Building walkable urban neighborhoods sounds great in theory, but sometimes the best-laid plans still result in streets that are friendlier to cars than to people.
A recent study examined a Denver neighborhood originally intended to meet "New Urbanist" design principles, an urban design movement that encourages more compact neighborhoods to accommodate walkers, bikers and public transportation.
The study found that by caving to conventional traffic standards, the community of Stapleton has made it less likely that residents will abandon their cars for their tennis shoes, raising its emissions profile and making it less safe for pedestrians.
Urban planning experts say that until American cities re-examine their traffic standards, many of which are decades old, other attempts to reshape U.S. suburbs under New Urbanist principles will meet the same fate.
Stapleton "does look like New Urbanism, but they made all these bastardizations of the principles to get the thing built," said study author (and Stapleton resident) Wesley Marshall, assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado, Denver's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "If you want to do it right, you need to go all in."
Stapleton is a planned community on land that served Denver's main airport until 1995. A nonprofit called the Stapleton Redevelopment Association partnered with the city of Denver in 1993 to create a new plan for the 4,700-acre area once the airport was relocated. This plan, outlined in a document called the "Green Book," laid out principles in line with New Urbanism that were meant to guide the neighborhood's construction.
"Land use planning and community design stress compact, mixed use communities that are walkable and transit-oriented," the document states, according to Marshall's study. "These characteristics can reduce automobile dependence and emissions."
Compromising on slower, safer streets -- with deadly results
But when construction on Stapleton began in the early 2000s, the developer, Forest City, found that getting around the city of Denver's traffic standards was a challenge.
"They made these compromises in order to actually get this thing built," Marshall said.
For example, many of the roads are far wider than New Urbanist principles would usually support. One Stapleton street, Central Park Boulevard, is a broad parkway made up of two two-lane, one-way roads separated by a 50-foot-wide median. Central Park Boulevard was designed as such to accommodate the Denver Regional Council of Government's 30-year projection that the road would eventually see more than 30,000 vehicles per day.
"This design reflects a self-fulfilling 'predict and provide mentality' where current streets must be able to accommodate some future level of traffic demand, in direct contrast to New Urbanist ideals," the study states.
The street's speed limit is 30 miles per hour, but the study found that drivers exceeded the limit in almost 22 percent of cases. Some drivers were even recorded at speeds greater than 50 mph. And in December 2010, the study states, a near-term pregnant woman was run over on Central Park Boulevard, killing her unborn baby.
After outcry from the community, the city of Denver installed a new traffic signal where the accident took place. But the study says this is only a "Band-Aid" solution.
"While research suggests that there are design solutions that would address both the needs of the community and continue to serve regional mobility ... the difficulty is that such changes are difficult to implement, both politically and economically, after a community has already been built," it states.
Decades-old standards keep U.S. communities 'auto-oriented'
"If they keep heading in the direction that they are heading, [Stapleton] is going to end up like any other suburban, auto-oriented community," Marshall said.
According to Luc Nadal, technical director for urban development at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York, most American cities' road design standards are based on conceptions in the decades-old handbook "A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets."
These standards began in the "automobile-oriented" 1950s, when large portions of the U.S. population started to abandon cities for the suburbs.
"Many streets in that era were widened, the sidewalks were narrowed," Nadal said. "Also, many streets were made one way instead of two ways, which means faster traffic and eventually more casualties."
The process of challenging and reforming these "old school" regulations and standards in the United States has been very slow, Nadal explained. As a result, Americans are more likely to hop in their car when they need to run an errand in their neighborhood.
"Perception of safety in the street is a major impediment to people walking more, cycling more," Nadal said.
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