Friday, January 1, 2010

Build the Thread but Not the Hill

I remember the day in 2002 when ParkWorks and the Project for Public Spaces held a forum on improving Public Square and a large group walked around Public Square with the streets that cross the square, Superior, and Ontario, closed off. As I recall, the public input mostly suggested closing the streets permanently. I mean, at first glance it seems pretty obvious that this is the problem – just look at the picture of the square from above, and compare to the great squares of the world: . That’s why, when I saw the recent designs commissioned by ParkWorks for the redesign of the square, I was dumbfounded that none of the designs showed both these streets being closed.

The three designs, by Field Operations, the firm that designed New York’s awesome High Line Park, and the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative are intriguing and thoughtful. However, the design most popular with the design steering committee, called the “Thread” and featuring an artificial hill bridging the streets, is based on the assumption that the streets need to remain as they are in order to accommodate cars. And that's a really unfortunate and uninspired assumption.

I’m going to state two basic claims about making good cities and good city places:
1) Making things inconvenient for cars makes a better city.
2) Making things more pleasant for pedestrians and public transit riders makes a better city.

You can find these ideas over and over again in any good book on urban sustainability, transit oriented design or new urbanism. Pedestrians make good places. Lots of people walking around in a space results in a vibrant, business-attracting place. And this only happens when streets and gathering places are designed for pedestrians, public transit, and bicycles, not for cars.

The Aalborg Charter on local sustainability, for example, signed by more than 600 European cities and towns, says, “We know that it is imperative for a sustainable city to reduce enforced mobility and stop promoting and supporting the unnecessary use of motorized vehicles. We shall give priority to ecologically sound means of transport (in particular walking, cycling, public transport) and make a combination of these means the center of our planning efforts” (see )

Jane Jacobs, (in the classic work The Death and Life of Great American Cities ) also says that we have to choose between encouraging pedestrians and encouraging cars and explains why. The problem with encouraging cars is that “the more space that is provided cars in cities, the greater becomes the need for use of cars, and hence for still more space for them.” This furthers a process of erosion of good public spaces, and ultimately results in less people in the public spaces. The reverse process, discouraging cars, Jacobs calls attrition of automobiles. “Attrition of automobiles operates by making conditions less convenient for cars. Attrition as a steady, gradual process… would steadily decrease the numbers of persons using private automobiles in a city… It is probably the only realistic means by which better public transportation can be stimulated, and greater intensity and vitality of city use be simultaneously fostered and accommodated.”

The traffic studies by the firm Wilbur Smith that have explored closing Superior and Ontario where they cross through the Square show that closing the streets results in traffic levels of service (LOS) of grades E and F on surrounding streets at certain times of the day. According to Wikipedia,

  • “LOS E is a marginal service state. Flow becomes irregular and speed varies rapidly, but rarely reaches the posted limit…LOS E is a common standard in larger urban areas, where some roadway congestion is inevitable.
  • LOS F is the lowest measurement of efficiency for a road's performance. Flow is forced; every vehicle moves in lockstep with the vehicle in front of it, with frequent slowing required. Technically, a road in a constant traffic jam would be at LOS F…Facilities operating at LOS F generally have more demand than capacity…
  • While it may be tempting to aim for an "A" Level of Service, this is unrealistic in urban areas. Urban areas more typically adopt standards varying between "C" and "E", depending on the area's size and characteristics, while "F" is sometimes allowed in areas with improved pedestrian, bicycle, or transit alternatives. More stringent Level of Service standards (particularly in urban areas) tend to necessitate the widening of roads to accommodate development, thus discouraging use by these alternatives.”

LOS F is common on urban streets, for examples see this map of Raleigh, NC. or Columbus: . Some municipalities aren’t using LOS and traffic congestion as the main standard for street design anymore, according to this blog: As you might expect, San Francisco has discarded strict use of LOS criteria in favor of a “Transit First” strategy. But other cities are doing it too. For example, the article notes San Jose identified three areas, including Downtown, that are now exempted from its LOS standard.

According to the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, who partnered with ParkWorks to sponsor the latest designs for Public Square, and also previously partnered with them to commission the Wilbur Smith traffic study, “Results showed that closing either Superior
Avenue or Ontario Street to traffic during the peak business hours was not a feasible option.” ( ). But the design consultant Field Operations’ presentation slide on the traffic studies first points out (in very small letters on the slide) that the concluding opinion of Wilbur Smith’s study was that Superior and Ontario should be closed through Public Square, with an exception for bus and truck traffic. Hmm –the study recommends the streets should be closed to cars. Then in large letters on the slide the consultants write: “The Wilbur Smith Traffic Analysis provides a good foundation for understanding vehicular movements through and around Public Square. However, the study’s recommendations should be applied with a caveat in that they are intended to privilege the vehicle over the pedestrian.” And in even bigger letters the consultant says: “In order to truly transform Public Square, the pedestrian must have priority use of the space.”

A survey says that most people at least agree that the cross streets need to be narrowed and closed some of the time ( ). In 2007 economics students at Case Western Reserve University interviewed 567 people about a plan for Public Square. The plan would close Ontario and Superior except during morning and evening rush hours. It would narrow the streets and make them more pedestrian friendly. More than 75% of respondents liked the plan.

