Network Connections: Getting where we need to go
It helps to compare cities and their transportation systems to forests. Rich, diverse ecosystems are always healthier and more resilient than monocultures. Just as a mixed forest can better survive a beetle infestation than a tree farm consisting of one variety of pine, a city that enables endless combinations of mobility will be much more resilient than a city that organizes itself around just one way of moving. — Charles Montgomery, Happy City
Imagine this: you’re driving on a highway when you encounter large signs directing you to stop, get out of your car and push it for 50 metres before proceeding. This is the absurd scenario Andreas Rohl, Copenhagen’s bicycle program manager, asks audiences to entertain when giving talks around the world about how to create world-class bicycle infrastructure.
His conceit is often met with chuckles. But his point is salient: “You would never accept that,” he explains. So why would you ask this of cyclists, in order for them to get safely from one bike lane to another on their way from A to B?
Far too often, pieces of city infrastructure — whether bike lanes, parks or transit lines — are conceived of and built piece by piece. But just like how the roads in a city are only useful because they’re all connected to one another (as well as to highways, parking lots and gas stations), it is critical that other systems be designed in the same way: as rich networks interwoven in a symbiotic relationship with other networks. The more we do that, the more useful every individual piece becomes.
Getting from A to B, (and all points between)
A lack of network thinking is often most glaring when it comes to cycling infrastructure. Take these maps to the right of Portland’s bicycle facilities, for instance, a city famous for its cycling culture. Although the entire cycling network, deemed the “fearless adult cyclist” map in this graphic, may appear complete at first glance, numerous studies have shown that the vast majority of people do not feel comfortable cycling mixed in with traffic without separated bikelanes and will only get on their bikes regularly if they can ride separated from traffic. Even the kamikaze cyclists that will ride in any environment strongly prefer this type of infrastructure and will go out of their way to use it. So for the majority of the population, only the routes on the last map, deemed “new or vulnerable cyclist” in the graphic below, are actually usable. For such a person, there is no possible route from one part of the city to another. Only a few blocks here and there are available to them, along with the occasional recreational trail, so, more often than not, there’s no way for them to get where they’re going. (Also see similar map graphics of Minneapolis, MN, and Vancouver, BC).
This is the case in most cities throughout North America, which helps explain why even the continent’s most lauded cycling cities still don’t see more than about 5 per cent of their population regularly commuting by bike. On the other hand, similar maps of Copenhagen show a different story: they barely change at all. A rich and highly connected network of bike lanes appropriate for all ages and abilities to get anywhere they need to go exists throughout the city — one of the main reasons that 40 and 55 per cent of Copenhageners commute daily by bike in the region and city center, respectively. Studies show that people are only willing to go so far out of their way to find dedicated cycling infrastructure. In Copenhagen, they don’t have to.
The same concept applies to public transportation. Many cities spend billions of dollars arguing for and building subways or other major rapid transit lines, but then fail to develop strong connections to fill the space between them. It’s great if someone is able to take the subway very quickly to a stop near to her neighbourhood, but if she is stuck waiting for a long period of time for a slow and lumbering bus to carry her the last leg of her journey home, that rapid transit line is considerably less convenient.
The places we go
Even public spaces can be thought of as part of a network. As Jeff Risom of Gehl Architects pointed out at the Doable City Forum, this is not necessarily because a person moves from one space to another all in the same day, but rather because different parks and public spaces serve different purposes throughout the week, month or year; from the small neighbourhood parks where dogs are walked daily, to the megaparks that draw people occasionally for major concerts and city events.
On top of that, citizens only benefit from parks and public spaces if they actually use them, which means that having many scattered throughout the city is critical for them to best serve their purpose. For example, one study in Los Angeles showed a significant correlation between residents’ proximity to a park from their home and their mental health. After controlling for other variables, the study found that the farther away from a park residents lived (which correlated with fewer visits to the park), the less likely they were to get the recommended daily dose of physical activity and the more likely they were to experience psychological distress.
This is one of the reasons why former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg insisted in his sustainability and resiliency plan (PlaNYC) that every New Yorker live within a five to ten minute walk from a park at most. Central Park is a standout feature of New York City thanks to its size and stature, but if it were the city’s only park, it would contribute very little to overall quality of life for most New Yorkers.
Integration is key
In the same way that one bike lane or transit line or park is exponentially more useful and efficient when connected to many others, networks of public spaces, pedestrian, cycling and transit infrastructure must work together in order to function at their potential.
Everyone who takes public transit, or drives for that matter, is also pedestrian or a cyclist on either end of his trip. Ensuring that people can get to and from the station comfortably and quickly is one of the major factors that will determine whether or not they will take transit. This goes beyond just making sure that routes close to transit stations have sidewalks, for instance, though that’s an important start. It also means integrating bike share systems with transit systems, having secure bike storage facilities at transit stations, enabling people to take their bicycles on transit with them and having short, direct walking routes to transit, which ideally also offer amenities along the way.
Inadequate connections between networks can produce enormous barriers. For example, a study in Houston found that three out of five disabled and elderly citizens do not have sidewalks between their home and the nearest bus stop. As a result, fewer than 10 per cent of them use public transit, despite the fact that 50 per cent live within two blocks of a bus stop.
On the flip side, however, the benefits of well-integrated networks done right can also be enormous. For example, the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Bicycle Program estimated that making public transit more friendly and accessible for cyclists increased the capture area of transit investments 12-fold, because cycling extends the potential reach of the transit network so greatly.
