Monday, November 22, 2010

Our street grid and walkability

Connected, dense street grids promote alternative transportation

I came across a great presentation from UConn's Norm Garrick on the link between the street grid and the walkability and bikeability of a community. It's instructive to see which areas of Norwalk are most conducive to building livable communities.

The overall learning isn't rocket science: the denser a neighborhood's street grid, the easier it is to walk around. Cul de sacs and isolated developments make it all-but-impossible to get from place to place without a car.

To see how this relates to Norwalk, I looked at a 1/2 mile radius around South Norwalk train station, generally considered to be the radius of transit-oriented development.

Walking and biking rates are higher in denser neighborhoods. South Norwalk's 130 intersections/mi^2 

This area has, by my count, 130 intersections per square mile, a density in the middle-range of Norm Garrick's chart. We would expect about 9% of commuters to take transit, 6% to walk and 4% to bike. These figures sound about right for South Norwalk. (Update: We actually do much better. 25% take transit and 7% walk.)

What do these results mean for the goals of promoting walking, biking and transit in Norwalk?
  • #1, it shows the importance of building a dense street grid. While there are limited options for new roads, new footpaths should be established wherever we can.
  • #2, mixed-use development should be targeted for the areas where livable communities are most likely to thrive.
  • #3, when parcels of land are redeveloped, a dense, connected system of paths or roads should be part of the plan.

Friday, November 19, 2010

An inspirational evening

Livable Norwalk member Richard Stowe speaks with principal engineer Dick Linnartz during the public comment portion. Richard's call for an end to "same old, same old" car-centric planning got big applause. (source: The Daily Norwalk)

Wow. The public hearing for the East Ave widening project was something to see.

Speaker after speaker after speaker stood up to ask for complete streets and livable communities. We heard from people concerned about walking, about biking, about the aesthetics of the corridor and the business impacts. It wasn't until about 6 speakers had talked that councilman Nick Kydes spoke in support of the project.

The Daily Norwalk picked up the message. The Hour heard it too. I'm not sure the planners heard what we had to say, but we'll see.

All one hundred people who came witnessed the growing movement in Norwalk for livability. The era of bigger and bigger roads is over. People in Norwalk want to be able to walk and bike. We want to enjoy a high quality of life. We don't want to become New Jersey.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My planned comments on the East Ave widening

The current East Ave: Planners want greater vehicle throughput. Livability advocates want a nicer street for walking and biking. Can we meet in the middle?

The public meeting for the East Ave widening is tomorrow (please RSVP!). We'll review the changes made in response to previous public comment hearings.

I've shared my skepticism on the benefits of the road widening. This morning, senior planner Dick Linnartz was good enough to walk me through the details of the plan and help me refine my position. So, as a preview, here are the public comments I plan to share:

[Update 11/18/10: here are my final notes, modified to fit within 3 minutes and fleshed out a bit:
  • Compliments:
    • The station-area improvements are great
    • The sidewalk improvements too
  • Has there been modeling done on the traffic impact of the widening?
    • East Ave will attract traffic from I-95 and other roads, neutralizing benefits of higher capacity
    • How much will increase traffic on other roads through East Norwalk, SoNo and Rowayton?
    • This should be quantified and understood
  • During off-peak times, the road is fairly empty.
    • What will the impact on vehicle travel speeds be from a wider road?
    • What impact will this have on the accident rate, especially the pedestrian accident rate?
  • East Ave is an essential road for cycling to the train station. Two alternative configurations that would allow bike lanes:
    • removing the excess northbound travel lane
    • having 10' travel lanes.
      • From the AASHTO green book (p473): "urban arterial lane widths may vary from 10 to 12 feet", "under interrupted-flow (roads with signals) conditions operating at low speeds (45 mph or less) narrower lane widths are normally quite adequate and have some advantages". 
      • From Potts, Harwood, and Richard (2007), no measurable difference in accident rates on arterials with lane widths down to 10', including undivided 4 lane roads.
    • The 2009 Complete Bill says: "Accommodations for all users shall be a routine part of the planning, design, construction and operating activities of all highways". By choosing to not make accommodations for cyclists, the current plan does not comply with the bill.
  • A wider road will be more challenging for pedestrians to cross. Crosswalks and pedestrian signals should be introduced on all sides of intersections. Pedestrian signals should go green with traffic to improve pedestrian flow and reducing jay-walking.
  • Most walkable areas are seeking to reduce turn radii. This plan increases turn radii. Turn radii should remain unchanged to preserve the pedestrian environment.

