Monday, August 18, 2008

Living in new urbanism

I'm staying at the Chautauqua Institution lakefront resort in western NY state this week, and thought I'd pass on some personal observations about living in a new urbanist community. Well, to be technical, it's old urbanism - it started in 1874 - but it absolutely fits many new urbanist ideals: beautiful, large (2-4 story), dense Victorian houses on very small plots of land (almost no yards), built right up against each other, with very narrow streets and almost no parking (pictures, maps). It's incredibly walkable and bikeable - in fact that's pretty much the only way to get around. Cars are only allowed in for loading and unloading, and then have to park in a giant parking lot outside the community across the highway. It's a pretty good-sized place - filling up with about 7,500 people every summer - so the streets have a lot of pedestrian vibrancy. It even has a classic town square in the center everybody can walk to with a fountain, library, bookstore, restaurants, convenience store and other retail.

While it is an idyllic place, what I can't figure out is how much this works just as a summer resort vs. "real life" applicability. It's only open during the summer and shuts down the other 8-9 months of the year during the brutal NY state winters. Each house is jammed with people. I'd say our 3-story Victorian is hosting 12+ couples in small bedrooms packed on the floors with shared bathrooms - far, far more people than if it were occupied by a normal family household (draining the needed pedestrian vibrancy and density to support shops and services). Lectures, classes, and other events happen around campus all day long, drawing people out to walk around more than they might normally. People are here on vacation, meaning they're not doing daily work commutes or running the errands of daily life - where the trek to the car in the far lot would be intolerable. And the weather is perfect up here in the summer, making the pedestrian experience wonderful. I imagine it would not be so wonderful the rest of the year.

All that said, it might work in the "real world" with narrower townhomes for smaller households set on top of garages, although the steady car traffic that would create would make the narrow streets much less pleasant for pedestrians or bikers. There's a danger issue too: with sightlines so limited by close-in houses up against the street, it's easy for a pedestrian or biker to come out of nowhere. Combine that with the steep hills and winter ice, and it's a dangerous mix. My father already ran his bike into a tree pretty hard, dodging a surprise pedestrian while coasting a downhill curve. Yes, in theory the narrow streets and sightlines should make everybody be more careful and go slower, but people are human, and safety is not always top-of-mind (especially with kids).

All this drives home for me why new urbanist projects that aren't apartments stacked on top of a town center mall are so difficult and so rare: there are just too many hard tradeoffs in a modern society built around the car. All this nostalgia we have is for old urban places built before cars were common - when walking and biking and transit were the only ways to get around. Any modern household today - even living in a TOD where they walk, bike, and use transit for some trips - will still own a car and use it often, and that's really hard to reconcile with the ideal new urbanist environment.

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At 8:25 AM, August 19, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to get a good feel of what this experience would look like if cars were allowed on the street, you need to head over to the uptown portion of New Orleans (near Tulane and Loyola Universities) or Old Algiers (across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans).

Most of the streets are just barely two cars wide with one side reserved for only permitted parking. You have to fold your mirrors in on your car because it will be taken off by garbage and delivery trucks (they are not responsible).

Even these old neighborhoods with good public transit readily available (to job centers too), the large majority have cars. From Uptown, the St. Charles Street car line can send you into downtown and the French Quarter passing by grocery stores and all other modern necessities. Children can even get to school, but parents till have cars. From old Algiers, you can walk to a ferry that will take you across the river to the foot of Canal St. From here you have street cars and circulator buses available. Yet people still have cars. All the public transit systems I just mentioned are very heavily used by locals for commuting trips and could easily be used for other trips, but car ownership is still quite high.

The big difference is that New Orleans didn't ban cars from the streets, they instead just started a permitted program to limit the cars. Visiting is a pain unless you are at a Bed and Breakfast where they give you a temporary permit tag.

While having the cars everywhere is sometimes a pain for these residents, they don't want to give up their freedom of having one. Every now and then ordinances come up to reduce and/or ban cars in these areas and opposition from these neighborhoods are high to stop the ordinance. A few residents don't want the cars, but most don't care and will fight to keep them.

At 1:20 PM, August 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The big difference is that New Orleans didn't ban cars from the streets, they instead just started a permitted program to limit the cars. Visiting is a pain unless you are at a Bed and Breakfast where they give you a temporary permit tag.

This is mainly true in the French Quarter. Most of Uptown New Orleans is reasonably car-friendly. I dare say most of the older homes have at some time had a driveway added, and those that haven't tend to be less desirable in areas where street parking is scarce.

What's definitely true is that medium-level density, like in old Victorian suburbs, doesn't foster transit use. It's easier to adapt or put up with parking problems than to walk or take the bus everywhere. You need the levels of density seen in central New York or Parish to drive people onto to buses and trains en masse, and even then there are numerous holdouts. Cars are simply easier, especially in warmer climates.

At 2:28 PM, August 26, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Couple observations on: Walking/biking were the only ways to get around?

Actually bikes are a relatively recent invention. It wasn't like people were getting around on rubber, air-inflated tire bikes in the 1500s. To the contrary I;m pretty sure that bikes first came on the scene around 100 years ago, maybe 120. The bike as a cheap item of transport that you could buy for $100 at Target is even more recent.

Second, people most certainly did have an option for personal transport beyond walking (and later, walking and biking). It was called a horse and people were using those to get around for personal travel needs since the things were put under the bit and saddle in the bronze age. The car is an update/replacement of the horse, not walking and biking.


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