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Archive for May, 2008

I reported a week and a half ago that I’d be giving a workshop at the fourth annual Clucking Blossom festival, on the future of city planning and neighborhoods in Fairbanks after $10-per-gallon gasoline. I’m happy to report that the workshop was well attended, and that my audience gave lots of participation.

Following is a rough outline of the workshop. While I did elicit contributions from those attending, I shouldn’t pretend that this outline represents a major collaborative endeavor. The bulleted lists are where participants’ ideas show most; otherwise, most of the ideas that follow are mine.

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INTRODUCTION

In my blog, I’m reluctant to take the “stop driving because it’s economically unsustainable” tack or the “stop driving because it’s hurting the earth” tack, since there are so many other good reasons to pursue walkable cities and public transit. But there’s a sustainability focus at this year’s Clucking Blossom workshops, so I’m using that as my angle here.

Just yesterday, a fellow cyclist and I were waiting at a crosswalk, bemoaning the aches that come from starting riding after a winter (or longer) of inactivity. She said, “At four dollars a gallon, I can live with a sore butt.” She’s just one of many people who are now finding it difficult to live an auto-intensive lifestyle.

Gasoline prices are almost $4 a gallon now, and there’s no reason to expect them to go down. I’ve heard speculation that petroleum will hit $200 a barrel by the end of summer. Soon, driving cars will not be viable for most people. Here we’ll address: How will we have to live, if we want Fairbanks to continue as a city? (Of course, it could devolve into survivalist anarchy, but I’m hoping to keep an outpost of civilization in the Interior.) We want to start a planning document that could ultimately be a tool for the Borough Planning Department or the Assembly.

Bear in mind, I’m not proposing that there will be NO cars in the future, just that our day-to-day use of them will be much diminished. Perhaps most people will not even own cars. There is no reason we need to own cars and other vehicles if we only use them occasionally. There are conventional car rental businesses in most cities. In some larger cities, there are agencies scattered about town that rent cars for very short times — measured in hours. (“Zipcars” is one such business.) Certainly heavy utility vehicles can be rented. Perhaps pickup trucks are rentable in Fairbanks — if not now, they surely could be.

But since car ownership, or car use for day-to-day needs, is becoming unaffordable for many, we need to redesign our cities and neighborhoods to allow for people to meet their daily needs on foot. (I’ve written about the idea of “walking distance” elsewhere. It means, no farther than you’re willing to regularly walk at twenty below.)

HOW WE GOT IN THIS MESS

Here are three cycles of expanding car use. In fact, they work concurrently, but they’re easier to understand if we can tease them apart. These are covered with greater detail in David Engwicht’s book Street Reclaiming (See Further reading).

  1. We start with walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods.
  2. Cars are introduced. At first, they are a novelty and add interest to the street. Naturally, more people want their “convenience”.
  3. Because the streets are more filled with cars, it feels less safe to walk on the street.
  4. For their own safety, former walkers now drive.
  5. Because the streets are more filled with cars, it feels less safe to walk on the street. Et cetera.

Here’s another:

  1. We start with walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods.
  2. As more cars are introduced, more space is required to move and house them: wider streets and roads, parking lots, driveways, garages, etc. Engwicht says (and I don’t know where this figure comes from) that cars require 70 times the land that pedestrians do.
  3. Now towns must be planned more spread out: there must be wider streets and roads, garages, parking lots, et cetera. This pushes every destination farther from every other destination.
  4. Because of the increased distance people must traverse, more buy cars.

And the last cycle is my favorite. Engwicht says that culture is made up of “exchanges” — that is, social exchanges, cultural exchanges, economic exchanges, romantic exchanges, and such. The genius of cities is that they concentrate those exchanges so that we may have them easily, often without planning or thinking about them. Cities are best thought of as “exchange spaces”.

  1. In the pedestrian-scaled city, unplanned, convenient exchanges abound. Acquaintances bump into each other on the street; people stop at the corner grocery on their way home from work; friends meet at the local tavern with no advance planning.
  2. As people and destinations grow farther apart from each other, people’s chances for unplanned exchanges diminish.
  3. To make up for the lost unplanned exchanges, people need to increase their number of planned exchanges — and to reach these, they must drive.
  4. The time spent driving and the time spent at places that serve only one purpose reduces the time people have available for unplanned exchanges. (How often do you run into friends while driving?)
  5. To make up for the lost unplanned exchanges, people drive more.

