Saturday, October 13, 2018

Smart Growth, Forward 2030-- The "Why" of Streetscapes


In my earlier post, The "What" of the Streetscapes-- Germantown Road, Exeter, and Beyond, I promised to address the "Why" of streetscapes. By this, I meant that I would, in my followup post, express my bewilderment as to why the City has seen fit to plan and begin implementing a comprehensive "streetscapes" program. Before doing so, I must first briefly discuss the nationwide Smart Growth movement, and, in particular, the transportation component of the nationwide Smart Growth concept.

Smart Growth  

"Smart Growth" (or, as it is now sometimes called, "new urbanism"), on which a substantial part of the City's Forward 2030 plan is based, is a decades-old, 
nationwide movement that is intended to reshape cities and suburbs. Transportation principles embraced by Smart Growth include the following:   

>Environmental Sustainability-- less dependence on gas-guzzling, carbon-spewing vehicles, with more emphasis on walking, biking, and public transport. 

>"Complete" Streets-- a design concept that encompasses and promotes all of the above.

>Homes of various sizes at varying price points-- smaller lots, a variety of housing types, including multi-family, in a "live, work and play" environment that includes public spaces and roads that promote a "sense of place".

Significantly, Smart Growth rejects the notion that the primary function of streets is to serve as conduits for the efficient movement of vehicles. The following, taken from from the EPA's website "Smart Growth and Transportation", typifies Smart Growth's vision for the role that streets will play in reshaping urban communities:  

"Historically, transportation planners have overlooked the important role streets play in shaping neighborhoods. For decades, decisions about street size and design in many communities have focused on getting as many cars as possible through the streets as quickly as possible. Street design determines whether an area will be safe and inviting for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users."

The Germantown Forward 2030 plan, which our current administration strongly endorses, incorporates this same viewpoint:

Forward 2030 purports to be a citizen-led plan; however, the City Administration selected the leadership of the group that formulated its objectives. Moreover, the administration met with the group and likely influenced the group's work. Some  question whether the membership of the committee was representative of the City as a whole.

Intrinsic to Smart Growth policy, as you can see, is the notion that street design no longer should prioritize the efficient movement of automobiles. The chief goal is to promote walking, bicycling and public transit. 
Unfortunately, when moving traffic is not prioritized, traffic congestion, with all of its downsides, is the natural result. Don't get me wrong-- I am a big believer in bicycle lanes and sidewalks. My concern is that the anti-automobile bias that permeates Smart Growth will inevitably lead to long traffic delays for those of us who find automobile commuting essential to getting to work or shopping. Projects that lengthen automobile commute times are anathema to me.

Let's now look at two cities, Portland and Nashville, to see what happens when dense development overwhelms the surrounding streets. A
long the way, I will make a few observations concerning Germantown. 
Portland-- Smart Growth in Action

No city has more fully embraced Smart Growth than Portland; yet, mass transit usage
 has not increased (mass transit ridership has remained at 12% for thirty years), and traffic is now horrible. This is what happens when you reduce the number and size of traffic lanes in an effort to encourage commuting by bicycle. Although bike ridership is indeed higher in Portland than in other parts of the country, bicycle riders nonetheless comprise only 7% of Portland's commuters. The number of bicycle commuters is insufficient to reduce automobile traffic congestion. If slow, steady, one-lane traffic is your cup of tea, you will love the Portland Smart Growth model:   

"Even as Portland traffic gets worse, streets from East Burnside to Southeast Division and Foster Road are going on a "road diet," shedding car lanes to make the streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists—mostly by creating slow, steady, one-lane traffic."  From Portland Made Driving Miserable, All You Can Do Now is Bike.  

For Portland residents who commute by car, shedding and reducing traffic lanes, slowing down traffic, and going on "road diets" has made life more difficult. This is hardly surprising. As I have explained, impeding motor vehicle traffic is entirely intentional in Smart Growth circles.  

Let's pause for a moment to focus on Germantown. Smart Growth advocates are sanguine about the congestion we now face on the "streetscaped" Germantown Road at rush hour. Should the citizens be accepting of the traffic backups that now regularly occur there at rush hour? Are we to believe that "road diets" will convert a substantial number of car commuters to bike riders, or to users of as-yet-unplanned public transportation?  I don't know about you, but I have yet to see anyone walking or biking on Germantown Road at rush hour, or, for that matter, at any other time of day. The City clearly has not realized its objective of significantly increasing the number of bike riders, and instead has managed only to inconvenience automobile commuters. Smart Growth can achieve its objectives here only if in the reasonably near future automobile usage is considerably reduced in Germantown. Color me skeptical. And, if my skepticism is borne out, Smart Growth's lofty goal of reducing emissions will not be realized. To the contrary, in keeping with the law of unintended consequences, emissions will actually be increased because cars will be idling in traffic for longer periods of time.

