APA14: Atlanta and Its Evolving Relationship with Urbanism

A few weeks ago I journeyed seven-plus hours by car from Cincinnati to Atlanta for the American Planning Association’s (APA) national conference. The five-day conference was held in the Georgia World Congress Center in the core of Atlanta between downtown and Vine City.

This was my first trip to Atlanta since passing through the city in the early 1990’s.

For an urbanist, the city of Atlanta at first glance is a conundrum. Subway stations that seem to feed park and rides, buildings that barely front the street and streets with no crosswalks where pedestrians play a dangerous game of Frogger just to cross to the other side are all typical occurrences in the city.

However the city is all of these things and more. Atlanta boasts beautiful and funky neighborhoods such as Poncey Highlands, Little Five Points and Castleberry Hill. Beautiful parks such as Inman Park and the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Piedmont Park.

The BeltLine, a multi-modal transportation corridor we reported on last week, has sparked development along its route and spurred pedestrian and bicycle connectivity between many of Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods.

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During the conference I also had a chance to view the Atlanta Streetcar, which could begin operating later this year. Planners in Atlanta have tucked the streetcar’s maintenance facility under a highway viaduct. This is where the streetcars that have already arrived are now being stored.

As you might expect, social divisions by income were evident. I had a chance to explore some of Vine City, which is located just west of where the conference was held and was also home to Martin Luther King Jr. This neighborhood has given way to abandonment and decay. Empty lots, run down houses and discarded vehicles littered the streets.

At the conference, one particular session focused on the redevelopment of Vine City and the adjacent English Avenue. During that session, neighborhood leaders and proponents of the redevelopment plan were questioned vigorously by a representative from a community group that is active in those neighborhoods. The challenges reminded me of the not-so-distant past for Over-the-Rhine and other Cincinnati neighborhoods, such as the West End or Avondale, that are still struggling to rebuild what they have lost over the years.

On the last day of the conference, the APA announced that they had completed a survey which found that both Millennials and Baby Boomers prefer to live in urban settings where there are plenty of transportation options and walkable neighborhoods.

“If there is a single message from this poll, it’s that place matters,” stated APA’s executive director, Paul Farmer, in a prepared release. “Community characteristics like affordability, transportation choices, safe streets, high-speed internet and housing that can accommodate others or enable you to live there as you grow older matter as much as job opportunities.”

It seemed odd that the APA would choose to release this information while hosting a conference in an infamously automobile reliant city; but, while Atlanta is a city that is still overrun by the automobile it is showing signs that communities, residents and activists are coming together to push for neighborhood connectivity and pedestrian improvements.

Even though my initial impression was that the city serves as a dystopian future for urbanism where pedestrians are marginalized in urbanized places, after learning more about the city at the conference, it is encouraging to see that old mentality is changing.

APA14: Tactical Urbanism Laying the Groundwork for Safer, More Livable Cities

A common theme running throughout the APA’s 2014 National Planning Conference is how many of our planning tools, from parking policy to zoning, can accommodate a renewed thirst for urban living driven largely by Millennials and Baby Boomers.

Fifty years of auto-oriented city building is what planners largely have to work with in all but the historic neighborhoods developed before the ubiquitous spread of the private automobile. This situation has created a need to adopt innovative techniques to create people-oriented spaces where vehicle flow was previously the objective.

One concept derived from this movement is Tactical Urbanism, as explained by Valerie Watson from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation in a session called Creatively Transforming Streets for People.

The idea behind Tactical Urbanism is to implement small, realistic community-oriented projects that cumulatively, over time, can improve livability. For example, Watson said, one could shut down a street for a day and open it up to pedestrians, cyclists, food trucks and even set up a pop-up cafés.

Beyond the livability improvements, such activities also benefit from the power of demonstration from normal residents transforming a place to be more community-oriented. As has been seen throughout North America, these activities can often set the stage for more permanent fixes like parklets, bicycle corrals, extension of cafe spaces into parking spots and the creation of small plazas.

An example from Santa Monica combined this approach with public engagement was explained by Jason Kligier, of the City of Santa Monica. The event was called Pop-Up MANGo, which stands for Michigan Ave Neighborhood Greenway (MANGo).

The Greenway, Kligier said, would connect new and proposed bike lanes via Michigan Avenue in the city’s Pico neighborhood – a residential area through which cars tend to pass through over the posted speed limit. The new pedestrian and cyclist orientation would mean creating an inviting streetscape of sidewalks, calm roadways, increased trees and landscape.

The pop-up event in Santa Monica included the addition impermanent features like curb extensions, enhanced landscaping, places for impromptu neighborhood interactions, wayfinding signage and various traffic calming measures. Food trucks, music and interactive activities created a festival-like atmosphere for the more than 400 attendees.

When asked about how they felt about the installations, a majority of neighbors were in favor of the traffic calming measures.

Another way in which planners are working to make cities more livable was discussed in a session on Monday, where attendees learned about techniques in implementation of cap parks over highways. Not only do such efforts create green space in areas where there is little room to accommodate new parks, but they also reconnect neighborhoods that had been torn apart by multiple lanes of speeding traffic.

This movement toward reorienting roadways into more hospitable environments for other users was echoed further in sessions like Building the New American Streetscape, Transforming Streets and Reclaiming the Suburban Corridor, among others.

There are some hints of this movement in Cincinnati as well, including the city’s various on-street bike corrals, Walnut Hills Streetfood Festival, two-way street conversions, Second Sunday on Main, road diets and Cincy Summer Streets which will have its inaugural season this year.

APA14: Demographic Preferences Shifting in Favor of Walkable, Urban Communities

One of the focuses coming out of the APA 2014 National Planning Conference in Atlanta is how to plan for the Millennials.

