Eight Steps To Improve Urbanism

We need to stop building bad places. We don’t need to build Rome or Paris. We just need to stop building Houston.

The following eight rules apply to every major and mid-sized city with no exceptions. If your leaders don’t do these, somebody else will. And, you’ll have people asking in 10 years time why you haven’t already done them.

1. Make accessory dwelling units legal

This is the easiest way to add density without adding “density”. This won’t change your city overnight, but it’ll help lay the groundwork for improved urbanism. We need to see a rise in these types of dwellings because they add to affordable housing stock, expand housing options, add tax revenue, and are Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street”. Except in this case, it’s eyes on the alleyway. Read more about accessory dwelling units here.

2. Eliminate parking minimums as soon as possible

There is no bigger detriment to urban centers than parking. It adds costs to private development and drives up rents. Car storage is a terribly inefficient way to allocate land, especially in existing walkable neighborhoods. If you want to make your downtown more livable, the first policy move should be to eliminate (or, reduce if elimination is not politically feasible) all parking requirements.

If you worry about parking (and “congestion”), you might lose great local institutions to the suburbs. I’m looking at you, St. Paul.

3. Four-three conversions of stroads

Most four lane collector roads are ugly, unsafe and do a poor job of moving traffic. They are the worst of all worlds.

These stroads take up a lot of space and don’t allow for either bike lanes or on-street parking. Conversions have been well studied and the results are conclusive. They improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, calm traffic, improve emergency response and have reduced vehicle crash rates (between a low of 17 to a high of 62 percent (source)). When it comes to re-striping roads, four-three conversations are nearly always a solid bet. These are easy sells because they usually don’t effect Level of Service (by the way, which is something cities need to stop caring so much about). We also need to take the time to reduce the size of these roadways in general and add on-street parking and/or bike facilities.

4. Sell public surface parking lots for $1

Cities and towns are sitting on a gold mine of under-utilized land, specifically public open-surface parking lots. What is open surface parking getting you? The answer is very little.

This is easy: sell them to the highest bidder. Have an auction, start at $1 and sell to the highest bidder. Code the specific site to hit all the urban guidelines fitting of a form based code and require development start within 3 to 5 years. Imagine the benefit to a City like Minneapolis or St. Paul if someone put (just) mediocre mixed-use buildings on each city own surface lot.

5. Better transit, not (necessarily) more transit

Light Rail is awesome. But, it’s also expensive. Let’s start small and improve the transit that we have, precisely bus service. Adding a bus shelter is relatively cheap ($5,000 to $6,000). BRT is also great and relatively affordable. Make these moves first. They are political feasible and improve the lives of people who are currently using transit. This means, making what we have run on time and run faster.

Don’t let great be the enemy of good. Let’s not make the ridiculously expensive be the enemy of the reasonable and effective. Support small incremental improvements to our transit service and don’t wait for the “big and shiny” project. Because, if you’re lucky enough to get Federal funding for a new streetcar or light rail, it’ll be 25 years away  before any improvements happen (take note St. Paul). Read more about improving transit in a cost-effective way here.

6. Allow more beer/wine licenses

Retail is dying a slow death. Every sale on Amazon, Etsy, or Zappos represents one less sale at a brick-and-mortar book store, gift shop or clothing store. These, and a shift of the nature of work, will make filling retail storefronts more difficult. We need to fill frontages. It’s essentially to walkability.

Food is the rational response as it’s not easily outsourced. And, to make margins for these places, they’ll likely need to sell beer and wine. There is a changing cultural dichotomy going on. More expensive local craft beer sales and high-end cocktails are shifting the nature of traditional 60/40 (or 70/30, etc.) beer to food sale requirements. These need to change, too.

If you want to fill your empty storefronts, you’ll need to look beyond retail.

7. Eliminate one way streets

The case against one way streets is already solved. The verdict is in.

Converting streets to two-ways has many benefits. These types of streets, as opposed to one-ways, improve pedestrian and bike safety, improve vehicle navigation and overall safety, lower speeds, and improve the financial health of local businesses (source). Many cities have already converted their one way streets to two ways. Your city should too.

8. Allow the “sharing” economy to be legal

Whether the establishment likes it or not, it’s going to happen. The question is, how will you let it happen? Be smart. Be fair. But for God’s sake, don’t make it illegal (I’m looking at you Miami).

