In downtown Salt Lake City, just a few blocks from my home, construction has closed a sidewalk. That’s not particularly noteworthy, except that A) it’s one of downtown’s wider — and therefore better — sidewalks, B) it’s on one of the most pedestrian friendly streets, and C) all the space reserved for cars remains open.
Here’s what it looks like:
In the picture above, the construction area is marked with yellow tape and signs. Significantly, this street has a row of diagonal parking along with a single-but-very-wide lane for cars. All of that space remains unobstructed.
It’s also worth pointing out that the diagonal parking isn’t even used all that much; why was this second car space left open at the expense of pedestrian space?
In the grand scheme, this particular situation isn’t that important.
But it does seem to capture the way we often don’t even think twice about marginalizing pedestrian infrastructure, while doing the same to car space is verboten. Imagine, for example, if the construction crew erected a temporary sidewalk in the street, blocking it to cars but leaving the space open for people. What if the city required any construction to maintain a clear pedestrian path, no matter what?
That’s entirely doable — and I’d argue it’s a better solution than blocking pedestrians — but as the picture shows, it doesn’t always happen. There would probably be an uproar if it did. My point is that cities too often automatically marginalize pedestrian space for an array of reasons, and we need to reconsider that strategy.
One of the more important aspects of “urbanism,” at least as I see it, is fairness for different modes of transportation. In this case, that means trying to rethink the way we treat foot traffic so that it’s weighed more equally against vehicle traffic. That makes economic sense, both because pedestrian infrastructure is generally cheaper and because walkable places are often financially stronger.
In other words, we shouldn’t give preferential treatment to cars just because traditionally that’s what we’ve done. Instead of asking, “how can we maintain traffic flows?” we should be asking, “how can we make this space better and more vibrant for users of all kinds?”
Once upon a time, downtown Salt Lake felt like a really big city. The streets were filled with people, and that’s because they were lined with buildings — which served as destinations.
Here’s what it looked like:
The image above shows the corner of 100 South and Main Street. Taken in 1912, it’s clearly an old picture. But it’s also decidedly urban; the buildings are all constructed right up to the sidewalk and there are no gaps, creating a very effective streetwall. If we didn’t know this was Salt Lake, it’d be easy to mistake it for a street in a much bigger city around the turn of the century.
But unlike some other cities that looked like this in 1912, Salt Lake began regressing. Here’s what this spot looks like today:
The two story white building on the corner is the same as the four story white building in the first picture. I don’t know why they reduced its size (and remodeled it) though it was originally built as a two story structure. (Read an excellent blog post on this building, which used to be called the Eagle Emporium, here.)
In any case, thankfully we have TRAX now (though look closely; there are street car lines all over the intersection in the first picture). But other than that, this spot feels remarkably smaller and more provincial than it did 100 years ago. It barely feels like a city any more.
The biggest and most damning reason this happened is because many of the buildings were knocked down to make way for parking lots. Here’s an overhead view:
In the picture above, the white building on the corner is the old Zion’s Bank Building/Eagle Emporium. As is apparent, it’s surrounded by parking lots. Compare that with the first picture, and we see that these parking lots are relatively modern developments.
This is tragic. It’s tempting to look at a city and think, “we have a ton of open, empty space, but it’s just space that hasn’t been developed yet.” But that’s a misconception. The reality is we un-developed most of this space. We regressed.
This PDF on historic downtown Salt Lake bears this conclusion out; in picture after picture Salt Lake feels big, successful and ambitious. It feels like a city and displays many of the characteristics that contemporary designers equate with comfortable, walkable, safe and economically vibrant places.
Today, however, much of that is gone. Aside from five or six blocks on and around Main Street, Salt Lake feels formidable and spread out, more like a suburban office park than an American downtown.
This will not surprise people who carefully study cities, as the same thing happened in some other places. But it’s important to remember what we’ve lost, and I think pictures like the ones above help drive home the point that we spent much of the 20th Century destroying downtown. Only now are we just beginning to repair the damage, though we have a long way to go before we even get back to where we were.
And, just for fun, here are a few other historic photos. This picture shows that same spot and again, it’s all filled with buildings:
This is 300 South and Main. The Judge Building, on the right, still stands. The building to the right of it, across Main and barely in the picture, has been torn down and replaced with a larger but inferior building. The other buildings on the left are mostly empty and “modernized.”