I think many people actually view the reduction in unplanned exchanges as a virtue. It is rational: every trip serves only the purposes designed by the traveler. You must only spend time in those places, and with those people, that you choose. But for all its rationality, such a life is inefficient.

FUNCTIONS OF CARS

Just what do we do with cars, that we may need to make available to pedestrians? (Some on this list were mine; others were from participants.)

  • Commute to work
  • Buy groceries
  • Make supply purchases
  • See friends
  • Go to school
  • Go to meetings or other civic participation
  • Take kids to school, soccer practice, violin lessons, etc.
  • Attend church
  • Cultural events
  • Have dinner with friends
  • Quiet, leisure driving
  • Put the baby to sleep
  • Subsistence: hunting and fishing
  • Road trips / travel
  • Outdoor recreation (camping, skiing, etc.)

Most participants seemed to agree that most of these things were fully compatible with dignified residential living. (I have put the ones that seemed incompatible, or that will certainly require car use, at the bottom, starting with “Quiet, leisure driving”.) Leisure driving itself might have to be curtailed just because of the price of gas, but there’s no reason neighborhoods couldn’t offer places for quiet, leisurely walks. Somebody pointed out that, while subsistence hunting and fishing required cars for the transport of guns and game, it might be possible to integrate horticulture or small-scale agriculture within the city. (Large-scale agriculture requires too much land and needs to be on the periphery.)

CHALLENGES OF INTEGRATING THESE USES INTO THE CITY

I was going to lead people to this, but somebody hit it straight away: the biggest challenge to having all these in our neighborhoods is population density. Without enough children near a school, it’s not viable to maintain the building. The population of your neighborhood may not be enough to allow you to make many friends — and you can’t expect all your friends to simply move into your neighborhood. Without a sufficient customer base, a business will fail.

So what are some changes in ordinance that will allow us to live closer to each other and to the services we need? Alternately: What now encourages sprawling development and auto-intensive living, and how do we change that?

  • Zoning. Currently an area might be zoned for “single-family” use. We’ll need to change this, to allow denser residential living and to allow businesses, schools, banks, hair salons, grocery stores, and light (not heavy) industry to mix with houses and apartments.
  • Zoning vertically, not just horizontally. Horizontal zoning spreads people and their needs farther from each other. The land-use mix should encourage ground floors to be inhabited by businesses (and other agencies) that are useful to people’s day-to-day life. Retail and commercial should ideally be on the ground floor, offices on the second floor, and apartments (or condominiums) on the third and fourth floors.
  • A tax framework that supports local agriculture. (I don’t remember why this came up, though it seems like a good idea.)
  • Protection of local businesses. Outside businesses typically build stores large enough to draw people away from neighborhood businesses, which are exactly what we want. Also, they’re parking-intensive, which means land-intensive, which means they push people farther from each other.
  • Distribution of land uses: agriculture, since it’s land-intensive, should not be mixed within the city. Current zoning puts rural uses at odd places within the city.
  • Infill, rather than greenfield development, should be encouraged. (Perhaps with tax incentives.) This ties in with setbacks and lot lines, below.
  • The cost of services in the city should be brought down. Currently, people perceive that city services are expensive and that it’s cheaper to live outside.
  • Required setbacks and lot lines. That is, “Your house has to be 20 feet from the street and ten feet from the neighboring property line” and such. I call these “mandatory lawn laws”, since they require us to have mostly unused land that most people don’t care to maintain. It forces development outward. Instead, this land could be inhabited.
  • Tax land rather than buildings. Current practice of taxing land at a rate far less than buildings encourages less useful building and more unused land. Better to encourage people to build densely and build profitably. (I’ve written more on that here.) There’s no reason to think that we’d have to tax every use at the same rate: agriculture is a necessarily land-intensive activity that we might want to support with a lower tax rate.

