Urban Next Summit – Connectivity

Jeremy Nelson, Principal with Nelson\Nygaard, led the breakout session on Connectivity at the Urban Next Summit last month in San Francisco.  The ambition:

“We can go where we need to go without owning a car”

When attempting to make the city work better for everyone, mobility is key.  Improving connectivity and transportation is a very big task and, as Chikodi Chima suggests in his review of the Summit, you could likely focus an entire conference around it alone and still not cover everything.

For me, the issue of connectivity and improving it could be divided into two real goals:

1)   Decrease the need for people to commute to get what they need (i.e. increase mixed use development and service provision in communities); and

2)   Increase the transportation options available for the times that people do want/need to leave their neighbourhood.

In addition to increasing mixed-use development in communities, our group talked a bit about initiatives by residents to provide services and support each.  The Ainsworth Street Collective in Portland is a great example – neighbours would meet informally (while out walking or gardening)  and eventually started organizing formal get-togethers to talk about their neighbourhood.  Along with hosting potlucks and community events, they increased their community capital by creating a tool-share, bulk organic food buying system, and have created a guide for services in the neighbourhood.  Perhaps a welder lives down the block from you, or someone who specializes in landscape design – the goal is to support each other’s businesses as opposed to going outside of the community for everything.  In this sense, along with service provision and local stores to purchase from, communities themselves can increase their connectivity through social capital.

North Central Community Gardens

To compliment better resource provision, it is also important to increase transportation options available to all citizens in a city. One representative explained that a current challenge for the transit system in Omaha is that it does not cover the entire city.  While it is common for areas of a city to have less than ideal service, this type of situation effectively cuts off a section of the populations and creates a wall beyond which transit is not an option.  This is particularly a problem for people with lower incomes who are more likely to rely on transit services – instead, they either become dependent on car ownership that they cannot afford or are subjected to living without potentially necessary amenities.

In some cities, citizens have tried to find solutions to transit problems collectively. John Cary the President and CEO of Next American City told our group about the Casual Carpool in San Francisco.  It is a system where motorists pick up and drop off pedestrians and transport them across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco in the morning for work.  Pedestrians get a free ride, and the motorists get to ride in the express carpool lane.  While this is a fantastic low-fi initiative (people coming together to help each other out), John noted that it has been going on for many years (I think he said 20) and there still isn’t a pedestrian or bike lane on the bridge, nor has transit to the greater Bay Area changed to make this unnecessary.  So the degree to which it is really helping progress transit options comes into question.

These examples highlight some of the barriers for people being able to get where they want to go without the necessity of car ownership.  Instead, citizens are required to go out of their way to function day to day.

While car pooling, car-shares, and new enterprises such as BIXI can be used to alleviate some transportation deficiencies, we also talked about ways of encouraging/providing incentives for what you want more of (less car centric development and more transportation options for different user groups) and discouraging/penalizing what you want to change.  The ideas ranged from charging motorists for miles traveled (creating incentives for compact development); removing site-specific parking minimums; requiring developers to design in-line with municipal transit objectives ; providing good infrastructure for walking and biking; and encouraging workplaces to provide incentives to those who use transit, bike, or walk to work.

The “cool factor” was also mentioned, which is certainly a relevant issue for increasing transit ridership, particularly in mid-sized cities.  Many people do not take transit due to an ill-informed perception that transit is for “others”[read: poor, “dangerous” people] – I have heard these sentiments expressed in Regina without much to back them up.  People who romanticize the subway and metro experience when they travel to Chicago, New York, and Montreal are too quick to jump back in their cars when they return home without a thought towards becoming a patron of their local transit system.  To state the obvious, transit works best when people take it.

One person mentioned that in her city, a local music festival encouraged people to take local transit during a music festival and the buses had ads promoting the festival – it was a nice cross-promotion.  This concept stuck with me as being one to try in Regina, but I think it should be taken further.  Regina already has a few initiatives that promote transit use (i.e. on New Years Eve and during Mosaic), but what if you could ride transit free the week of Folk Fest by showing your concert pass, or during the first week of University with your student ID?  Instead of having to get on a specific shuttle bus at a mall parking lot that only takes you to an event, you could get on any bus and go anywhere!  This would promote both the local event as well as transit.

Bus stop in San Francisco, bike lane in the foreground

To end the session on Connectivity, Jeremy asked that we each take 15 seconds to state one important thing we each would do to increase sustainable transportation in our respective cities/towns when we got home.  I decided to create a map of sidewalks in the town where I now live to showcase how limited (and sometimes dangerous) it really is for those of us without a car to get around.  I will be covering that in a future post.

