The Destination Crawl

All shopping centers need those stores that customers consider a destination. Those stores that people will go out of their way to shop at. Destination stores must be located within the walkshed of each other in order to create a series of destinations that customers can visit without getting back in their cars.

One way to think of a series of destinations is like a bar crawl. You start at one bar, then walk down the street to another one, then further down the street to a third. You might not walk directly from the first bar to the third bar because they are too far away from one another, but because the second bar is in the middle all three become walkable. Similarly, a shopper might walk from Target to Kohls and then on to the grocery store, even if Target and the grocery store are too far from one another to walk between directly. This is the Destination Crawl.

Unfortunately, most suburban regional shopping centers, the type that are encouraged by cities due to municipal financial incentives, are not designed to place their destination stores within each other’s walkshed. It becomes impossible to do the Destination Crawl.

The Car Oriented Shopping Center

The DistrictA wonderfully terrible example of the unwalkability of suburban regional shopping centers is The District in Tustin, California. The District is located on the former Marine Corps Air Station, Tustin, best known as the home of the world’s largest wooden blimp hangars. The District was a brown-field development that started as a completely blank canvas that was pan flat. With this blank canvas, the developer was able to create a hellish landscape for pedestrians and a nightmare for motorists, a rare combination.

Shoppers at The District who want to go grocery shopping at Whole Foods and then go to Target either have the option of walking 1,000 feet through a parking lot and jaywalking across a four-lane road, or getting in their car and driving between the two stores. Shopping centers, even ones where customers primarily arrive by car, don’t have to be designed this way.

The unwalkability of The District is entirely due to the fact that its buildings are arranged in a ring around the parking, instead of clustering the buildings in the center and placing the parking to one side. The District gets it even worse, because it’s designed so the buildings front on the parking lot and turn their back on the surrounding streets, so people from neighboring communities can’t even conveniently walk into the center.

A Destination Crawl Redesign

Instead of placing buildings within a sea of parking, and creating further barriers to walkability in the form of wide roads without safe places to cross on foot, the developer could have created an overlapping series of destinations that would have enabled a Destination Crawl. This would require moving the buildings closer together and making the walk between destinations more pedestrian friendly.

The most helpful change to the design of The District would be to make the path between destinations more walkable. Right now, to get around on foot requires cutting across parking lots at a diagonal. Doing so is very inefficient and quite unsafe. Direct pedestrian paths need to be provided between destinations. In order to create these direct pedestrian paths, buildings must be square with one another. The street network within The District is unnecessarily curved, causing the building and their associated parking to be at odd angles to one another. These odd angles ensure the most direct path from one destination to another is a diagonal path through the parking lots.

IMG_6184In addition, these paths need to be comfortable in scale and feeling for people on foot, not just crowded along the front of buildings or exposed traversing a wide-open parking lot. When visiting The District, it’s clear that the developer knew how to build for pedestrians, the mall at the center of the development is wonderfully walkable. Unfortunately they didn’t extend this understanding to linking the destinations on the outskirts of the center together.

Another helpful change to the design of The District would be to move the buildings closer together so that the distance between destinations, door to door, is no more than 500 feet. This ensures that it’s only a couple of minutes walk at a nice slow pace between destinations. While making the pedestrian paths more walkable can increase a destination’s walkshed, destinations must still be located close to one another in order to achieve overlapping walksheds and enable a Destination Crawl.

These same principals for a Destination Crawl can be applied to a city’s downtown or any other neighborhood center. By placing destinations in close proximity and providing pedestrian friendly connectivity, any city can support a Destination Crawl. Without these two key components, it’s impossible to achieve walkable communities because it will remain more convenient for customers to drive between destinations instead of walk.

How Driverless Cars will Revolutionize the Suburbs

While some believe that driverless cars will create more traffic, they present a great opportunity to increase the density of our suburbs, as long as we’re prepared to take advantage of that opportunity.

The doom-and-gloom view of driverless cars imagines that every car that’s currently driven gets replaced by a driverless model. In this view, each family still owns two or three cars. Worse, because driving time can be used productively, long commutes become less burdensome and living in a suburban community far away from work becomes more acceptable. In this view of driverless cars, the amount of vehicle miles traveled increases exponentially, greatly increasing carbon emissions due to driving. This view has some truth to it. Driverless cars will increase driving, but it’s one way we can invest our current carbon budget to create a more sustainable future.

Driverless cars are not the only near-future development in transportation at work, a harmonious development is the increasing popularity of on-call taxi services like Lyft and Uber. Once driverless cars are permitted by the states and come to market, Lyft and Uber will end up replacing their current drivers with fleets of driverless cars. Since the driver is the most expensive part of their systems, they will have great incentive to employ fleets of driverless cars so they can bring down their operating costs.