Main Street in 1922 looked at least as urban and vibrant as it does today:
Last night I was heading down to Springville for an art show opening when a 25-year-old woman ran her car into mine. The accident happened near my apartment, in the middle of the intersection at 400 South and 400 West:
I was heading south when the accident happened, more or less in the position of the gray car just entering in the intersection in the top left of the picture (though I was one lane over). The woman who hit me was turning left to head west, following the path of the semi truck in the picture above. I entered the intersection when the light turned green, but she didn’t wait for me to pass, so she hit me.
It was an unfortunate accident and was probably mostly due to her not paying attention. I heard her say to the cop that I “just came out of nowhere,” which of course I didn’t. And if that’s all that had happened I wouldn’t be blogging about it.
Instead, however, the cop told me that “this happens all the time at this intersection.” After making that point several times, he even told me that he once wrecked his car in this very spot doing the exact same thing as the woman who hit me. The cop told me that the accidents here are generally the same in nature and my own observation bears that out; I’ve seen numerous accidents in this intersection as I’ve walked around the neighborhood.
Which leads me to believe that there is a design problem here; if accidents are happening over and over again, and left turn drivers are repeatedly not seeing through traffic, that’s a big problem. People get hurt, cops waste their time, public and private money is needlessly used up, traffic slows, etc.
I can only speculate on what the problems may be because I have no data. But this intersection is different from many others. For starters, this is an intersection of two massive stroads — or over-wide streets that function almost as semi-highways. That results in higher speeds and more cars than should ever be found in the middle of a city.
The bloated streets mean wider spaces to watch. After my accident, I couldn’t help wondering if the woman who hit me just wasn’t scanning far enough to the left and right. In most places, the north-south traffic would have been confined to a much narrower space; perhaps she looked for cars in that space, but out of habit didn’t look farther, as is required by a street that is so wide.
That’s her fault, of course — driving means learning to quickly adapt to new environments — but it’s also the street designers’, who are tasked with making intuitive, easily understood intersections. If that isn’t happening — and apparently it isn’t — just calling on everyone to change their behavior is an inadequate strategy.
Another unique aspect of this intersection is the southbound-to-eastbound left turn lane on 400 West, which is just to the right of the diagonal stripes in the picture above. You can see in the picture that the space used to be a left turn lane, but at some point was striped out and turned into a kind of dead zone. Now, two southbound lanes are sandwiched between a dedicated right turn lane and the dead zone. The left turn lane is 15-20 feet over, oddly isolated.
I don’t have any inherent quarrel with this dead zone other than the fact that it’s ugly, expensive and wasteful. But in terms of safety, I never really thought it was a problem.
But most streets don’t have big dead zones in the middle. So, if that’s one of the things that makes this intersection unique, and this intersection is more dangerous than most, perhaps there is a connection. If I had to guess, I’d bet people are unused to empty space in the middle of the street; they see it, observe that there are no cars and proceed because that’s what you do in every other spot. Sadly, however, cars such as mine have been directed to an entirely different spot on the street and sometimes they get missed.
That’s just speculation. But ultimately repeat accidents in the same spot don’t happen because everybody is a terrible driver. Rather, they happen because failings in the built environment amplify the risk of otherwise accepted behaviors. My accident was just one small incident that ultimately doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. But as I sit here with a broken car and a sore back I wonder how many more crashes it will take before we finally do something about Salt Lake City’s dangerous streets.
Yesterday I argued that the width of the streets around Pioneer Park have a negative impact on its vitality. The idea is that streets are so wide, dangerous and oppressive for anyone not in a car that people don’t want to be around them. And since Pioneer Park is surrounded by these streets, it suffers.
That’s a stark contrast to the park I’ve been discussing in Vancouver, where normal-sized streets allow a relatively pleasant environment to exist.
But just to make this point absolutely clear, here are a few pictures of 300 West, which runs down the west side of Pioneer Park:
As I hope these pictures illustrate, there are actually really great destinations in this part of town. The park is shady and well manicured — which makes it nice on hot summer days — and there’s a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church on the corner. This should be a decent spot.
But it isn’t and that has a lot to do with how wide this street is. In the top picture, a freeway-esque sign is even in visible on the center median. It’s like we’ve given up.
