Extending Tri-rail West is an Alternative Worth Considering

By Timothy Hullihan:

(Note:  The following article appeared in the Palm Beach Post on 08/06/2017.  It is republished by the author here.)

As anyone who lives west of the Florida Turnpike in northern Palm Beach County will tell you, traveling north and south is only half their transportation problem. They must first get east to where all of the accommodations for north/south travel are. Extending Tri-rail to Palm Beach Gardens, or Jupiter seems wise until one considers that this is a transportation plan that ignores a region of the county that has few roads, lots of environmentally sensitive land, zero mass transit options, and is about to be crushed by 16,000 new homes and tens of millions of commercial square feet recently approved in the region. Addressing North County’s impending east/west transportation nightmare seems like a higher priority.

Zooming in on the plan to extend Tri-rail north reveals a major obstacle. Tri-rail runs on CSX tracks, and those tracks don’t go to Palm Beach Gardens, or Jupiter. Only FEC tracks do. Somewhere in West Palm Beach a rail connection between CSX and FEC would have to be constructed so Tri-rail can even theoretically arrive at points further north. But, that assumes FEC will allow Tri-rail to use its tracks that will be handling increasing volumes of freight, and the planned Brightline high-speed rail to Orlando in the future.

Zoom in on CSX, and one will see that it already does 2 advantageous things. First, it runs northwest along the Beeline highway adjacent to our North County Airport, and the massive 7 square mile Avenir development, before passing very near Orlando International Airport, and eventually reaching points north of Florida like Washington D.C. Second, it has an established commuter rail system that shuttles 4 million passengers per year between points in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. Recent development approvals just made the existing transportation challenges west of the Beeline Highway foreseeably worse. Isn’t an existing rail line in this region the basis for a more actionable plan for a wiser transportation system?

Imagine if Avenir were planned with a downtown train station that could take passengers to Orlando, West Palm Beach, or Miami. Avenir residents would be blessed with a walkable transit option that is connected to many points north and south. If the developers are serious about creating an urban center, rather than just another cars-only suburb, a train station seems to be an essential component. In reverse, Avenir, as the destination the developers hope it will be, would be able to welcome visitors arriving via rail to their walkable downtown.

If Avenir won’t embrace a Tri-rail extension, the commuter rail should at least be extended to the North County Airport. Again, CSX¬ already passes on its north boundary, and a multi-modal transportation hub in this western region, which is approved for explosive growth, might take a few cars off Northlake and the Beeline Highway.

Northlake Boulevard is the main east/west corridor for an existing western population that has been approved to nearly double in size to over 80,000 people. Northlake Boulevard is only 4-lanes wide. County Engineer, George Webb, estimates that the section of Northlake that runs through Grassy Waters Preserve will need to be 12-lanes wide, but it can only be widened to 6-lanes without encroaching into land that protects an essential drinking water source for West Palm Beach, and a rare habitat for endangered plants and animals. So, a bottleneck is brewing on Northlake Boulevard unless some other form of east/west commuting is planned and created.

Now is the time to address the future transportation challenges of the communities that are dependent on Northlake Boulevard for east/west travel. Before Avenir is built for cars-only, ignoring the CSX line that exists on its north boundary, a better Avenir, and a better regional transportation system could be designed.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect living in North Palm Beach, and is a board member of Sustainable Palm Beach County.

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Lessons from Disney World

By Timothy Hullihan

Disney World offers 2 lessons to city planners that are searching for ways to revitalize a downtown, or declining commercial corridor. Lesson #1: No matter how great a destination, if nobody lives there its sense of place is ephemeral, and, therefore, not the correct foundation for a community, small town or neighborhood. Lesson #2: It is a dynamic pedestrian environment. Its enjoyable sense of place, albeit temporary, is derived from its pedestrian scale and pace. The fun begins when you get out of your car, and it ends when you get back in it.

Starry-eyed politicians, fall for the Lesson #1 trap all the time, while ignoring the long-term fiscal burdens of building and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to support a drive-to economy. Rather than advocating for Disney-quality pedestrian environments where people actually live, work, and play, and infrastructure costs are low, they approve destination after destination that are often short-lived economic vortexes that suck the life out of less novel destinations of the recent past. Collectively, they turn their communities into transient places with very few remnants of a communal past, or hope for a communal future.

