Mixed Messages

Earlier this year, Vermont Public Radio ran a story about speed limits. It cited three small towns whose municipal budgets are funded largely by speeding fines imposed on unsuspecting motorists. Town officials, quoted in the piece claimed the slow zones are justified for safety reasons. Others saw them as artificially low and unfair to drivers.

The story captured opposing attitudes about speed that tend to vary depending on whether one happens to be sitting behind the wheel or standing beside the road.  As we switch from driver to pedestrian and back again, our perspective and desires change.  No wonder that the setting and enforcing of speed limits can be complicated and divisive.  

But while VPR listeners were asked to consider both sides of the speed trap issue, a larger question went unanswered—where exactly, should we slow down and where is it okay to drive fast?

It used to be clear. Before sprawl blurred the edges between town and country, the built environment offered sharply different driving contexts—the open road where speed made sense, and the village, where it didn’t. Between villages, highways were mostly free of slowing and turning cars, intersections, pedestrians, and driveways. Most of those hazards were safely tucked into village centers where the pattern of land forms and buildings sent drivers clear signals to slow down. The curve or hill that marked the entrances to most towns  forced drivers to decelerate and inch past closely-spaced buildings on Main Street, snaking though narrow streets before reaching open land on the opposite end of town. A sign might mark the lower village speed limit, but a narrow bridge or a barn looming over a bend in the road communicated the need to decelerate far more effectively.

It’s less obvious now. Main Streets look and feel more like highways, and rural roads function as business corridors. Village activities have faded, or migrated to the countryside. Homes are scattered beyond a frayed edge. The curves, twists, narrow bridges, and many of the buildings that once formed village gateways have fallen victim to federal and state road standards requiring wider, straighter, more open roads.

  Taking out the Kinks . A bridge replacement project will realign a road in Morristown, taking away some of its curve to meet current road design standards.

Taking out the Kinks. A bridge replacement project will realign a road in Morristown, taking away some of its curve to meet current road design standards.

When the places you need to go every day are far apart—the byproduct of our dispersed land use pattern—speed seems essential. But Vermont’s built environment isn’t suited to the speed we crave and our modern cars offer.  Except for two interstates and a handful of bypasses, most roads are intertwined with our settlements. They wind through villages, nudge up against homes and bisect farms. A lot of people live, work or walk very close to major thoroughfares. It’s an intimate relationship that makes for gorgeous scenery, but creates conflict between our desire for speed and our need for safety.

The Agency of Transportation (VTrans) has attempted to satisfy both needs by untangling that relationship—creating a smoother path for moving vehicles and greater distance from the communities they bisect. It has spent millions taking some of the kinks out of major highways, so that they function less like two-lane roads and more like interstates. In the forty years I’ve driven from Burlington to Bennington, I’ve seen Route 7 grow wider and straighter. Trees, barns, roadhouses, and tourist shops that once hugged the road, vanished as sections of the right-of-way expanded to create wider shoulders and more passing lanes.

All the straightening and widening makes it hard to obey speed limits because posted speeds often contradict what the road tells us to do. This is the case on Route 7 in Mt Tabor, one of the towns cited by VPR. Its tiny hamlet is no more than a handful of buildings around a splayed intersection. Instead of visual clues compelling them to slow, passing motorists see a flat, straight road with wide shoulders. In fact, in 1999, when the Selectboard Chair petitioned to have the speed limit reduced from 50 mph to 45, highway engineers revealed that the road had been designed to handle speeds of 60 mph. In posting a limit 15 mph below the speed that most law-abiding drivers perceive to be safe, Mt. Tabor had created the perfect speed trap.

But who can blame the town for monetizing the “upgrade” they received from VTrans years ago?  A design speed of 60 mph in that location may be safe for drivers, but it could prove deadly for walkers and dangerous for locals pulling onto a road that is essentially their main street. Town officials are justified in demanding a safe environment for the pedestrians and slow-poke drivers in its town center, however few they may be.

In its guidebook, Setting Speed Limits, The Vermont Local Roads Program offers advice to municipalities on regulating speeds. In addition to considering a road’s context—type of development and density—it suggests monitoring traffic and identifying the speed that at least 85% of vehicles are traveling. An ideal speed would be at or slightly below this number.  Too far below and drivers will become frustrated, or scofflaws. This method acknowledges that most people will drive the speed they perceive to be safe. relying less on posted signs and more on the look and feel of the roadway.