“WHAT IF I LIKE WHERE I LIVE?”

Often, once you start talking about mixing land uses and encouraging denser living, people think either (a) they’re going to have to move downtown, or (b) their town has to become like Manhattan. Neither is the case. There is no reason to think that the center of the city is the only place for development or the best place for neighborhoods.

To me, it’s obvious that most people will have to live closer to each other and to their day-to-day services. But these neighborhoods can occur some distance from each other. Some will have the full range of services you expect in a city of 90,000; others may enjoy a more spartan way of life. It seems fully possible that a group of people who wish to farm (or otherwise live by leaning a little less on civilization) could live fairly near each other, sharing their produce and other products, and making a supply run to the city only once a week with a shared car.

The solution I’m excited about is transit-centered. One of the attractions of my house is that it’s only three minutes’ walk from the nearest bus stop, and only 15 minutes from the transit station. Our future neighborhoods could be centered on transit stops; my special favorite solution is light rail. It offers a permanence that change bus routes do not. Those who live near a train stop know that public transportation will be within walking distance for the forseeable future. And businesses that locate near train stops know they’ll have a guaranteed customer base getting off the trains and seeing their stores several times an hour. Light-rail stops don’t have to be over-near each other, so there could even be parkland somewhere between them, and they would make great nuclei for neighborhoods.

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If you’re already a reader of The Fairbanks Pedestrian, you may not have looked recently for an “About this blog” link. But now there is one — look, at the top of the page! Chances are, you know the kinds of things I write about, so you won’t learn anything new about the blog’s themes. But there’s one passage I’d like to highlight:

While for now I write all the posts to to this blog, I am always eager for readers to participate. I do not claim to have all the answers to the questions raised here, nor are all my stated opinions unchangeable and final. I encourage everybody with another perspective or a question to leave a comment. For example:

  • “Here’s another example of what you’re talking about…”
  • “How would your solution apply in this difficult circumstance?…”
  • “Here are some facts you didn’t consider…”
  • “One of your premises is faulty. Here’s what I’d say instead…”

And, of course:

  • “Great ideas! What can I do to help?”

(I hope it’s not tacky to excerpt one’s own writing.)

The fact is, friends, it’s mighty quiet here in blogland. My broader goal is to start a community discussion about city living and civic life — but most of the time the discussion goes only one way.

I’m not interested in your flattery or your insincerity. But I do hope that, if I ever say something that changes your mind, re-affirms your position, brightens your day, gives you a new idea, or pisses you off, you’ll leave a comment and let me know. My hope for The Fairbanks Pedestrian is that it be interesting, useful, or in other ways worth your while. If it is, I’d love to know how.

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My travels sometimes take me to Anchorage — often enough, by car. It was on one of those trips, in the past year or two, that I devised a simple measure of a place’s pedestrian-friendliness: the bench test.

I drove in on the George Parks Highway, entered the city at Muldoon Road, and turned west on Northern Lights Boulevard. To the north and the south of that part of Northern Lights, but concealed from the road, are a number of residential subdivisions. The street itself is bordered by a lot of tasteful wooden fences and tall trees — enough trees that the area looks lush, and in spots you might get the impression you were driving through an urban garden. I liked it.

Then I thought, “What is a garden with no place to sit?” and I put some nice iron-and-wood benches along the sidewalks for people to sit on. But that made me wonder: What brought these hypothetical people here? What business do they have along this street? And what kind of experience do they have as they sit on their benches? The answers I came up with changed my appraisal of this garden boulevard.

The view from the bench is pretty monotonous, including only planted trees, tasteful wooden fences, asphalt, and speeding cars. No one spot has much visual variety; even from block to block the view is similar. Since this stretch of Northern Lights is nearly bereft of pedestrians, there is almost no human activity to follow — and nothing interests people so much as other people. My recollection is that the sidewalk either is not separated at all from the road, or is separated by only a foot or two of grass and occasional trees, so anyone sitting (or walking) along the sidewalk feels no protection from the cars that go by at 35 to 50 miles per hour. Perhaps for somebody doing a traffic study, this would be an enjoyable place to be, but not for many others. The attractive trees and fences are made for the benefit of drivers, not walkers.

