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The Atlantic Cities explores the most innovative ideas and pressing issues facing today’s global cities and neighborhoods. By bringing together news, analysis, data, and trends, the site is an engaging destination for an increasingly urbanized world.

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What Your Street Grid Reveals About Your City



Cities often celebrate the anniversaries of major pieces of transformative infrastructure, like bridges or buildings or dams. It's much more rare to celebrate the birthday of a design template. The bicentennial of Manhattan's street grid, which fell in 2011, was an exception. There was an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York to mark the milestone. Countless articles from planners, architecture critics, and urbanists lauded the foresight of the city's street commissioners, who in 1811 laid down the plan that defines the island's development to this day.


On the occasion, the New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, wrote this about the "oddly beautiful" grid:

It's true that Manhattan lacks the elegant squares, axial boulevards and civic monuments around which other cities designed their public spaces. But it has evolved a public realm of streets and sidewalks that creates urban theater on the grandest level. No two blocks are ever precisely the same because the grid indulges variety, building to building, street to street.


New York, of course, is not the only city built on a grid. Similar schemes could be found as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. But Manhattan's design was the exemplar for what became the default pattern of American cities.

Still, not all grids are created equal. Some shape a walking-friendly streetscape. Others, not so much. Over at the Strong Towns blog, Andrew Price, a software developer by day who blogs about urbanism, has been writing about the math of the grid and what it reveals about a city's economic productivity and walkability.


Price has created a "street area calculator," that allows you to plug in a street width and block size. Using this tool, you can come up with some basic figures to compare different grids and how they apportion a city's land. To take two of the extreme examples calculated by Price using rough figures gleaned from Google maps, Portland, Oregon, has streets that are 60 feet wide (building face to building face, including the sidewalk) and blocks that are 200 by 200. Compare that to Salt Lake City, where the streets are 130 feet wide and the block are 660 by 660.


Portland, Oregon (left) and Salt Lake City, Utah.

These configurations mean that Salt Lake is using its space more efficiently by one measure, with only 30.2 percent of area devoted to streets, which must be maintained and are not "productive" in terms of tax revenue. Portland, in contrast devotes nearly 41 percent of its area to streets. Most street space goes to cars, with sidewalks taking up a relatively small fraction.


But when you look at how much street frontage a city’s grid creates within a half-mile walk of a certain point – one potential measure of walkability – Portland has nearly 160,000 feet, while Salt Lake has just under 60,000.

Price points out that if you create smaller blocks, more space goes to streets (and usually, in this country, that means it goes to cars), and the width of the street must be adjusted in order to create a pedestrian-friendly environment:

If we are to downscale our blocks to make our grid more walkable, we also need to downscale our streets, in order to keep the ratio of Street Area:Block Area down. We can have 150 ft blocks and keep our street area down to 22.15%, if we also build 20 ft streets (which would result in 284,800 ft of street frontage being within a half a mile walk - far greater than that of Portland!)

However, when we start talking about 150 ft blocks and 20 ft streets, we begin to get into the realm of traditional cities.


Traditional cities are naturally highly walkable, human-scale environments.


Price’s work is inspired in part by the disorientation he felt upon moving to the southern United States from a more "human-scale" community. "I was born and raised in Australia, in a middle-class inner-city neighborhood," he wrote in an email. "I grew up around walking, transit, and street life. Two years ago, I relocated ... From dealing with the culture shock (most towns are simply a road with a couple of strip malls and drive through, very few actual 'urban' places where you can make a day of walking around), I've turned to blogging as a way to study and cope with the lifestyle change."


In most cities with wide streets and big blocks, Price says, precious little space is allotted to pedestrians. According to his calculations, 30 percent of a city’s area is typically dedicated to moving cars – "not counting the parking lots that push some southern cities over 50 percent."


Price hopes that by examining the proportions of the grid from a mathematical perspective, we can better understand what makes some grids a better place for humans to live than others.

Top image: Chicago's street grid. Scott David Patterson /Shutterstock.com

Keywords: Street Grids, Math, Design

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Our Favorite Maps of 2013




The digital maps we loved in 2013 didn't simply illustrate novel or useful information (how people travel, where they live, what it means to live without much money). They did it in ways we'd never seen before, manipulating time, dimensions, perspective, even the atmosphere. These maps weren't just interesting in content; they were innovative in design. That's our new bar for 2014.


So this December, instead of sharing our top 10 maps of the year, we're looking at 10 ways we've learned to think about maps in entirely new ways. This may well have been the year when maps ceased to impress us for what they convey and began to stun us instead for how they did it.


1. The cloudless map. Aerial maps based on satellite imagery have one major drawback: Clouds tend to get in the way of viewing the earth from space. Some parts of the world are also perpetually shrouded in them. To solve the problem this year, Mapbox began to develop a cloudless atlas of the world, with a technique, following similar efforts by NASA, to sort satellite images across time for the clearest single pixels.



