A Systems Approach to Getting Around

Pedestrian Systems

It amazes me to see some of the solutions planners come up with for incorporating various modes of getting around – cars, trucks, rail, walkers, bikers, motorcycles, etc. There are many schools of thought on these systems. One school is to change habits through design, and the other is to work within existing human limitations and desires. For the most often prescribe to the latter. Much of what we design is supported by the book Traffic by Tom Vanderbuilt, based upon the psychological, physical and technological aspects of driving.

A decade ago, we were asked by DR Horton to redesign a portion of San Cristobal Village in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The 1800 acre property was previously designed with New Urbanism methods. DR Horton wanted to build homes in the development, but felt our methods would yield better results. The caveat was we had to demonstrate that every one of the New Urban requirements were to be satisfied. When we submitted the 600 lot portion DR Horton was interested in, the County who controlled the property wanted DR Horton to redesign the entire previously approved site plan!

SanCristobalCompare

The above is the after plan, the below is the before plan.

The site plan was originally done using the former school of thought – use design to change existing habits. The original documentation has certain ideals within the plan. One was that each entrance would have a large sign that said something to the effect of: ‘you must use the same diligence driving through this neighborhood as you would driving in a crowded shopping center parking lot’. This was because the million square feet of commercial and 2,700 housing units would all be served by narrow streets with on street parking – and walks in close proximity to the parked cars and very small residential and commercial setbacks.

Of the major streets entering the three mile long development, all came to an abrupt dead end at various places in the development! Why? Because of this statement also found in the report: ‘persons entering the site would eventually come to a dead end placed so those people could enjoy the view of the mountains’. Suppose you had no GPS and entered a development with over 350 intersections in short blocks, mostly 4 ways, with cars and pedestrians at each point of conflict, narrow streets, and parking both sides. After driving through this obstacle course a mile or so, that main street comes to a dead end. Would you sit there and just enjoy the view?
In the end our alternative had nine miles less length in public vehicular lanes, 250% more open space, 300 more lots, an average lot size 1,000 sq.ft. greater than the previous plan, and 200 less intersections eliminating most of the 4 ways – still holding to the original demands required in the New Urbanism. The most difficult part was to make each area have a unique feel, something easy on a 100 acre site, but extremely difficult on a site 18 times that size. We had revised the streets to ‘flow’ better with fewer 4 way intersections, but could not get around the narrow pavement on major throughways with parking both sides demanded by the original documentation. The walks we proposed were to meander elegantly throughout the development, placed in public easements should they meander outside the right-of-way. Pedestrian crossings at the new plan’s three way intersections would have been significantly safer than at 4 way intersections.

In the past decade we made many discoveries and evolved our methods which would have had an impact on the San Cristobal design. On a site of any significance, we look at pedestrians and vehicles as to completely separate ‘getting around’ systems. When we designed San Cristobal Village a decade ago, we did look at pedestrian connectivity, but in a very different way, as secondary to the street system. The original San Cristobal plan had a block perimeter limit of 2,000 feet as defined by streets, thus a myriad of streets were required to provide walking connectivity. Our planning theory has always been to build “walks to walk” and “streets to drive,” not streets for walking and driving. Thus we had the government authorities agree that the 2,000 foot block perimeter limit could be defined by either street or public ‘through walk’ in a 20’ wide right-of-way. These ‘through walks’ could also handle an emergency vehicle.

This allowed us to define a relatively convenient walking system, but could not guarantee a useful system, as written by code.

Recognizing that a pedestrian system not only has social and health value, it’s potential in the marketing of a development is tremendous, thus it has economic value for that first home sale, and each sale thereafter.

To be continued…

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8 Responses to A Systems Approach to Getting Around

  1. helsinki September 11, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    Why is it desirable “to build ‘walks to walk’ and ‘streets to drive,’ not streets for walking and driving”?

    This all seems unnecessarily complex.

    A good pedestrian system just needs (1) short distances between useful destinations, (2) a safe environment, and (3) interesting surroundings.

    • Rick Harrison
      Rick Harrison September 16, 2013 at 11:07 am #

      We have a choice – make design simple and restrict possibilities, or enter a new era where site design becomes more of a science with distinct systems. Keep in mind that the typical demonstrated reduction in street length in the 800+ developments we designed is 25%, without a density loss. What this essentially does is free up land that would have been taken up in excess right-of-way and allow more inventive design… it also frees up funds that can be used for dedicated systems without having to combine them. This is how and why we can create dedicated pedestrian/biking systems without adding to the cost of housing or commercial development.

      • helsinki September 16, 2013 at 11:30 am #

        I disagree with your characterization of simplicity in design as restrictive. And contrary to the implication of freedom, the developments described here seem unlikely to assume a form other than single use. Greenfield suburban development, irrespective of how ‘scientific’ it is, can differ from other greenfield suburban development only in degrees, not in kind.

  2. Walker September 11, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    Where do bicycles fit in all of this?

    • Rick Harrison
      Rick Harrison September 16, 2013 at 11:00 am #

      We design the pedestrian systems wide enough to handle bicycles. On larger scale development we separate pedestrian and biking trails.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell September 17, 2013 at 7:31 am #

        When are bicycles on the roadway, when on a path shared with pedestrians and when on their own bikeway?

  3. Faith September 11, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

    For the record, the development redesign does not meet the principles of New Urbanism and to suggest otherwise demonstrates a lack of understanding of New Urbanism. Key selling points in New Urbanist communities include short walking distances to central town squares and traditional street design with sidewalks adjacent to streets, not larger lot sizes and cul-de-sacs.

    • Rick Harrison
      Rick Harrison September 16, 2013 at 10:58 am #

      This theory is far different than the New Urbanism which has not been successful in the marketplace. Witness the New Urban developments in St. Michael, Ramsey, and Chaska, all which have failed on multiple levels. St Louis Park West End so far has been a commercial disaster.

      The methods we are explain is the market proven, more affordable, and environmental sound alternative to the New Urbanism.

      For those that are converts that only one planning method will solve all the worlds development problems, i.e. the New Urbanism, my series is certainly not for you. Those open to new ideas based upon advanced design enabled by the latest technologies, materials and methods, proven by demonstration in over 800 developments in 46 States and 18 Countries, you will gain knowledge that will help you advance your career and help make this world more sustainable.

      There is a place for a wide variety of planning methods, those that limit themselves only limit their opportunities in the future.

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