Uptown leaders should copy Buffalo and develop a street-calming plan

Cincinnati’s uptown neighborhoods are experiencing a bit of a boom. Hundreds of residential units are being developed, new transportation infrastructure and capacity is coming online, and smaller, historic buildings are controversially making way for new, taller ones. While significant changes are underway, one thing that remains the same, and seems poised to only get worse as new roadway projects are built, is the fact that most major thoroughfares uptown are inhospitable to people who wish to walk or bike to get around. In Buffalo they have developed a plan to address just that in the city’s historic downtown. A similar plan should be considered for Cincinnati’s second largest employment center. More from Buffalo News:

The new Downtown Infrastructure Master Plan lays out a series of enhancements to key streets, districts and public squares to bolster the appearance and feel of the city center for residents, employees and visitors, while making the downtown more vibrant. At the same time, it seeks to make the area more cohesive and pedestrian-friendly, by improving access and connections. And it calls for traffic calming, more accessible green space and public space, and a “softening” of barriers like highway overpasses.

The goal is to provide a framework for future public-sector investments and projects, using shared objectives in making decisions about where to target new initiatives. But it’s also flexible enough, officials said, so that it can be adapted to tie in new projects to downtown and neighborhoods.

How to Reimagine Our Streets Around the Concept of Shared Space

CNU22 featured speakers from all over the world, from Bogotá to Toronto to Brighton. One plenary speaker from Bristol moved the audience with an idea called Shared Space that was beautifully simple and innovative, yet entirely new to most of the crowd.

Ben Hamilton-Baillie is a British urban designer, “recovering” architect and self-taught in the area of transportation planning. His presentation focused on explaining Shared Space as an urban design technique that can alleviate the frequently problematic interface between pedestrians, cyclists, automobiles and the public realm.

As the name would suggest, Shared Space advances the idea that streets themselves can be a seamless part of public space that is shared by all users. The method came from the Netherlands, where Hamilton-Baillie studied under transportation engineer Hans Monderman and Joost Váhl, who developed the Dutch woonerfs where pedestrians and cyclists have priority on roadways.

The concept also integrates a thoughtful assessment of human psychology as it relates to driving. “It’s essential to understand the changing view of the nature of risk,” Hamilton-Baillie explained. “Hazards keep us aware of our environment and allow us to adapt our behavior.”

This seems counter-intuitive, but it was effectively explained through an example of two cities in the Tel Aviv region of Israel.

Bnei-Brak, located east of Tel Aviv, is composed of largely low-income, ultra-conservative Jews. Ramat-Gan, also located east of Tel Aviv, is home to a more moderate, middle-income Jewish population. Hamilton-Baillie explained that the people of Bnei-Brak are known throughout the region as being unruly pedestrians. Adults and children cross streets with disregard for traffic. Locals know that they must be vigilant when driving there.

Conversely, the residents of Ramat-Gan respect pedestrian rules, crosswalks, and jaywalk less frequently. Drivers are more at ease in Ramat-Gan.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, there is a higher instance of pedestrian fatality in Ramat-Gan. Drivers in Bnei-Brak tend to cautiously drive at lower speeds, aware that there is a greater risk of a pedestrian appearing in the road. One can see in this example that increased risk makes for more attentive drivers.

Shared Space utilizes risk in the form of mixing cyclists, pedestrians and motorists on streets, and relies on the idea that removing lines and signaling allows for social protocols to take over more strongly than signs. This, Hamilton-Baillie said, is called “friction”, or natural cues that guide a driver’s speed. There is already an increasing awareness in North America that things like narrow streets, street trees and buildings built to the right-of-way naturally induce drivers to reduce speed without a speed-limit.

One might think that this friction would create delays, but evidence from project implementation has found the opposite, as did Hans Monderman’s projects in the Netherlands. And post-project evaluations, like in Poynton, UK, have confirmed the efficacy of Shared Space designs.

Poynton is a city southeast of Manchester. It is a throughway for traffic between the two larger cities of Macclesfield and Stockport. In this instance, vehicles were found to be passing on the main thoroughfare at a rate of 26,000 per day, many of which were trucks. The initial approach to relieve congestion was the construction of additional lanes of traffic.

Shared Space, however, was applied as part of a regeneration scheme in Poynton. The first task for Hamilton-Baillie’s consultancy was to “remove every trace of traffic engineering.”

Three lanes of cars were reduced to one, signaling was removed, additional on-street parking was introduced, and sidewalks were widened. There was increased edge friction through vertical elements within the driver’s line of vision.

Even after the removal of two lanes and signals, traffic flow stayed the same and pedestrian traffic increased five-fold. Before the project, 16 of 32 shops in town were boarded up; but within one to two years after project completion, all shop spaces in the business district were occupied.