This post wraps up my impressions from the breakout sessions at the Urban Next Summit, however I am sure that many of the inspiring ideas and projects that were discussed will continue to come up!

** carpool photo here

Urban Next Summit – Connectivity

3 thoughts on “Urban Next Summit – Connectivity

  1. wourliem says:

    Hey Laura, thanks for the thought provoking post.

    I really like the idea of cross promotion between events and transportation options. I think the options you provide are very good. It could be associated with other events, maybe a Globe Theatre ticket would allow you to travel downtown and back for that evening? For festival events, Mosaic provides a good example of getting people around via transit.

    In my experience, there is a lot of misinformation about transportation options. Growing up, my family was very willing to give me rides places and the people around me never seemed to use the bus. So I came to bus use only at the end of high school. I got to hear from my parents and others about people being mugged waiting for buses and inconsistent service. Similarly, I was scared away from biking when I got into high school because it was inevitable my bike would be stolen. Only in the last two years have I tested that theory, riding my bike as long as the roads were ice free, and overall it has been a positive experience.

    Once people use a transportation mode and become comfortable with it I think they are more likely to use it again. Cross promotions might be a good way to introduce transit to people who might not normally ride the bus and dispel myths.

    Concerning your two goals, I just read something last night that really focused my mind on what best promotes connectivity and mobility in cities.

    I am reading “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander et al. that sets out to describe spatial patterns from the regional development to interior design scales. There are 253 patterns in the book, which used together can create positive spaces at whatever scale interests you.

    #11 “Local Transport Areas” offers some interesting insights. It suggests that autos, because of their size, inherently separate people. Where there are numerous autos requiring infrastructure sympathetic to driving sprawl will dominate as the development pattern. Autos are also not good at short trips within neighbourhoods. The conclusion suggests one to two mile diameter neighbourhoods that would be resistant to auto traffic. The neighbourhoods would be separated by highways/major roads suited to auto movement.

    The crux of this argument is that neighborhoods with one to two mile diameters can support the local needs of the people with in. Using Google Earth, I tried to measure out a neighbourhood in Regina that fits this one-mile diameter rule. It turns out North Central fits those criteria well. The East-West distance from Albert St. to Lewvan Dr. and from Dewdney Ave. to the CN tracks to the North is a little more than a mile.

    Where the idea of “Local Transport Area” differs most from the reality on the ground is that people cannot currently obtain all the day-to-day services they require in North Central. This means more work must go into creating your first goal of mixed-use service provision.

    The neighbourhood design, size and street pattern probably accommodate your second goal fairly well. Biking, walking, small engine vehicles (“A Pattern Language” mentions golf carts for example) and scooters could be effective options within the neighbourhood. I’ve found North Central very bikeable when I’ve traveled its roadways.

    According to this one text at least, North Central has the structure and size to be a connective neighbourhood for internal trips without using vehicles.

    1. You are very right about transit perception. I started taking transit regularly in late elementary school – I took a dance class at the old U of R campus after school, so a friend and I would hop the bus together to get there. Lots of people in Regina still think the bus is not safe or is so inefficient as to be worthless. However, these thoughts come from people who do not take the bus. I have no extensive problems with Regina’s transit system. It may stem from the fact that starting in my early 20s I have only lived downtown in the Transition or Centre Square neighbourhood and more recently in the Heritage neighbourhood. I can appreciate that having to transfer can add time to one’s schedule, but for me the benefits outweigh the hassle. All of that said, I think that Regina’s transit system should keep improving and gain enough ridership to make more frequent stops and pickups the norm. I am excited by the new R-card system being implemented.

      I am intrigued by the idea that smaller neighbourhoods should be separated by larger roadways. I would be reluctant to say highways, however, even roads like St. Laurent in Montreal could be considered highway-ish even if the vehicle speed is not over 50km/h. I think this idea could be useful not just for connectivity sake but also useful as design/planning pockets – in other words, to design and plan a community to be complete within certain boundaries. I think this is likely an approach that many planners take, but it is nice to give it a name so that it is more identifiable. I suspect that many neighbourhoods in Regina could fit the initial size measurement, however, you are right to point out that street design goes a long way to making neighbourhoods walkable – with the grid street layout being most efficient for foot and bike traffic.

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