It's Time to Take Back Our Streets
In honor of International Walking Day, we're revisiting the FIU pedestrian bridge collapse, discussing a recent proposal by prominent Miami-based New Urbanists to reenvision 8th street, and offering a limited-time promo for a 14-day free State of Place trial!
When I tell the story of why I created State of Place, I start with my "Miami story" - or more precisely, I recount the heartache of a carless teenager desperately seeking independence (and not just because my mom didn't let me go to the movies with my girlfriends alone!) in the very much, car-dependent, iconoclastic sunbelt suburb. My quip goes something like this:
My most exhilarating memory growing up as carless teenager in the suburbs of Miami was playing a real life version of frogger (you know, that video game George loved on Seinfeld), where I had to dodge cars as I tightroped down pencil-thin sidewalks to cross strip-mall lined 6-lane highways, masquerading as city streets, all to get to my prize - a teriyaki sub (which was actually pretty awesome, but still not worth the risk!).
(I can't believe we still have to) Show Me the Money
For me, the FIU bridge collapse, over a similarly designed "highway," hits too close to home and I'm still reeling from it (hence a second blog post in a row about this topic - here's the first). But it's not merely because this completely avoidable catastrophe happened 2.8 miles from my childhood home in Westchester. It's because I'm tired of having to argue that cities should be designed for people FIRST. Sure, I've dedicated the last 20 years to quantifying the (economic) value of place to more easily convince people why we should create awesome places people love - and that's partly what State of Place does - but I can't believe, it's disheartening to believe, that this is still a huge part of why people need us.
We want citymakers to be using our predictive analytics to optimize their plans, to innovate, to push the design envelope, to maximize both quality of place and value, and find the best solutions given their goals, feasibility, and budgets. But they're still having to use our forecasting tool to "show them the money" to justify any spending on urban design and/or any "disruption" to the car-first status quo. It's why we produced a report for our last blog that showed how a people-first makeover of the block of 8th street, where the pedestrian bridge had been installed, would produce a 12X ROI. But even then, even though we basically created a whole new plan for FIU for free and justified its cost tenfold, crickets.
But looks like we're not the only ones advocating for better urban design, or at least a better plan than spending yet another 14 million just to build a "safer" version of what was supposed to provide "safe" passage for 1000s of pedestrians. New Urbanist pioneers, Victor Dover and Kenneth García echoed the frustrations we outlined last week - that the pedestrian bridge was a bandaid, as most pedestrian bridges are, meant to throw the people of Miami and FIU students a bone in response to a student having been tragically killed while crossing 8th street. That the pedestrian bridge was a solution focused on minimizing any impact to vehicles. That the pedestrian bridge, while billed as part of a broader pedestrian friendly plan for FIU and Sweetwater (the community adjacent to the University), was consciously or subconsciously (it doesn't really matter) designed for cars first. So we couldn't help but run their plan through our fun SimCity scenario analysis to see how it compared to our (admittedly ambitious, as far as getting it approved) plan.
As you can see, Dover and García's plan only garners a few more points than the current conditions on 8th street. Now, this isn't a competition about who has the best plan - we're a software company, not a design company (though we all have urban planning degrees!). And by no means are we trying to denigrate this practical meets ambitious plan. And clearly, Dover and García realistically focused their plan on street design and not on buildings.
But I think the fact this plan only manages to score slightly higher than the existing conditions on 8th street highlights three very important points:
1) Data can highlight important differences - and their magnitude - in a way that a visual plan alone just can't.
Visually, Dover and García's plan is striking. And serves to get folks talking for sure - which is awesome. But while pictures can sometimes indeed be worth a thousand words, we believe that adding data - highly visualized and easy to digest data - to that "canvas" creates an exponentially powerful communication tool about the value of place (let's work together, guys! ;)). We need to be able to capture both the hearts and minds of the community, to yes, indeed show why it's worth investing in better places. But also, sometimes we just need a way to objectively compare different design scenarios and proposed projects, to put them on a level playing field, to truly understand their varying advantages, identify areas of improvement, and ultimately, implement the plan with the most potential to increase quality of place, and with that, safety...but...
2) We can't just focus on safer streets
What's particularly interesting about the two scenarios for 8th street, and their State of Place Profiles, is that the Dover-García scenario delivers a huge boost for traffic safety and pedestrian amenities, whereas the scenario we ran through our "SimCity-style" analysis generated slightly less improvements to both (but still way better than its current state). However, our scenario garnered significant increases across other aspects of urban design like aesthetics, urban form, density, parks and public spaces, and proximity to more destinations. Of course, it's important to focus on increasing traffic safety, but focusing on a more complete picture of what makes for good urban design - like pedestrian promenades, providing a mix of uses, benches, landscaping, and outdoor dining - is a more robust and effective approach to actually increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety (albeit, yes, more ambitious, especially for this part of 8th street - buy hey, let's aim high first!).
Fundamentally, good urban design is about attracting more people. The more people there are present, the more aware and better behaved vehicles are. Right now, Miami drivers, when they see someone actually walking, especially on the behemoth that is 8th street, will automatically assume your car broke down, and may even stop to ask you if you need help! Walking in Miami should not be a rare spectacle - but as long as we design streets like highways, that will continue to be the case. Yes, we should improve traffic safety - but the best way to do that is to focus on a more complete picture of better urban design, period. Now, speaking of complete...
3) Complete streets MUST be about more than just about "balance"
We love how much traction the complete streets concept has gotten - especially with respect to getting pedestrians and bicyclists to be top-of-mind instead of just an afterthought in transportation planning. But we want the movement to go "más allá" as they would say in Miami - further, complete(r) if you will. When the focus is to "balance" the needs of all mobility modes, we're starting with a false premise, because pedestrians and bicyclists are inherently more vulnerable than vehicles. It's akin to pedestrian victim-blaming or worse, Vision Zero campaigns that vilify the pedestrian, portraying them as a ginormous red high-heeled shoe crashing into a miniaturized car. I'm sorry but I've never heard of a pedestrian killing a driver...
As long as we continue to try to balance the needs of cars and people, we will be making concessions that favor cars and potentially endanger the pedestrian, which is exactly what led to the rationale for quickly slapping a 950-ton bandaid across an 8-lane road. Complete streets should adopt a "people-first" design approach, designing everything around human-powered "vehicles" - our feet and bicycles - and then accommodating other machine-powered vehicles as best as possible, focusing first on mass-transit vehicles down toward single-driver vehicles.
Our Gift to You on International Walking Day
So today, on International Walking Day, we say, all power to people-first urban design. Let's take back our streets! And in an effort to help all you placelovers, datageeks, and citymakers out there, we're doing an awesome promo: we're offering a free 14-day trial** to use the State of Place Platform so you can indeed take the first step toward people-first design and get the tools to fight for the right to take back our streets!
Just fill out the form below and enter the promo code: PeopleFirstMiami and we'll set you up with a guest account! Offer valid until April 30th, 2018 :)
**Promo only good for public sector, private sector, and non-profit sector organizations in the citymaking space (e.g., city planning departments, real estate developers, walkability advocates, etc.). This offer is not good for individual consumers or the lay public at the moment. Students and university-affiliated folks, please check out our Urban Data Geeks Lab instead.