even forego them.  (Even during rush hour, only a minority of trips are direct trips from work to home.)

Those are just the conventional options.  One unconventional solution--or unconventional in the US at any rate--would be to try what Stockholm and London have already done:  charged drivers to enter downtown. Both congestion pricing schemes have been more more successful than critics might have predicted:  congestion has gone down enough that many commuters believe the tradeoff is worth it.

But the thing to remember is this: unless the city decides to leave the Viaduct as it is (or to retrofit it as some have suggested) this isn't really an optional exercise. The city is going to have to do some combination of these things, and people are going to have to adjust. 

The only question, then, is whether the residents of greater Seattle should spend a few extra billion dollars to fix a problem they've already solved.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

March 24, 2006

Stockholm Syndrome II

I while back I mentioned that Stockholm, Sweden was starting a short-term trial of congestion pricing -- essentially, making drivers pay to enter downtown. London instituted a similar system in 2003, which has proven unexpectedly popular: it's reduced traffic levels by 15 percent, while boosting downtown driving speeds considerably. Stockholm's experiment seemed like it was off to a rockier start -- the city was far less congested than London, and the charges were, if anything, even less popular with commuters.

So it may come as something of a surprise that Stockholm's trial has been greeted with less opposition than predicted:

On the first day the overall number of cars travelling to and from the city centre was down by 25%... Many of Sweden’s most skeptical media suddenly changed their view. Those who were expecting chaos suddenly found themselves reporting on the success of the charge, with one tabloid even running the headline “City reclaimed!”

There's no guarantee that voters will choose to continue the experiment.  But the early success should be food for thought for any city looking to reduce congestion without expanding road space.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 22, 2006

Seattle's Growing Up

Tower Solid article in the Seattle Times today on the rising building height limits in downtown Seattle.

The article even includes a brief historical note on the 1989 voter-approved height cap following the construction of the super-tall and hideous Columbia Center Columbia Seafirst Center Bank of America Tower BankAmerica Tower Columbia Tower. Seattle's thinking on downtown density has changed quite a bit since then. Instead of constricting development, most are enthusiastic about new development in the city's core--development that is revivifying once-dormant neighborhoods.

Seattleites have change their minds partly because of the dawning realization that downtown density is good environmental policy. It's a superbly efficient use of land (among many other environmental benefits). Over the last two decades, residents watched sprawl devour the Cascade foothills and lowland farms and realized that the salvation for natural spaces was partly in the city.

The article does include once curious bit:

There's scant evidence, however, that the changes would curb sprawl over the next 20 years by pulling more people downtown. Under current or proposed zoning, city studies project about 10,000 new households downtown and 29,000 new jobs in that period. [Emphasis mine.]

That's a non-trivial number of households and jobs, but it's odd--at the least--that city growth projections are the same with or without the height increase.

What's going on here? Are the projections mistaken? Or is the height zoning change just a matter of aesthetics, not a substantive policy to increase downtown density?

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack