What kind of city do we want to be?

Madison has a decision to make. What kind of city do we want to be?

Madison is just one of five cities in the country to earn platinum-level status as a Bicycle Friendly Community from the League of American Cyclists. And the city deserves every bit of that accolade. Madison has built a substantial network of off-street bike paths that move people across the city throughout the year.

But that’s only half the equation, and here comes the difficult part: On-street bicycle infrastructure. To be sure, the city has made gains by implementing traffic calming devices, painted bike lanes and bike boulevards. But the low hanging fruit is running out, and we’re nowhere near having a safe, efficient and reliable shared transportation network on the Isthmus.

Mayor Paul Soglin has stated publically that the city won’t be building any more road capacity on the Isthmus (and where would they?). So where do we get space for more bike infrastructure?

That’s the question facing the 0-200 blocks of West Wilson Street.

Currently, the one-way street carries two lanes of traffic and accommodates two parking lanes. There’s no route for east-bound bicyclists, leaving a dangerous gap in the bicycle network on this side of downtown. Fortunately, the street is due for reconstruction this year.

And with four lanes currently dedicated to cars, there’s sufficient space to work with to better accommodate both bicycles and cars. Not every downtown street can say that.

However, the city recently unveiled its reconstruction plan and the design maintains the two travel lanes and two parking lanes. As for the bikes? The sidewalk on the south side of the street will be widened from five to eight feet to be shared by both pedestrians and bicyclists.

That is not a solution fit for a platinum city.

current reconstruction plan

current reconstruction plan

Instead, we need to seek real solutions, like converting the south parking lane into a protected contra-flow bicycle lane. After all, shouldn’t our streets prioritize moving traffic over storing cars?

City staff report businesses on the street have told them they fear for the loss of parking. This is a legitimate concern, and a common argument against adding bike lanes. But after years of experiments around the country, we have mountains of data to calm these worries.

Bike lanes don’t kill business. In fact, in many cases, removing parking lanes in favor of dedicated bike lanes increases business. Don’t believe me? Just ask Bloor Street in Toronto, 65th Street in Seattle and 300 South in Salt Lake City.

Fortunately, city staff have agreed to revisit reconstruction plans and will be presenting a series of alternatives at a public meeting on Monday, March 20 at 6:30pm in the City-County Building (room 351). A separated, contra-flow bike lane is likely one of those options.

So Madison has a decision to make. What kind of city do we want to be? Will we fight to preserve 20th century street parking or continue building a 21st century transportation network?

Better cities can fix our relationship problems

We have a relationship problem in this country.

And not speaking in just a romantic sense, but in the sense of the entire broad way you could define the way we, as humans, connect and interact with each other.

The data and anecdotes have been building for decades: The inability for politicians to form consensus and take meaningful collective action; High divorce rates; Our penchant to stock up weapons for defense against our neighbors; A fear towards other races and religions. The list could go on and on.

Certainly a thousand different factors all contribute to these issues, but I’m here to say we can blame a lot of it on poor city planning principles established around the middle of the 20th century. The good news? Some progressive planners and engineers are finally coming around to the idea that we should design cities for people (not cars) and cities for people to interact and form relationships.

When America decided 60 or so years ago that it would be a car-focused country with massive highways and sprawling suburbs, our country made the decision that the best way to live was separated from each other. With ample land in the suburbs, people didn’t have to see their neighbors if they didn’t want to. And when they did leave the house, it has cocooned in a car.

Americans created massive suburban developments with walls and gates to make sure they never had to see other people. We started to become afraid of each other. And the more afraid we became, the higher we built our walls.

Back in the cities, planners demolished vibrant neighborhoods and street life, replacing it with tall, sterile towers built away from streets. The people relocated to those towers often didn’t know each other and the tower design didn’t allow them to interact organically.

Just in this week’s Cap Times, columnist Margaret Krome explored how crucial social connection is to mental and physical health—emphasizing the need for genuine relationships. “Many say that the worst feelings of isolation occur in a crowd. It’s not lack of company but of genuine and trusted interpersonal connection that is most painful.”

Anecdotally, you only have to look to the work of Jane Jacobs to understand the problem. Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, laid the foundation for understanding that great neighborhoods are messy and organic. And great neighborhoods are about people. Where planners of her time saw blighted slums, Jacobs saw places where neighbors knew each other, developed trust over many years and watched out for each other. These great neighborhoods organically brought people together and those people formed incredibly valuable relationships (even if it was just a knowing glance every day you passed by the man selling fruit).

And that’s the foundation of great cities: People and their relationships, not buildings.

We have a prime example in Madison—The Greenbush Neighborhood, a vibrant neighborhood misunderstood as a violent slum and bulldozed in favor of sterilized housing.

Statistically, a more recent book from Canadian Charles Montgomery explains the scientific research behind how today’s cities and their car-centric culture are destroying our relationships. The Happy City details a number of dramatic symptoms that come from over-built streets and car-centric planning. But his focus on relationships is especially interesting.

Montgomery details the suburban ballet that is the workday commute: Enter your garage, get in your car, drive (perhaps a few hours) on a congested highway to work, park in the garage, leave work, drive on a congested highway, pull into your garage, exit your garage straight into the house. Montgomery talks to people who, despite having lived in their neighborhoods for years, have never met neighbors. And why would they? There’s no room for chance encounters and happenstance conversations when you’re trapped in the car. Neighbors don’t trust each other. They don’t look out for each other.

The book explains further studies that show the strain this lifestyle puts on relationships with your spouse or children. And it’s important to consider the total strangers you lose touch with as well. Naturally, people like being around people. Repeated research has shown that, by and large, even when people report in surveys they prefer to avoid crowds, they almost always later demonstrate actions or preferences for places that include other people. When we design cities that don’t allow for us to interact with other human beings, we lose the benefits of connection. This makes us sad and angry.

So is there any good news? Yes.

As a consequence of so many years of so many bad planning principles, we have a lot of room to improve. We know that density builds a critical mass of people and services so that we can form enough relationships. And we know that designing buildings that extend to the sidewalk creates environments where pedestrians feel safe and can interact with their built environment. We know that a diversity of building use and age helps maintain affordability. We also know public spaces and parks need to be more than just open room— they need to be comfortable and intentionally designed to bring diverse groups of people together for specific reasons.

Just think of your favorite streets in your city. Or in the world. Consider what made those places stand out. More likely than not, they were probably places that were built for people and therefore, where people wanted to go. And whether you realized it or not, it felt like a place you could start making relationships.

Let's start putting people first when we design cities, and let's rebuild neighborhoods scarred by decades of planning that hurt relationships.

We need to return to the basic principles of healthy living environments—places where people can interact and form relationships. I think we’ll find that when we do a better job of designing cities for people, we’ll start getting better at that whole relationship problem.

A generation living in smaller spaces: The new American urban experience

Efficient personal space

Efficient personal space

When the automobile became a widely affordable amenity in the early 20th century, nearly 5,000 years of urban history suddenly shifted.

In the United States, millions of people had the opportunity to leave cities for the new spacious American suburbs. 1950 marked the first year that more Americans lived in suburbs than elsewhere.

Now, 65 years later, the consequences of a car-centric society are apparent. The suburban lifestyle that requires car travel drains natural resources, drains financial resources and is detrimental to physical, mental and emotional health.

Suburbia brought vast new spaces for residential settlement. There was more room to roam, and we filled that room with endless acres of larges houses. Then, we filled those large houses with stuff.

But new American generations are rediscovering the city. Sixty-two percent of Americans born between 1980-2000 (the millennials) prefer to live in mixed-use urban environments. And within those environments, millennials are choosing to live in smaller spaces.

My generation has grown a distaste for too much stuff. We prioritize experiences instead. We also embrace the shared experiences of great urban neighborhoods.

Where the suburban generations sought to close themselves within their homes and stock those homes with personal entertainment (think: home movie theaters), the millennial generation wants to be social. We want to interact with our friends and neighbors. We want to spend time outside of the house experiencing culture and food. And we want to live in neighborhoods that are dense enough to offer all those opportunities within easy walking distance.

So we no longer need large spaces to satisfy our individual needs. And our smaller personal spaces help finance the experiences we prioritize so highly. Great urban neighborhoods have become an extension of our personal living spaces.

 

The changing American urban experience

Reversing decades of car-centric suburbia culture will take time. But urban populations are once again growing at a rapid pace. We are headed for an urban future in America where smaller personal spaces will become more and more normal.

And I don’t mean to say that 250sq micro units are the future. What I believe we’re going through is simply shaving off excess and largely unused personal living space, resulting in smaller (yet still entirely functional) overall spaces.

This trend means we have to start thinking and planning differently.

My neighborhood has a favorite ratio: Number of units per acre. It’s a rallying cry many use against new dense development. I’ve wondered often what exactly it is that worries so many people about a high ratio of units per acre.

I suspect some of it comes from the common misconception that density means overcrowding. Density creates lively, robust urban neighborhoods. Overcrowding creates public health hazards. And no proposed development in my neighborhood over the last few years has come close to overcrowding.

It may also be a fear of massive buildings. This is a more legitimate concern. Our neighborhoods need to be well-scaled. But the new reality of American urban spaces is smaller units occupying less space.

So we need to rethink what we determine to be healthy unit-to-acre ratios, because we’re simply fitting more units into the same number of spaces. This is good news for efficiency, and it’s good news for creating lively, dense neighborhoods.

Efficiency is another top priority for my generation. We want fast internet and car sharing.

We also want efficient living spaces that give us only what we truly need. Small spaces are more efficient to maintain and are a more efficient use of our financial resources.  

The suburban lifestyle confines your living experience largely to your home. But in urban spaces, your streets, neighborhoods and cities become an important part of how you experience life.

When we embrace urban neighborhoods and the shared experiences they offer, we spend less time in our own homes. And when we spend less time living in our personal spaces, we simply don’t need excessive personal space.

The Terrace: Why we have an emotional connection

A final night on the Terrace.

A final night on the Terrace.

Tonight, the Memorial Union Terrace closes (well, most of it). And it’s an emotional moment for a lot of us Madisonians.

This Terrace season has been cut at least a month shorter than usual to accommodate much-needed renovations. And the premature, man-made closing date makes the goodbye all the more difficult. At least when Mother Nature shuts down the Terrace, Wisconsinites know better than to argue with her.

I spent a couple hours after work on the Terrace to read and sip a final beer today, and it was a sentimental moment for me. And I have a strong guess that it was emotional for just about everyone else packed into the space.  

And that’s incredible. We’ve formed an emotional relationship with a piece of design. With the bricks and the concrete and the wood and the trees and the metal chairs. How odd that we all have such a passion for a collection of inanimate materials.

But that’s not what the Terrace is about at all. It’s about people—specifically, connecting people. We have passion and emotion for each other. We’ve formed a love for the relationships and interactions we share with others on the Terrace.

Not to say that design doesn’t matter. It has everything to do, in fact, with those emotions. Every part of the Terrace was intentionally designed to facilitate human interaction to an extreme degree replicated few other places in the world. It’s that good.

Further, I think our emotional attachments with the Terrace are all the more inflated because we know of and interact with so few other places like it in our lives.

Urban design has spent the last eight decades on an insane mission to rid our world of human interaction. We spent years designing for efficiency, for segregated uses and for cars. And only now are we beginning to realize how much we actually like being around and interacting with other people on a basic human-to-human level.

So let’s pour one out for the Terrace. Goodbye for now. (You’re going to love her when she reopens in the spring.)

But let’s also start designing more spaces in our cities where regular and meaningful human interaction is no longer such an unexpected experience.

Judge Doyle Square Proposal: Grand opportunity but poor urban planning

JDS' Judge Doyle Square proposal, shown from the air. 

JDS' Judge Doyle Square proposal, shown from the air. 

Incorporating a new downtown Exact Sciences headquarters into their Judge Doyle Square proposal was not just a home run for JDS Development. It was like three straight grand slams.

But the architectural execution of the plan at this point in the design process is a slow grounder to the second baseman.

Soon after the city revealed four proposals that met their most recent request for development on the Judge Doyle Square site, a clear leader emerged. City officials and others have come out heavily in favor of the JDS Development proposal, lured by the prospect of Exact Sciences moving their labs, offices and up to 650 employees to the Isthmus.

And I think they’re right to be excited. New, dense office development is great for downtown Madison. More people working downtown makes it easier for more people to live, eat and shop downtown (all without cars).

EAST DOTY STREET BEHIND THE MADISON MUNICIPAL BUILDING IS FULL OF POTENTIAL. LET'S MAKE SURE WE TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT.

EAST DOTY STREET BEHIND THE MADISON MUNICIPAL BUILDING IS FULL OF POTENTIAL. LET'S MAKE SURE WE TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT.

Though, of course, that whole urban utopia could be ruined by poor design.

And I’m not talking about the shape or style or colors of towers. What I’m concerned about—and what we should all take a close look at—is the street level experience this plan presents.

Developers love to show brilliant aerial architectural renderings. But we’re not drones. We interact with buildings from the ground, and those pedestrian-level views are what we need to focus our attention on.

And right now, the JDS Development street-level plan lacks tremendously.

Most critically are the blank and non-pedestrian walls.

The current jds design shows an extensive collection of blank walls and loading docks.

The current jds design shows an extensive collection of blank walls and loading docks.

Along East Wilson Street, more than half of the façade is occupied by loading docks and parking entrances. On the East Doty Street side, we see a significant portion of the façade dedicated to parking access and a big blank wall on the 100 block.

This project has enormous potential to reactivate streets killed off by parking lots and foreboding parking structures in the past 50 years. Is this plan an improvement? Sure. Is it acceptable? No.

What we have is an exciting opportunity to reactivate downtown streets. These plans need to take better advantage of that opportunity. Parking access and loading docks are necessary, yes. But we can do a better job than currently shown of capturing sidewalk space for pedestrian interaction.

The biggest miss in the JDS design happens along South Pinckney Street.

Renderings show a significant expanse of non-accessible or blank walls along the South Pinckney Street stretch. At the corner of Doty and Pinckney, we see large windows on the corners, but no access points.

the jds pickney street design lacks pedestrian access while aiming to sweep people off the street and up a large outdoor staircase.

the jds pickney street design lacks pedestrian access while aiming to sweep people off the street and up a large outdoor staircase.

Along the west side is a large staircase drawing people up to a second-level deck and then just… standing around. Urban planning researcher William H. Whyte (among many others) long rallied against building design that draws people out of the street up into spaces that aren't immediately visible. People don't like entering a space if they can't see what they're entering. These spaces become dead spaces.

The east side of Pinckney Street appears to do modestly better at activating pedestrian interaction.

From what renderings show, a great opportunity could be lost with JDS Development in this potentially dynamic block of South Pinckney Street. These designs show a building intended mostly to draw in building employees. If that’s the intention, then we’ve all had one pulled over us. We all deserve to take advantage of ours streets.

It’s entirely possible these are just crude, underdeveloped renderings. If that’s the case, then the architects have a long way to go. Particularly in the South Pinckney block, whoever is ultimately chosen to develop this site should look to the work of the ULI proposal.

The ULI renderings show a wonderfully pedestrian-oriented and well-activated South Pinckney block. And the varied facades create a more authentic and less-intimidating downtown environment. These images are the pedestrian experience I want for the Judge Doyle Square redevelopment.

THE ULI proposal may never see the light of day, but its pickney street plan should serve as a model.

THE ULI proposal may never see the light of day, but its pickney street plan should serve as a model.

ULI's porposal for pinckney street features varied, human-oriented urban architecture.

ULI's porposal for pinckney street features varied, human-oriented urban architecture.

Put me down as ready to jump into the Exact Sciences downtown headquarters bandwagon. It’s a fantastic opportunity if the finances check out OK. But let’s not be blinded by the opportunity, only to realize later we settled for half-planned street-level architecture and a mediocre urban experience.  

