The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


Why We Need to Slow the Cars

Accident scene at State and Grand.  Hope she's OK.

It happens every day. An innocent person is crossing the street at a corner when suddenly, a car comes barrelling towards her and kills her in an instant. The driver wasn’t drunk or even texting, so we treat these scenarios as “accidents.” We shake our heads and say, “There was no way to prevent this tragedy.”

Well I call bullshit.

Cars are the most dangerous thing most Americans encounter on a daily basis, and our streets and cities are designed to let this happen. The best way to make our cities and towns safer is to get cars driving slower. I have no problem with people driving 70 mph on the highway–that’s a system intended to move vehicles quickly from one point to another, and pedestrians and bikes are not present in that system. What I do have a problem with is cars driving 40 mph through a neighborhood where children are playing, people are biking home from work or walking to the store. Although we’d be safest without them at all, cars can coexist with bike and pedestrians in an urban environment. But only if the cars are slowed considerably. Continue reading

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Pedestrian Right of Way

Nearly every day in this country, pedestrians are killed by cars. I’m not just talking about drunk drivers. I’m talking about your mom or your little brother walking across the street on their way home when suddenly a car barreling down a residential neighborhood at 40 mph because he needs to get to the grocery store right now, strikes and kills them instantly. When we talk about crosswalks and lower speed limits and wider sidewalks, we are talking about life and death. If you want to hear a truly tragic story of a young mother and child recently killed while crossing the street on their way home from the library, listen to this Strong Towns podcast episode.

I want to briefly demonstrate for you the absolute carelessness of the majority of drivers in an every day situation, through a quick video. Now thankfully, I didn’t die doing this.

In this video, you’ll see me walking up to a crosswalk, which is clearly marked with signs on both sides of the street and white painted lines in the road. Then you’ll see how dozens of cars (and a city bus!) completely disregard my presence and my right of way. I’m posting the Wisconsin law regarding pedestrian right of way below (which is very similar to most state laws) so you can understand exactly how these drivers are breaking it. In summary, legally, cars must yield to pedestrians or wheelchair users who are in a crosswalk, and even to pedestrians who are crossing in a place where a crosswalk would theoretically be, if the city had bothered to paint it (i.e. any intersection). You can scroll down past the legalease if you want to just watch the video.


(10) “Crosswalk” means either of the following, except where signs have been erected by local authorities indicating no crossing:

(a) Marked crosswalk. Any portion of a highway clearly indicated for pedestrian crossing by signs, lines or other markings on the surface; or

(b) Unmarked crosswalk. In the absence of signs, lines or markings, that part of a roadway, at an intersection, which is included within the transverse lines which would be formed on such roadway by connecting the corresponding lateral lines of the sidewalks on opposite sides of such roadway […]

346.23: Crossing controlled intersection or crosswalk.

(1) At an intersection or crosswalk where traffic is controlled by traffic control signals or by a traffic officer, the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian, or to a person who is riding a bicycle or electric personal assistive mobility device in a manner which is consistent with the safe use of the crosswalk by pedestrians, who has started to cross the highway on a green or “Walk” signal and in all other cases pedestrians, bicyclists, and riders of electric personal assistive mobility devices shall yield the right-of-way to vehicles lawfully proceeding directly ahead on a green signal.  No operator of a vehicle proceeding ahead on a green signal may begin a turn at a controlled intersection or crosswalk when a pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device crossing in the crosswalk on a green or “Walk” signal would be endangered or interfered with in any way.

346.24: Crossing at uncontrolled intersection or crosswalk.

(1) At an intersection or crosswalk where traffic is not controlled by traffic control signals or by a traffic officer, the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian, or to a person riding a bicycle or electric personal assistive mobility device in a manner which is consistent with the safe use of the crosswalk by pedestrians, who is crossing the highway within a marked or unmarked crosswalk.

