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Archive for the ‘Car-free living’ Category

Just a week ago, I got my first radio interview: I talked for 20 minutes with Marielle Smith, the producer of Energy-Wise.  The short segment played Monday morning on Newsradio 970 KFBX (and perhaps the other local Clear Channel stations).  We covered:

  • Our denied pedestrian right;
  • The social aspects of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and cities;
  • The need for and convenience of destination-rich, mixed-use neighborhoods;
  • The benefits and challenges of bus ridership in Fairbanks;
  • Problems with, and suggestions for, Fairbanks’s city planning; and
  • Reasons to prefer light rail to buses.

The interview is broken up into Part 1 and Part 2.  If those links don’t work, go to KFBX’s podcasts page and scroll down to Energy-Wise, episode 13.

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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.

—————

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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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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This summer from May to September, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center sponsors “Don’t Be Fuelish”, a competition to encourage alternatives single-occupant car-commuting to work. I think the competition will have a good effect overall — but, in a way, the rules actually reward driving.

According to the Northern Center’s calendar of events,

It’s a friendly competition, open to all local organizations, to encourage employees to reduce their fossil fuel usage. People can bike, walk, bus, or carpool to and from work to save miles traveled in a single occupant vehicle. These miles are tallied each month, with a winner of the most miles saved announced at the end of the competition. There will be individual recognition as well – most miles biked, most miles walked, etc…

Perhaps I misunderstand the competition — and please correct me if so — but it appears that what it rewards is distance from work. That is, those participants who live farthest from work can contribute “saved” mileage more than those who live close enough to walk.

I love bicycling, and, when it’s not too cold, biking is my preferred way of getting to work and any other destinations. But if the goal of Don’t Be Fuelish is to encourage less, and less-wasteful, use of gasoline, wouldn’t the sponsors (not to mention the atmosphere) be happier if people simply lived close enough to work that they could just walk? Yet those people cannot contribute to the competition in their places of work.

Now, I’m not suggesting that anybody is making his or her housing choices based on the chance to rack up “saved” miles for Don’t Be Fuelish. “Wait! I was going to live in Slaterville and walk to my job at Ace Hardware, but now I think I’ll relocate down the George Parks Highway and bike in from Nenana!” No, no, of course not.

It’s just ironic that those in a position to save the most miles of vehicle travel from May to September are also those who will also will drive the most miles and consume the most gasoline in the other months, since most people aren’t bold enough to walk or bike to work all winter long. It would be nice if the competition could also reward those who live on a smaller, more walkable scale.

Of course, the broader goals of Don’t Be Fuelish aren’t just to save vehicle-miles. As I see them, they are (1) to raise consciousness about the amount of gasoline we waste through single-occupancy car use, and (2) to help people create habits (like walking, bicycling, carpooling, and busing) that they can take into the winter months, even if not as vigorously as in the summer. These are laudable goals, and I think that Don’t Be Fuelish is an excellent tool for meeting them.

The bicycling promotion aside — and I’m all for it! — what could we do to make it more possible and more attractive for Fairbanksans to live, work, and shop with no need of automobiles whatsoever?

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As readers of Dermot Cole’s column may have heard, Prevention Magazine, in association with the American Podiatric Medical Association, named Fairbanks the best city in Alaska for walkers. The APMA developed the Best Walking Cities Competition in part “to educate the public on the health benefits of walking.” However, as an educational tool, their ranking leaves something to be desired.

While there are criteria, the end product is merely a ranked listing of 501 “cities” (more on that in a moment) – the ten most populous from each state, plus the District of Columbia. There seems to be no way to view a city’s score for any individual criterion, so a city wishing to improve its walkability has nothing to work with.

How would the end-user of the list use the rankings? If I were moving and weren’t tied to a job in a particular place, I would make walkability a strong criterion in my choice. But, if I were an Outsider choosing to move to Fairbanks on the basis of its ranking in Alaska, I might be disappointed. I don’t know where in Fairbanks you can live and have easy walking access to your work and to retail, commercial, civic, and recreational activities. It’s quite possible that the walkability within the City of Fairbanks exceeds that of the Municipality of Anchorage as a whole — but at least in Anchorage, as I remember from growing up there, you can find a neighborhood in which people reside, work, play, and shop. That’s awfully hard in Fairbanks. (Though I shouldn’t imply that such neighborhoods are common or cheap in Anchorage.)

So there are at least two ways of looking at walkability: (1) How is the walkability of the city or town overall? or, (2) Can a person who wishes not to own a car find a place in the city or town to live comfortably — where his or her time for leisure or civic life is not eaten up by over-long walks or circuitous bus rides? I have a feeling that the criteria favor walkability in the first sense.