Lesson #2 is obvious to anyone who visits Disney World, but a takeaway advocacy for pedestrian oriented communities is much more difficult to obtain. Most community planning regulations are numerically based, rather than form based, so development proposals that check all the empirical boxes for minimum parking and landscaping, and promise “jobs and tax revenues” (by the way, all projects, horrible or brilliant, create jobs and tax revenues), get approved while the potential to form community gathering places that are walkable from adjacent neighborhoods are neither proposed nor encouraged.

The Village of North Palm Beach, Florida recently considered 2 different projects that show why these lessons are important. Both projects should have been influenced by a recently completed village master plan prepared by Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, and a team of consultants that rank among our nation’s top retail planners, economists, urban planners, and architects.  But, the master plan is not yet supported by a zoning in progress ordinance, or a form based development code. The council’s votes on these two projects demonstrate why learning lessons 1 and 2 is so critical.

The first project was a proposal that would continue 45-years of car-centric planning on its main commercial corridor, U.S. Highway One. The master plan showed how 5 different pedestrian-oriented neighborhood gathering places could be formed along U.S. One to revitalize it from its stale car-dominate appearance and feel. The presently vacant land upon which the project, and its 1970s planning principles, is proposed is also featured prominently in the master plan as the place to create North Palm Beach’s signature project for a walkable future – a town center formed around a public green. Residents wrote letters and emails, and attended public meetings to voice their belief in the master plan, and disfavor for continuing the old-thinking that created the challenges on U.S One in the first place. The project was turned down by the local planning agency twice. Planning staff recommended denial. But, by a 3-2 vote, residents and staff were overruled, and the existing urban pattern (building + parking lot = project) the master plan explained as destructive, was allowed to continue onto the last piece of vacant land in the heart of the declining corridor. Jobs and tax revenues!!

The second project is a rebuild of a 50-plus year old country club, also on the U.S. One Corridor. It is present humble form, it is still the place that many residents grew up with. For decades children have ridden their bikes there to swim or have a golf lesson, and families have walked there for meals. Every longtime resident shares fond memories of its glorious past. But, it is out of date. It needs to be repaired, and renewed. During approximately a half dozen community meetings, a clear consensus was formed – the new club needs to be refreshed, but maintained as a community gathering place. However, a series of mistakes are making that an unlikely result.

First, an architect that specializes in private clubs was hired. In spite of an impressive club resume, from day one there has been a clear disconnect between the architect’s desire to create a “resort” (see Lesson #1 about destinations), and the community’s desire for a new clubhouse with the same level of humility.

Second, a restaurateur with 4 or 5-star aspirations was hired to shore-up the architect’s goal to transition the club into a high-end destination that few people in the community want. The restaurateur’s fraudulent resume was recently exposed in a lawsuit, and the residents cheered. This revelation would surely be the end of the 4-star restaurant that would price out 95% of the community that once gathered there. But no, in spite of several large question marks, the restaurateur’s contract was not canceled at a recent meeting.

Third, even though the village master plan presents very clearly the types of projects that will help revive the U.S. One Corridor (and the country club is not one of them), there is a growing level of discussion and innuendo that is close to shaping a misguided consensus that the country club project is the new anchor for the U.S. One Corridor’s revitalization. Again, the master plan shows how to revive the U.S. One, and the country club, unless it becomes a walkable community gathering place, is not part of its recommendations.

So, to summarize, a walkable town center was voted down in favor of another 1970s car-centric development, and an existing walkable community gathering place is being redesigned into a 4-star drive-to destination that will disconnect it from the community that will no longer be able to afford using it.

Disney World is also an expensive place to visit, but families go there in droves because of the pedestrian oriented form of its layout and architecture. Maybe Disney’s Lesson #3 is that people loss their minds, and spend more money than they can afford when they enter charming, pedestrian places. Regardless of the number of lessons Disney can teach us, the North Palm Beach Village Council needs to take a trip there, or to any of a number of places like Asheville, North Carolina, that have revived themselves through form-based planning guidelines before it makes too many mistakes to recover from.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect in North Palm Beach, Florida

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It’s Tough to be a “Yacht Collector.”