2. The personalized map. Google challenged the basic premise of what a map means when it introduced this spring a revamped Google Maps that looks different to everyone. The new platform is personalized by your tastes, your clicks, your friends' recommendations. The more you tell Google Maps about yourself and your preferences, the more it comes to show you a representation of the world that's different from the one your coworkers, friends and family see. The implications of this may be good or bad, depending (fittingly) on your perspective.


Google Maps

3. The real-time map. Maps have grown more sophisticated as the open data movement has, too. As a result, we came across a number of striking maps this year fed by live streams of information, capable of updating in real time. Google can now track moving Amtrak trains in real time. The University College London's Oliver O'Brien created a map of nearly every bikeshare system in the world that updates the capacity of individual docking stations in real time. We were also entranced by these real-time maps of people tweeting and editing Wikipedia.


Global Bike Share Map

4. The animated map. These maps illustrate the movement of time, although perhaps not in realtime. Animation particularly lends itself to conveying spatial data about transportation, as we saw with Fletcher Foti's animation of commuter patterns in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and this nifty project from the Bay Area mapping bus ridership across the city. Data-savvy Foursquare has gotten in on the art of timelapse maps, too.


Dots on a bus

5. The map that compares our present to the past. Some of the most powerful maps we saw this year gave new value to old information (prior Census data, dated satellite photos) by presenting it in startling juxtaposition with our present day. NASA, Google and several other organizations combined to produce a brilliant, zoomable timelapse of 30 years of satellite imagery of Earth. The results showed us what happens when human development encroaches on nature, when lakes dry up, and when forests disappear. Over the same time frame, the Urban Institute also created a smart map illustrating the changing dimension of poverty in U.S. metros, from 1980 to today.


Google Timelapse project

6. The map that simulates the future. This idea has particular implications for climate change and visualizing rising sea levels. This type of mapping work has certainly been going on for longer than the last 12 months (and much of it by government scientists). But the poignancy of such predictive maps is all the more clear post-Hurricane Sandy. And we came across several that took our breath away this year, portraying what our current coastal cities might look likein a future of catastrophes or rising tides.


The Boston Harbor Association

7. The laser map. Maps have grown more accurate as the means to make them have evolved. And we've discovered greater need for more accurate maps as we've watched the land beneath us shift. These two trends are converging with the help of laser surveying technology that will make it possible to map shifting coastlines with a margin of error of just a few centimeters. Lasers are meanwhile making it possible to map individual buildings in ways that will enable us to better preserve them.


Scott Page

8. The meta-map. We came across several great maps this year about the process of mapmaking, particularly from the folks at OpenStreetMap and Mapbox. More than a million people have now contributed to the world's largest crowdsourced mapping project, and it's possible to map each of their contributions as one part of the whole, or to map the cumulative growth of OpenStreetMap over the years. Both of these maps tell us not so much about the world, but about how people approach the challenge of mapping it.



9. The 3D map. Sometimes a complex idea is best conveyed in three dimensions, in volume. That was the case with this popular map from Nickolay Lamm visualizing wealth inequality in Manhattan as an alternative skyline for the city. The project translates an abstract concept – the difference between high and low median net worth by block groups – into a more familiar landscape of skyscrapers and low-lying buildings.


Nickolay Lamm

10. The dot map of everyone. Most of the time, we're represented as people on a map by some larger unit: blocks, census tracts, cities, states, even countries. But Dustin Cable's stunning Racial Dot Map actually put every person in America (308,745,538 of us) on a map as individual dots of different colors. The project was ambitious in scope but ultimately beautiful, too. Zoom in and out at varying scales, and dots colored by different racial groups blend together to show patterns of segregation and integration. RTI International created a similar dot-based synthetic population viewer using Census data to show every household in America.


Racial Dot Map

Keywords: Google Maps, 3D Maps, lidar, OpenStreetMap, Maps, Mapmaking, Lasers, Transit, Bikeshare,Satellite Imagery, NASA

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Wikimedia CommonsIf the city’s new mayor gets his way, Central Brussels will soon be essentially car-free. Socialist Party mayor Yvan Mayeur, sworn in last month as mayor of the Brussels City district, wants to turn the Belgian capital's central axis into a pedestrian zone.


The move would transform a handsome but car-snarled four-lane boulevard and a string ofsquares into a long, café-filled promenade. This new zone will join up with an existing pedestrian zone in the narrow streets around the city's Grand Place and Rue Neuve, turning Brussels’ core into a spacious, rambling open-air living room.


The change is long overdue. No European capital has been quite so ruined by motor vehicles as Brussels, which even last year was scorned by the French as a "sewer for cars." And the new plan is going over well with locals, meaning Brussels might finally gain its deserved place as a likeable European city.


If it does so, it will be in the face of decades of poor planning from which the city is still recovering. Though they were following international fashion, it's rare that a city's elite messes up redevelopment so badly that it succeeds in coining its own anti-planning slur. Brussels managed this in the 1960s, however, when the city’s dual process of building ugly, over-sized buildings in the place of beloved historic ones and of prioritizing cars over everything else came to be called brusselization.


From the 1958 World's Fair up until the early 1970s, Brussels authorities earned themselves international notoriety by leveling entire quarters of the city for office developments as bland as unsalted potato. Some of the city's best buildings were demolished while Brussels' inner belt of boulevards was turned into a mini highway that still alternately clogs and roars.



Place de Brouckere in Brussels. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Xavier Estruch.

While public protest ultimately slowed the demolitions, the city got away with these upheavals for a long time because it already had a long history of bulldozing and displacement. In the preceding century, Brussels had already flattened a neighborhood to build its grandiose Law Courts, while the boulevard strip due to be pedestrianized today was itself created by covering over Brussels' Senne River and demolishing the ancient buildings on its banks.


Thankfully, Brussels still has plenty that’s worth saving, with distinctively busy, elaborate architecture that totally belies Belgium’s reputation as the European homeland of bland. The pedestrian plan would do more than cut down on decades of grime on such buildings, though. It will also help to reunite the city's touristy but magical medieval core with the hipper area around Place Sainte-Catherine, west of the central axis, creating a seamless area from one which motor traffic previously truncated.


Businesses along the axis are chary about losing customers, but a recent survey of 3,500 people by Belgian newspaper Le Soir found 61 percent favor the changes. It's too early to assume that the redesign will really make Brussels come out of its shell, but one of Europe’s great, underrated cities should soon be getting the center it deserves.


Top image courtesy of Aktron/Wikimedia Commons.

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The Future of Honking




Here's what I want to know about driverless cars, and the future of the automobile in general: What are we going to do about the horn?


Headier questions will no doubt be answered first, as tends to be the case when we're confronted with an idea that could radically change the way we do things (see: Jeff Bezos and his delivery drones). People understandably want to know what the regulatory framework will look like, how you stop autonomous vehicles from getting hacked, and who (what?) is liablefor a driverless crash.


Drivers in India honk so much that vehicle manufacturers have developed more robust horns.


But the fate of the horn is also pretty important. It's been with us since 1649, when Nuremberg watchmaker John Hautzsch debuted a horseless carriage that supposedly propelled itself using the same mechanics that move the hands of a watch. Capable of creeping along at one mile an hour, Hautzsch's invention frequently saw its route blocked by curious crowds. According to Edgar B. Schieldrop's The Highway, the newfangled carriage had two ways of dispersing pedestrians: an ornamental dragon head would spit water at them, and angel-shaped horns blared noise at them. Which means Hautzsch introduced not only the first car, but also the first car horn.


When the automobile began to challenge the horse-drawn carriage for command of the street, auto-opponents demanded that cars be outfitted with noisemakers for much the same reason that lepers were once required to shout "unclean" as they approached villages: Cars were prone to upsetting horses and endangering pedestrians. (The anti-car crowd had a point: 1921 saw 24 car-related fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the U.S.; 2001 had only 1.51 car-related fatalities per 100 million VMT*.) Thirty years ago, Eugene Garfield cataloged the historical warnings required of automobile operators in his brilliant essay, "The Tyranny of the Horn":


One Massachusetts lawmaker proposed that all cars be equipped with a bell that would ring with each revolution of the wheels. Another suggested that motorists shoot Roman candles ahead to forewarn drivers of approaching horse-drawn vehicles. The Farmers’ Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania demanded adequate warning but added, “If a horse is unwilling to pass an automobile, the driver should take the machine apart and conceal the parts in the bushes."


Garfield goes on to note that the shift from horse to car greatly reduced urban noise pollution. The sound of hooves and carriages clacking over cobblestones in pre-automobile urban America was apparently a source of great anxiety and psychic stress. But the reprieve granted by quiet rubber tires didn't last long; soon the streets were filled with cars, all of them equipped with amazingly loud horns.


Today car horns are still a leading source of noise pollution in urban centers. India's honking problem is so severe that the response to it—from both activists and government officials—mirrors the response to an actual epidemic. Officials in Peru, meanwhile, began treating honking like a serious crime in 2009, threatening to confiscate the cars of people who honk when they shouldn't. Last year, Shanghai decided to expand the area covered by its 2007 car horn law. Originally aimed at reducing noise pollution downtown, officials wanted to curb honking "by airports, subway stations, and the intersections of major roads." Why all the fuss? Because noise pollution is actually pretty damaging, albeit in a less-than-obvious way. The World Health Organization took a crack at quantifying the impact of noise in 2011, and concluded that "one million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise in the western part of Europe."


America has waged its own war on excessive honking, which we can loosely define as honking when your life, or someone else's life, is not in danger. In 1972, the U.S. Congress considered noise pollution (a category that includes, but is not limited to, noises made by motor vehicles) to be a big enough problem that it funded the Office of Noise Abatement and Control. Housed within the EPA, ONAC conducted "investigations and studies on noise and its effect on the public health and welfare." The Noise Abatement office was tasked with identifying major sources of noise, determining safe levels of noise exposure, and drafting noise regulation. For reasons familiar to observers of bureaucracy, ONAC didn't accomplish much. In 1981, President Reagan requested that ONAC be defunded, and Congress complied.


In more recent decades, states and municipalities have continued to crack down on unnecessary honking by instituting fines. Yet those laws haven't solved the problem, either. Last year, New York City all but gave up on taming its honkidemic. In a move bemoaned by people who love peace and quiet, NYC took down its "Don't Honk" signs. There's still a $350 fine on the books for illegal honking, but The New York Times reports that the law is very rarely enforced.

Of course, even if government could suppress our honking instincts by using force, there's a case to be made that honking is free speech, that harsher penalties could have a disparate impact on the poor, and that government has better things to do.


Which is why I think we should be thinking about how to engineer our way out of this problem. There are some theories beyond fining honkers and impounding their cars. Jeff Jonas of IBM suggested in 2012 that we "ration" horn honks. "I say you only get a few honks a month and after that there is a surcharge," Jonas told the BBC. "You are going to have to pay for it if you want to use the horn more than that." And here's a proposal from the bowels of Reddit: "Make all car horns different notes in the same chord so traffic jams sound like heavenly choirs." (Along those lines: Jalopnik's guide to creating a car-horn organ, which you can do if you know what note your horn is tuned to.)


As for things people are actually trying: Drivers in India honk so much that vehicle manufacturers have developed more robust horns, and horn replacement is considered routine vehicle maintenance. The fact that honking is so integral to navigating the country's congested streets makes it fertile testing ground for the manufacturers of a device called Bleep, which turns on an annoying dashboard light every time the driver hits the horn. The driver then has to lean over and turn the light off. The device's manufacturers claim that Bleep reduced honking by 61 percent.


These solutions are fascinating, and Bleep even seems workable—assuming you could get widespread adoption. But let's not stop there. Honking has been around as long as the automobile, and is every bit in need of a rethinking on par with the hybrid and the driverless car.


*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited statistics for car-related fatalities for the years 1921 and 2001. Those figures are per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, not per 100 million people.

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9 Reasons the U.S. Ended Up So Much More Car-Dependent Than Europe



  • Between the 1920s and 1960s, policies adapting cities to car travel in the United States served as a role model for much of Western Europe. But by the late 1960s, many European cities started refocusing their policies to curb car use by promoting walking, cycling, and public transportation. For the last two decades, in the face of car-dependence, suburban sprawl, and an increasingly unsustainable transportation system, U.S. planners have been looking to Western Europe.

The numbers show the need for change. In 2010, Americans drove for 85 percent of their daily trips, compared to car trip shares of 50 to 65 percent in Europe. Longer trip distances only partially explain the difference. Roughly 30 percent of daily trips are shorter than a mile on either side of the Atlantic. But of those under one-mile trips, Americans drove almost 70 percent of the time, while Europeans made 70 percent of their short trips by bicycle, foot, or public transportation.


The statistics don't reveal the sources of this disparity, but there are nine main reasons American metro areas have ended up so much more car-dependent than cities in Western Europe.




How getting from here to there is changing forever.

See full coverage


Mass motorization. Mass motorization occurred earlier in the United States than in Europe, mainly facilitated by assembly line production that brought down cost. By the mid-1930s there was already one registered automobile for every two U.S. households, while car ownership in Europe was mostly limited to wealthy elites. Moreover, greater personal wealth in the U.S. allowed households to more readily afford cars than comparatively poorer European households, particularly in the years immediately after World War II.


Road standards. As a result of early mass motorization, American cities were first to adapt to the car at a large scale. U.S. planners and engineers developed initial standards for roadways, bridges, tunnels, intersections, traffic signals, freeways, and car parking. Successful innovations quickly spread elsewhere, often in the form of standards. Europeans also experimented with automobile infrastructure—Stockholm opened a large inner city clover-leaf interchange in the 1930s—but European cities adapted to cars much more slowly than U.S. metros did, especially before World War II.


Vehicle taxes. Taxation of car ownership and use has traditionally been higher in Europe and helped curb car travel demand. Today a gallon of gasoline is more than twice as expensive in Europe than in the United States. Moreover, in Europe gas tax revenue typically contributes to the general fund, meaning roadway expenditures compete with other government expenditures. In many U.S. states and at the federal level, large parts of the gas tax revenue are earmarked for roadway construction, assuring a steady flow of non-competitive funds for roads.