In the video (which I filmed on New Years Day), I walk a few feet into the crosswalk and wait patiently as car after car blows past me. Eventually, I get fed up with waiting and start to walk into the middle of the road, where the first lane of traffic is persuaded to stop. Then finally I keep walking into the second lane where cars just barely hit the brakes before entering the crosswalk and hitting me. I actually put my up, motioning the drivers to stop (although you can’t see that since I am filming from my perspective).

Forgive the expletives (or put the video on mute, the sound is not really necessary), but when I have to risk my life just walking home every day, I get pretty angry about it.

That is the state of pedestrian safety today. And this video is taken at a designated crosswalk! In spaces without signage or painted lines in the road, the cars blow by continuously in an even more dangerous manner. Pedestrian safety is not just the battle cry of angry hippies. It is a necessary component of all city planning and road design. It is the difference between life and death for your child walking home from school, your friend riding her wheelchair, your father taking his dog for a walk, your grandpa on his way to church and you, wherever you choose to go that does not involve a car.

So please, if you’re a driver, always stop for pedestrians. And if you’re a pedestrian, know that you have an absolute right to be where you are. It’s only by continuing to declare our presence and the value of our lives that we can move into a future of greater safety for everyone.


The Car Conundrum


I’ve never owned a car in my life. For the first time though, I have actually started to consider it as an option. Part of me is so committed to the car-free movement that I can’t imagine letting go of my stance, but part of me wonders about the practicality of car ownership in certain regards.

I didn’t have a car as a teenager (my parents were kind enough to let me use theirs if I needed it) or during my college years so I have been holding off on this moment for a long time, not wanting to make that big purchase or shift my lifestyle in such a drastic manner. Previously I convinced myself I didn’t want the headache of constantly hunting for a parking spot, and I didn’t want to have to think about the price of gas or allocating part of my paycheck toward car insurance. But now I’m mulling over some other factors in my mind. So, let me walk you through the line of reasoning that began to point me in the direction of car ownership. Then I’ll reveal whether I ultimately decided to go for it or not.

First, I’ll lay the scene: I live in an apartment close to several bus lines in downtown Milwaukee, a mid-size city with adequate, but not great, public transit. I take the bus to work every day. I also take the bus to various activities around town, but a lot of what I do to get places is walk. I walk to my volunteer shift at the homeless shelter nearby. I walk to the grocery store every week. I walk to the commercial strip a few blocks away for food and drinks. I walk because I enjoy it. I also walk because the exercise is beneficial, because I get to experience the city in a personal way and because walking is free.

I like this lifestyle, and so far, my schedule can afford the extra time it takes me to get places in this manner. However, there are a few factors that have been weighing on me and making me rethink my decision to own a car.

Here are the factors that are making me reconsider:

  1. Winter is fast approaching and suddenly my pleasant strolls through downtown Milwaukee look more like bundling in five layers and hunching my body against the freezing wind while I dodge ice patches. Standing at an uncovered, unheated bus stop for several minutes each day looks equally unappealing. The idea of being able to cruise toward my destination in a warm pod sounds pretty darn nice right now.
  2. As a young woman, I have had various well-intentioned people tell me it is unsafe to be out walking or waiting for the bus by myself after dark. These people want me to get a car. I think I would feel safer traveling by car instead of walking.
  3. My back hurts from carrying bags of groceries. On the one hand, having a grocery store within walking distance is an incredible blessing. On the other hand, walking home from the grocery store with bags full of food is one of my least favorite activities. I have to plan my purchases based on what weighs the least and stagger my heavier purchases in multiple trips. It’s a pain.
  4. A car might not actually be that much more expensive than my current modes of transportation. I get by on a mix of bus trips, walks and Lyft rides. My unlimited bus pass costs $64 a month and my Lyft rides (which amount to maybe 2 or 3 a week when I don’t feel like taking the bus or don’t have the time to do so for whatever reason) add up to around $80-100 a month. Surely the price of gas, insurance and even a car loan or lease would be around that, right? Especially if I split those costs with my boyfriend, who is also carless.