By Timothy Hullihan

According to Yachting magazine, one of the world’s premiere “yacht collectors” has a home in North Palm Beach, Florida.  In fact, he owns personally, and through corporations, many water front homes in North Palm Beach, but he never lives in most of them.  They are just places to berth his collection, house the crews, and keep his vessels ready for an occasional voyage.  The challenge of being a yacht collector is you need a place to store and service a lot of large ships, and in North Palm Beach, he has found a willing partner.

The humble, family and community oriented residents of this small village of less than 12,000 people are not willing partners, but the elected officials entrusted to represent them are. In fact, the residents of one neighborhood that is slowly losing 60-years of humility to the yacht collector’s real estate acquisitions asked the North Palm Beach Village Council to stop the yacht collector’s destructive practices by simply enforcing an existing law that says it is illegal to berth a vessel you own behind a house you do not occupy (whether you own it or not).  One of the residents that spoke at a recent council meeting is 77 years old, and has lived in her waterfront home for nearly 50-years.  She used a walker to approach the dais that night to describe the fear she now lives with daily because she is surrounded by vacant homes the yacht collector owns, or is in the process of acquiring.

At the June 22, 2017 council meeting the village council made it clear that they are prepared to do the opposite of what the residents of this neighborhood requested – simply enforce an existing law. The council agreed in a workshop format to vote at a future meeting to change the wording of the law in favor of the yacht collector.  Instead of finding relief for the residents they represent, they seemed to agree that changing the word “occupant” in the present law to “owner/tenant” is the right thing to do.  Only Councilmember Bickel (a lifelong resident of North Palm Beach) spoke against these changes to the law.  So, very soon, Mr. Yacht Collector will no longer be violating the law, and he and others that share his selfish view of life will be free to continue acquiring waterfront homes in North Palm Beach, leave them vacant, house their crews in them, and/or berth a ship there that is larger than the house itself, in some cases.

One family that lives in this neighborhood describes the North Palm Beach they moved into 15-years ago with 4 small children as “a dream come true.” They found a place they didn’t think existed anymore.  Residents brought homemade desserts to their door to welcome them when they arrived, and they have grown so close to their neighbors, and the community in general, that they no longer think of the places they are from as home.  Both the father and mother spoke publicly to the village council about their concerns for losing the neighborhood they have grown to love, but are now considering leaving because of unwelcome changes, and fear of an uncertain future.

It is not clear whether the council was aware of the yacht collector’s practices before residents brought it to their attention, but it is abundantly clear how the council feels about representing the residents that put them on the dais. It is hard for me to fully comprehend that I am presently living in a village whose elected officials are inclined to hear a resident’s cry for help, and then make their situation worse, instead of better.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect living in North Palm Beach, and President of the  Kevin Clark Hullihan Foundation

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North Palm Beach’s U.S. One Corridor Needs a Facelift

By: Timothy Hullihan

North Palm Beach, Florida, is a special place, but it is hard to articulate exactly why. This is because the things that make North Palm Beach special are deeper, and more intrinsic than the things we typically associate with extraordinary places.

North Palm Beach is not shiny and new. In fact, in many ways it is ordinary and little old-fashioned. Its 5,000 homes were mostly built in the 1950s and 1960s, and its commercial areas date back that far as well. Yet, it is a desirable place to live, with many of its residents being proud 2nd or 3rd generation residents.

Stated another way, North Palm Beach is stuck in the 1970s. This sounds like a bad thing, but it is, in my opinion, a big part of the reason it is so great. Because the 1970s were the beginning of a 30 or 40 year period that brought a lot of poor urban planning to cities and towns across America, and many of those places are still trying to recover from those poor decisions, North Palm Beach has very few scares from that destructive time.

North Palm Beach is locked into its municipal footprint by adjacent jurisdictions and other barriers to sprawling growth, so it has grown internally and refreshed itself regularly. Rather than sprawling away from its historic town center, and leaving it to crumble, it has continually restored, or rebuilt its public buildings and parks, and maintained a fairly bicycle and pedestrian friendly way of life.