Uber and Lyft aren’t competing against taxis. They’re competing against the cost of owning a car. If these services can remove just a handful of cars (or reduce drunk driving) that should be viewed as an urban benefit. And, AirBNB isn’t competing against hotels (which can be expensive), but it more so about providing options for people to safely rent our there apartments and make extra money to off-set the costs of living in an more high-demand urban settings.

The sharing economy might be hard for many to swallow, but it needs to be legal.

Now, these eight suggestions won’t make your city a success overnight, but they are politically-feasible, small, incremental changes that you can make to help inch your city in the right direction.

25 thoughts on “Eight Steps To Improve Urbanism

  1. Miles Bader

    Why would you convert a four-lane road to three lanes without using the removed lane for something useful, though? For instance, a separated bike lane or wider sidewalk?

    Part of the problem with modern suburban-style roads is simply their enormous width, which makes them an imposing obstacle, both physically and mentally, and such width tends to encourage speeding. Moving the sides in, to the benefit of other transport modes, seems a much better idea than simply reshuffling the space reserved for cars…

    1. Monte Castleman

      Paint is cheap. Moving concrete is not. I agree that the majority of 4-lane roads should be converted to three lanes, but we don’t have enough money for a full reconstruction on all of them right now.

    2. Nathaniel

      Miles – I didn’t touch on it in the article, but yes, that’s my intention: reduce lane width and that opens up space for bike lanes and/or on-street parking. This is a reshuffling in a way, I agree. However, I see this as a benefit and politically-feasible.

  2. Froggie

    I would argue that #7 needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis, instead of en-masse. Desirable items such as on-street parking, bike lanes, or dedicated bus lanes often can only be accomplished by keeping a road one-way. The narrow sections of 26th St are an excellent example of this, as are several one-way pairs (each of which are very narrow streets) in parts of DC.

    1. Nathaniel

      Froggie – Yes. Agreed. It needs to be context sensitive. There are beautiful, small one-way streets that work well in urban settings (there are countless examples in Philadelphia and DC). I’m referring here primarily to places like Minneapolis, where you have big, wide downtown streets that are one-ways.

  3. Morgan Zehner

    Good list. I am 100% in agreement with you on numbers 1,2,3, and 7.

    I am not sure #4 is well thought out enough. Yes, selling government owned land is too complicated and probably should be made easier but I do think that governments should hold land as a contingency on future public uses. Whether they be park, social service, health, or education. Also, financial tools like options already exist. I do not think that selling outright, especially for low prices, is in the public’s best interest.

    #5 I think that there is an extent to which the bus is simply a failed product that does not attract choice customers. Maybe incremental innovations can make bus based public transportation better but we have all been talking about that for a long time and I don’t really see it happening. We should make investments in products and services that customers like, want, and see as a symbols of status. Buses just are not in my opinion.

    My critiques of #6 and #7 focus on externalities suffered by the public. Alcohol has a ton of social costs from assault (both physical and sexual), domestic abuse, disease and, and violent death. It is heavily regulated for good reason. In-line retail is not dead either. The best commercial districts with the highest value have a high preponderance of retail. Think Uptown and Grand Ave. The Mall is dying (good riddance) but policy should be working toward to relocation of these amenities into walkable commercial districts.

    For #7 specifically I do not use the term “sharing economy”. It is a false concept because people are charging a fee for services. I feel that the term is used to make regulatory arbitrage seem more reasonable, but it really is a betrayal of the public trust. Uber and Lyft do not complete with owning a car. Even car sharing services don’t really compete with owning a car. As soon as someone use a car twice a week they are better off financially buying one than using a car sharing service. Uber and Lyft do compete with taxis and taxis are heavily regulated for good reason. Cars kill. Cars should be more heavily regulated not less. Also, anyone could get in a cab and get kidnapped. Anyone. People are very vulnerable in cab and taxi situations. Very good reasons for regulating them heavily.

    Anyway, good list. Fun to think about and respond to. Thank you.

  4. Nathaniel

    Morgan – Thanks for commenting. I appreciate you taking time to do so.

    Re: #4 – We can certainly save some for future public uses. I didn’t mean to imply that we just off it to the highest (low) bidder. City’s should be strategic with it, and I wouldn’t touch parks. I was thinking more of open-surface parking lots in downtown areas. What this lower land cost would do is translate into better buildings. The City can say, “We want this type of building.” It can also help spark more small-scale developments (good stuff we love, as opposed to blocky apartments) and make that more affordable. The City doesn’t gain much by keeping surface lots.