Too Much of a Good Thing

(T Wall Enterprises)

(T Wall Enterprises)

There’s a significant difference between consistency and mimicry. One helps neighborhoods thrive and one makes them boring.

Imagine the best urban housing design. It’s probably 3-5 stories, natural stone or brick, large windows, sidewalk access, some creative colors, window boxes, walk ups. Great stuff.

But imagine the same design repeated for blocks and blocks. Imagine the same design repeated in every new development. Suddenly, your neighborhood—and entire cities—begin to feel artificial.

Take, for example, the emergence of the retro baseball stadium design. In 1992, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore lit a revolution in stadium design with a beautiful brick and steel retro structure. Evoking the classic days of early-20th century baseball, the stadium was a hit.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Photo by Keith Allison)

Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Photo by Keith Allison)

Soon, other cities borrowed the same principals. 20 other new Major League Baseball stadiums have opened since 1992, and just about all of them followed the same brick and exposed steel concept. By the time you got to Citi Field in Queens in 2009, it looked like a massive copycat operation. It wasn’t bad, it was just tired.

The same goes for urban housing, commercial and retail development. We see developers locking themselves into the same cookie-cutter façade each and every time. Hey, if it worked the last 20 times, it will work this time, right? Hey if it worked in one neighborhood, it will work in all of them, right?

Just this week, the Madison Plan Commission approved a new 189-unit apartment building in my neighborhood. It’s okay. I would say it’s better than the empty crane lot that currently sits at the corner of Mifflin and Livingston. It’s not horrible and it’s not ugly. It’s probably too massive for the site in reality, but it’s not horrendous.

That’s probably why my neighborhood council gave in a neutral opinion. Because it’s nothing interesting. In fact, it just looks really similar to other designs by the same developer.

There’s no indication that the architect gave any thought to creating a unique development for our unique neighborhood. It was designed in a vacuum and looks like dozens of other apartment buildings in the city.

Thanks to the dedication of neighbors and city commissions, the design has improved over the initial renderings. But in the end, our neighborhood gains a structure that will evoke nothing more than a, “meh.”

When you stare at this development in 18 months, there would be no way of knowing which of 30 recent apartment buildings in the city you were actually looking at.

Are we on Park Street or Livingston Street?

Are we on Park Street or Livingston Street?

We’re reaching a point where buildings, like the one soon to rise in my neighborhood, have become so overdone that they will tarnish neighborhoods.

New density is great. Urban infill is great. More housing is great.

But is it too much to demand a bit of neighborhood-appropriate creativity from our local architects?

There really can be too much of a good thing.

Philosopher's Grove and the Blank Walls

Philosopher's Grove

Philosopher's Grove

The problems plaguing Philosopher’s Grove at the top of State Street for years stem from an ignored design issue that far transcends a few stone blocks or poor lighting.

Drug dealing, drinking and prostitution, among other crimes, came to a head in the area two years ago when a lot of people, like me, wondered if it was still safe to walk through there. Police took action and have since triaged the worst of the problems. But intense policing is not a sustainable solution.

So the city added an information kiosk, more lighting and pianos. And now a proposal to remove 11 of the 44 granite stones dotting the space while encouraging more placemaking opportunities. But none of these solutions solve the real problem of the area.

Blank walls.

Nothing kills and urban space like blank walls. There’s no reason to interact with blank walls. There’s no reason to look at blank walls. There’s no opportunity to walk through a blank wall. People don’t even like walking past blank walls, and research has shown pedestrians will go out of their way to avoid them. We don’t typically notice it, but blank walls make us feel uncomfortable and alone.

The State Historical Museum’s northwest wall and the southwest wall of 30 West Mifflin are almost entirely blank. Nearly windowless. No public entrances. No reason for interaction other than to walk past. Other than, I guess, deal drugs and purchase sex.