But the underlying assumptions of the current designs as stated in Field Operations’ presentation are:

“Roadways remain unchanged
Only Ontario is shown as either periodically or fully closed
Current transit system and drop-off/pick-up spots retained
Obviously there are more possibilities if roadways are narrowed, reduced or closed, and if transit is revised – any such recommendations would require more study and analysis”

Let’s quickly go through each of the designs. You can view the consultant’s presentation to the steering committee here: . “The Frame,” scenario 1, closes Ontario to cars during non-rush hour times. “The Forest,” scenario 2, closes Ontario permanently. This enables the street to be removed and replaced with greenspace. “The Thread,” scenario 3, has two options. One option closes Ontario permanently and one leaves Ontario open. The predominant feature of the Thread is it creates a hill bridging the intersection of Superior and Ontario, separating the pedestrians from the streets and the public transit below. This design was the favorite of the steering committee, but it has some big problems.

The first problem with the Thread/hill design is it separates pedestrians and transit riders. That makes no sense, because transit riders ARE ALSO pedestrians. In fact, the main activity right now on Public Square, as pointed out by the consultant, is walking to bus stops and waiting for bus stops. Good places need density of people and activity, particularly at the edges, which is where the bus stops are. Why would you want to take that activity away? Pedestrian density should be maximized as much as possible. People in a space attract more people. The bus stops should be integrated into public spaces, so that you cannot tell who is waiting for a bus and who is simply enjoying the sunshine.

The Thread/hill design also makes it less pleasant and convenient to hop on the bus, at least for people riding the buses that stop on Ontario and Superior (the Health Line / Euclid Corridor buses travel around the edge of the square). The cross street bus stops will be located under what is basically a giant pedestrian overpass. It may be possible to enliven the space under the bridge with public art and retail and activity. There is only so much activity to go around, though, and there is a great danger that this space will be pretty dismal. Burying the bus stops under an overpass is not likely to encourage suburbanites to come out of Tower City and hop on a bus. The design literally elevates people picnicking or walking to a downtown business meeting while relegating people who ride the bus to a lower position, out of sight.

If you make riding the bus more difficult or unpleasant then less people are going to ride the bus. That means more people are going to drive, more space has to be allocated to cars, and there will be less emphasis on the pedestrian. There will be less people walking around, and it will be harder to create good places. It is not possible to have things both ways and create a good space for pedestrians while also giving cars maximum accommodation. A design choice has to be made between people and cars. For Public Square, once the decision is made to leave the streets the way they are, priority is given to the cars.

The nice part about the Thread/hill design is that it creates a green gathering space in the center of the Square, where the intersection between Ontario and Superior is now. This is great. This could be done without the hassle of building the hill and underpass if both the streets were closed permanently. If the streets were closed, we could have the Thread without the hill.

Jane Jacobs tells a little story about Washington Square Park in New York City. Washington Square Park was chosen as one of the top 12 public squares in the US by the Project for Public Spaces: ( ) Until 1958 Washington Square Park had a road cutting through the center of it. In the 1930s parks commissioner Robert Moses wanted to remove this road but he proposed widening the perimeter roads to accommodate the diverted traffic. The widening of the perimeter roads was unpopular and the proposal was defeated. Then in the 1950s Moses had a new idea – to widen the cut-through road and make it into a depressed highway. A couple of local citizens proposed a counter-idea: to close this road completely and not make any provisions for diverted traffic. Here’s Jacobs:

“The city officials insisted that if the roadway were closed – a step they appeared to think insane – the only possible alternatives must be to widen the streets at the park perimeter, or else bring them to a state of frantic and frenetic congestion. The Planning Commission, after a hearing, turned down the proposals for closure…the streets surrounding the park, they said, would be swamped with diverted traffic. The traffic commissioner forecast an immediate annual increase of millions of cars in the nearby streets. Mr. Moses predicted that if the community got its way, the citizens would soon be back begging him to reopen the road and build a highway, but the mess they were in would serve them right and teach them a lesson.

All these dire predictions would likely have come true if compensating provisions had been made for cars diverted from the park. However, before any alternate arrangements were made…the community, by exerting rather tough political pressure abruptly, got the park road closed, first on a trial basis, and then permanently.

None of the predictions of increased traffic around the park were borne out… Every traffic count taken around the park perimeter since the closing has shown no increase in traffic; most counts have shown a slight reduction…Far from bringing new problems of congestion, the obstacle resulted in slight relief of previous congestion.

Where have the traffic commissioner’s annual millions of cars gone instead? This is the most interesting and significant part of the story. They have not noticeably gone anywhere else instead…For just as there is no absolute, immutable number of public transportation riders in a city, so is there no absolute, immutable number of private automobile riders…If properly carried out – as one aspect of stimulating diversity and intensifying city use – attrition would decrease the need for cars simultaneously with decreasing convenience for cars…Attrition of automobiles by cities is probably the only means by which absolute numbers of vehicles can be cut down.”

Here’s another story. In 2004 Detroit closed and rerouted a bunch of major streets to make a great public square, and it’s reported to be a terrific success. You can read about it here: That’s right. Of course New York City did it, but Detroit did it too.

So here's some suggested New Year's Resolutions for downtown's leaders: Step up to great city design. Make the decision to create a grand place instead of providing maximum convenience for cars. When ODOT tells us we can’t do it, tell ODOT we’ll do it anyway. Choose a sustainable city that attracts people to downtown businesses. Make Public Square a true public square.