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.