According to research conducted by the Pew Institute and Urban Land Institute, Millennials are driving less than previous generations, are more tuned into emerging technologies and demand living and working in, and experiencing urban settings.

“Millennials prefer amenity rich housing choices. These amenities are within walking distance,” presented Howard Ways of the Redevelopment Authority of Prince George’s County in Washington D.C. “They prefer smaller units with open floor plans and are not interested in yard work at all.”

Even though many recent numbers point to what is perceived as a huge desire for Millennials to return to center cities, data says otherwise.

According to Pew, 43% of Millennials prefer to live in the suburbs while 39% prefer to live in the urban core. This data suggests that there is great opportunity for cities and metropolitan regions to embrace urbanism through revitalizing distressed first ring neighborhoods and creating urban places by retrofitting suburbia.

The key component to attracting Millennials, however, seems to be the availability and quality of transportation options. According to those surveyed, 55% of Millennials have a preference to live close to transit.

Ways says that the transformation is not just limited to Millennials, as Baby Boomers are increasingly looking to take advantage of urban amenities.

According to AARP, 50% of seniors now want to live close to a bus stop and 47% want to live within a mile of a grocery store. Additionally, it is increasingly being seen that efforts by Millennials to influence policy such as complete streets, pedestrian enhancements and bicycle infrastructure are also helping Baby Boomers by improving the safety on our roadways.

With Cincinnati now offering more transportation choices, such as the Cincinnati Streetcar, Metro*Plus, Cincy Bike Share and private options such as Zipcar, Uber and Lyft, it seems that the city might be positioned just as well as any other city to appeal to these changing demographics. But what comes next?

With the recent controversy over the in road bicycle infrastructure and the lack of progress on the next phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar, will Cincinnati begin to fall behind in providing the necessary ingredients to continue to attract Millennials to the region?

One example offered at the conference is the success of Washington D.C.’s bike share program. With over 42,000 annual members and 410,000 causal riders, Harriet Tregoning, Director of HUD’s Office of Economic Resiliency, has found that 80% of Capital Bikeshare users bike more and 40% drive less due to the availability the system. For those users, this results in an annual cost savings of $819 over driving.

With the imminent launch of Cincy Bike Share this summer, access to bicycles will increase. However, with the lack of protected bike lanes and proper bicycle lane markings, the system may be negatively impacted.

Cincinnati city leaders should take note of shifting desires of Millennials and Baby Boomers, and continue to move forward with planning and developing new transportation choices such as an expanded streetcar system and more robust bicycle network.

John Yung is currently in Atlanta covering the APA 2014 National Planning Conference for UrbanCincy. You can follow along with additional live reporting on Twitter @UrbanCincy or on Instagram. All conference updates can be tracked by following the #APA14 hashtag.

Data Suggests Peak Vehicle Miles Traveled Was Reached in 2007

Whether it is widening Martin Luther King Drive, adding a new interchange, building a new bridge, or adding additional capacity to existing streets throughout our cities, we always hear of the robust traffic growth that is anticipated. If nothing is done, then our communities would be stuck in gridlock.

But how have these projections actually measured up?

According to data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and cross examined with data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the traffic growth projections made by departments of transportation all over the country have been wildly off-base for the past decade.

National VMT (Actual) National Per Capita VMT

Since the 1980s, traffic on our roadways, as measured by vehicle miles traveled (VMT), has increased by approximately 2.5% annually. That is until the early 2000s when that trend changed rather abruptly. Since 2007, actual VMT has decreased approximately .3% annually. Meanwhile, per capita VMT has fallen sharply.

Many analysts have noticed the trends, but have been cautious to make any judgments about them due to the fact that the change took place around the same time as the Great Recession. The common thought was that people without jobs drive less. Even though most economists, however, have noticed a rebounding economy over recent years, both actual and per capita VMT continues to decline.

The persistent trends may in fact be the new normal for America as Baby Boomers retire and Millennials and subsequent generations continue their pivot away from personal automobile use. If this is the case, it appears that the United States hit peak VMT in 2007.

The implications pose serious policy questions. Presently, most departments of transportation spend most of their money annually on new capacity projects, while letting existing infrastructure crumble. Some policy makers and organizations, like Smart Growth America and President Obama (D), who first proposed such a program during his 2013 State of the Union Address, have advocated for a shift in this position to a ‘Fix-It-First’ approach.

Time will only tell what future trends will show. But as of now we are experiencing, for the first time in our nation’s history, a constant period of decline in terms of the amount of driving we are doing.

With the kids gone, aging Baby Boomers opt for city life

It’s a common misconception that urban life only appeals to young people. This idea has been repeated many times in recent weeks with regards to the upcoming mayoral and city council election in Cincinnati. Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes said on Twitter that the purpose of the streetcar project is “to please ‘milennials'” (sic), and the Enquirer recently published a letter-to-the-editor claiming that the upcoming election is about “Millennials vs. Baby Boomers.”

However, a recent Washington Post article sheds light on this issue, and finds that an increasing number of Baby Boomers are opting for urban life. Once the kids have moved out of the house, Boomers don’t need as much space, and prefer the amenities that cities and new urbanist developments offer. More from the Washington Post:

“The millennials and the boomers are looking for the same thing,” said Amy Levner, manager of AARP’s Livable Communities. […]

“The spirit on the streets, there’s a kind of vitality, a regeneration,” Harold Closter said, adding that most people in their building are younger than they are. “We’ve made a lot of new friends, and we’ve found that it’s a lot easier for our friends to get to us, because we’re right on the Metro. . . . Our (adult) son and his friends think this is pretty cool as well.” […]

“I don’t have to spend my time taking care of the house, replacing the gutter, sealing the driveway,” he said. “After you make the move, it’s like a big rock lifted off the back of your neck.”