There are a few scars from the 1970s and 80s that need to be repaired, however, and wisely, village leaders recognize the importance of keeping North Palm Beach simple, quaint, and stuck in a more enlightened time period.

The most glaring scare in the village is the U.S. One Corridor. It was widened to 6-lanes in the late 1970s when the completion of I-95 was in doubt and transportation planners needed a back-up plan for a high-volume north-south corridor. It is also lined with a series of office buildings that mirror the office park concept of that period that, across the country, are failing and forgotten places today.

The good news is, I-95 was completed a long time ago, and the burden of having a high volume corridor through the village never happened. It presently has a design volume that is 3-times its actual usage, so there is an opportunity to redesign this street to make it more consistent with the bicycle and pedestrian friendly way of life that exists in most other parts of the village. As it is now, it is a classic 1970s highway that was designed with only the efficient moving of cars in mind. The narrow and unprotected bike lanes are dangerous and unused afterthoughts. Its narrow sidewalks are precariously close to fast moving vehicles and unpleasant to use. Its wide lanes encourage higher traveling speeds than the posted 35 MPH limit, thus increasing the danger for pedestrians and cyclists.

More good news: FDOT offered to pay for the redesign of US-1 in 2003, and they will be coming back to us in 2018 with the same pot of money. We passed on the offer in 2003, but with a recently completed master plan, we have every reason to be up-to-date on why prioritizing walking and biking equally with automobile travel is essential to our future. For example, the retail expert, Bob Gibbs, who was one the highly acclaimed design consultants for our master plan told us that 85% of all new retail in America is the “walkable” town center variety, and our master plan shows us where and how to create a walkable town center on US-1.

Understandably, not everyone agrees that US-1 should be redesigned, however. There is even a resident taking a petition door-to-door in an effort to stop any momentum towards redesign before it starts. The petition is based on the notion that “we are a car culture,” and it is foolish to spend millions of dollars on softening the brutal presence of a 6-lane roadway that is unsightly, over designed, underutilized, and a barrier to safe walking and biking between the two halves of the village it so blatantly demarks.

What is needed is an informed dialogue. The petitioner is a wise and educated man. He has a Doctorate of Education and is a retired school teacher, but my efforts to discuss the issue with him have been turned down. He is passionate about what he believes to be true, and I respect that.
If he would allow me to speak with him, here are some of the things I hope he would learn.

1. When a community must drive a car to participate in its economy, it is a wasteful economy. A recent comparison prepared by Patrick Kennedy, an urban planner in Dallas, analyzed two similar cities, Copenhagen and Houston, to make this point. Copenhagen, a famously bicycle-friendly place spends only 4% of it metro GDP on transportation (public and private), while Houston spends 14%. This is because Houston residents make 95% of all trips by car, while the residents of Copenhagen make only 54% of their trips in an automobile. These differences translate into nearly 3.5-billion dollars wasted annually to create and maintain the infrastructure needed to help Houston residents access the local economy by car. Houston is a typical American city committed to a car-culture, but once someone learns the high-cost and wastefulness of maintaining a car-culture, they are more open to alternatives.

2. Because we have been designing and building roads with only cars in mind since the 1970s, we have a lot of dangerous roads in America. Roads that equally prioritize pedestrian, bicycle and car traffic are not nearly as dangerous as their counterparts in a “car-culture.” The number 1 cause of injury and death to children in American is automobile related accidents.  Over 12,000 children are killed or hurt each year, and nearly 25% of these incidences are to children biking or walking within or adjacent to 1970s-style road designs that prioritize cars.  Poor road design is a leading contributor to this alarmingly high and preventable number of child deaths and injuries. Once people learn this, they are more open to alternatives.

3. We are finally curing ourselves of our car addiction, and the “car culture” that existed in the last half of the 20th Century is becoming less prominent. Vehicle miles driven (VMD) flat-lined at the beginning of this century and stayed there. This decline in car use will expand further as Millenials become a larger segment of our economy, autonomous cars make car ownership less necessary, and retail trends toward walkable town centers make cars less necessary. Some estimates have personal car usage dropping by as much as 54% over the next several decades. If US-1 is presently over designed by 3-times, it will be 4 or 5 times over designed in the near future. Making U.S. One slower, narrower, safer, and much more attractive begins to seem like a reasonable alternative once we understand that we are already a culture that is shifting away from car dependency.