I can’t think of any other park I’ve ever been to that was successful but surrounded by this kind of infrastructure. I am skeptical that such a scenario can even exist. That means that if we want to fix Pioneer Park, we have to fix the streets that define its boundaries.
But another major difference — and one that is often overlooked — is the type of streets surrounding these spaces. Here are overhead views of the two places zoomed in to roughly the same distance.
The Salt Lake park is bigger — more on that later — so I could only get part of it in the picture. And the satelite image of the Vancouver park is a little hard to make out due to the angle.
But even with those limitations is astonishing how different the streets around these two parks are.
In Vancouver, the streets are three or four cars wide, including some street parking. These streets don’t feel particularly narrow and they’re not even that quiet, but they’re pleasant enough to walk along and aren’t off-putting to pedestrians. When you’re in the park, the streets also aren’t too loud or busy-feeling. Like a lot of things in cities, they just kind of blend into the background, which is good.
Now look at the Salt Lake streets. They’re appalling: seven lanes for traffic, along with lane-width shoulders. These are among the worst streets I have ever experienced on four continents and I don’t know how many cities and countries. They’re ugly, noisy, dangerous and absolutely crushing. Walking along these streets — something I do often due to where I live — is an utterly horrible experience. It’s like strolling along the shoulder of a major interstate.
And indeed I’ve been on freeways in cities much large than Salt Lake City that were smaller than these streets.
This, I think, is perhaps the park’s biggest problem. Even if we added as much good density and as many awesome destinations as Vancouver has those things would still be separated from Pioneer Park by an impassable car sewer. That means the Salt Lake City version would still be inferior. To see similar success, it’d therefore need to have more density, etc.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about adding more density to Salt Lake City and designing better buildings. That’s great.
But I’ve rarely heard anyone talk about fixing the streets. However, If we want to have better spaces in the city, we need to take that more fundamental (if harder to fix) problem more seriously.
During Greek Fest last month in Salt Lake City, I chatted briefly with a few people from @DowntownPlanSLC. During our conversation, I asked if they had any recommendations for cities to look at that suffer from the same problems we see in Utah: huge city blocks, wide streets, etc.
They recommended I look at Melbourne, which has big blocks but in the last 20 years or so has become a model of walkability. I had no idea.
The video on this page (sorry, embedding wasn’t working when I wrote this) comes from StreetFilms and explains both what Melbourne looks like today and how it got that way. The video explains how big blocks were bisected with pedestrian lanes, how to grow small and intimate spaces, and how the city doubled the number of pedestrians by widening sidewalks and planting trees.
Why is Salt Lake City not doing these things?
I don’t know, but the video also makes an important point:
Melbourne is a new world city, it has a modern grid much like a typical American metropolis. Naysayers who do not believe a city can be radically transformed say that the already narrow streets of many European cities make it easier to have good pedestrian environments there. Melbourne proves that isn’t necessarily so.
I tend to cite Europe a lot on this blog because that’s where I’ve spent the most time experiencing great spaces. However, as Melbourne proves, it’s still possible to create these kinds of spaces today.
It’s no surprise that the small streets I blogged about Friday are cheaper than the huge streets we have in the U.S. But just to refresh, here’s a Parisian street and one from my neighborhood in Salt Lake City, side-by-side:
Any person looking at these two spots will obviously know that the Salt Lake street costs more; it requires more asphalt, paint and labor to build and maintain. That’s basically the same point I made earlier this year after visiting Scotland, and I think it’s an important one. Americans often travel to Europe and find it charming, but I don’t think enough people connect that “charm” to real, economic differences.
But that’s not the only point I want to make here.
While the Salt Lake street is more expensive because it’s bigger, it’s also more expensive per capita because the surrounding area is less dense. That means my neighbors and I pay more for streets than our Parisian counterparts and we each have to shoulder a higher percentage of the overall cost because there are fewer of us.
The absolute cost and the relative burden are both higher.
This idea is similar to the point I made the other day: suburbs’ lower densities mean they will eventually have higher taxes to cover infrastructure costs. Fewer people means everyone pays more.
However in that post, I was just talking about low density. That’s one problem, but in many places in the U.S. it’s also coupled with this other issue of more infrastructure — e.g. bigger streets — to maintain.
This is the most fiscally irresponsible situation possible. It’s like going to the grocery store without enough money to buy the basics, then loading up your cart with piles and piles of extras. The math just won’t add up.