On Balance

Unless we get past that jump - many cars driven slightly less frequently to very few (or no) cars - we'll never realize the full benefits of compact, mixed-use development.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 21, 2005

The vaunted claims of architects and advocates that neo-traditional design principles dramatically improve livability have not always materialized. For example, in his book Sprawl Kills [read the RTH review], Joel Hirschhorn notes that compact, mixed-use designs encourage residents to take approximately 20 to 30 percent of their trips on foot.

Compared to the two percent national average (he writes about the United States, but Canadian transportation patterns are similar), that's a considerable improvement, but 20 to 30 percent is still a small proportion of total trips.

New Urbanists are trying to build new developments against a backdrop of heavy zoning regulations, planner/developer/financier resistance and a desperate desire to be all things to all people. Therefore, their principles are sometimes compromised and watered down as they are translated into actual buildings.

Some of this compromise is externally imposed. Developers refuse to build apartments above stores, or cities insist that driveways must be in front and that roads must meet minimum width standards.

However, some of the compromise is also internalized in the principles of New Urbanism themselves. The issue of cars is instructive.

The Charter [PDF - 64 KB] of the Congress for the New Urbanism reads in part, "communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car". Elsewhere, it reads, "In the contemporary metropolis, development must adequately accommodate automobiles. It should do so in ways that respect the pedestrian and the form of public space."

The Charter assumes no one will live in a neighbourhood unless it is built to accommodate cars. However, designing for the car - even partially for the car - fatally undermines the idea of a neighbourhood in which residents don't need to drive - a core principle of New Urbanism.

It may be that 'balanced transportation' - for example, in the manner that Hamilton city planner Mary Lou Tanner advocates - is simply not possible in this case. As soon as you start to accommodate the car, it takes over the whole production and undermines everything else the design may strive to accomplish.

Nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, notes a similar tension between the understandable desire for moderation and "balance" and the logical conclusions of the evidence.

In an attempt not to alienate people raised on the standard American diet (SAD), even nutritional guides based on science recommend merely "limiting" meat intake, despite considerable evidence is that the full benefits of dietary change manifest when meat consumption is reduced dramatically and whole plant food consumption is increased to replace it.

Studies comparing the SAD and the slightly-modified recommended diet - still based on animal foods, albeit "lower fat" foods like skim milk instead of cream and skinless chicken instead of beef - find little or no improvement to health. (These results are published as "proof" that diet is irrelevant, so scarf up that hamburger.)

When studies compare SAD to a whole foods, plant based diet, the advantages of the plant based diet are overwhelming, but it's barely reported because no one takes seriously the idea that people might give up their meat-based diets.

I think urban design is analogous. Studies comparing sprawl (the architectural equivalent of SAD) to New Urbanism (the architectural equivalent of the slightly modified, low-fat SAD) don't find much difference between the two. The essential primacy of the car, the architectural "meat" that is either placed in front of the building (high fat) or behind (low fat) but always has a prominent place, is beyond challenge.

As a result, we end up with watery recommendations that fail to achieve the tremendous improvements in livability that would be possible if we accepted the logical conclusion that the very presence of cars in a city undermines the livability we're trying to achieve.

Of course, the analogy breaks down if you follow it too closely. For example, it's possible, and quite possibly beneficial, to eat small quantities of animal foods from time to time. However, it's very difficult to use only tiny quantities of car. The fixed costs associated with car ownership (financing/lease payments and insurance for owners, property tax to pay for road building and maintenance for everyone) are tremendous, and will exceed the variable costs (fuel and vehicle maintenance) even at very high fuel prices.

Cars also take up the same space whether they're driven rarely or frequently. As soon as you have cars at all, you need driveways, street lanes, parking spaces, and so on. The absolute minimum land area needed to accommodate cars is huge, even with narrow streets and back-alley parking.

Unless we get past that jump - many cars driven slightly less frequently to very few (or no) cars - we'll never realize the full benefits of compact, mixed-use development.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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