4. As mentioned above, narrowing US-1 is actually the idea of FDOT, not NPB. The key point is that FDOT pays for projects like this with repair money already allocated. We are schedule for a costly grinding and resurfacing of US-1 in 2018, but FDOT would rather spend that money more wisely. Once we realize that the redesign of U.S. One will be mostly paid for with FDOT maintenance funds, we realize that we are not wasting money after all.

5. If air pollution is something that worries you, exchanging car trips for bike trips should be something you value. According to the EPA, 31% of all carbon emissions in the US come from transportation. If you remove mass transportation from that number, the cars we drive put 27% of carbon emissions into the air we breathe. So if we can create a US-1 corridor that is pedestrian and bike friendly, and replace some car trips with non-polluting trips, we would become a cleaner village too.

I respect the petitioner’s passion for what he believes to be true. Door-to-door petitioning is a great American tradition. However, there is a lot that we all need to learn about the US-1 Corridor, and I hope we can get together as a community and discuss it so we can make, collectively, the best decisions for our village’s future.

Timothy Hullihan is and architect and a board member of Sustainable Palm Beach County.

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Thunderbird

By: Timothy Hullihan

It is hard for non-native Americans to feel at home in Nature.  Our history holds only a handful of exceptions that possess Thoreau-esque sensibilities, or Beston-esque desire.  A oneness with all things makes it equally hard for indigenous people to understand a divergence from the natural world.  The urge to own, conquer, control, and manage nature is at the heart of “civilized” society.  Yet, the wisdom to live flexibly and peacefully within the rhythms and patterns of Nature is at the heart of indigenous cultures, and their sustainable lifestyles that preceded European settlers by many thousands of years.

When two men from these opposing worlds become close friends over many years of shared place and time, their private discussions evolve into a comfortable forum for embracing their differences.  I recently learned a tiny piece of one such relationship from many years ago.

The place was the Brighton Indian Reservation in Hendry County, Florida.  The time was the late-1950s when, according to Florida Hall of Fame artist, James Hutchinson, the small native American population living there still lived as they had for millennia, rarely saw non-native people, and spoke only their native language.  Mr. Hutchinson, and his wife, Joan, accepted an opportunity jointly offered by the Owen K. Murphy and Arthur Vining Davis Foundations to live on the Brighton Seminole Reservation, and paint the Seminole and Miccosukee people over a period of 5-years.  The 50 works produced during the late-50s and early-60s are in the Florida History Museum in Tallahassee.

The Hutchisons befriended many of the tribal elders and, in particular a medicine man named Naha Tiger.  I learned this from Mr. Hutchinson at the opening of a show of his stunning Florida landscape paintings at MacArthur Beach State Park on January 12th.  A small number of the works on display are signed with a Thunderbird symbol next to his name, so I asked him about what I assumed to be something special.  I was not disappointed with the story that followed.

His answer was short, and probably intended to gauge my sincerity or depth of interest. “It was given to me, and I use it sometimes.”  I pressed on.

With an ironic smile and twinkle in his eye, the rest of the story came forth.  “A Miccosukee medicine man named Naha Tiger and I were discussing the finer points of art one afternoon.”  Art for art’s sake was a foreign concept to Naha and his people.  They made beautiful things of utility, but beauty was everywhere in their natural home and it was inherent, obligatory, and symbolic of their connected spiritual existence.  Recreating beauty for non-utilitarian purposes, and then removing it from its place was not understood.  When Naha learned that Mr. Hutchinson did this for money (another foreign concept), he needed to know more.

“How does it make you feel when you sell a painting you have made from this place?” Naha asked. “I feel good.”  James replied, and a long period of silence followed as Naha tried to understand this.  Then, Naha began to draw with a stick in the dirt.  He drew the Thunderbird symbol, and explained that they are mythical figures.  They are very powerful, for they have the power to control things, to make things happen, to create. “This is you.”  Naha said to James, gesturing his way in a manner that bestowed it upon him. “You have the power to create.”

