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Monday, June 23, 2014

"Urban Triage" on Our Streets?

With the number of pedestrians and cyclists who get killed on our streets every year, you might think that "Urban Triage" was a reference to the aftermath of vehicular violence. It sounds like it could be part of New York City's "Vision Zero" campaign. Instead, it is a term Jeff Speck uses in Walkable City. He attributes the phrase "Urban Triage" to his mentor, Andres Duany, and he recommends it as a way to determine which streets are deemed worthy of saving. The idea is that resources are limited, so projects should be focused on the streets that have the most potential:
Only the "in" streets are to receive walkability improvements like safer traffic patterns, street trees, and better sidewalks.
Before I sound too critical about Speck's recommendations for prioritizing downtown streets, I want to emphasize that Walkable City has been very effective at sparking public interest around the need to design streets that support pedestrian activity. My views align with Speck's far more than they diverge, especially in the earlier portions of the book where he synthesizes many of the current efforts underway around the country and beyond to understand and improve pedestrian conditions. Overall, it has been very positive that Speck has brought so much attention to the need to improve pedestrian conditions and put real effort into developing active transportation networks.

Nevertheless, as Colin Dabkowski in Buffalo recently noted, there are some real problems with Speck's approach. Dabkowski is right that social equity needs to be at the forefront of our efforts to improve cities, and he is right that Speck's writing does not lead the discussion in that direction.

Speck posted a response, where he claims that these concerns are unfounded, that his critics simply failed to understand him. Speck's tone is dismissive (he accuses Dabkowski of not fully reading his book), but Speck's response ends up reiterating some of the basic problems with his planning approach.
As Speck attempts to explain away the social equity problems in his book, he confuses his own argument:
Ultimately, what I think has happened is that Mr. Dabkowski has confused the two different arguments in his mind. Downtowns First is a macro argument.  Urban Triage is a micro one. Downtowns First favors walkable, urban areas, whatever their demographics, because we believe that cities depend on them for long-term success. Urban Triage forces us to be realistic about where such walkability is possible, again, within neighborhoods, not among them. If he had finished my book, I think this confusion would not have occurred.
While I cannot say how thoroughly Dabkowski read Walkable City, I paged through it quite attentively.  I took notes and carefully reviewed its sources. In this case, it is Speck who is confused about the implications of his own arguments. His "Urban Triage" construct explicitly recognizes that there are limited municipal resources, and that choices must be made about which projects to prioritize. There simply is no budgeting process that allows you to prioritize Downtown streets without pushing the projects in other parts of the city down the list, where they are deferred or ultimately left unfunded. 

It is also disingenuous to say that writing off the "auto zone" doesn't result in the neglect of entire neighborhoods, since many places have been fully developed on that pattern - a fact Speck cannot pretend to ignore. These may be some of the areas where needs for pedestrian improvements are greatest. These are increasingly the low-income neighborhoods where workers may not have access to a car, and where walking may be most hazardous. A trip to work to support the family can be a dangerous undertaking that Speck simply does not address.

Moreover, the "Downtown First" approach is not really compatible with the notion of "triage" at all. Among the most critical steps in performing triage is identifying the actual injuries. A "Downtown First" approach is akin to a field medic who treats lacerations first with every patient, without first determining if there is a more life-threatening condition. Many cities have needs for pedestrian improvements that are more critical than sprucing up their downtown streets. There are plenty of other places in cities where people are already walking, and they're getting killed in the process.  

Speck never suggests that planners should even consider an analysis of pedestrian accidents. As he describes it, he bases his efforts primarily on more subjective urban design values. His book is suffused with an interest in attracting the "creative class" and enhancing property values. That is precisely the substance in his text that prompts such strong concerns about equity from readers like Dabkowski and myself. In response to the concerns, Speck responds:
Urban Triage says that the road between the mall and the office park, lined by auto dealers, is a worse place for new streetscapes than the street between the bus station and the stadium, lined by struggling storefronts. It aims investment not at prosperity, but at possibility.
Yet if he reviewed crash reports, I am sure he would sometimes find locations on roads between malls and office parks that should be a priority to keep pedestrians safe. Such locations should also be prioritized because if people are walking despite the threat to life and limb, improvements could certainly attract more pedestrian activity.

There seems to be a deeper problem with Speck's view of urban transportation systems. His approach essentially treats downtown streets as isolated enclaves of walkability. Despite some kind words for transit, he appears to be perfectly content with people driving downtown and parking to enjoy the walkable streets. On close inspection, the combination of forms that Speck endorses for downtown main streets ultimately resembles a mall more than a true center of an active transportation network. What emerges is a vision of a downtown where most people drive and park near the businesses they frequent; walking is little more than an enjoyable amenity once they get out of their car to spend some of their leisure time with the rest of the creative class.

A view that considers streets as part of a transportation network would not only focus on the greatest areas of need for reducing fatalities, it would also take a more comprehensive look at centers of pedestrian activity and would seek to reduce the barriers to using transit. Improved downtown streets will have little potential to draw more people to transit if the bus stops near their homes lack basic shelter and require crossing wide, busy arterial streets with uncomfortably short pedestrian crossing times and lots of conflicting turning vehicles. The complete absence of Safe Routes to School in Walkable City further illustrates a certain business-centric bias of Speck's work, which ignores the needs, and the possibilities, for real pedestrian networks in much of the city beyond the illusion of walkable downtown areas.

People wandering around eating fancy frozen yogurt on pretty sidewalks are not a substitute for people arriving downtown on active transportation. Like a mall, it is the image of walkability, without the real substance. Yet Speck mounts an implausible defense of prolific parking, to the point that he opposes substantive bicycle facilities. He argues that it would be impossible to give everybody everything they wanted to suggest that it is somehow unreasonable to expect protected bicycle lanes. It is a weak attempt to conceal the choice he makes in favor of parking. For rationale, he suggests that bike lanes are somehow less attractive than car parking. He also suggests that parking is necessary to support downtown businesses. Apparently in a walkable city, customers still cannot walk around the block from a parking space and wouldn't be interested in coming by bicycle.

Speck does note that "our nation’s poor and disabled are disproportionately represented among the ranks of pedestrians and cyclists. They walk, bike, roll, and take transit, often because they have no choice in the matter." Unfortunately, the recommendations in his book are just too heavily weighted toward accommodating drivers and catering to the needs of more affluent business interests.

It has been great to see the surge in interest in walking conditions due to Speck's work. Hopefully the public's interest will be sustained and will gradually grow more informed. For cities that are "ecosystems that thrive or decline holistically," we will need more equitable and comprehensive methods for improving streets than urban design approaches that are motivated largely by the desire to attract the "creative class" to downtown business districts.

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