    Re: #5 – LRT is great and we shouldn’t write it off. However, I think we can make big strides with BRT in the meantime. Also, buses can be great. I think it’s a failed product in parts because we’ve done it so poorly. I’m more interested in improving existing services. But, if we sat down over coffee I’m sure we’d find a good, middle ground.

    Re: #6 – There are a lot of externatlities, but if we treat and regulate it responsibility, I think it can help fill empty shopfronts. Adding things such as early closing hours and other restrictions would have to be on the table. Some retail isn’t dying, but I do think a lot of it is/will in the near future. We have a lot of retail space available and I think something will need to go there. I think the places that are striving now are your walkable places. What will we do with the dying malls of the world – that’s a big question and I don’t think anyone knows. We’ll probably just forget about a lot of them.

    Re #7 – I knew I’d get the most opposition on this one. I think you’re right by saying it’s not “sharing”. I used the broad generalized term so people would know what I was referring to. I think there is a way to make these services available. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this, but I do feel they have a place in our cities. I do think it helps make urban living easier. I also think that taxi cabs are in a bad position (overly regulated on everything down to what type of shirt they can wear, but more importantly rates). The fact this debate is even happening is probably more a result of our obsessive car culture as opposed to anything else.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Most importantly re #6, we need to keep in mind that it’s current license holders who benefit most from restricting licensing.

      That and the fact that the status quo hardly keeps anyone from choosing to abuse alcohol.

  5. Kevin

    I’m in total agreement with most of these. If I was coming up with my own “urban utopia” wishlist, one thing I’d add would be more 24 hour restaurants and coffee shops. There might not be the market for dozens of them in smaller cities like ours, but as it stands now it’s easier to find a meal at 3am along the 494 strip than in downtown Minneapolis. Having more places open later–while often opposed by people who don’t want noise in their neighborhood–is great for people who work evening shifts,college students, and general night owls, plus they add to the “eyes on the street” factor.

    1. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

      Kevin – I like it. I’ll add that to the next 8. That and another great point someone mentioned on Facebook re: car-sharing services:

      “Here is an easy one, get a different tax rate for car share services. Every time I take a car2go I have to pay the a 22% tax rate. It’s really not the proper tax rate as you are penalizing local users when the rate is meant to “milk” tourists.”

    2. Keith Morris

      I was in the Bucktown neighborhood in Chicago recently and right on the same block where I was heading to a coffee shop were two 24 hour taco joints. Two on one single block and we can’t do one in this entire city? Of course, I’m sure that these kind of 24 hour spots have something to do with the bars in the surrounding area not having to close til 3 or even 4 AM. As far as 24 hour coffee shops, you would think the lack of bars open after 2 in the morning would result in demand from night owls for a number of these to already exist, but has anyone ever even tried to do one here to see if it would work? The latest coffee shops are open around here seems to be 11-12.

      1. Evan RobertsEvan

        This is a pet peeve of mine (though I’m rarely out that late these days). The city of Minneapolis charges extra fees and requires extra inspections to open later.

        To open past 10pm (Su-Th) / 11pm (Fr/Sa) in most areas costs you $400 extra the first year, a police check, and then a recurring $142 fee. Even downtown you need to get city permission to open past 1am Su-Th.

        None of this encourages successful businesses to experiment a little and see if opening a little later works.


        1. Nathaniel

          I wonder how the “eyes on the street” play out for all night places. I have to imagine that it attracts drunks, but what a good place to sober up. It seems like places like Mickey’s have only a positive effect on St. Paul. Minneapolis should look into creating an environment where more appear.

  6. Keith Morris

    For #2 I would swap the parking minimum requirements for a storefront minimum requirement in certain areas: no block-long storefronts for just one business where we should have a dozen. Just think of how interesting Nicollet Mall would be if it had such a policy in place over most of it.

    #5 can’t be emphasized enough, especially for bus routes that traverse LRT lines. Unfortunately, whenever I end up at 46th St Station,for example, and I want to take the 46 somewhere chances are it’s taking off and I’d have to wait outside for a half hour for the next one. Fuck that: I’ll just ride my bike (snow and ice aside). All bus routes that have a 20 min or more wait like the 46 for all intents and purposes don’t actually exist for many of us, except those who are totally dependent on them to get around. Visitors who actually do use the LRT aren’t going to transfer from the Blue Line on the 46 to Buster’s/Baker’s Wife/Angry Catfish/etc or take the 65 from the Green Line to go to one of the many destinations in Cathedral Hill on Selby or Grand.