I am grateful to Mr. Hutchinson for sharing this story with me.  I feel as if I am now part of a unique moment in time.  Unique circumstances brought 2 unique people, from unique pasts together in a unique setting.  Mr. Hutchison carries with him the great privilege of a deep connection with an ancient culture that no longer exists as it did for thousands of years.  He carries forward a small symbolic remnant of a conversation with a friend, and a remnant of a peaceful and sustainable way of life that holds many lessons for “civilized” society.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect and freelance writer from North Palm Beach, Florida. He is also a board member of Sustainable Palm Beach County.

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Road Widening Justifications Insult My Intelligence

By: Timothy Hullihan

I am insulted when I read a DOT engineer’s projections for unfathomable gridlock in the future – typically something like, “There’s frequent gridlock at the intersection now, and it will only get worse in the future.” It’s insulting because projections like this imply that we are too stupid to learn from, and change our behavior to avoid bad situations. The only possible way that a congested road or intersection continues to get more and more congested until it is a virtual parking lot 24/7 is if everyone one of us continues to blindly do the same thing at the same time, day in and day out – surprised everyday by the gridlock that was there the day before, and the day before that. Reality, of course, is quite different, and if this kind of statement doesn’t insult you, it should make you angry because it is the basis for the wasteful expenditure of millions of tax dollars every year.

The objective analyses favored by the road building industry consider people and their vehicles in very simplified ways. We are merely population data to input into an algorithm or computer model and, viola, gridlock. Forecasts for gridlock allow DOT staffers to make studies and reports, engineers to design roads, and contractors to build them. What’s not to like, right? Everybody wins. Our roads get “fixed,” and millions of tax dollars pass through, and stimulate the economy.

The problem is, our roads might need “fixing”, but expanding them is not a fix that makes economic sense. There is a mountain of subjective and objective analyses that says we are not stupid, and we actually have a high-ability to adapt. Not surprisingly, we are smart enough to avoid gridlock by staying closer to home, carpooling, shifting our driving times, using alternate routes, and (this one makes the road building industry cringe) using alternate and more efficient forms of transportation.

The subjective research has shown that widening roads has a very short-term benefit – the same level of congestion returns very quickly because we are also smart enough to choose the newly widened version of the road we used to avoid. This is called induced demand. Interesting revelations about the depth of our adaptability in the other direction are also supported by case studies. Believe it or not, narrowing roads, and tearing down freeways is actually a thing, and in spite of the gloom and doom predictions of gridlock, it never happens. As I described in a previous post, the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, for example, was demolished and replaced with a surface street in the early 1990s. In so doing, its level of service was reduced from 110,000 vehicles per day to 45,000. Nightmarish gridlock, right? It never happened, and nobody is certain where all the cars went. However, it is clear that the neighborhoods that used to be divided by the elevated highway were beautifully reborn in its absence.

The best objective analysis of the economics of road building that I am aware of was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2009. The paper is entitled The Fundamental Laws of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities (linked here) and was prepared by two University of Toronto economists, Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner. You know it is good study when the Cato Institute (think Koch Brothers) writes a fake news story to muddy the paper’s clear conclusions. Anyway, the abstract of the study has this sentence, “We conclude that an increased provision of roads… is unlikely to relieve congestion.” Pretty clear!

The methods they used are, of course, economic in nature. Since roads play a huge role in the movement of commodities (products and people) from Point A to Point B, the speed at which they can move on roadways is an important economic variable. They used data from 228 U.S. cities to prepare economic models that show the value of increasing road capacity. They concluded that the value is extremely low since roads, regardless of designed capacity, quickly reach the same level of congestion they had prior to expansion. Thus, the speed of delivery for products being moved via congested roads, and the travel-times of the tax-payers who are paying for the road improvements is virtually the same whether an existing road is expanded or not. There are, of course, more cars and trucks moving slowly on wider, yet equally congested roadways, but, since “time is money” the economic benefit of road projects is next to zero. Duranton and Turner say in the paper’s conclusion, “…this research eliminates [road] capacity expansions… as policies to combat traffic congestion.” Again, pretty clear.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with some wonderful corollaries of congestion. 1) Staying closer to home is a very positive adaptation we make to avoid congestion. It translates into reinvestment in the homes and neighborhoods where people are presently living, and a reduction in the potential for disinvestment, decline, and abandonment of existing communities. 2) We are encouraged to look for alternative, more efficient, less costly, and more environmentally friendly ways to move people, not vehicles. After all, the “T” in DOT stands for transportation, not low occupancy vehicles, and the policies of DOTs should not be lopsidedly focused on cars and trucks. If we shift our collective focus away from moving vehicles, and toward the movement of people, better and cheaper solutions are possible.