“The people of the city have an equity in this,” urban planning researcher William H. Whyte wrote in this landmark book, City. “An owner who lines his frontage with a blank wall not only deadens his part of the street; he breaks the continuity that is so vital for the rest of the street. Stores thrive on the propinquity of other stores and the traffic they generate. Seal off a blockfront, interrupt a sequence of stores, and part of the line of the street is lost.”

It’s a dead space. And dead spaces attract crime. Certainly not everyone using this space is dangerous or criminal, but real problems clearly exist. And the easiest way to rid an urban space of undesirable activity is to focus less on evicting the people you don’t want and to focus more on bringing in the people you do want. On this front, the city is making some good decisions.

The city’s new dedication to add food carts and events to the space will certainly help. A good food cart and a few moveable chairs can help just about any urban space. But this will always be a dead space in the heart of downtown until the blank walls that surround it give way to transparent, translucent and pedestrian-oriented façades.  

The Top 12 Isthmus Development Sites

Madison is growing and we shouldn’t expect that to slow anytime soon. Between 2000 and 2013, the city grew by 17%. And that growth is even larger than the city expected just a decade ago.

In January 2006, the City of Madison projected a population of 236,094 by 2015. But by 2013, that number was already 243,344.

The Urban Institute, a national public policy think tank, has mapped the entire United States for projected population loss and growth over the next 15 years. Their models suggest a 19.11% growth rate for the wider Madison area through 2030.

Anecdotally, medical software giant Epic plans to add a net 1,500 employees by September 2015. And that’s before the construction of another campus on their Verona site. The entrepreneurial scene in Madison also continues to heat up.

And as a general global trend, more people are moving to cities. People are learning to love living in dense urban neighborhoods again.

All this means a big impact on the Madison housing market. The city is in a housing building boom—particularly on the isthmus. But it’s still not enough to keep up adequately with growth.

The city’s rental vacancy rate at the end of 2014 was 2.39%, which is up from a low of 1.88% in the beginning of 2013. But the national average is 4.1%, and a healthy vacancy rate for a city is considered around 5%.

So Madison has a long way to go to meet current and future housing needs. And until the city can catch up with thousands of new units over the coming years, rents will likely continue to rise.

But this is an exciting opportunity. With higher populations comes the chance for denser populations on the isthmus. And research repeatedly shows that density is better for neighborhoods and makes for happier people. Don’t believe me? Just read Charles Montgomery’s book. (Don’t confuse density with overpopulation.)

 

Where will we fit these people?

I’ve identified 12 areas on the isthmus I believe have strong potential for denser development that can accelerate already great neighborhoods or grow new neighborhoods.

Not every structure surrounded by a yellow border below needs to go. Many buildings within the bounds are either already new development or have other value—whether it be historical or functional. But the areas overall hold a lot of potential.

And we shouldn’t imagine every area below as the next grove of 12-story high rises. Most of these sites are best suited for 3-6-story development that creates dense but neighborhood-scaled environments.

Map courtesy of Bing.com

 

1. Old University Avenue

The area between Old University Avenue and Campus Drive is a collection of aging housing and outdated apartment buildings. A refocus of development facing Old University and a better use of parking space could spark a vibrant stretch of the near west side. See map.

 

2. Monroe Street at Regent

Monroe Street east of this intersection is booming with new restaurants, cafes, stores and housing. But the 1600 and 1700 blocks hold potential for new well-scaled but dense development, linking Monroe Street with the University of Wisconsin campus. See map.

 

3. West Dayton Street at Basset

This area is already under a lot of transformation, but a complete infill of dense development here seems inevitable and smart. Intentionally, Mifflin Street is preserved as is. See map.

 

4. Basset Neighborhood

As housing stock in this neighborhood continues to age, 3-4 story development has begun to enter with huge success. More of this should continue, with both housing and retail. See map.

 

5. County Parking Structure

An aging parking structure and a triangular slice of South Hamilton Street sit within the shadow of encroaching development. New housing and retail on this site would further fuel the growth of what is becoming a strong southwest corner off the Capitol Square. See map.

 

6. Judge Doyle Square

Current plans for this site are in limbo, but eventual development is inevitable. With the preservation of the Madison Municipal Building and new construction behind, this site holds more potential than any other single space on the isthmus—if done right. See map.