Closer to Home, Nashville 

Although Nashville, unlike Portland, has not gone on "road diets", Nashville has similarly terrible traffic problems, due in large part to rapid population growth and dense commercial development. Nashville's commercial growth is simply too dense for the surrounding streets.    

Green Hills, the "hip" area of town, was developed around narrow streets that are now insufficient to handle the ever-increasing volume of traffic. The area features
 a Trader Joe's and a Whole Foods, just like Germantown. But, that's where the similarity ends. Whereas our Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are easily accessible and have available parking...........for now, those establishments in Green Hills are experiencing traffic and parking nightmares. Indeed, I myself had an actual nightmare about Green Hills traffic. More on that later. 

Rather than doubling down on narrow streets like Portland, Nashville, choking on traffic congestion, is taking just the opposite approach. Nashville's leaders propose a realignment of Hillsboro Road.
 The price tag? $143 million! This is hardly an example of "sustainability". First, Nashville creates a problem with overly dense development, and then seeks to "solve" that problem with an exorbitantly costly road realignment. (See Hillsboro RoadRealignment.)
Rush Hour Traffic on Hillsboro Pike in Nashville
Ah, yes. Road Realignment. It seems like I have heard that before. Is it possible that the streetscapes planned for Exeter, Poplar, West, and Farmington, as well as the one already completed for Germantown Road, will create traffic headaches so severe that Germantown Road Realignment will be touted as the only viable solution? Even though the BMA, in this election year, stated by resolution that it has no intention to realign Germantown Road, that resolution, as we all know, is not legally binding. It can be reversed with a simple vote. As an opponent of realignment, I would feel more comfortable if the City requested that the project be removed from the  Metropolitan Planning Organization's now-being-formulated 2050 plan. The City Administration has made no move to do this. (See my Feb 10 post and my Feb. 19 post.)

Nashville's traffic problems are further exacerbated by growth in the surrounding area. Neighboring Williamson County, for example, was forced to initiate a fiscal impact fee for building schools, because the capital costs associated with new residential growth was causing a strain on the taxpayers. Although Germantown has its own swelling student population and school infrastructure needs, it fortunately does not, at least for the time being, have to deal with traffic problems associated with explosive growth.

Nashville's leaders initially sought to solve the city's traffic congestion via public transportation. The voters, however, turned the leaders down. Please see  
Why Traffic-Choked Nashville said No Thanks to 'Public Transit'  (explaining that public transit does not put a dent in car trips because people just fill up the roads if they sense any slack).

Exeter Plans and My Green Hills Nightmare

Ever since Smart Growth's adoption in 2007, the plans depicting permissible zoning uses have included the following renderings (from the City website):  

It was after viewing these plans that I had my Green Hills nightmare. As you can see, all of Exeter is lined with buildings. Please note, in particular, the  reference to "multi-story mixed use buildings on low speed streets" in the upper left of the above graphic. A mixed-use building is of course retail on the bottom floor, and apartments above. The entire area around Exeter is zoned T5 (Smart Growth), which allows for buildings of five to six stories in height. The whole area is thus zoned for a Thornwood type development, yet at the same time the streets are designated "low speed", presumably due to removing lanes of traffic! And, as I discussed in The "What" of the Streetscapes-- Germantown Road, Exeter, and Beyond, lane removal is indeed in the works. And, we are to believe dense development with fewer traffic lanes is "smart" growth?

The similarity between Germantown's "Smart Growth" vision and Green Hills (see below) jumps out at you:

Green Hills Area of Nashville- Trader Joe's and Whole Foods highlighted

The difference between the two areas today is that Germantown, because it is way behind Green Hills in development, does not yet have a serious traffic problem. But, a "road diet", followed by mixed-use construction, will land us in the same hot water in which Green Hills is now boiling.   My Green Hills traffic nightmare will have proven prophetic.

With dense development and increased vehicle traffic, parking naturally becomes an issue. And, that is certainly the case in Green Hills. This is hardly surprising, given how crowded together the buildings are (see above photo). Not only is Hillsboro Parkway difficult to traverse, once you get to Green Hills you typically have to circle the area several times before finding a place to park. Smart Growth's endorsement of reduced parking-- "parking diets", if I may-- will, in the absence of public transportation and/or an unprecedented huge switch to bicycle commuting, only make both the parking and traffic-congestion conditions worse. I should quickly note here that Smart Growth endorses "parking diets". See Reduced and More Accurate Parking Requirements.  