Here is a list of the ten most populous “cities” from Alaska used in the competition, with their rankings:

  • 110 Fairbanks city
  • 118 Juneau city and borough
  • 208 Sitka city and borough
  • 306 College CDP [Census-designated place, I believe]
  • 426 Meadow Lakes CDP
  • 427 Madison city
  • 429 Anchorage municipality
  • 469 Knik-Fairview CDP
  • 470 Lakes CDP
  • 471 Tanaina CDP

I notice a few things about the list: First, the types of jurisdictions vary: city, city and borough, CDP, and municipality. This makes comparison difficult.

Second, some of the place names are unfamiliar to me. For example, where is the city Madison? The U.S. Board on Geographic Names doesn’t recognize it. And wouldn’t the cities of Wasilla, Palmer, Kenai, Soldotna, or Kodiak have greater populations, and make for better comparisons, than some of the CDPs selected? This lowers the credibility and the utility of the ranking.

Third — and most relevant to our topping the Alaska list — the part of Fairbanks surveyed seems to have been the city, not the greater Borough. A person might move to “Fairbanks” on the basis of its walkability, then find that the only affordable property was in University West or on Badger Road. Where would the walkability be then?

Fourth, the criteria could use a little scrutiny. The most heavily-weighted criterion is a “Walking Expert Panel”. I do not know who is on the panel or what their expertise is in. Have any of them ever been to Fairbanks (or the 500 other “cities”)? I wrote Friday (five days ago) to the contact people but have not heard back from them yet.

Another criterion is the Walkscore.com Index — which lost a bit of credibility with me when it listed eight grocery stores within a mile of my house and claimed the George C. Thomas library as one of the assets in my neighborhood.

Had I set the criteria, I might have included multi-use zoning as a criterion: does the city actually allow neighborhoods where people can work, play, shop, and gather without getting in a car? Rather than Total Cars Per Household, I might have used Total Annual Miles Driven Per Household.

But, no matter what statistical measures you use, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: as you move between home and work, between school and shopping, between public meetings and private parties — how many people do you see walking? how many driving? and which are you?

***

Addendum: The expert panel of seven people is listed, not on the APMA’s Best Walking Cities Competition pages, but on the website of Prevention magazine.  Between the seven people, could they have visited all 500 cities?  It’s a stretch, but I suppose it’s possible.

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As we were leaving our place of work last May, a co-worker saw me fasten my helmet and mount my bicycle. She asked, “Why is your blog called the Fairbanks Pedestrian, if you’re always bicycling?” I was in a hurry to get home to my wife and daughters, so I gave her too short an answer. It’s a good question, and it cuts to the central question I hope to discuss in this blog: What does it mean to be a Fairbanks pedestrian?

In a nutshell, this is it:
As unremarkable as it sounds, I believe that walking is a fundamental human right. And, as bizarre as it sounds, I believe that walking is a right that most of Fairbanks is deprived of.

I do not mean that walking in your own house is a right, though it obviously is. Nor am I suggesting that most of us (the non-incarcerated) are prevented by some external power from stepping outside our homes and moving on two feet in one direction or another. These are trivial interpretations of our pedestrian right.

I hold that it is the right of people living in a community to perform all functions of their day-to-day life — working, eating, shopping, exercising, playing, politicking, gardening, visiting friends, getting medical care, going on dates, attending meetings, throwing parties, enjoying the summer Solstice Festival downtown, and watching the start of the Yukon Quest — without setting foot in a car.

“But there’s no law against that!” some will say.

“There doesn’t have to be an explicit prohibition,” I reply, “for us to be deprived of our pedestrian right.”

I hope to explore in this blog some of the ways our laws effectively prohibit most of us from living without cars. I hope to show how, far from giving us the freedom they promise in commercials, automobiles enslave us, disconnect us from each other, degrade our landscape, erode our sense (and pride) of place, disenfranchise large segments of our population, and make a rich civic life impossible.

I believe that human beings are not made — we’re just not biologically wired — to experience their best life at the speeds available in, and at the distances required by, an automotive culture. How often, while driving, have you stopped to talk to a friend, chatted with a neighbor about the weather, or picked up a piece of trash? The answer, most likely, is “never.” (In fact, the same applies to bicycling, too. While I love it as transportation for long distances, the speeds at which I usually ride preclude adequately taking in — let alone beautifying — my surroundings.) For drivers, places are reduced to routes, and people are reduced to obstacles.

I hope to reclaim the streets of Fairbanks for people, not cars — to see our streets, cold though they be, filled with friends visiting, couples strolling, children playing, and strangers having all the spontaneous exchanges that make people fit for egalitarian, democratic society. Even in Fairbanks, it’s possible.

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