Sunday, March 2, 2014

Pondering Nature vs Nurture and Infrastructure

The question I'm pondering is, "Does car-centric infrastructure drive suburban development patterns and car-centric behavior, or is it the nature of people that drives the shape and design of the infrastructure?"  I'm torn on this one.  I see highway and road design influencing behavior, but also see friends and co-workers making life choices that force car centric living (and the associated infrastructure to support it).  At the end of the day, I'm not sure it's cut and dry.

This past week I was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for a business trip.  Prior to the trip I didn't know anything about the city and had even forgotten that it was the state capitol.   I like to get a feel for the cities I'm visiting with a feet on the streets interview of sorts.  Walking around after a day of hokey meetings is also a great way to clear one's head and get the blood flowing.

In case you didn't get the hint from the horrible design.  Walkers unwelcome here.
First mistake, letting my suburban co-workers choose the hotel.  I don't think we could have been more poorly located for an after work walk.  A total cluster fuck of highways with high speed access roads.  Unconnected mall parking lots and piles of icy snow such that I had to walk in the travel lane.  There were occasionally crosswalk buttons and curb cuts, but the curb cuts were mysteriously unconnected to any sidewalks.  The one crosswalk button (no marked crosswalk) I tried to use at a T-shaped intersection, sent turning traffic right at me.  At this intersection of suck there was an apartment complex across from the shopping mall - an obvious pedestrian connection point.  I spent a good hour cursing the PA DOT and the absolute lack of any Complete Streets consideration.  CT DOT is a shining star of progressive thought if the shit I found in Harrisburg is representative.  If anyone wanted to walk or bicycle in this area of Harrisburg, they would be doing so at their peril.

The question is, "Did the road design only account for cars because the DOT only knows how to make highways, or did the mess of highways and shopping malls come from the development patterns that had to be created to support the people doing the driving and shopping?"  In comparison, the Buckland mall in Manchester, CT has a network of sidewalks and walking paths.  It's not my favorite place to walk or bike, but not entirely neglected.  You can walk from the nearby apartment complexes to the mall.  At no point do you see a "No Walking" sign like this gem in Harrisburg.

Just when all hope was lost, I found this snowy trail network.
On a more positive note, I did stumble across a greenway path, the Capital Area Greenbelt, that was a welcome respite from the mess.  Where the greenway crossed the highway access road, the only way to safely cross was to "step lively" as again there wasn't a crosswalk.

The following evening I abandoned any hope of a relaxing walk nearby and headed downtown by car.  Downtown Harrisburg is entirely walkable, and appeared to be reasonably bikeable too.  There is a gridded street pattern and clear sidewalks.  The riverfront had a dedicated pedestrian bridge crossing that was very nice.  The housing stock in and around downtown was beautiful but appeared to be under utilized.  Lots of For Sale signs and dark windows in the town homes.  I didn't pick the best evening to observe the vibrancy of a city being that it was 5F and blustery, but it looked even quieter than Hartford.  I ducked into the old YMCA building and took a tour of the building, that still had dormitory housing - a rarity among modern day Y's.  There was amazing tile work in the swimming pool.  This sort of thing just doesn't exist in the burbs.

The beautiful pool at the Harrisburg YMCA.
During the work meetings I asked folks where they lived relative to the plant.  It seemed that no one thought the lengthy car commutes of their suburban and exurban home choices were any issue at all.  No one that I met at the plant, which itself was placed in a rural industrial park, lived in Harrisburg.  This leads me to give the nature argument some weight.  When people choose to live a car drive away from work, shopping, and recreation, what option is there but to design infrastructure that primarily deals with car traffic?

Your thoughts loyal BBB readership?  Nature, nurture, or both?

A multi-use bridge, car free, across the river.
Majestic capital building in Harrisburg.
Some naked folks freezing their bits off.  Clearly in pain.
A reminder - there is a Traffic Skills 101 course scheduled for Sunday, March 30th.  You can register now online.


Justin said...

I love "intersection of suck." I remember going to Harrisburg as a kid (I grew up in PA) and remembering it as pretty depressing. I imagine most folks think of Hartford and Harrisburg as capital cities on very much the same page.

The nature/nurture question with suburbs is a good one. I wonder about it a lot too and am also torn. Even from the very beginning of modern, middle-class suburbs in Britain (subject of my grad work it turns out) it can be hard to see which force is the driving one. I mostly come down on the supply-side--suburban housing and roads is what is being built and in many places its cheap and there is still plenty of people willing to live in such areas. I think the case for supply-side explanations are stronger when combined with looking at the history of redlining and urban white flight, etc.

