Saturday, January 19, 2008

Walkable Communities Workshop with Dan Burden

City Council Chambers
10:00 am to noon
Sponsored by CONA (Council of Neighborhood Associations) and B-Top (Bloomington Transportation Options

Report by Ann Kreilkamp,
February 4, 2008

Dan Burden is a nationally recognized authority on developing, promoting and evaluating alternative transportation facilities, traffic calming practices and sustainable community design. Dan is the executive director of Walkable Communities and partner and principal designer of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin of Orlando Florida,, 1-866-347-2734.

Dan’s philosophy and work follows in the tradition of urbanist Jane Jacobs and her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a powerful critique of U.S. urban renewal policies of the 1950s. Jacobs, says Dan, prompted us to start thinking about returning cities to what they used to be: dense, complex, diverse, multi-use, protected, pedestrian and bike friendly centers for human and cultural exchange.

Now 64 years old, Dan has documented the walking and biking conditions in 200 U.S cities and towns since 1996 and says he expects to go another 12 years. Armed with hundreds of images from his travels, Dan demonstrated how walkability is both cornerstone and key to designing liveable communities that create conditions to inspire whole, happy, healthy lives for those who live in them.

Dan wants to turn planners into heroes, by designing walkable cities. After noting that streets now make up 85% of the public realm, he discussed a variety of tools available to transform streets, including:

  • curb extensions
  • tree wells
  • boulevards and medians
  • trees and planters
  • two-way streets with narrow lanes and bike lanes
  • lamps
  • human scale
  • functional art
  • roundabouts
  • buildings with transparent windows that face and protect the street
Most anyone in the crowd that filled City Council chambers nearly to capacity for Dan's talk would recognize the many slides he showed of Anytown, U.S.A.: anonymous strip-malls and desolate parking lots relieved only by chain link fences around far-apart, run-down businesses—all ripped through by straight, monotonous, multi-lane roads.

Some of these photos were “before” shots of areas as they used to be, before far-sighted citizens, local officials, and developers joined forces to transform them into highly complex, diverse, protected, multi-use, green spaces that people flock to on foot or by mass transit. And, for those areas still desolated, Dan utilized computerized renderings to gradually cover these ruined areas with businesses, restaurants, plants, trees, houses, paths, public art and people, walking, biking sitting on benches, playing, talking.

Let us imagine, for example, how Dan might consider what has become perhaps Bloomington’s most notorious intersection, 3rd street and the bypass, soul-deadening to motorists and downright terrifying to pedestrians and cyclists.

First, let us draw out a few implications from one likely assumption: that the trend towards more expensive oil continues to increase. At some point the number of cars on roads will then begin to decrease to the point where the long-planned widening of the bypass is actually canceled. This unusual about-face helps create transformational change in the way public officials, developers and the general public thinks about the town in which we live.

A la Dan Burden, in re-imagining that intersection, let’s imagine buildings that house both businesses and upper-floor dwellings close to and facing the streets with parking behind, trees and plantings and, at the actual intersection, a roundabout with beautiful plantings and benches and courtyard for pedestrians to cross to all four corners.

Furthermore, at least half of the parking areas of both the mall and the strip mall near it on 3rd street are also transformed—into a parklike setting with winding paths and outdoor market stalls for local products and areas for people to gather for performance and discussion.

Third street itself has been transformed, all the way from its intersection with Highway 446 on the east, to make room for a high speed rail or trolley all the way to College St. That and other mass transport share space with one 9-foot lane for car traffic, one 7-foot lane for bicycles, and one 6-foot lane for car parking, all going both directions, and you get the idea. (All these size dimensions are those Dan, after long experience, judges optimal). Voila! Third Street has restructured itself—from a frustrating and dangerous auto drive-through corridor into multiple destinations that foster “bumpability,” a word Dan favors to indicate humans interacting up close and personal, rather than locked inside machines competing with other machines to get nowhere fast.

After viewing Dan’s presentation, it’s easy to conjure up this kind of transformation of East Bloomington into a magnetic hub and draw for people from all parts of this city and county to gather and not only do business, but meet and greet and celebrate.

With example after example, Dan showed us how any urban area that has been gradually desecrated by our insidious worship of automobiles at the expense of the people in them can be rejuvenated, come back to life, provide a healthy and welcoming atmosphere for human habitation and exchange. Walkable communities put urban environments back on a scale for sustainability of resources (both natural and economic) and lead to more social interaction, more local businesses, plus the bonuses of increased physical fitness, diminished crime and social alienation.