Self-driving taxi will enable suburban residents to give up their cars without giving up the mobility and autonomy they currently enjoy. Once car ownership starts to decline in favor of self-driving taxis, all of the areas that are currently used for car storage can be repurposed to more productive uses. This will enable our suburban neighborhoods to become more dense and walkable, and eventually will lead to a declining need for car trips in the first place.

The biggest benefit for suburban neighborhoods is that garages will be able to be converted into livable space. A standard three car garage can be converted into a very livable granny flat. These types of accessory dwelling units could conceivably double the number of people living in a suburban neighborhood. Increasing the density of these neighborhoods in such a way will provide an adequate number of people to support local, walkable retail. Unfortunately, many cities have ordinances prohibiting the conversion of garages into livable space, because they don’t want the cars they expect to be in those garages on the street creating a parking problem. As driverless taxis become viable, cities will need to rapidly amend these ordinances if we are to take advantage of the opportunity to densify our suburban neighborhoods. The sooner these ordinances are amended, the more quickly we can transition our neighborhoods to be walkable and sustainable.

There are some other small ways removing car storage from our residential neighborhoods will improve walkability. Currently, many residential streets are designed to accommodate on-street parking which wouldn’t be needed with driverless taxis. Reclaiming this space that’s currently dedicated to parking will enable for wider sidewalks, separated bike lanes, or landscaped parkways that can make a neighborhood more walkable. Additionally, the driveway curb cuts for each house would be able to go away. If you’ve ever pushed a stroller down a residential street, you know how annoying curb cuts can be, and leveling out the walking surface by removing them will enhance a neighborhood’s walkability.

In addition to adding density to our residential neighborhoods, cities will be able to take advantage of the land currently wasted on parking in retail centers. This can take the form of additional retail space, if there is a demand for it; additional homes, creating tent-pole density adjacent to retail; or a combination of both. In a world full of driverless cars, all retail centers will require is a small area for pickup and drop off, similar to a valet or taxi stand.

As the densities of both our suburban residential and retail neighborhoods increases,not only will they be walkable, but they will begin to be able to support transit in a reasonably efficient manner. Once suburban neighborhoods are walkable and have transit, the need for cars, even driverless taxis, will be reduced. Driverless taxis aren’t a cure for all the ills of the suburbs, many other changes to our land use policies and patterns of development still need to occur and can occur without the further development of near-future technology. We should spend the majority of our efforts changing what we can today, but we also need to be thinking of the technology of tomorrow and working to set up an understanding of how it can create a more sustainable future so when that technology materializes we can make that sustainable future a reality.

Friday Link Roundup – January 23, 2015

I’m still trying to figure out how to write these link roundups. This week, instead of just copying a key paragraph from the body of the linked article, I’m writing about why these articles are relevant. This is a bit more work, but also provides more context.

Unlikely Radical – Your right to park on your street. As suburban neighborhoods become more dense and walkable, the concern over parking will be paramount. Suburban residents cannot live without a car, literally. Nor can they imagine life without a car, even if there are other, more convenient options to get from one place to another. They will fight increased density with limited parking simply because they cannot imagine how it could possibly work out. Of course, for it to work, cities must ensure the neighborhoods are walkable and served by transit, otherwise everyone will continue to want a car despite the density. via @StrongTowns

Popular Science – Welcome to the Maker-Industrial Revolution. Local production of globally designed products is the future of manufacturing. This distributed manufacturing holds incredible potential for rebuilding industry within our suburban communities. via @urbanophile

CityLab – How Local Sales Taxes Target the Poor and Widen the Income Gap. Not only does an over-reliance on sales tax drive cities to make poor land use decisions that favor chain and big-box retail located in regional shopping centers, it also makes it more difficult for large portions of the community to grow their own, and their community’s, wealth. via @CityLab

NPR – Building Sponge City: Redesigning LA For Long-Term Drought. Redesigning for long-term drought will be a critical component of securing the sustainability of our cities in the Southwest. One concept introduced here unsuitability of steep-pitched roofs to arid climates. There’s a reason most native architecture from dry and warm climates around the world use flat or shallow pitched roofs. via @AlexSteffen

CityLab – How the Trucking Industry Could Be Vastly More Efficient. During the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles the city banned trucks from the freeways during the day. This greatly decreased the amount of traffic on the roads. Smarter truck routing that minimizes the number of vehicle miles for trucks would have a great direct benefit to the economy and economic sustainability of our road systems. Unfortunately it would also enable additional sprawl since people would be more comfortable driving further distances due to less traffic and shorter drive times. via @CityLab