A typical American-style highway interchange, running straight through a residential area. (spirit of america/Shutterstock.com)

Interstate system. In the 1950s, the U.S. federal government offered a 90 percent match to build the Interstate Highway System that soon crisscrossed most U.S. urban areas. Combined with urban renewal and slum clearance programs, interstates destroyed and cut-off entire urban neighborhoods and facilitated suburban sprawl (itself subsidized through mortgage policies). European national governments also provided subsidies for roadways, but typically at a lower level or for shorter periods of time. Moreover, European highways, such as Germany’s high speed Autobahn system, typically link cities rather than penetrate them.


Government subsidies. Over the last 40 years, gas taxes, tolls, and registration fees have covered only about 60 or 70 percent of roadway expenditures across all levels of U.S. government. The remainder has been paid using property, income, and other taxes not related to transportation. These subsidies for driving reduce its cost and increase driving demand in the United States. In European countries, meanwhile, drivers typically pay more in taxes and fees than governments spend on roadways.


American cities were first to adapt to the car at a large scale.


Technological focus. Policy responses to problems of U.S. car travel have focused on technological changes rather than altering behavior. For example, responses to air pollution or traffic safety consisted of technological fixes — such as catalytic converters, reformulated cleaner fuels, seat belts, and air bags — that let people keep driving as usual. European countries implemented these technological requirements as well, but also more aggressively reduced speed limits in entire neighborhoods, created car free zones, reduced car parking, and implemented other policies that encourage behavioral shifts.


Public transit. Sustained government support helped European transit systems to weather the rise of the car more successfully. Particularly after World War II, privately owned U.S. transit systems increased fares, cut services, lost ridership, and either went out of business or were saved by public ownership — with help from U.S. governments often coming too late. For instance, many cities saw their trolley systems disappear entirely in the 1950s and '60s, though there has been a streetcar reemergence of late.



Bicyclists in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Bucchi Francesco/Shutterstock.com)

Walking and cycling. Only a few U.S. cities, such as Davis, California, have a tradition of implementing pedestrian and bicyclist amenities since the 1970s. By contrast, many European cities, led by Muenster, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen, have implemented entire networks of bike lanes, separated cycle tracks, off-street bicycle paths, and traffic calmed neighborhood streets — allowing easy travel by bicycle between any origin and destination in a city or region. European cities also have a longer history of providing networks of sidewalks, crosswalks, and car free zones in city centers. Additionally, European traffic laws protect pedestrians and cyclists, often putting the responsibility for a crash on the driver, while U.S. traffic laws, police, and court juries often fail to prosecute or punish drivers who kill pedestrians or cyclists.


Zoning laws. There are many differences between land-use planning systems in the United States and Europe. Europeans tend to allow a greater mix of uses in their residential zones, thus keeping trip distances shorter. For example, in Germany, a residential zone can include doctors' offices, cafes, corner stores, or apartment buildings. By contrast, single family residential zones in the United States typically forbid those uses. Zoning in Germany also occurs for smaller land areas—almost at the block level—facilitating shorter trips than in U.S. cities, where zones tend to be much larger. And while most U.S. zoning codes still require a minimum number of parking spots, many European countries operate with maximum numbers to limit parking.


Top image: Traffic in New York's Times Square (Lucas Jackson/Reuters); A street is decorated with golden crowns and red, white and blue banners in the city center in Amsterdam. (Cris Toala/Reuters)

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' an Atlantic Cities series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.



Ralph Buehler, PhD, is associate professor in urban affairs and planning and a faculty fellow with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center. He's co-editor of City Cycling(MIT Press, 2012) and based in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. All posts »

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How to Design a Happier City


ShutterstockCharles Montgomery begins his new book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, on a bicycle ride in Bogota, Colombia, with former mayor Enrique Peñalosa. While in office, Peñalosa implemented a number of policies quite progressive for that time and place. He scrapped plans for highways through the city. He built hundreds of miles of bike lanes. He made room for parks and pedestrian plazas.




Peñalosa's goal, explains Montgomery, was to make Bogotans happier. Montgomery's goal with Happy City is equally ambitious: to document whether urban policy and design can really influence well-being.


"For years, urban designers and architects have claimed happiness as their goal," Montgomery says. "And yet none of the claims have been supported by empirical evidence. Which isn't to say they're not right. It's just to say that we don't know. That we haven't known."


In this spirit of empirical discovery, Montgomery takes readers around the world in search of the places where urban design has (and has not) improved quality-of-life. He also leads us into the laboratories of behavioral scientists measuring which mindsets make happiness easier (or harder) to achieve. The result is a six-part "recipe" for urban happiness — challenging cities to promote joy, health, freedom, resilience, equity, and social connections.


"Serious people have thought a lot about these issues," says Montgomery. "What I hoped to do with the book was to draw their thinking, some of their activism, and some of their research together into a coherent narrative."


One of the big messages in the book is that a livable city is a happy one.

I think they're almost synonymous. But I think the bigger point is that there are fear mongers out there who tell us that if we want to address the great challenges of our age — and I'm talking about climate change, resource scarcity, population — then we all have to put on a hair shirt. That we'll be dooming ourselves to years of deprivation. And they're wrong. At least when it comes to city-making.

So the happy city, the low-carbon city, the green city, the city that will save us — they're all the same place.


You point out a number of cognitive biases that explain the attraction to sprawl: things like the commuter paradox, in which people mistakenly think money will make up for a long drive to work. What can we do about these tendencies that seem built into our behavior?

We pay too much attention to rewards we can see — like you mentioned, the house, the car — and too little the complex systems that shape our experiences. When it's experiences that matter the most.


I think the most basic piece of advice is we'll all be better off if we understand that happiness is driven more by experience than things. If we build cities and if we make individual choices with that in mind, we may be able to nudge ourselves to design for experiences and human relationships, as opposed to systems that just enable more infrastructure.

The happy city, the low-carbon city, the green city, they're all the same place.


I was struck by how many small things a city can do to improve well-being. Putting in a small park. Carving out a pedestrian plaza.

Yes, there is tremendous potential for intervention at the neighborhood level to enrich our lives. I'm thinking of the efforts of city repair in Portland. The idea is that back in the 90s, a bunch of neighbors marched out and turned their intersection into a piazza. It was such an ordeal to bring neighbors together, to network, to work together, to fight city hall, to build something new — the process itself created powerful new bonds of friendship and trust and conviviality.


You praise mixed-use, little streetcar towns as a very satisfying social arrangement. What works so well about that design?

I would say this is where Vancouver has something to teach the world, particularly American cities. Our streetcar neighborhoods — even without streetcars — are becoming increasingly vibrant and dense and fun without resorting to towers. So when people think of Vancouver, they think of our vertical downtown. But our streetcar neighborhoods have accommodated just as many new residents in these past couple decades.


They've done it through gentle densification. More mixed-use low-rises along the arterials. I guess what's more notable is almost every house in neighborhood legally has the right to have a basement suite and a backyard rental cottage. That's three residences on every lot. You're probably getting 10 times the density per acre as you would in a typical American suburb. But it doesn't feel crowded.


What elements would you select from various cities if you were going to build some kind of super happy city?

If you think of the social function of the happy city, I think Copenhagen succeeds. A great example is when the traffic planners realized that cyclists were having a hard time chatting on their way to work, so they made double-wide lanes.


I think that the happy city, it's actually market rational, and a great example is in Vauban, in Germany. It's an experimental suburb of Freiberg. They internalized the external costs associated with car ownership. If you own a car in Vauban, you have to buy a parking spot at the edge of a village in a beautiful garage. Not only do many residents save money, but their days are infused with these convivial experiences of local walking.


I was deeply moved by my experience in Davis, California. Where on N Street, neighbors just pulled down all their fences and agreed to share a super yard. They found it so spacious that they all applied and got the right to add more units to their homes, so more people could live there.


Top image: littleny /Shutterstock.com

Keywords: Bogotá, Copenhagen, Portland, Vancouver, Portland, Happy City, Enrique Penalosa, Happiness,Well-Being, Quality of Life, Livability, Bogota, Urban Planning, behavioral science, Urban Design, Vancouver,Copenhagen, Psychology, Public Policy, Charles Montgomery

author-thumbnail.jpgEric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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CHARTS3 Enormous Benefits to Charging the Right Price for Parking




Costanza's universal theory of parking states that drivers should never pay for a spot because, if they apply themselves, they'll get it for free. Most U.S. cities do everything they can to abide the theory. They undervalue the price of street spaces. They keep parking so cheap itencourages driving (and thus undermines their own transit investments, leading to more driving). And they require a minimum number of parking spaces for new developments whether residents need them or not.

These policies conspire to create a situation in which even someone as lazy as George Costanza can eventually find a free — or, at least, very cheap — parking space in the city. But what's thrilling for Georgie Boy (assuming no one steals his space by

) is bad for the city as a whole. Three recent studies highlight big benefits to setting the right price for city parking: less traffic, more transit use, and greater tax revenue.

Less congestion

First comes a close evaluation of SFpark, San Francisco's world-class effort to match the price of parking with real-time demand. SFpark changes the cost of street spaces in commercial areas to maintain an average occupancy of 60 to 80 percent. By making sure the streets are never completely full, the program hopes to reduce circling and thus congestion on city streets.

The new study (here, in full), led by Adam Millard-Ball of UC-Santa Cruz, analyzed hourly parking data to determine that SFpark has indeed achieved this target occupancy rate through demand-responsive parking prices. As a result, the researchers conclude, SFpark was responsible for a 50 percent drop in cruising for spots. Millard-Ball calls the finding evidence "of the benefits of meters more generally," and says even cities without sophisticated programs like SFpark can benefit from responsive pricing.

"People might not like new meters or an extension of meter hours, but certainly our data suggests that they're very effective in reducing the amount of traffic cruising for parking," he says.

If anything, says Millard-Ball, the rate changes imposed by SFpark weren't drastic enough. Bay Area drivers were actually slow to respond to the price changes, perhaps because SFpark only raises meters a quarter at a time. But the impact of any parking price on cruising came through most clearly in the traffic spikes that occurred right after the meters turned off (below, circling in the Marina neighborhood surges in red at 6 p.m. / 1800 hours) — another reason to extend pricing into nights and weekends, and onto residential streets:


"I think the broad lessons are, firstly and most simply, that charging for parking works," says Millard-Ball. "We see this most dramatically in our data around the time the meters get switched off. Cruising spikes, and it's much more difficult to find a space."

Higher transit use

Another new study, this one led by Amy Auchincloss of Drexel, surveyed public parking costs from 2009 in 107 U.S. cities. The researchers found a significant association between these parking prices and public transit use during the same period. In larger cities — defined as those with more than 6,700 people per square mile — transit passenger miles increased 2.3 fold with higher parking costs, even adjusting for the economics of a given city. (Note though that the researchers found no such link in smaller cities.)


The upshot is that cheap parking encourages people to drive into a big city. Put another way, public transit investments alone aren't enough to attract riders. Cities must consider raising the cost of driving and parking, too.

More tax revenue

The third study in Costanza's ménage a parking focuses on the effects that parking can have on a city's bottom line. Researchers at the University of Connecticut and the State Smart Transportation Initiative found that land devoted to street and garage parking generates less tax revenue for a city than other types of development do. This is especially bad news for cities with minimum parking requirements — policies that compel developers to provide a certain number of spots regardless of market demand. (That includes most U.S. cities at the moment, though a trend toward parking maximums has started in some places.)

In Hartford, this lost tax revenue amounts to roughly $1,200 per year per parking spot (below,Hartford parking in 1960 and in 2000). That amounts to $50 million a year for a city in which all downtown real estate pays $75 million in annual taxes. "If the city can find new uses for these parking lots, then this means that it can bring a lot of revenue," study co-author Norman Garrick told WNPR in Connecticut.



To be sure, there are equity challenges that go along with raising parking prices on city streets. But cheap parking is already compromising fairness in many city neighborhoods — hurting traffic, transit, and taxes for the many while helping Costanza's theory for the few. A better theory of parking would hold that drivers should never pay less for a spot than it's truly worth.

Top image: Alfonso de Tomas/Shutterstock.com

Keywords: San Francisco, San Francisco, street parking, Development, Parking, Hartford, minimum parking,Real Estate, Marina, State Smart Transportation Initiative, single-occupancy vehicle, Transit, tax revenue,SFpark, curb, Driving, demand responsive parking

author-thumbnail.jpgEric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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Tearing Down an Urban Highway Can Give Rise to a Whole New City

I'm standing in the middle of a five-mile linear park in downtown Seoul called Cheonggyecheon. Around me, children play and laugh beside a man-made gurgling stream, which includes remnants of the natural one that used to run here. This is the new reality created in the mid-2000s, when Seoul tore down an elevated, interstate-style highway built in the late 1960s through the heart of downtown.



A before-and-after shot of Cheonggyecheon. Image courtesy of Reuters (left); Bankoo/Shutterstock.com (right)


The highway removal and park creation were part of a series of changes that widened sidewalks at the expense of car lanes, turned a huge traffic circle into a circular green park, instituted a public bicycle system, reorganized bus lines, and improved and expanded an already excellent subway system (including retrofitting lines with glass platform screening doors and linking it to buses with a unified payment system). Now visitors to Seoul experience a very different city, one focused on walking, biking, and public transportation rather than cars.




How getting from here to there is changing forever.

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This transformation in Seoul represents the drive to reorient cities toward people. As depicted in the recent and excellent documentary film The Human Scale, it's a movement that now stretches from Melbourne to New York City, from Copenhagen to Chongqing. It means restoring streets and sections of cities that were lost to car-oriented changes. It also means new changes — such as public bike programs, municipal broadband, and market-oriented parking — that were not around a century ago.


Part of this movement is tearing down or substantially modifying what I call "apple corer" highways, those that tear directly into old city centers and were mostly built in the first few decades after World War II. Portland, San Francisco, and Milwaukee have torn down some. Other cities like Syracuse are considering it. And as Seoul shows, it's not just an American phenomenon.