But the 85% rule of thumb often gets ignored. When exurban residents, scattered along country roads demand the benefits of living in a slow speed zone, limits are set below what most drivers would perceive to be safe. Jericho is a bedroom community with homes spread thinly across fields and woods. Despite the town’s low density, all but a few segments of its roads are posted 35 mph. This undoubtedly pleases many residents, but it’s frustrating to drive through that town, creeping along for seven miles at what appears an arbitrarily low speed while a line of cars stack up behind you. In fact, Setting Speed Limits warns against setting a uniform speed for all roads. Limits that are perceived to be unreasonable erodes citizens’ respect for the law and can cause risky behavior like dangerous passing.

 Land beside the open road that will soon become someone’s neighborhood.

Land beside the open road that will soon become someone’s neighborhood.

The messages are mixed. The road tells us to speed up, while the signs say we must slow down.  It has become easier to zip through villages than past country homes.

Land use regulations that encourage sprawl and engineering standards that allow speed have built expectations for traveling quickly between far flung locations. But few people want to live with the reality of speeding traffic, so we argue about speeding tickets.  Building the next generation of homes and businesses, close together, in downtowns and villages is the only way to make speed a lot less necessary.

Thinking Beyond the Vehicle

When you think about sustainable transportation, what image comes to mind?  Perhaps it’s a bus, a bike, or an electric car.  These vehicles can certainly lower the negative impacts of the miles we travel. But what about something that could shrink the distances we drive, lowering the number of miles we need to go every day?

Instead of a vehicle,imagine a building—a longish, two to four-story structure like those you’ve seen in every Vermont downtown and many villages. Let’s call it an urban block building. It sits close to the street and opens to the sidewalk. People work or shop on the first floor, and work or live upstairs. The urban block first appeared here in the mid-19th century and became ubiquitous by the late 1890s when Vermont architecture embraced a more urbane, 20th-century future.

Because it evolved before the automobile age, the urban block building was designed to enable walking and transit. It provided a large amount of floor space on a small parcel of land, concentrating activity within a tight, walkable radius in the center of town. It offered a highly-prized amenity—easy access to every business and service. Railroads offered speed for longer trips, but within Vermont’s small communities, travel was slow. Proximity was essential and density made perfect sense. Higher, bigger, flat-roof structures made it possible for more people to locate in a place they could walk to where they needed to be.

When considering transportation, it’s natural to think of a vehicle, but the structures we build, where we locate them and how we arrange them, have a profound impact on the way we move and how far we travel.  If buildings are low and spread out, relatively empty and isolated on large exurban lots—like most of what was built in Vermont between 1950 and 2008—we are left with only one travel option. We drive, mostly alone, and farther than most other Americans go every day.

We’ve made some progress reducing the environmental impacts of travel by moving toward more environmentally benign fuel sources, but far more effective would be to employ those vehicles in a landscape where the places we need to go every day are much closer together, allowing us to walk and and ride a bus or bike.

Vermont once had a built environment that worked perfectly well for walking and transit. A dense arrangement of multi-story, multi-use buildings huddled on village streets, ringed with neighborhoods and connected by sidewalks is just the kind of land use pattern that can make transportation efficient and sensible again.  This is why the urban block building is making something of a comeback. In past decades, Hardwick, Randolph, and St. Johnsbury rebuilt key downtown blocks that had been destroyed by fires. Renovations of historic blocks—like those in Morrisville, Brattleboro, Essex Jct., and St. Albans—have been key part of community revitalization efforts, bringing residents and businesses back downtown. Today, there’s a mini-boom going on in White River Junction, where two four-story buildings are rising on separate downtown lots, a few blocks away from other recently completed mixed-use projects.

The urban block building is an architectural type,  but it’s also a land-use tool—a way to concentrate a critical mass of people in a small walkable, transit-friendly radius. We know from our own experience, the timeless appeal of these buildings, and how they constitute the fabric of Vermont downtowns. We know how beautiful and useful they can be. We need to think of them (as well as other components of the built environment you’ll hear about in future posts) as a key strategy for creating more sustainable transportation.