The picture below shows that gridlock happens not because there are a lot of people on the gridlocked road, but because there are a lot of vehicles. It shows an extremely congested roadway system. Thus, the first panel is all vehicles. The second panel places a grey

screen over panel 1 so turquoise dots can be added in panel 3 to highlight just the people in the vehicles.  In comparing panel 1 to panel 4, it is important to remember that there are more people than cars, but with the cars removed congestion is reduced dramatically.

Transportation policies in a smarter future will rely more heavily on systems that encourage us to travel in higher densities, rather than the inefficient and costly present policies of continually expanding roadways without meaningfully reducing congestion. Walking and biking, for example, are very dense transportation methods, and are very low polluting.  Also, most forms of mass transit increase people-moving density and reduce pollution.

So yes, I am insulted by the typical premise for road expansion because it implies that people are stupid and inflexible. But, I am also angered by this premise because it says we must wastefully spend the public’s money to save us from our collective stupidity.  It’s as if we would all eventually perish in gridlock without a wise and powerful government saving us from ourselves.

I am convinced that this country is still full of wise and moral people. Surely we can give the number crunching a rest, and begin to form intelligent solutions to transportation systems that do not overlook human potential.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect and freelance writer from North Palm Beach, Florida. He is also a board member of Sustainable Palm Beach County.

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If Not Sprawling House Plans, Why Sprawling Cities?

By: Timothy Hullihan

If we designed our homes the way we design cities and suburbs – around the convenient use of automobiles – our homes would not be as comfortable and intimate as we know them to be. Our homes are sanctuary-like places in which we draw closest to those we love and hold dear.  Our car-centric cities are places we drive to, through, and away from, but are unlikely to experience deep sanctuary-like “placemaking” there.  It wasn’t always this way, and can’t be in the future if we are to grow healthy communities, and conserve the land we need for sustainability.

Let’s dissect this hypothetical home designed with an internal transportation system, golf carts, for example. The rooms could be more spread out with sleeping pods, cooking pods, dining pods, bathing pods, and entertainment pods zoned remotely from each other to enhance logic and order, increase privacy, and eliminate conflicts.  Glass enclosed corridors, wide enough for 2-way golf cart traffic, would link the pods efficiently.  Each bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room would be large enough to include a couple of parking stalls for golf carts.  Walking from room to room would no longer be necessary.

As novel as this sprawling house plan may seem, for all its conveniences and partitioned privacy, it would not be very homey. It would also be very wasteful of land, something that we have to be increasingly vigilant in guarding against because there is surprisingly little left.

The homes we are all familiar with derive hominess from the overlapping and close juxtaposition of uses, and in fact, many have open plans that blur the lines between kitchen, dining, and entertainment spaces creating wonderfully causal and comfortable places to dwell. A similarly organic development pattern for communities once created convivial urban neighborhoods and towns that used land very efficiently.  But today, densely organized, pedestrian oriented systems of delightfully overlapping uses are forbidden in most zoning codes.  It wasn’t always this way, and can’t be in the future.

In fact, zoning wasn’t really a thing until about 70-years ago. Before zoning, cities grew organically and incrementally.  Narrow streets with a broad mix of uses made urban living extensions of our private sanctuaries, and, consequently, there were fewer distinctions between private and public space.  Neighborhoods were, therefore, more open, people were more friendly and cooperative, and the densely organized system of overlapping uses that created comfort inside our homes also created a character and charm to our small towns and urban neighborhoods alike, and everything we needed was a short walkable distance away.

