Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Jeff Speck in Cedar Rapids

"Walkable places are thriving places," says Jeff Speck (pictured above), architect, author and city planner. Speck, now based in Boston, was in Cedar Rapids to "re-communicate" the importance of safe street design, in hopes of spreading the word to a wider audience, and to sustain the energy behind important changes already begun by the city. He spoke to about 60 people at the new City Services Center on 15th Street SW.

The title of his talk was "The Safe Walk;" among the elements that make for a walkable city, he said safety--both real and perceived--is the factor most directly impacted by government action, specifically design of the street. He focused on downtown Cedar Rapids, saying it was the part of the city that has the greatest potential to be "truly walkable."
 Important design elements include:
  1. small blocks, allowing for two-lane streets, and resulting in far fewer traffic deaths.
  2. two-lane streets, which can easily handle 10,000 cars per day, including 1000 at peak hour. More lanes merely encourage cars to drive faster, and drivers to jockey lanes, which are less safe. Long left-turn lanes cost "a flank of parking."
  3. two-way streets, countering a trend in many cities beginning begun in the late 1960s to move to one-way streets. One way streets do move traffic more quickly, but at costs to safety and businesses.
  4. skinny streets, with lane widths 10 feet or fewer. 12 foot lanes common in newer neighborhoods are the same width as highway lanes, with predictable results: wider lanes encourage faster driving resulting in more deaths.
  5. bicycle lanes, to encourage biking. Results from Portland and New York City found more biking with fewer injuries and less speeding by drivers. Sharrows and "Share the road" signs do not have this effect.
  6. parallel parking, which creates a "barrier of steel" protecting the curb from moving vehicles, thus encouraging walking as well as al fresco dining.
  7. doing away with push-buttons at traffic signals, which are pretty well useless. He recommends going with a standard signal (pedestrians go when the cars go) or LPI (pedestrians get a slight lead). He prefers four-way stops, which in a Philadelphia study showed 24 percent fewer crashes and 68 percent fewer pedestrian injuries.
Speck's ideas have influenced a gradual redesign of downtown streets. He praised our city's "good bones," i.e. blocks of 300 square feet. But many of our downtown streets have for years been four-lane one-ways, and none carries more than 7000 cars per day. The redesign calls for slow conversion to two-way streets, with more angle parking and bike lanes (not in the same blocks, though!).

What about the rest of the city? Cedar Rapids resident Martin Smith asked about the strata of neighborhoods that lack sidewalks (in areas built between the time when they were customary and the current time when they are legally required). Speck said he'd noticed such a street near "the high school"--I think it could have been any one of the three high schools, but let's say Cottage Grove Avenue for starters--and said he'd start by asking if the street were wide enough to stripe a walking area or a "shared path." "Obviously," he conceded, the long-term goal is real sidewalks.

Speck was introduced by Dave Elgin (pictured at right, from linkedin.com), who is retiring at the end of the month after many years as Cedar Rapids's city engineer. In his remarks Elgin touted the city's newly-adopted comprehensive plan, Envision CR, and noted that public feedback continues to support and demand a vibrant, energetic city. He said Speck has been consulting with the Department of Public Works since 2012.
Jeff Speck's presentation is archived here. Thanks to Brandon G. Whyte at Corridor MPO for the link.
SEE ALSO: Ben Kaplan, "An Interview with Jeff Speck," We Create Here, 25 March 2014, http://www.wecreatehere.net/2015/03/25/an-interview-with-jeff-speck/

Jeff Speck's books include Suburban Nation (co-author), The Smart Growth Manual (co-author) and Walkable City

"What is a Complete Street?" 13 August 2014, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2014/08/what-is-complete-street.html
"Biking in the 21st Century," 28 June 2013, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/06/biking-in-21st-century.html

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