Saying Yes to Density

A few weeks ago, Burlington, VT residents said yes to a more dense downtown and with it, a more sustainable transportation future.

After a heated public debate, voters approved the zoning change and funding mechanism that would allow a large, mixed-use redevelopment project—the Burlington Town Center—to move forward to the next stage of development.  If built, the city can expect many benefits from this intensive reconstruction of a key downtown parcel, including jobs, affordable homes, increased tax revenue, better storm water management, and the possibility of capturing waste heat in a distributed energy district.

Saying yes to ground floor retail with upstairs offices and many floors of housing, will also lay the groundwork for a cleaner, greener transportation system.  It will make downtown easier and more pleasant to walk in, provide many more destinations to walk to, and put a significant number of people close to where they need to go every day.

Transportation researchers have identified several elements of urban form that lower vehicle miles traveled, effectively reducing energy consumption, air pollution and carbon emissions.  The BTC plan could serve as a poster child of how those elements can be combined in one sustainable transportation package. It is dense. It blends a healthy mix of uses within floors. It sits beside a transit hub. It is ringed with services and lies smack in the middle of a regional job center.  These are some of the features that offer people real transportation alternatives and lessen their need to drive, or even to own a car.

The project’s design helps too. For the first time in 40 years, pedestrians and bicyclists will be able to move freely across the downtown. The 1970s shopping mall that had severed two key north-south corridors, will be demolished, restoring public rights-of-way and the historic pre-urban renewal street grid. One measure of walkability is the number of intersections in a given area. The BTC plan will add four new intersections, offering people more choices and direct routes to their destinations. It will also turn the mall inside out, moving stores from the interior of the building to the exterior, along public streets, where they will enliven the streetscape with entrances, display windows, and more people coming and going.

Perhaps the biggest drawback in many voters’ minds was the scale of the proposed buildings, which will rise an additional four stories above the previous downtown height limit. But in terms of transportation benefits, the scale of BTC and its height are, in fact, its best feature. The project will create 274 new homes, each offering the ability to arrive at a downtown job, shop, restaurant or school, not by car, but in an elevator. Restricting the buildings’ heights to ten stories would mean eliminating usable space in a very strategic location, including over 50 apartments that are planned for the top four floors. At 14 stories, 50 additional households can rely more on walking, biking, buses and car share, and less on private vehicles to get to where they need to go.

What would make it more sustainable? Reducing the number of parking spaces to the barest minimum.  Restricting the supply of parking has proven to lower vehicle miles traveled.  This can be accomplished by sharing spaces—mixing tenants who need parking at different times of the day and night, incentivizing commercial tenants to create parking demand management programs, and unbundling the cost of parking from residential leases. Giving tenants the option of not paying for a parking space, in a location where they have other travel options, will give them an added incentive to live car free.

As it moves through the City’s development review process, the BTC design will be refined, with careful attention to how the building facade affects the surrounding streetscapes. But the land use essentials of sustainable transportation—density, connectivity, diversity of uses, location efficiency, and access to transit—are in place. When it is complete, many more Vermonters can significantly reduce the environmental impacts of their travel while enjoying the pleasures of an urban lifestyle.

A Beautiful Mess

In 2010, the City of Amsterdam hosted a design competition and offered up a defunct, polluted shipyard on its industrial north side. The winners would have free use of the Ceuvel waterfront parcel for ten years. Enter the design firm space&matter and a group of environmentally motivated artists who were looking for studio space. Their winning proposal was to build a public park by hand, from recycled materials, using low-cost techniques to clean the contaminated soils. They would bring people together to learn about urban sustainability. Six years later, many of Park Ceuvel's components are complete. Events take place in a dozen discarded houseboats that were floated to the site, hoisted on shore and re-purposed for studio, workshop and classroom space. Plants that draw contaminants from the soil poke up around a connecting boardwalk.