So what brought these hypothetical bench-sitters here, if they didn’t come for the view? They’re probably not waiting for somebody to pick them up, since there’s no meaningful shoulder for a car to pull into. Nor did they come to watch people or run into friends: as I said, there’s little human activity here. Could they be there shopping, getting their hair done, stopping for a cup of coffee, buying a book, or cashing a paycheck? Not likely: as I said, the street, with few exceptions, is lined with fences and trees, not businesses. There is really nothing for a person to do here.

In short, this stretch of road is designed to be boring, uncomfortable, and useless to the pedestrian. It offers no reasons to be there, only reasons to leave there. With nary a word, it screams, GET OUT! KEEP DRIVING UNTIL YOU’RE SOMEWHERE ELSE! It is not a real place, but an automotive sewer.

Of course, we have plenty such non-places in Fairbanks: Airport Way, Geist Road, Farmers Loop Road, and much of College Road have a lot in common with Anchorage’s East Northern Lights Boulevard. And those are just from the big-name roads. Try the bench test everywhere you go. Ask, “What would it be like to sit here? And what would bring me here, anyway, besides the desire to get somewhere else?”

We have a handful of real, bench-worthy places in Fairbanks. Downtown and Pioneer Park are places where a reasonable person might have business and enjoy sitting awhile to watch or meet people — although both are far more lively in the summer. Perhaps some areas of College Road, Minnie Street, or Graehl.

Help me out, friends. Where would you put a bench? How would it feel to sit there? What would bring you there in the first place? Where are the places that invite you stay?

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This Saturday (May 17), join me at Clucking Blossom for a discussion on the future of neighborhoods and city planning amid rising gasoline prices.

Clucking Blossom is an annual festival of music, art, and ideas. It is absolutely free of charge — in fact, no cash is allowed to change hands on the day of the event. It will have over 50 bands playing, activities for children, art projects, a community picnic, workshops, and more. This year’s Clucking Blossom will be at the Birch Hill Recreation Area this Saturday from 10 a.m. to midnight.

Here’s the description I’ve submitted for my program:

Fairbanks After $10-per-Gallon Gasoline: The future of neighborhoods and community planning.

Paul Adasiak, author of the blog The Fairbanks Pedestrian, will talk about neighborhoods, downtowns, and city planning. What benefits are there to living in neighborhoods? How does current land use make us isolated and car-dependent, and how might we use land differently to help equality, encourage community, and save money? How can we keep access to untouched wilderness as our population grows?

I’ll be leading the discussion at 1:00 in a venue called “The CluckHaus” — I don’t know just where that is.

Please join me — or if you can’t make it to my discussion, come later in the day! Naturally, feel free to bike, jog, or carpool there.

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A letter to the editor in Tuesday’s News-Miner sparked a little discussion about the Fairbanks Parking Authority. It seems that a number of people don’t like getting tickets when they park downtown and blame the Parking Authority for excessive zeal. They seem to want parking offered that is free of charge and unrestricted as to duration, place, and manner.

The economist Milton Friedman is famous for saying, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” I offer a corollary, one that should rile all those who hate government subsidies, and certainly those who hate the subsidy of private goods at the expense of community good:

There is no such thing as free parking.

This may go against the experience so many of us have of driving to a retail or commercial establishment, finding a parking place, and never coughing up so much as a dime. That is because parking is subsidized by community money. An example should help explain this:

Our local Wal-Mart, located near the intersection of the Johansen and the Old Steese, occupies a total area of 1,154,562 square feet. Of this, the building occupies 259,992 sq. ft., or 22.5%, and the non-building area — mostly parking — occupies 894,570 sq. ft., or 77.5%. The total assessed value of Wal-Mart’s local property is $24,864,040. Of this, the structures are valued at $17,359,387, or 69.8%, and the land value (which probably includes the land the building sits on) is $7,504,653, or 30.2%. (These figures are from the 2007 assessment, available at the FNSB Property Database.)