Streets were able to concurrently be part of Poynton public space and serve through traffic – the change in aesthetics was remarkable.

It is certain that freight and car movement is critical to the healthy functioning of any economy. This fact is not contested. But since civilizations started building cities, they have been venues for people to roam – sometimes at odds with our economic necessity to move people and goods through them quickly.

Fast big things and slow small things do not mix well.

Shared Space demonstrates that these seemingly incompatible users actually function better when mixed within the city fabric – cars move more fluidly when drivers are forced to react to their surroundings instead of their actions being dictated to them. People are safer, too.

The outcome is that streets become a different kind of public space, where mobility means interacting with one’s surroundings.

When asked if he thought famously impatient North American drivers could adapt to the concept, he paused for a moment and said, “Everywhere Shared Space has been applied, I was told that the drivers in the locale couldn’t adapt. In every case they did.”

CNU22: The Nation’s Strong Urbanist Movement is Rooting for Cincinnati

The journey to Buffalo was filled with smoke and flames. As the towering inferno that was our Megabus burned away into chard wreckage along the Interstate highway, I looked on as firefighters doused the flames. The highway was closed, but we were whole. No deaths or injuries. Not a single piece of luggage singed. We rode school buses to a nearby town, Fredonia, and hopped on a local bus line that stopped at many small New York towns.

At last in the distance, bending around Lake Erie, I could see the silhouette of a skyline next to rows of turning wind turbines. I struggled with my iPhone, trying to catch up on the CNU preview episodes of the StrongTowns podcast. This being my first Congress, I had no idea what to expect.

The bus arrived, we checked into our hotel, went to get our badges. The whole day had been wild. Was the bus fire even real? We sat in on a session about urban retail where we found Cincinnatian Kathleen Norris of Urban Fast Forward. It was great to see a familiar face.

Ken Greenberg’s opening plenary was fantastic. He was able to highlight the challenges of urbanity in a way that made sense to everyone. And after the session we were able to speak with the new Chair of the CNU Board, Doug Farr. We met people and new friends, most of them Canadian.

We arrived at the Hotel Lafayette just in time to snap a group photo with the CNU NextGen pub crawlers. That night I had already met so many people and discussed with so many people urbanism and Cincinnati.

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The next few days I attended sessions; many of which were informative, but it was a very different experience than a typical conference. There were so many conversations, ideas and new people.

We hung out in an old grain silo. Silo City as Buffalo natives called it. It was like old school Grammar’s (circa 2009) on a massive scale.  A news reporter approached us for an interview. I bravely stepped forward. It was on everyone’s mind, what could we say about Buffalo?

Buffalo is a rust belt city, more the style of Detroit or Cleveland than Cincinnati. Its downtown still quieted by the abandonment and neglect. Its old factories still silent. I have no compass to gauge its trajectory or past mistakes, although signs of that are visible. Cincinnati’s downtown has it good compared to Buffalo, at least from what I had seen.

The CNU NextGen peeps were playing bocce ball on a parklet outside the hotel. Inside the hotel, attendees were spouting ideas; debates and even a late night show happened. At one point we may have even crashed a private party hosted by James Howard Kuntsler.

I met a native who was volunteering at the Congress and we engaged in a lengthy discussion. He was a software developer who had moved to San Francisco, then back to Buffalo, then to New York City, and eventually back to Buffalo. He said he always had an interest in growing his home town and that now, he felt, was the right time to start setting down roots.

Before I left I also had the opportunity to visit Allentown where I dined at the Anchor and had some trademark buffalo wings. During our stay, I also had dinner at a spiffy Italian restaurant a few blocks away. I didn’t stay very long at the final party at Larkin Square. Our bus back to Cincinnati was calling. Fortunately this time it did not catch on fire.

Randy asked me to write about my takeaways from the Congress. I attended some great sessions, and I met a lot of people – many of whom are heroes in the small world engaged in urbanism – but I think my greatest takeaway is this:

We are not alone. There is a whole network of people who have the talent, the ideas and the drive who are making this change on a national scale. These people may not always agree, but from what I heard, they are all on the same page about Cincinnati. They’re encouraged and they’re all rooting for us.

CNU22: Cincinnati Wins National Planning Award for Form-Based Code

The City of Cincinnati’s Department of Planning & Buildings has been on a roll lately. This past weekend in Buffalo, at the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) national conference, the city won its third national award of the year for its new form-based code.

CNU’s grand prize for the Best Planning Tool or Process was actually a tie and thus jointly awarded to Cincinnati for its form-based code (FBC) and Station Center, a transit-oriented development in Union City, California.