Modes of transport venn diagram

Well, I weighed all these significant factors. I even went back to that Venn diagram I concocted a few months back that details the advantages and disadvantages of biking, walking, driving and taking public transit. But in the end, I still came down solidly on the side of my current lifestyle, and I decided not to purchase a car at this point. Let me address each of the above issues and tell you why it still wasn’t enough to convince me to buy a car:

  1. To account for the cold factor, I had to think about my morning routine in the winter. Right now, a few minutes before I’m getting ready to leave for work, I’ll start checking the Milwaukee County Transit System “Real Time” website, and when I see that my bus is arriving in 6 or 7 minutes, I head out to the stop, wait a minute or two for my bus, then hop on it. Total time out in the cold: 6 or 7 minutes, and 5 of that is at a brisk walking pace. If I had a car, my routine would look more like this: Trudge out to my car, turn it on, start scraping snow and ice off it, start defrosting the windows, jump inside and begin driving to work. Unless I had a really top-notch heating system, I suspect it would take a solid 10 minutes or so for the car to heat up in the cold months of a Midwestern winter. Thus, my total time in the cold is around 10-15 minutes, depending on how far I had to walk to reach my car. So the verdict is: on a normal day, a car is actually the less warm option. Of course, in circumstances where I am taking the bus somewhere different and have to, say, wait for a transfer, or walk several extra blocks to a particular location because it is farther off the bus route, then the car is a warmer option. But on average, I’m not better off in a car than in a bus when it comes to weather.
  2. Now, to the question of safety. Once in a car, I am certainly safer than I would be walking outside alone. However, if I owned a car, I would still have to walk outside to and from that car multiple times a day because my apartment doesn’t have a parking lot. In my dense neighborhood, it’s not uncommon for residents to have to park several blocks away from their apartments. So, under my current circumstances, a car would not completely eliminate my time outside alone. Furthermore, in a way it creates even more of a risk for me. Currently, someone might see me as a small female, and therefore a great target for a robbery. However, if I had a car, that someone would see not only my physical features, but also my automobile asset, making me an even more desirable target. On the other end of my trips, I might be able to park closer to my destination and keep myself a little safer, but I’m still going to have to park in my neighborhood and walk home at some point. The bottom line is, I’m street smart and I do the best I can. If someone wants to rob me, then my having a car is unlikely to stop them, and may actually make them more interested in targeting me so they could get my car too.
  3. Addressing the third factor of carrying heavy groceries is not so easy. Carrying groceries is down right pain, and it would definitely go away if I had a car (for the most part). That being said, if this was such a bother to me, I could shell out $25 for one of those collapsible shopping carts and save myself thousands on a car. Case closed.
  4. Here’s the clincher: Price. Supposing I did get a car, and even supposing that I shared all related costs (loan payments, insurance and gas) with my significant other, I ultimately conclude that it’s still more expensive to make that investment. First, car loans are a rip-off. Second, having a car would not completely eliminate my need to purchase bus tickets or Lyft rides. No doubt, I would be taking the bus sometimes if my boyfriend needed the car, or taking a Lyft if I was planning on drinking that night. So, sure I might only spend a third or a quarter the amount of money on those that I currently spend, but the cost would still remain. Finally, and this is one of the most important hidden costs to consider, I have to factor in parking tickets. Milwaukee is notorious for its vicious parking cops. They will ticket you anywhere at any time for any infringement possible. So, even though parking is technically free near my apartment and by my office, I’d undoubtedly be swallowing the cost of a few parking tickets, or at least plugging parking meters, if I owned a car.

Finally, there’s the intangible deterrent to car ownership: stress. I like to be able to roll up to my destination and walk right in without having to factor in the unknown of hunting for a parking spot, much less paying for one. I don’t want to have to worry about whether my car door will be frozen shut on a -5 degree day, or whether it will start at all. I certainly don’t want the added stress of factoring in all these additional costs each month. In the end, this was a straightforward decision for me.