    We invest billions in LRT, but won’t spend the extra penny to make most bus routes that connect to LRT lines high frequency, which of course translates to lower ridership because people living along these bus routes are essentially cut off from the LRT with unacceptable wait times.

    As far as #7 goes I’d say it’s the tidal waves of green lights that are the problem rather than the street being one-way. Blaisdell is a perfect example of how not to do add bike infrastructure to 26/28th: cars are going way too fast and you always have to be vigilant about possible right hooks at intersections as a result. The street should have signals timed for cycling speed so that bikes get the waves of green lights and it’s not like traffic ever really gets backed up over there anyway.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I’m wary of your point re #7. I’m not certain of what the genius that designed our downtown light sequencing had in mind, but in non-peak hours they seem designed to make normal-speed traffic stop at every block. This is beyond stupid especially given that if you travel at around 40 mph, you can make all the lights. Believe it or not, people respond to incentives.

      Which is not to say that I disagree, except to the extent that you meant that to imply red lights would slow traffic. Instead, lights should be sequenced so that traffic moving at the rate on speed you’d like to see don’t have to stop.

      1. Nathaniel

        Red lights and re-timing would help. Agreed. However, it would only be one step in a multi-step process. The later steps need to be converting to two-ways. Again, I think we all agree on the end we want to achieve, and we might be arguing over nuances here.

    2. Nathaniel

      Thanks for commenting.

      Re: #2 (Your Comments). I’d agree that we should have more small footprint storefronts. There is lots of value there. However, I don’t know if I’d swap parking minimums out of them. Ideally, one would have limited parking restrictions and numerous shopfronts. Good suggestion, by the way.

      Re: #5 (Your Comments) I agree with your comments. I have this theory that biking exploded in Minneapolis because (partially) that bus service was so bad. During the summer, I rarely use transit. Biking is faster, easier and more convenient.

      Re: #7 (Your Comments) I agree and disagree (respectfully). The green lights are a problem; and that might be a quick fix (re-timing), but I do ultimately believe that those downtown streets need to be two-ways.

      Thanks again for commetning.

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  8. Adam Old

    I think most of these are good ideas, and I support letter uber and lyft get into the market with a small amount of regulation (driving records should be good, etc.). But saying that they aren’t competing against taxis or that AirBnB isn’t competing against hotels seems like wishful thinking to me.

    1. Nathaniel

      Yes, they are competing against taxis. I should have clarified that their ultimate goal is to compete against the cost of owning a car in urban areas.

  9. David MarkleDavid Markle

    I agree with much said in this article but am worried about one example of making four lanes into three (actually into two): namely the project to widen the sidewalk on the west side of Cedar Avenue on the West Bank and reduce that portion of the street to one traffic lane each direction. The result may be a chronic afternoon traffic jam, and just consider all the habitual double-parkers, deliveries to businesses and safety issues with emergency vehicles. Meanwhile the city steadfastly refuses to install an illuminated no right turn arrow semaphore on the northwest corner of Cedar/Riverside/4th Street where probably hundreds of motorists make improper right turns every day from Riverside. It’s allegedly the most dangerous intersection in Minneapolis for pedestrians, and one of the worst for bicyclists.

    Returning to general principles for better urbanism, we need major reform of the metropolitan transit planning process, and not just because of the planning fiasco of the Green Line that prevented us from having a reasonable rail trunk line. Consider also the long and torturous SW Corridor process that may have nearly doubled the final cost of that project!

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  11. Karin Jones

    Most of these ideas are really great but I think an uncritical embrace of the “sharing” economy is flawed. The system level gains of having more competition, more options and more individuals earning from their entrepreneurial efforts sound very good and are rational ideas to support. However, the other side of the coin is: the individual entrepreneur absorbs nearly all risk associated with a practice that has historically required the umbrella company to take responsibility for additional layers of risk. An individual renting their space on Airbnb is must have reasonable insurance to cover liability (private, not provided through the parent company) and is beholden to the parent company for their percentage pay-out. The parent company never has to build a single brick-and-mortar building (sounds good, if we’re thinking that use of existing space is the most critical issue to address) and they hold the funds before dispersal (quite possibly collecting significant interest off of these holdings) which skews the reality of the percentage share going to the property holder.
    Essentially, this is another case of major corporations making minimal investment, dispersing risk to the consumer and reaping massive profits for the minimal service, and oversight that they provide.
    I’m not saying this system isn’t going to take hold but it is really just another way to funnel more money up and promote an unregulated service economy that really suppresses wages when you factor in the costs assumed by the individual vehicle or residence owner who is sharing their property through these services.

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