As first reported by UrbanCincy, the Department of Planning & Buildings was honored with the Daniel Burnham Award for a Comprehensive Plan at the American Planning Association’s (APA) national conference in Atlanta.  Additionally, in late 2013, the Department won the Ohio APA’s award for Comprehensive Planning for a Large Jurisdiction.

In 2012, city leaders were also awarded with the Frank F. Ferris II Community Planning Award from the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission.

In addition to city staff and thousands of Cincinnatians, those involved in developing Cincinnati’s award-winning FBC included Opticos Design, Hall Planning & Engineering, Urban Design Associates, glaserworks, Wise Economy Workshop, and Urban Fast Forward.

“It is an honor for us to have our code recognized by an organization that is on the cutting edge of best practices with regard to planning tools and good urbanism,” said Alex Peppers, senior city planner for Cincinnati. “We put a lot of work into developing a code that would fit our context and assets.”

What makes Cincinnati’s FBC unique is that it is a voluntary tool for neighborhoods who seek to preserve the character of their centers of activity and historic business districts. Thus far, it has been adopted in College Hill, Madisonville, Walnut Hills and Westwood.

Jurors noted that they were particularly impressed by the code’s extensive photo documentation and mapping analysis that calibrated the code’s application, and reinforced the unique characteristics of Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods.

“The Cincinnati code is an excellent example of that advancement in the deployment of SmartCode, with particular attention paid to public process, neighborhood structure and graphic presentation,” explained Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one of CNU’s award jurors. “It reinforces Cincinnati’s historic urban patterns with guidance for appropriate infill and predictable redevelopment building.”

The final draft of Cincinnati’s form-based code is available online and can be accessed here.

On the twelfth official episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, we were joined by Roxanne Qualls to discuss Cincinnati’s development and implementation of form-based codes. You can subscribe to The UrbanCincy Podcast on iTunes for free.

Riding Double-Digit Growth, Megabus Adds New Service in Cincinnati

Megabus has added new service between Cincinnati and Lexington, bringing the total number of direct destinations out of Cincinnati to nine (Atlanta, Buffalo, Chattanooga, Chicago, Columbus, Erie, Indianapolis, Knoxville, and Lexington).

The new Lexington service, which runs twice a day with 9am and 9pm departures from the 4th/Race Street Stop, continues the growth of inter-city bus travel out of Cincinnati.

In December 2010, Greyhound Express service was added out of the bus operator’s center city terminal, and Chinatown bus operators have added service since being profiled on UrbanCincy in February 2012.

Cincinnati Megabus
Megabus has seen continued ridership growth in Cincinnati, but may have to soon relocate its downtown stop due to reconstruction of Tower Place Mall. Photograph by Thadd Fiala for UrbanCincy.

Megabus itself added a second station in Cincinnati at the University of Cincinnati earlier this year, due to requests from the institution and its riders, and it has bolstered service on other routes through the acquisition of Lakefront Lines in 2008.

“We launched the brand in April 2006, and it was a major and exciting event because we didn’t know how it would go,” explained Mike Alvich, Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations for Megabus.com.

Since its launch seven years ago, routes to Indianapolis and Chicago remain the most popular. Megabus officials also say that the Cincinnati hub has experienced double-digit ridership growth and has served as a critical component of its growing national network.

“Cincinnati has been one of the jewels in our crown since our story began,” Alvich stated.

While Megabus officials would not comment on specific ridership totals, they did note that inter-city bus travel has been growing faster than both intercity rail and air travel in recent years, with Megabus experiencing 30% growth between 2011 and 2012.

Part of the reason, Alvich says, is the fact that inter-city bus travel is now time-competitive and significantly cheaper than air travel and it offers growing cost savings over cars.

Inter-city trains, meanwhile, continue to see a lack of investment and service, even though ridership has grown on that mode at a faster rate than air travel in recent years, and is setting ridership records.

“We consider ourselves to have two real competitors,” Alvich explained. “The first is the car, and the second are people’s concerns that they cannot afford to travel nowadays. As a result, people are staying at home or going somewhere local…so in a way we’re also competing with people’s couches and air conditioners.”

Another factor with the continued growth on inter-city bus service is the different transportation preferences among Millennials and aging Baby Boomers.

For Megabus, the largest share of their customers is people from the ages between 18 and 39. But Alvich notes that some of their fastest-growing demographics are seniors and families.

He also says that approximately 55% of their riders are women, and says that a consistent source of business for Megabus is groups of three to five women going on short weekend trips together.

Additional changes appear imminent for intercity bus operators in Cincinnati, as the Greyhound Bus Terminal is surrounded by the Horseshoe Casino and the main Megabus stop at Fourth/Race will soon become a construction zone. Officials at both companies said that plans have not been agreed upon yet, but that they are tracking the situation and will make changes as necessary.