One important note: You’ll recognize that there are a few key elements that make my car-free lifestyle doable. One is the Real Time bus website. If your city doesn’t have this, you’re far more inconvenienced when it comes to taking the bus, and you could spend countless extra minutes at a stop if the bus is running late or you’re unfamiliar with the schedule. Another significant element is the availability of Lyft (or Uber, if that’s your thing). For those unfamiliar, Lyft and Uber are phone apps that allow you to request a ride from any number of certified, background-checked and highly-rated drivers in your area at pretty much any time, for a price that is often lower than cab fare. Lyft is pretty big in Milwaukee, which means that if I ever miss a bus, or feel unsafe taking a bus, or don’t have the option of a bus because it doesn’t go where I need to go, Lyft is there for me. If that was not the case, and I had to rely on rides from friends or cab rides or the bus alone, I’d be much more unwilling to undertake this car-free lifestyle. Finally, probably the single biggest factor that makes living without a car possible is my location. My apartment is close to four different bus lines, including one that takes me directly to my office in about 20 minutes. I have grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, and even hardware stores within walking distance of my house, so I never have to hop on a half-hour bus trip just to get toilet paper.

Geography is often the number one argument I hear from people defending their need to own a car. In one sense, I buy it. If your job is in a factory 10 miles south of town, surrounded by cornfields, and then you work another job right after your shift in a bar 20 miles north of that, the bus is probably not going to cut it. If you live in a suburban development that’s 25 miles from the downtown where you work and 3 miles from anything besides other houses, you’re going to feel like you need a car. My response to that is 1) jobs and living arrangements are somewhat based on choice, and 2) I know people who manage all that and still use public transit. And they don’t only exist in New York City.

I put this train of thought out there in the hopes that you’ll think through your own reasons for owning a car, besides just force of habit. Really walk through the pros and cons and the key arguments before you fritter away your time and money in an automobile.

Have you ever made the jump from owning a car to not owning a car, or vice versa? What influenced your decision?


The Way You Move

Modes of transport venn diagram

How do our modes of transportation effect the way we experience our cities? I put together this little chart looking at the different factors we usually consider when traveling by car vs. bike vs. foot vs. bus or train. (Let me know if you think I left anything off or if you disagree with any of the points.)

It helps to see overlaps in the concerns of transportation users because we can utilize these commonalities to share ideas and build power. For instance, a significant consideration for bikers and walkers, which does not matter much to drivers or public transit riders, is the safety of their route. That’s “safety” as in bike lanes and sidewalks, not criminal presence. When you’re in a car, you rule the road, but when you’re using one of the other forms of transit that our cities and towns have so frequently declined to prioritize, you have to think about how safe your route is before you head out. Some routes are so treacherous as to prohibit a person from using a bike or their feet to travel there. So, when I understand that safety matters for both bikers and walkers, I start envisioning sidewalks and paths built alongside one another that protect everyone who uses them. Then, as projects are proposed to create bike lanes and wider sidewalks, I know who would benefit from them and whose opinions should be present in decision making.

Similarly, knowing that a big concern for drivers is the availability of parking spaces and that a big concern for bikers is the availability of secure locking locations, I begin to wonder whether an increase in the latter could help increase the former too; by alleviating an obstacle that may prevent people from biking, we can encourage biking over driving, and leave more parking spots open for people who truly have no other option than to use a car. Besides, bikes take up far less space than cars, so it would be relatively simple to designate a small plot of land for a shed that could then hold dozens of bikes.

Even the weather, which seems to be a largely immoveable force, can be mediated for public transit users with heated and/or covered waiting areas. This also creates an alternative for walkers who, instead of deciding to drive on a day in which rain is forecasted, can continue walking to work as usual, but have the option of ducking into a shelter and taking the bus if it suddenly starts to rain.