There are those, such as my friend and old colleague Earl Swift, who say urban highways are here to stay. They carry too many cars to be removed, says Swift, and hey, people love their cars! But these tear-downs are part of a package of changes to make cities more livable and people-centered. These new changes can be seen as a course-correction to what cities did to themselves in the 20th century to accommodate cars.


It's also helpful to realize that these city-stomping highways were never on solid policy ground. Swift says inner-city highways trace back conceptually to the seminal 1939 federal report, Toll Roads and Free Roads. My favorite illustration from that report shows a multi-level set of roads, including a sunken highway, plowing through Parisian-looking blocks of an old-style urban city. The series of surface and sunk lanes are probably a thousand feet wide. But only a few cars roll on them, (hey, traffic's no problem!) and there is not a parking lot in site. Walking across this moat is inconceivable.



Courtesy of Toll Roads and Free Roads.


All of these features point to conceptual flaws at the heart of the original interstate program. I live within a few blocks of one of these sunken highways — the Prospect Expressway in Brooklyn that master builder Robert Moses bore right through a neighborhood of row-houses — and it's a hellish environment.


A few keen observers realized this way back in the 1950s. Soon after Congress approved the Interstate Highway Act, people began opposing the part of it that prescribed highways through cities. Swift describes this well in his excellent book, The Big Roads. The always astute Lewis Mumford, author of the prophetic 1958 article "The Highway and the City", called the inner city highways something that would create "a tomb of concrete roads and ramps covering the dead corpse of the city." San Francisco halted the Embarcadero and several other highways in 1959.


Perhaps most significantly, President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to stop the apple-corer highways once he realized they were in the plan that flew under his name. Eisenhower's Commerce Secretary, Frederick H. Mueller, suspended work on the city highways while Eisenhower's public works coordinator, General John S. Bragdon, attempted to redirect highways around or beside cities. This effort was for naught, but it remains telling.


History aside, there are several reasons why it's wrong to believe that no alternatives exist to urban highways. First of all, traffic is not some sort of fixed volume. People drive cars, and if a highway isn't there, they may take a bus or bicycle to work. They may telecommute, or they may sell their suburban home and move to the city. There is no set number of driver, for which you build roads.


American cities are in the midst of a cultural shift away from the traditional love of cars.


Secondly, big apple-corer highways decrease mobility as much as or more than they increase it. The limited access highway usually cuts across a grid-style street layout, sealing off surface avenues like a blowtorch cauterizing veins. Tearing down a big-city highway may actually improve traffic because it gives designers a chance to break open surface streets and restore overall circulation.


Finally, American cities are in the midst of a cultural shift away from the traditional love of cars. As detailed in a recent report by U.S. PIRG, Americans are driving fewer and fewer miles per capita every year. Even more significantly, getting a license is less of a rite of passage for young people. Instead, many are romanticizing the city and its urban ferment. When was the last time you saw a television show that portrayed the suburbs non-sarcastically?


All this means there is no fixed limit on the number of highways we can tear down or substantially modify. It depends more on political will and specific bureaucratic factors. Almost every major city has an apple-corer highway, sometimes several, that can be torn down, decked over or boulevardized.


Seoul shows how the process is both challenging and possible. When I was there in 2012, Kim Gyeng Chul, president of the Korea Transport Institute and one of the architects of the reforms, showed me around. He said the biggest opponents to tearing down the old freeway were the heads of companies headquartered in the high-rise buildings, who were driven straight to their offices in chauffeured cars. He also described how regular folks remembered when the highway was a symbol of modernity and progress. Through years of what sounded like Portland-style public meetings, opposition was won over or worn down, and the highway was torn down and the new park built. All this in just a few years. The mayor of the city at that time, Lee Myung-bak, went on to become president of South Korea in 2008 based in part on the success of his transformation of Seoul.


This is not to say that the only good highway is a dead one. But the ones that plow through neighborhoods and seal off waterfronts are truly destructive. And as Americans rush to embrace city living, I'm enough of a contrarian to remember the charms of the suburbs, which are increasingly a good deal (at least as far as home prices). But should we tear down the inner-city freeways? Yes. Can we? Yes again. What is needed is a game plan for doing it, and a coherent vision of the city that will emerge in their absence.


This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' an Atlantic Cities series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

Keywords: Dwight Eisenhower, Seoul, Urban Highways, highway tear down, Earl Swift, Interstate Highway System, Interstates, Commute, Traffic, Highways, Congestion, Driving, The BIg Roads


Alex Marshall is the author of several books, including The Surprising Design of Market Economies(Texas 2012) and How Cities Work (Texas 2000). He is a Senior Fellow at the non-profit urban planning group, the Regional Plan Association in New York City, and a regular columnist on transportation and economic development for Governing Magazine. All posts »

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