 

7. GEF 1 and Parking

GEF 1 stands as a functional state office building, but it’s street-level blank walls kill the area around it. Ground-level renovations and new development in the parking lot next door hold the potential for an entirely new pocket of residential, office and retail activity just a block from the Capitol Square. See map.

 

8. North Hamilton Street at Johnson and Butler

This is one of downtown Madison’s four six-cornered intersections, which means the potential for a unique buzz of activity. Recent development in the area lays the groundwork for further density that should also preserve a few of the current historical corner structures. See map.

 

9. East Main Street

This site is too large for any single comprehensive plan. But as the years pass, it will become more difficult to argue for the usefulness of city utility yards on the isthmus as urban housing and office spaces gradually encroach from all sides. This is a blank slate opportunity with the potential for something truly great. See map.

 

10. East Johnson Street

The 600 and 700 blocks of East Johnson Street have the potential for a Williamson Street-like stretch. Many current buildings on these blocks are aging poorly and do not lend themselves well to the commercial district the neighborhood desires. See map.

 

11. Tenney Locks

Situated between the beautiful Tenney Park, Yahara River, Lake Mendota and the Emerson East Neighborhood is a two-story office building with a massive, space-consuming parking lot. It’s not difficult to see the potential for new development here. See map.

 

12. Yahara River

Madison is fortunate that forward-thinking individuals decades ago preserved the shores of the Yahara River as a parkway for public access. And now, industrial spaces between East Washington Avenue and Williamson Street could become prime low-rise residential infill along the parkway. See map.

What makes a walkable neighborhood?

U Street: Washington, DC

What makes a walkable neighborhood?

What makes you feel comfortable? Welcome? Safe? Both for people living in that neighborhood and others passing through.

The sociologist and urban planner William H Whyte spent decades researching what makes a walkable street. His findings were revolutionary in many regards. And often, he found peoples’ actions ran contrary to peoples’ perceived desires.

For instance, a wider sidewalk doesn’t necessarily correlate to a better walking street. People say they want space, but over and over, they flock towards crowded areas—with other people. (Think: Farmers Market.) Sidewalks should be wide enough, but not too wide. There’s a massive difference between overcrowding and density.

“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people," Whyte concluded.

But a great neighborhood must be comprised of many great blocks of many great streets.

In my time in Madison, I’ve covered a lot of miles by foot. If not for the bus or my bike, I’d be walking everywhere. And what strikes me is that distance often has very little to do with how much I look forward to a walk.

I’d much rather take a 20 minute walk through an interesting, crowded neighborhood than a 10 minute walk down an empty stretch of blank walls and auto repair shops.

Take, for instance, a walk down East Washington Avenue anywhere west of the Yahara. This walk is sure to look much different in 10 years, but today it remains an often lonely stroll along six lanes of speeding traffic, low foreboding commercial or industrial buildings, parking lots and a smattering of old rental houses.  

I loathe this walk. Even though it's often a short trip for me, it's entirely unenjoyable. 

East Mifflin Street, at Blount

Just one block over is East Mifflin Street. Here you’ll find less space dedicated to cars and typically some heavier foot traffic. There are plenty of trees along the way and even a few shops that beckon you in. Still not a truly great walking experience, but much improved.

So what makes a great walk:

  1. Other people. Crowds make a street feel vibrant and they add a level of security.
     
  2. Limited road space. Here, the key is to focus on smaller streets, not necessarily fewer cars.
     
  3. Trees. Even in winter, trees give us shelter—both physically and emotionally.
     
  4. Easy building access. Even if you have no intention of entering a building, knowing you have access from the street is a powerfully welcoming feeling. A wall completely devoid of access from the street says: ‘Move faster, you’re not welcome here.’ Even residential buildings.
     
  5. Activity. Blocks and blocks of houses don’t generate a lot of sidewalk traffic. But shops and restaurants do. They also offer a sort of safe house. At least one commercial space every block or two always provides the "next safe destination” along the way.