Okay, that was a lot of numbers. What’s relevant here is that the building, which occupies less than a quarter of the land area, accounts for more than two-thirds of the entire property’s assessed value, while the land itself, over three-quarters of which is not built on (and about half of which seems to be parking), accounts for less than a third of the assessed value.

In short, the Borough taxes parking lots far less than it taxes buildings. That is the subsidy. The shame of it is, it’s like this nearly everywhere.

The value of a property to the Borough, it seems to me, is the value of what could be built there. It is like this when we pay for many things that, like land, are finite: we pay more for the use of a scarce resource, and what we pay is based heavily on how much we keep others from using. Wal-Mart, no matter how many square feet their building occupies, still uses 1.1 million square feet. That’s over a million square feet not available to other retail, commercial, civic, or residential uses, a million square feet that has potential value to the citizens of the Interior.

So when Wal-Mart is taxed most heavily on how less than a quarter of its land is used, the Borough is giving their car-driving shoppers a big, wet kiss. I suspect that if land were taxed at the same rate as buildings, Wal-Mart would install parking meters overnight — or at least their “everyday low prices” couldn’t be so low.

Wal-Mart is not receiving special treatment this way. My own house occupies slightly more than a quarter of the land it sits on, yet it accounts for over 92% of the property’s assessed value. The Borough seems to be subsidizing my driveway and my lawn, and I’m not so sure this is fair.

There certainly are land uses that deserve government subsidy, things that are social goods. Agriculture comes to mind as the most worthy. But parking is not a social good: it benefits only the driver and does nothing for those too young, too old, too poor, or too infirm to drive. What’s more, the ease of “free” parking encourages people to drive to their destinations, rather than busing, biking, or walking. Free parking only makes living far away from neighbors and community more desirable. And that’s not a behavior government has any business encouraging.

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UAF’s Rasmuson Library is going through a strategic planning process right now, and my department — Alaska and Polar Regions — is doing its own as part of that process. One thing I’ve been reminded of is how long-term vision gets too easily sacrificed (if it’s even conceived) for short-term feasibility. And I don’t know what to do about it.

One of the bright spots of the Rasmuson, the jewel in our crown, is the archives. (For those who are not researchers or librarians, an archives is a collection of non-current records of individuals, families, and organizations, and may include personal papers, government records, photographs, and film. Archives are essential for doing original historical research.) We have around four linear miles of archival materials on shelves, not to mention the vaults where our audio and film recordings are kept. Our archives makes us one of the premier institutions worldwide for arctic research.

There are some collections an archives can count on getting as a matter of course: for example, the university is required to leave some of its institutional records there. But a great part of our archives comes from voluntarily donated collections. Our donors must be able to meet with our archivists and to bring in their collections — which means they must be able to get to us easily. And that’s the problem.

The popular opinion seems to be that the folks at Facilities Services, who govern parking, are a bunch of bloodthirsty jackals who will ask you to open a vein for a parking permit and will turn your grandmother over to the Taliban if you run afoul of their meters or regulations. (I take no position on this, except to say, I feel sorry for them, since they are apparently mandated to operate on a cost-recovery basis, covering all their operations with fees and fines.) There is now no free parking on campus. Whether this is just or not, it makes it hard for our donors to reach us.

As APR discussed its piece in the strategic plan, people began referring to “the parking problem”: namely, that the shortage of parking, not to mention the absence of any free parking, made it difficult for donors to get to our offices. (Apparently, the members of a local historical group have an understanding that they should not visit our archives, because it is so difficult.)

I conceived of it differently: as a transit problem. To my mind, if frequent, reliable public transit were offered in the Borough, our visitors, including our donors, would rarely need to drive to us. Of course, for there to be such transit, we’d need greater Borough funding to buy more buses, expand the coverage of routes, pay for drivers, et cetera. Greater Fairbanks sprawls out all across the Tanana River Valley; the coverage by public transit required to get just the more-populated areas to the university could require major public investment, and it certainly wouldn’t happen overnight.

In contrast, parking policies can be changed overnight. And that’s the solution my department is going for. I think we’ll work through proper channels to attempt to designate one or two parking spots near the library as “invited library guest only”.