De Ceuvel has none of the tidy charm of central Amsterdam. It feels less like your aunt's sitting room than your handy but eccentric neighbor's back yard, if he also happened to collect rusty barges and the hulls of rowboats. Spare tires, cast-off crates and plastic drums serve as vessels for garden beds. Cafe customers step around wheel barrows and power tools to get to outdoor tables. But messiness is the point.  Everything is made from something that used to be something else and that transformation is made visible. It's not supposed to be finished. Until the ten years is up, it will remain a work in progress.  On the warm spring day I visited Ceuvel, a middle school class had scattered into every corner of the park and were experiencing the place in the messy, hands-on way it was designed.  They explored, swung, floated and played for the better part of two hours, then reluctantly gathered their bikes and headed back to school.

A Glimpse of a Sustainable Urban Future

On a recent trip to Copenhagen, a day trip across the Øresund Sound led me to the western shore of Malmö, Sweden, and the brand new district of Västra Hamnen (Western Harbor). Built on a former shipyard within walking distance of the city center, Västra Hamnen seems to get everything right. It features state of the art environmental performance--net-zero buildings, 100% local renewable energy, biogas from waste, public transit, pedestrian and bike-friendly design, green infrastructure—all wrapped up in a gorgeous architectural package.  Strolling through the intimate spaces of the recently completed Bo01 neighborhood, it's hard not to imagine yourself living the good life in this green seaside community     See the emerging Västra Hamnen district and the completed Bo01 neighborhood in Google Map view and check out my photos, taken on a gray Saturday morning in April.

The Corner Store

What can you buy within a 10-minute walk of your home?  If you’re lucky, there’s a store down the street. And if you’re very lucky, that store stocks real food and useful items like bread, apples, carrots, dish soap, and toilet paper.  According to a recent Walkscore analysis, Philadelphians are 11 times luckier in this respect than residents of Oklahoma City. Almost 2/3 of them live close to a food store. Only 5% in Oklahoma City enjoy that convenience. The percentage is equally low in Albuquerque, Indianapolis, Tucson, Charlotte and countless suburbs. But in early-mid 20th century, residents of most American cities could find many of life’s necessities on the nearest street corner.

 Corey's Market, 1950s.   Source: McAllister Photographs, University of Vermont archives

Corey's Market, 1950s.  Source: McAllister Photographs, University of Vermont archives

This was certainly the case in Burlington, VT, where groceries, hardware stores, creameries and other businesses sprouted on the ground floors of houses on streets where high foot traffic created a steady market for small scale retail. Many stores could be found in the city’s Old North End, a densely populated home to generations of immigrants.  Selling goods and services to one’s neighbors through a home-based business offered one pathway to prosperity for recent arrivals.

In 1948, 85 food stores were located in an area of roughly 5 square miles. But as the century unfolded, the market for small retail tapered off in Burlington, as in most other U.S. cities. Groceries and other stores consolidated and followed their customers to the suburbs. Essentials like meat, dairy, produce and staples disappeared. Beer, soda, candy, and chips appeared on the shelves of local gas stations. As the market for retail space receded, store owners sold to landlords and homeowners, transferring many of those early storefronts to residential use.

Retail has changed profoundly in the last 50 years.  In Burlington, some of the small stores had vanished by the end of the Depression, others grew into IGAs (Independent Grocers’ Association) and persisted until they were put out of business or bought by regional chains like A&P (Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company) and later Grand Union, which eventually fell to Price Chopper, Hannaford’s and other more recent superstores. Each consolidation placed groceries and everyday supplies a step further away from the old neighborhood. By 1986, 25 neighborhood groceries remained, and now, nine corner stores serve a developed area three times its 1948 size.

In an era when the butcher and the baker are as rare as the candlestick maker, the remaining corner stores may seem like a quaint echo of history. A few of the older stores remain in Burlington’s Old North End.

And recent waves of immigrants have breathed life into the district’s commercial street, offering an eclectic array of goods like halal meats, curry pastes, banh mi, queso fresco, and ginger beer in small locally-owned stores.  These small businesses offer familiar staples and other everyday items to recent arrivals who, like earlier residents, live close together and don’t own cars.

Large chains offer greater efficiencies and lower prices, which is why residents of urban neighborhoods go out of their way to shop in them. But if the full service supermarkets are out by the interstate, requiring people to go an inconvenient distance, it helps to have plenty of mom and pop stores scattered throughout the neighborhood.  Retail diversity makes life easier for people who don’t have a car, or don’t want to drive.  Walkable, sustainable, and vibrant cities have neighborhoods where groceries and household items are as common as chips and soda.