Big picture thoughts
  • East Ave is near the station and has the potential to develop into an attractive retail district in the future. The top priority should be designing a road that will be attractive for development.
  • This three-block corridor has lots of pedestrians and a high accident rate (1 ped/bike collision annually). Additionally, surrounding neighborhoods have high rates of walking, biking and transit use.
  • This calls for context-sensitive design that accommodates walking and cycling.
What I like about the project
  • The new sidewalks, especially the one added under the railroad bridge
  • The extended platforms over East Ave, reducing the need for commuters to cross the roadway.
  • The modifications that have been made to buffer the sidewalk from the roadway.
My concerns
  • East Ave is used as an alternative to I-95. Increasing capacity will induce more commuters to use this route, offsetting the intended benefits of mitigating congestion. This will also lead to greater congestion on other roads on the bypass route, specifically on Fort Point St, Van Zant St and Route 136 through South Norwalk and Rowayton.
  • At off-peak times, the wider roadway will lead to higher vehicle speeds, increasing accidents and causing a hazard for pedestrians.
  • Often, urban development projects reduce turning radii, calming turning traffic and reducing pedestrian crossing distances. This project will increase turn radii. (Dick Linnartz explained that these radii are necessary to receive state funding. I still think it's a bad idea.) From,
A larger curb turning radius at an intersection or a parking area ingress and egress point allows vehicles to negotiate a turn rapidly, whereas a smaller radius forces a vehicle to slow down. Conventional traffic engineers often prefer a larger radius for vehicle convenience and curb protection, but such a radius makes life more inconvenient and dangerous for pedestrians. A larger radius also significantly increases the distance for crossing the street, which exposes the pedestrian to more danger from moving vehicles.
  • From the 2009 Complete Streets bill, "Accommodations for all users shall be a routine part of the planning, design, construction and operating activities of all highways". There are no accommodations for cyclists in the current plan.
Design Alternatives
  • While the two southbound lanes are justified by left- and right-turning traffic, the two northbound lanes are less necessary. Eliminating one northbound lane will provide space that can be used for bike lanes or shoulders. The shoulders will also provide space to pass cars stopped in the travel lane, as they do on other roads like West Rocks or Strawberry Hill.
  • If the roadway must be 4 lanes, reduce lane widths to 10', common on many arterial roads. This will provide the space for 4' wide bike lanes. (10' lanes will also calm traffic.)
  • One final alternative to consider: Two southbound travel lanes, one northbound travel lane (10' width), a parking lane on the southbound side (8') for the benefit of East Ave businesses and to expand train station parking supply, and bike lanes (5') on each side of the street.
Further Suggestions
  • Do not increase turn radii. If this is a state requirement, a waiver should be granted based on the level of pedestrian activity in this corridor.
  • A wider roadway will require better pedestrian crossing facilities to discourage jay-walking. Crosswalks should be added across East Ave and pedestrian signals should turn green with traffic, minimizing the wait times for pedestrians at intersections.
East Ave is East Norwalk's front door. I want people coming from I-95 to see an attractive street lined with trees and bike lanes, inducing them to stop at local businesses. The understandable goal of moving traffic through the road should not be at the detriment of the neighborhood.

Monday, November 15, 2010

This Thursday: Speak out for a livable East Ave

Historic East Ave (source:
Present-day East Avenue holds potential to be an attractive, walkable part of town. Current DOT plans would abandon that vision for more car capacity.

Should East Norwalk look like SoNo or the Post Road?

This is one of the fundamental livability questions facing Norwalk and we have a chance to address it on Thursday, 7pm at Norwalk City Hall as the DOT presents a public information session for widening East Avenue.

Wider roads erode the sense of place, making a street feel not like a destination but rather an open space to drive through quickly. Historically, the DOT has prioritized vehicle capacity over anything else, including livability. The modern DOT is supposedly evolving. Just this Saturday the DOT's bureau chief for policy & planning, Tom Maziarz, delivered an exciting speech on the DOT's proposals for giving new consideration for livability and context-sensitive design principles. The East Ave project is clearly a legacy of the old DOT.

East Ave is already one of Norwalk's most dangerous roads for both cyclists and pedestrians.

Some sidewalk improvements notwithstanding, widening East Ave to four lanes will make it more dangerous to cross, more dangerous to bike and, in fact, more dangerous to drive. We will see an increase in traffic speeds and cars will pay more attention to the other cars, which means less attention to pedestrians and cyclists in the road.

Furthermore, the project includes wider turning radii at intersections--a textbook violation of walkable design principles. Wider turning radii means cars driving at higher speeds through crosswalks and longer crossing distances for pedestrians.

Given modern budget constraints, spending $8 million to make East Ave less attractive and more dangerous is a poor use of funds.