I’m not upset that we’re pursuing the parking solution. It only makes sense. But I’m disappointed (not surprised) that nobody else seemed to think of our problem as part of a greater public problem — or, if they did, as a part of a problem worth tackling. We’re certainly willing to say, “Let’s take the parking issue up with the chancellor.” Why couldn’t we, with other departments, ask the chancellor to address the future of public transit with the Borough Assembly?

I like self-reliance. I like individual initiative. But transportation, of which parking is only a small part, is a problem we grapple with all over Fairbanks. A long-term solution to our various transportation woes is not possible when we try to solve these problems at the small organizational level. Paradoxically, the best way for organizations to be self-reliant is to band together for region-wide changes — so they can be free to grapple with the problems that really matter to them.

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Fairbanks Street | Google MapsI recently visited a friend on Fairbanks Street, in an area I haven’t regarded too highly in the past. I discovered some of its hidden virtues that make it one of Fairbanks’s pockets of pedestrian-friendliness.

This is something I think about often: What will we do when gasoline becomes so horrendously expensive that it’s no longer practical to own a car? (In truth, I think our society has long passed that point, but we have so much psychologically invested in personal mobility that we’re accustomed not to demanding the lost personal time or community life.)

It causes me to think often, when I’m in different places, about what it would be like to live there without a car. Yes, the houses are lovely, but do the neighbors ever talk? Where can your kids go to play independently or to mingle in adult life? If you have guests coming in fifteen minutes and you’ve just discovered you’re clean out of toilet paper, what can you do?

The neighborhood around Fairbanks Street — that is, the area just across Geist from West Valley and Hutch — is not bad as far as getting by without a car. Not ideal, but it really has some virtues. It is especially good for those who work at UAF, since, from Geist, campus is a bit uphill but essentially just across the street. Whether you consider being car-free a goal or an unfortunate circumstance, living near work eliminates half the struggle already.

It is also has an identifiable neighborhood center, with places that the locals can visit and run into each other: namely, the stretch of businesses along Geist that includes places to meet up like Alaska Coffee Roasting Company, a national pizza chain, and a national hamburger chain. A number of them serve a borough-wide customer base and not the neighborhood especially — but I see no reason why a local-serving grocery store couldn’t be there, too, and perhaps a more out-of-the-way coffee shop for the neighbors.

The southern end of the neighborhood would be right across the street from a Fred Meyer, if only it weren’t stopped short by the Chena River. (This highlights the difference between proximity and access — with the addition of a few pedestrian bridges over Deadman Slough and the Chena, that store could effectively become much nearer to those who live there.) That said, if you walk to Loftus, which leads to a pedestrian/bike path where the Mitchell crosses the Chena, you can quickly enough reach Airport Way near Fred Meyer. I’m told by a friend near the south end of Fairbanks that it’s about a half-hour’s walk one way; I think this means under 10 minutes on bicycle. This is a lot closer than most Fairbanksans live from their grocery stores. And I think the alternative is longer: take Geist to University, and University to Airport. (Though you can cut through some to get to University.)

Also, it’s got the pedestrian’s lifeline to the city: two bus lines that go along Geist, with several stops between Loftus and University. The Blue and Red lines run a circular path in opposite directions and can take people to the university, the fairgrounds, Creamer’s Field, the Steese/Johansen box-store retail monstrosity, both Fairbanks Fred Meyer and Safeway stores, Alaskaland, our local 16-screen überplex, Denny’s, a host of medical offices, and, of course, downtown. Those who care to walk south and cross the Mitchell bridge toward Airport can catch the Yellow line to take them to the Airport or downtown by way of Alaskaland.

For my taste, this neighborhood is missing a lot. There are so many dead ends that getting from one spot to another would frustrate me. Moreover, dead ends just channel traffic into a series of ever-busier collector streets (rather than distribute it equally), which makes those collectors unsafe and unwelcoming places for pedestrians. It would benefit from more local-serving retail — perhaps a bit out of the way and closer to the center of the neighborhood.

Where are the other “pedestrian pockets” in Fairbanks? Have you got one near you? Maybe better to start by asking: What should our criteria be? What makes a neighborhood a good place for walkers to live?

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