The car and the roads to accommodate them slowly changed this. A 10-minute drive versus a 10-minute walk became a practical choice in the 1950s, and many chose to spread out their lives over many, many miles of open road.  Gas was cheap, cars were cool, and the novelties of a suburban home or office were intoxicating.  We never stopped to consider the high cost to the environment and humanity sprawling lifestyles would have.  That needs to change.

If the typical 2,500 square foot suburban home were reimagined as the sprawling hypothetical example, it would require approximately 7,500 square feet of enclosed space to provide the same 2,500 square feet of living space. Parking at every room, and two-way pathways between the pods would approximately triple the required footprint.  Even more wasteful, the sprawling layout would spread out inefficiently over its plot of land increasing its inefficient consumption of land even further.  

The car has had a similar impact on urban planning over the last 70-years, and this is one of the greatest environmental oversights of a car-centric world.  We have been gobbling up land to accommodate growth at 3 to 4 times the rate that organic pedestrian-oriented growth patterns require.

Within typical suburban developments, the land used for roads and parking lots (pavement) is at least equal to the enclosed area of the buildings (habitable spaces) they serve. A quick look at an aerial view of any regional mall in America will show that this ratio can be 3 to 4 times in favor of pavement over useable / habitable space.  The impact over the last 50 years of consuming land in huge wasteful chucks is hard to know, but the foolishness of this practice extends beyond the loss of communities with a strong sense of place.  A future that slows expansion onto developable lands, and accommodates population growth by repurposing the wastefully developed or forgotten urban/suburban landscapes of our past becomes more likely from a world view.

Smart people that study these types of things estimate that all of Earth’s land presently being used to create the food we eat – a shockingly low 2.7% of the Earth’s surface, or 3.4 billion acres, cannot be expanded meaningfully, and is only large enough to feed a world population of 10-11 billion people. The U.N. projects a population of around 9.7 billion by 2050 and reaching 11 billion before this century ends.  The good news is, world population plateaus at 10-11 billion by some estimates due to declining birth rates.  The bad news, feeding the world population we are projected to have in just 50-years will require us to gradually transition away from eating meat, and to adopt entirely vegan lifestyles.  Because food energy is wasted in the production of meat – since it is first used to grow the animal and then transferred to humans inefficiently – grazing lands must slowly transition into crop lands as our population continues to grow.  Fruits and vegetables, by contrast, transfer food energy to humans far more directly, so, faced with a finite land area available for the world’s food production, increasing the efficiency of its use is the only solution.  Yes, rainforests are plowed under to create more agricultural lands, but this has a negative environmental impact, and does not fully replace arable lands that are lost to desertification and erosion each year at increasing rates.

So, yes, land on Planet Earth is surprisingly scarce and precious. Understanding this should make the prospects of converting farmland to housing developments seem foolish, but this is still a common practice.  Recognizing that grazing lands represent the inefficient creation of food energy, and having the wisdom to increase the efficient utilization of these lands to feed a growing world population will take courage and adjustments.  A similar adjustment of our appetite for land development is equally important.  And, while changing our diet will not happen without discomfort, retreating from suburban sprawl and car-centric living to increase land-use efficiency in the realm of human habitation would come with many positives.  Pedestrian oriented communities are physically and mentally healthier places, according to a growing body of research.  They are also more financially stable places to live as their efficient land-use translates into efficient infrastructure utilization and tax-base development.

A sprawling house with an internal transportation system seems foolish because we know what a home should feel like, and its intimacy is part of what we crave. Sprawling cities are equally foolish for the lack of intimacy they create, and cause us to accept as normal.  But, as we more fully appreciate the preciousness of land, and couple that appreciation with the opportunities to live in convivial places that use land very efficiently, it is encouraging to know that we have the knowledge to create, reinvent, and repopulate healthy pedestrian communities.  We just need the will to retreat from the sprawling edges of civilization where land is cheap, and return to where happy, healthy, places can be found, and life is rich and sustainable.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect and freelance writer from North Palm Beach, Florida.  He is also a board member of Sustainable Palm Beach County.

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