I think the trend we really need to come to grips with and start thinking about (not in Hartford but we'll get there some day, in 50 years I'm guessing...) is that the suburbs are getting poorer in a lot of places as the cities become more and more desirable and expensive. Sure some folks who grew up in cities are trying to escape and get out to the suburbs, but many working class people are going to have not much choice but to get out there. If this is the case then the question you and I worry about of whether its choice or not suggests that a new question has to come to the fore--how do we retrofit and improve suburbs so that the folks living there now and in the future can make a decent life in them? Better transport, bisecting cul de sacs, etc. I'll stop there because I've already written too much. Nice post.

dario said...

Dear Tony and Justin,

The nature vs. nurture question is a bit of what once upon a time some would have called a dialectical relationship. If nature is mainly responsible then we cannot ostensibly change it, unless an ecological disaster constrains us to behave otherwise, that is, necessity compels us to change who we are fundamentally (our nature). So, the reason for the unsustainable infrastructure and lives we lead must have to do (I think) primarily with nurture. We created it. By falling on supply-side explanations, Justin is also supporting the nurture argument, I believe, and I have to agree with him. Just because most of us live like sheep and follow others over the cliff doesn't mean that such behavior is natural. Ingrained, yes. Natural, no. However, let's assume for the moment that we are naturally "hardwired" to live the car-centric lives that we lead (we like speed, the illusion of freedom that driving gives us, like in car commercials, we can access all of those things in suburbs that people find desirable), we would still have to change the transportation infrastructure because it is not currently sustainable. So, necessity will always impose itself. Timeline? Don't underestimate our ability to adopt radically different practices in a short span of time. In responding to my response to Brendan's post (Feb. 27, 2014), Justin asks how do you effect cultural change in less than 20 years. My first thought is that 20 years isn't all that long but in any case a lot can be done even with the simple measures, Justin, you mention (whether they are the right ones or not is another question).

justin said...

Yeah totally, my supply side focus is definitely an argument from nurture.

I guess 20 years is a long time to wait because I want people to be able to use their bicycles, wheel chairs, and their own two feet more safely and conveniently in our cities today, or at the latest next year.

I should say that when I say bike lane I also mean separated lane infrastructure with wide berths from door zones--lanes that, with increased driver awareness and slower speeds, people from 8 to 80 years old would feel comfortable using without having to earn the red badge of vehicularist courage. :)

I'm curious if you see a role for such infrastructure D -- it seems like maybe no? I'm curious what you're positive vision for new infrastructural changes would look like?

thanks, justin

dario said...

Dear Justin,

I don't have a vision, at least not with a capital V, but I think that important developments in the infrastructure require at least a two prong approach: education of youth cyclists and, where appropriate, actual bike-lane building. Tony C. has written on this blog about the importance of teaching a traffic skills 101-like course in schools. That's a huge start. Bike lanes, etc ... make eminent sense on certain roadways where there will likely be heavy traffic (cars and bikes). Figure out cyclists "desire lines" in urban areas and maybe put them in there. Bike lanes are less cost-effective on other roadways, depending on traffic, etc... where it is just smarter to "share the road". I'm not an urban planner, just a commuting and recreational cyclist, so I don't pretend to have any particular expertise. Look on line at the ideas of Hans Monderman about traffic engineering. Alright, he was Dutch and lived in a country that has a mass cycling country. But I would seriously like to see some discussion about adapting some of his ideas to some of the areas around here. In my previous comment, I mentioned that car drivers should defer to cyclists who should defer to pedestrians, I want to add that such simple, clear rules of responsibility and accountability and norms of fairness in road use would be helpful. We always complain about the drivers who cut us off or put us in harm's way. But how many car drivers actually and graciously give us the right of way even when maybe they have it? Those folks "get it". Sorry for the long answer.

Chris said...

" I see highway and road design influencing behavior, but also see friends and co-workers making life choices that force car centric living (and the associated infrastructure to support it). At the end of the day, I'm not sure it's cut and dry. "

A little of both, but the main driver is the cost of driving is hugely subsidized in the US, so it makes traveling by car relatively cheep. Now this is changing as the end of cheap oil is upon us. Mass transit ridership has been on a steady increase, while car miles has been steadily falling.

The end of the inefficient car dependent suburbia started in 2000 and it will be slow and painful decline for many.

Justin said...

Dario, that Dutch guy is cool and I want to actually look him...thanks for the tip. I like his ideas and I'm totally with you that quiet streets don't need bike lanes. But I really do think that the trend towards bigger, better, separated bike lanes in the US is a great one. Perfect? Definitely not. But right hooks are prevalent as heck right now in CT and elsewhere--might as well put in some good infrastructure that helps in other ways. I'd love to see Hartford be one of these cities in 5 years:

Chris, unfortunately I think that burden of higher oil costs is going to be paid by poor people who can't afford to live anywhere but the suburbs--this isn't the trend in hartford yet...but a lot of cities it is. One more reason to get our affordable housing policies on lockdown now before its too late.