What I’m getting at here is that understanding the concerns of different transport users does not just help us to work for their individual and overlapping benefits, it also helps us to encourage their participation in new modes of transit. Once we determine which factors turn people away from, say, taking the bus to work instead of driving, we can work to mitigate those factors by creating more direct bus routes or building a more affordable pricing structure for bus passes. Then, with the right research and packaging, we would hope to induce further public transport use. Of course there are dozens of steps involved in this process, but it’s an example of how an awareness of transportation needs and concerns can advise our development and use of transportation infrastructure. Consider this chart a jumping off point to take a look at the transportation needs and concerns in your own community.

As a final word, transit gets a fair amount of play in this space, but many urbanist blogs focus far more on the tough and vital issues that are related to this integral element of our cities. If this transportation post piqued your interest, consider it your invitation to explore those blogs further. Check out Streets.MN and Streetsblog for starters.

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Psychology of Place

Who built the first electric billboard in Times Square?

Who built the first electric billboard in Times Square?

On my way out of Houston yesterday morning my uncle was kind enough to hand me a copy of the Sunday New York Times that had shown up on his doorstep. (It’s too liberal for his taste anyway.) After a couple contented hours poring over the paper on the plane, I came across a short article on the back of the Sunday Review section about the psychology of place.

In “Where We Are Shapes Who We Are,” Adam Alter describes a series of studies that illustrate how people act a certain way based on their surroundings. In a packed dormitory, students were less likely to pass on letters that ended up in their mailboxes by mistake (as compared with students in a smaller apartment). In a parking lot full of litter, shoppers were more willing to drop flyers placed on their car windshields onto the ground (as compared with shoppers in a clean parking lot).

Alter’s article concludes, “It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us — that good people behave well, bad people behave badly, and those tendencies reside within us. But the growing evidence suggests that, on some level, who we are — litterbug or good citizen, for example — changes from moment to moment, depending on where we happen to be. These environmental cues can shape and reshape us as quickly as we walk from one part of the city to another.”

Last Friday, I talked about some of the trends I noticed in the city of Houston— things like strip malls, car culture and inadequate sidewalks. To be quite honest, these factors (plus the oppressive heat) make Houston a place I’d never want to live. I’m sure the city has its benefits for certain people, but when I compare it to more walkable, architecturally diverse cities like Seattle or Minneapolis, I wonder how they turned out so different. Continue reading


A Week in Houston

A classic plate of beef brisket at Houston's Goode Company Barbeque.

A classic plate of beef brisket at Houston’s Goode Company Barbeque.

It’s been a while since I visited a completely new city—much less spent a week there—so I particularly enjoyed the chance to help my aunt, uncle and cousins move to Houston, Texas this past week. Due to the nature of this trip, I can’t pretend that I’m about to give a thorough or comprehensive portrayal of Houston. We spent the first half of the week in a La Quinta hotel with three cats, three kids (all under 4) and the goal of moving them and their parents into a new house by Thursday. It’s been a little haphazard and a lot of time spent at the hotel pool. Nonetheless, I was able to experience many aspects of the city and what follows are a handful of observations I’ve collected.

  1. Low density. Houston is definitely a sprawling metropolis where the city limits stretch for miles. Buildings are low and spread out. After a week in the city, I’m still unsure where the downtown is, or whether Houston even has a traditional downtown.
  2. No zoning codes. Houston is mostly flat, but after driving or walking several blocks you’ll suddenly come across a twelve-story office building. Noticing this, I mused that perhaps Houston didn’t have many zoning laws, to which my native Houston friend replied, “Actually we have zero.” It makes the place look a bit random but it also means many opportunities to try new types of development and build whatever is needed for a particular time and place.
  3. Car city. Houston has completely embraced the car culture, widening its highways to six lanes in some places and utilizing complex interchanges that at times confused me as a driver new to the city. Some neighborhood streets seem not to have adjusted to this car-centric attitude, but that just means that drivers come barreling down the narrower streets at alarming speeds. I am told the bus system in Houston is passable, but I certainly wouldn’t count on biking or walking anywhere—what with the heat and the domination of automobiles. Continue reading