I have chosen to focus on two cities, Portland and Nashville, but please understand that Smart Growth is the rage among city planners across America. Conferences all over the country present programs devoted entirely to Smart Growth (or some spin-off of Smart Growth), and city planners are falling in line. The "in crowd" in city planning circles heartily embraces Smart Growth. 

Smart Growth in Germantown-- practical, or not so much?

These streets all have long-term plans to become "streetscaped".
A central theme of Smart Growth is the need to accommodate a rapidly growing population within a confined space-- typically, an increasing population encroaching on farmland.  When this condition exists, the need to conserve space is vital. Another hallmark of Smart Growth is its condemnation of "suburban sprawl". Accommodating a growing population in a confined space,while simultaneously discouraging suburban sprawl, may be just the ticket in places like Boston, San Francisco, and Washington DC. Germantown, however, has little in common with the suburbs surrounding these cities. Two principal differences are readily apparent: (1) Memphis is not growing, and (2) Germantown lacks a viable public transportation option. 

1.  We need to get real. The proverbial elephant in the room when Germantown's Smart Growth plan is being discussed is that the Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area is not growing. I am sure many of you saw the recent report that Memphis is second only to Cleveland in "lack of growth". See Memphis 2nd Slowest Growing Big City in US. The metropolitan area thus is under no pressure to fit more people into a confined space. The primary condition on which Smart Growth is premised, i.e., the need to accommodate a growing population, is missing here.   

In the Memphis metropolitan area, the population is simply moving around from one part to another. Because our metropolitan area has plenty of room, virtually every real estate project built in one place ensures that an older project will become empty, and open to blight. How does this benefit anyone? No wonder citizens looking twenty years down the road question whether new apartment projects in Germantown will stand the test of time. Memphis' experience suggests they may not. A number of Memphis apartments that once were luxury units no longer enjoy that status today. That is an outcome we must strive to avoid in Germantown. 

Ironically, implementing Smart Growth in Germantown would actually undermine the application of Smart Growth principles in the city of Memphis. Smart Growth encourages denser population in the core city through infill development. This is laudable. Efforts should be made to remove urban blight and make the best use of space when such space is available to satisfactorily accommodate more people. If, however, Germantown attracts Memphis residents to new, dense residential developments, it will cause a decline in Memphis' population and thereby impede Memphis' ability to make the best use of its space. It simply makes no sense for Germantown to burden its schools and infrastructure by taking on an increased residential population while simultaneously depopulating Memphis. The inefficiency resulting from such action would be palpable: Memphis has the infrastructure to handle the population, and Germantown does not. Luring Memphis residents to Germantown apartments flies in the face of Smart Growth's tenet that resources should be conserved via infill development where infrastructure is already in place. 

2. public transportation option is central to Smart Growth strategies, yet Germantown has no viable public transportation. Smart Growth transportation policy objectives emphasize promoting denser residential growth around transportation hubs. In case you have not noticed, there are not a lot of transportation hubs in Germantown. And, at the risk of undue repetition, I feel constrained to note again that traffic-congestion-generating road diets and streetscapes are, given the unlikelihood of viable public transportation options in Germantown in the foreseeable future, particularly problematic.

So what should the City do?

Do I think it is a good idea for the City to encourage people to rely less on automobiles when commuting? Yes, I do. But, given the lack of viable public transportation options and weather conditions that generally make bicycle commuting unattractive during much of the year, the only practical options are programs to encourage ride sharing and telecommuting. What I do know with certainty is that this city does not need "road diets" in areas lacking other practical means of commuting. And the citizens agree with me-- 94% of those polled do not want a reduction of the number of lanes on Exeter. Road diets serve only to increase commute times and pollution, both of which defeat the objective of making our City a healthy place to live. As one would expect, Forward 2030, which devotes a section to "Wellness", stresses the importance of maintaining a healthy city.

I began this two-part post
with a quote that bears repeating here:

"What you may not realize is the extent of the effects heavy traffic congestion can have. This gridlock can have a tremendous impact on your personal life, career, your future and even your safety. Finding a solution to traffic congestion could mean a vast improvement in the quality of life in your area."  (USA Today)    

A city that fosters the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of its citizens should be the central goal not just for the year 2030, but for any year. Implementing "road diets" and streetscapes while simultaneously encouraging dense development is, for our city, counterproductive to achieving this goal.

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