Similarly, Chicago Parks District Chief of Staff Gia Biagi views good pedestrian, cycling and transit connections as essential to the success of the city’s park system, as they make more types of parks more accessible to more people.
Cities, like many things, are so much greater than the sum of their parts— when and because those parts work together to build the whole.
This chapter is available as a PDF: Download a copy.
Lede image credit: Paul Krueger, Flickr
Transit-Oriented Communities: A literature review on the relationship between the built environment and transit ridership is a thorough and comprehensive primer on the many aspects of urban design influencing people’s likelihood to travel by public transportation, including destinations and accessibility, distance to transit, diversity of housing and amenities, residential and employment density, street and neighbourhood design and demand management.
The presence of a diversity of amenities in proximity to housing is typically referred to as mixed land use and is an important factor in knitting together pedestrian and transit networks:
“Mixed land use means having a complementary and context-appropriate combination of shops, services, housing types, offices, and employment opportunities within the same area that allow people to meet most of their daily needs nearby… Local mixed use at transit nodes and along transit corridors encourages trip chaining – by combining more than one destination in each trip (for example, by going to the hardware store and the grocery store on the way home from work, rather than making a separate trip for each of these destinations. Land use mix and accessibility are relevant to travel behavior, even more than household characteristics.”
Read the full primer here.
Proximity to transit is key for ensuring use. In Washington DC, for example, every 300 metres farther away from a subway station commuters worked corresponded with a 12 per cent decrease in their likelihood to take transit. Another study found that 19 per cent of employees working at offices within 800 metres of rapid transit stations in San Francisco took transit, compared to just 5 per cent region-wide.
But there’s more to it than that — directness of route plays strongly into the equation as well. Though conventional urban planning wisdom assumes that people are only willing to walk about half a kilometre to get public transportation, a recent study from the University of California Berkley published in the Journal of Urban Design found that people were filling to walk much further than that, at least for commuting purposes. However, the main factor determining their route choice was minimizing time and distance. After that, people valued safety, quality of sidewalk infrastructure and aesthetics — whether or not the landscaping and buildings were attractive. Asha Weinstein Agrawal writes in the study “How Far, by Which Route and Why? A Spatial Analysis of Pedestrian Preference”:
“Overall, the study results suggest that planners trying to encourage walking should focus on creating direct routes and street-crossings that feel safe to pedestrians. In fact, it may be that street crossings should be the key focus for designers since these often represent the greatest real and psychological travel barrier and trip delay for pedestrians. Although improving neighbourhood aesthetics is critically important for many reasons — such as making walking more pleasant, creating a neighbourhood sense of place and perhaps encouraging recreational walking — these design factors appear less critical in people’s decision of whether or not to walk for the utilitarian purpose of getting to a rail station. Perhaps the fundamental question that urban designers and planners wanting to promote walking should ask is not “How can good urban design induce greater numbers of walking trips?” but “What is the minimum standard of design that will accommodate people who want to make utilitarian walk trips?”
Read the full study here.
In his book Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, urban planner Jarrett Walker lists the seven key elements that make public transit useful:
- It takes me where I want to go
- It takes me when I want to go
- It is a good use of my time
- It is a good use of my money
- It respects me in the level of safety, comfort and amenity it provides
- I can trust it
- It gives me freedom to change my plans
In a chapter he calls “Frequency is Freedom,” he notes: “Frequency has a direct role in meeting four of the seven demands, more than any of the others… Frequency and span [the time of day when service begins and ends] are the essence of freedom for a transit passenger. High-frequency, long-span service is there whenever you want to use it, even for spontaneous trips. If we want people to choose more transit-dependent lifestyles by owning fewer cars, they will need transit that’s there most of the time, and where they’ll never have to wait long. Both frequency and span are fundamental features of transit systems that feel empowering…”
Studies have overwhelmingly found that people prefer to cycle on infrastructure that is separated from vehicle traffic, and that separated infrastructure is safer, and results in fewer injuries. Even those who regularly ride their bicycles, and are willing to bike in traffic will go out of their way to use segregated infrastructure. In her study, “Bicycling for Transportation and Health: The Role of Infrastructure” Jennifer Dill, from Portland State University’s School of Urban Studies & Planning, writes:
“The participants were using the bicycle infrastructure (lanes, paths, and bicycle boulevards) to a great extent – for about half of their bike travel. Where participants bicycle is determined to some extent by where they live. If participants live in neighborhoods with more bicycle infrastructure, that would account for some of the difference between use (half of the bicycling) and the infrastructure (8% of the network). However, there are no neighborhoods where even 25% of the network has a bike lane, path, or boulevard. Therefore, the difference indicates that bicyclists are probably traveling out of their way to use the bicycle infrastructure.”
Another study, part of the University of British Columbia’s Cycling in Cities initiative, found that the presence of dedicated cycling infrastructure was the top priority factor that would make people more or less likely to ride their bicycle for a utilitarian trip. Epidemiologist Meghan Winters writes:
“Characteristics of bike routes that make people more likely to cycle
• Lead to my destination: 94%
• Connect with each other: 94%
• Have a barrier separating bikes from traffic: 90%
• Have bike symbols marked on the pavement: 71%
• Along major roads: 52%
Bike routes were of critical importance to all groups, although [Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition] members were more likely to cycle in places where bike routes were not present… Participants defined a safe route as a place that has a physical barrier
separating them from traffic, is away from parked cars, is on a street with low traffic volume and away from large
rucks and buses. Additionally many participants placed a high value on the aesthetics of the route.”