So how do you get more people to walk? Create better neighborhoods for them to walk through: Embrace a pedestrian-first mentality. Create safe, welcoming buildings. And accept the reality that we like other people around us.

Is it time to take buses off state street?

Adam Fagen, copyright 2012. (click here for more information on copyright and license) 

In an interview this week with WISC, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin said he would like the City Council to look into moving city buses off State Street.

Soglin said he has always strongly backed buses on State Street since the thoroughfare was closed to normal automobile traffic in the 1970s. But he feels now is the time to reconsider that position.

This is a good idea.

And I’m not necessarily saying it’s a good idea to eliminate buses from the street, but it is a very good idea for the City Council to study the possibility.

Without a car, I rely on the Metro system to get me just about everywhere out of walking distance from my apartment. And living downtown, the majority of these trips include a path down State Street. It’s typical that I might travel on a bus down State Street 10-15 times per week.  

And on these trips, I see both the current problems as well as the possible solutions.

 

The Problems

1. Traffic Jams

State Street offers a narrow passage for automobile traffic. Which allows for wider sidewalks. But this means the street is just wide enough for two buses to pass each other. The street is narrowed further when delivery vehicles park on the edge to serve local businesses.

This means slow passage for buses. I’ve sat on plenty of buses stuck on State Street because there is no place to go until the oncoming line of buses moves or the delivery is completed.

 

2. Bicycle Safety

All of this results in a lot of inconvenience for bus passengers. But more critically, it becomes a safety hazard for bicyclists on State Street. In a city (and world) increasingly stressing the importance of bicycle infrastructure, State Street is a roll of the dice when you’re on two wheels.

Dodging buses and delivery vehicles is a harrowing slalom on what should be the city’s marquee bicycle thoroughfare. Watch this video and imagine how much better we could be doing to accommodate bicyclists.

 

3. Slow Passage

For all the reasons of problem number one, plus the additional reasons of problem number two, combined with traffic lights that are timed to drive bus passengers insane, it takes a long time to get down even just a few blocks of State Street.

This is a problem not created by the presence of buses, but a problem that results from bus routes being forced down State Street. Metro recently eliminated a number of bus stops in my neighborhood to cut down on the time it takes routes to get through the isthmus. But increasing efficiency for buses on State Street would do far more to solve that problem. Perhaps the City needs to look at timing the traffic lights on State Street to facilitate bus flow. Or:

 

The Solutions

1. Remove All Buses

Removing all buses from State Street creates a safer environment for bicyclists and pedestrians. Some might even argue it helps the aesthetics. But the issue with the isthmus is that we’re in a tight space and alternative routes are not entirely abundant. How do you maintain convenient access to State Street for bus riders? A few possible options, with perhaps some minor street reconstruction, are below:



 

2. Remove Most Buses

Any study should include a look at which routes are bringing passengers to State Street and which routes are simply taking them through. Allowing just one or two important routes to continue down State Street could alleviate congestion, improve safety and still deliver most riders conveniently to their destinations.

 

3. Remove Buses in Warm Months

I would like to use my bicycle to commute everywhere, and I do a lot in the warm months. But the reality of Madison, Wisconsin is that most bicyclists will not/ cannot travel in the cold and the snow. Those riders need an alternative in the winter and the bus is a good substitution.

Fewer bicyclists in winter means less overall traffic on State Street, which could mean a less significant safety issue in the cold months. Additionally, in the warmer months, it’s more reasonable that a bus passenger would be OK walking an extra block or two to access State Street from the new bus routes. So can we have State Street routes in the winter and non-State Street routes in the summer and shoulder seasons?

 

4. Do Nothing

We can talk a lot about real convenience issues. And we can also discuss potential safety issues. But it’s a reality that there are no immediate colossal problems with buses traveling down State Street. By large credit to the skilled Metro drivers, buses are not running into each other, they’re not colliding with delivery vehicles and they’re not hitting people. I’ve never seen any of those things once.

So leaving things as they are is not a bad option. But the City Council should say yes to Mayor Soglin’s suggestion and take a real look at what our potential better options might be.