By designing for people rather than for cars, we return to the idea that cities were invented to maximize exchange (goods, culture, friendship, knowledge) and minimize travel.

Dan pointed out how the dominance of the automobile in design of cities has created the fattest nation in the history of the world, with diabetes and depression running rampant in both adults and children. 20% of every dollar earned now goes into medical expenses that also entail all sorts of hidden costs, for example larger hospital gurneys and morgue tables that now cost two or three times more.

Dan reported that the lowest point in his journey so far was in a little town next to Littleton, Colorado, where not only do they not have a town center, but public restroom facilities are limited to two portable plastic outhouses. Dan asked the city fathers when they were going to build decent restroom facilities for visitors, and was told that they were afraid the town’s teenagers would destroy them if they did. To Dan, this just shows how much the desertification and anonymity of our car culture depresses our teens and leads to outbreaks of frustration and violence. And yet, he said as he put up the next image of teens laughing and talking on a downtown street, in the very next town over, which has a town center, teens are welcomed.

I’ll end this report with a few more facts/opinions from Dan that are worth pondering:

  • Australia in the ’80s was like the U.S. in Midwest cities in the ’50s—more focused on people than cars.
  • Seattle: 800 blocks now have back-in diagonal parking—much safer.
  • Florida has the lowest rate of volunteerism (and almost no walkable cities).
  • Commuting makes people more unhappy than anything else. (From a google search: Americans now spend more than 100 hours a year commuting to work, for an average drive-time of 24 At an nationwide average drive-time of about 24.3 minutes.)
  • U.S. children have a [free-roaming] range 1/9 of their parents when they were children.
  • Even though our GNP has grown hugely since the Depression, our happiness line has flattened.
  • Least healthy [and least walkable] cities, in this order: Las Vegas, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit.
  • Narrow streets (9 or 10 feet lanes), make drivers slow down and be remain vigilant. As streets widen, traffic accidents increase.
  • Parking: need to change from “minimum required” to “maximum allowed.” Vancouver, B.C., has the greatest density in North America, and they’ve been reducing traffic for ten years straight.
  • Bike lanes: have 22 benefits, only two of which are for the bikes themselves (so even without bikes, bike lanes are essential). To a question about how car door openings are a danger when there is a car parking lane next to a bike lane, Dan said, no problem: “Just make the car parking lane 6 feet and the bike lane 7 feet. Usually, it’s the reverse.”
  • To a question: How does narrowing a street allow it to carry more capacity? His answer is complex, but for one thing, it causes speeds to go down, and so requires less space between cars. Above 30 mph, streets lose capacity (San Luis Obispo a good example).
  • Roundabouts: good if designed for cars to go through between 15 and 20 mph. When proposed, 70% of the people will be against it. After 7 weeks operational, 70% will be for it.
  • Land use needs to partner with transportation to yield lower cost and better tax base.
  • If a road is wider than two lanes, then screen and shield so no more than two lanes are visible
  • Streets need to feel enclosure (example: tree canopies).
  • Build networks rather than freeways.
  • Each locale needs to celebrate its own characteristics.
  • Design to get away from fear and towards hope.


Anonymous said...

Dan Burden will be on satellite tv this week. Here's the info:

Tuesday, March 4, The Universityhouse Channel will show Episode 14 of "Perils For Pedestrians".

Contents of Episode 14 (1997):
--Dan Burden on Walkable Communities.
--What is a Transportation Engineer?
--Mark Fenton of Walking Magazine on the benefits of walking.
--Walk Boston and pedestrian advocacy in Boston, Massachusetts.
--America Walks: a national network of local advocacy groups.
--Innovations in actuated pedestrian signals.

DISH Network Channel 9411 -- The Universityhouse Channel
Tuesday -- 9:30 PM Eastern, 6:30 Pacific

Episode 14 is also available on Google Video:

Note: Public access cable channels are showing different episodes than DISH Network.

Thank you.

John Z Wetmore

Craig Howard- Dekist Street said...

I really liked this post. I look froward to meeting some GANA poeple soon. Shoko and I moved into 2634 East Dekist in August of last year, and were shocked that no tricker treaters came around on Haloween. The commmunty feeling that I grew up with is missing in modern America, and I'm not that old yet!