Density without walkability

Michael Lewyn's picture

I had heard of "dense sprawl" and "density without walkability" in the past, but before spending a week in Jerusalem last month, I had never really lived through these problems.

My parents (who I was staying with) rented a unit in a high-rise condo complex called Holyland Tower.  Although Holyland Tower was the tallest building in the area, there were numerous mid-rise buildings, and lots of two-and three-story apartment and condo buildings.  While walking through the idea, I saw nothing resembling a single-family home.  In sum, this area was a pretty dense neighborhood in a pretty dense city (Jerusalem's overall density is roughly comparable to that of the city of San Francisco).

But although the density supported walking, the design did not.  To find the area, go to Google Maps ( and go to a street called Avraham Perrera.  You will note that the street is in a section of looped streets that make the typical American cul-de-sac seem like a masterpiece of clarity.  As a result, very little of interest is within walking distance, and what is within walking distance is hard to find unless you know the area really, really, really well.

For example, the nearest restaurant is less than ¼ of a mile away as the crow flies, but is about two miles away in reality.  To get there, you have to go on five separate streets.  (To try it yourself, go to Google Maps and ask for directions from Avraham Perrera to 5 Hose San Martin).

Because the succession of street loops is so confusing, even places that are actually not very far are hard to find.  For example, after I was in Jerusalem for a week I discovered that there was in fact a small supermarket a ten or fifteen minute walk away, but because of the messy street design (and admittedly, the rough terrain as well) we were unaware of its existence.  By contrast, in a neighborhood with enough of a grid to distinguish commercial from residential streets, commercial destinations are easy to find.   Admittedly, grids are more difficult on hilly terrain such as that of Jerusalem.  But some American neighborhoods manage to combine walkability and hilly terrain- for example, most of San Francisco, as well as Philadelphia's Manayunk.

So what my Jerusalem neighborhood taught me was that with sufficiently poor street design, even a fairly compact neighborhood may be more confusing to navigate, and separate uses more aggressively, than some sprawling suburbs. 

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Holyland Complex

This is quite interesting to hear Michael, given that the approvals for the Holyland Complex were at the centre of a quite serious corruption scandal (see links below). Critics who were opposing proposed reforms to Israeli's land use planning system felt the government's proposals would diminish the role of public participation and pointed to the Holyland scandal as a specific example of what the Israeli public could expect to see more of if the reforms were to go through.

To hear from you that the complex is also so poorly designed that it doesn't take advantage of its considerable density and allow its residents to easily use non-automotive forms of travel is just further evidence of how badly things can go wrong when the planning process becomes politically corrupted.,7340,L-3873561,00.html

Walkability and public norms in Jerusalem

As a resident of Jerusalem since 1995, and of its less-walkable peripheral areas since 1998, I would point out that Holyland Park's poor design probably has less to do with "political corruption of the planning process" than with public awareness and public norms during the period in which it was planned.
Holyland Park was conceived -- and is still being marketed ( -- as the ultimate luxury complex, where you can "shut yourself off from the hustle and bustle of every day life" in your "own private neighborhood."
Jerusalemites were outraged at Holyland's injury to the Jerusalem skyline, but otherwise it never would have occurred to anyone that there was anything wrong with the project.
I take up the issue of walkability and public norms in Jerusalem here:
-- my thanks to Michael Lewyn for the inspiration ...


Michael Lewyn's picture

not just one complex

To be fair, I don't think the Holyland complex is uniquely at fault as far as bad design. I think anything built on that street would be unwalkable because the street (and to an only slightly lesser extent, neighboring streets) was not organized with walkability in mind. (Given the difficulties some cabbies had, I don't think the street works well for cars either!)

neighbourhood design in Israel

Point taken, although the location's inaccessibility may be further reason why a complex of this scale should not have been sited there.

When I stayed with my wife's family a couple of times in the Gush Dan (Tel Aviv) region, I was very impressed with the layout and design of the Kiryat Ben Gurion neighbourhood in suburban Holon (try searching for it in Google Maps). From what I understand, it was constructed in the early 1980's and it immediately struck me that a lot of thought had gone into its design. There are an immense number of apartment and condominium towers where I live in Toronto, but I can't think of any apartment tower neighbourhood here that is as friendly to pedestrians. From the flat we stayed at in Holon, we could walk a very short distance to shopping, restaurants, parks, public transit (into central Tel Aviv) and various other community amenities. In addition to accomodating sidewalks along the roadways with very safe-feeling crosswalks, the neighbourhood also features a separate system of off-road pedestrian paths that are well lit and provide shortcuts through the larger apartment blocks.


Michael, isn't Israel about the size of one end of New Jersey, and it has 7 million people? And it tries to be self sufficient in food?

But in any case I am in the habit of asking people from the US who advocate "walkable" communities, what is wrong with an apartment near a Mall? What is the difference between a Mall and the "ideal" "walkable community"? The fact that it is covered and air conditioned? I actually know people who live this way, and regard it as a well-kept secret.

Michael Lewyn's picture

apartments and malls- depends on the design

In principle, there's nothing wrong with an apartment near a mall, and I'm all for them.

But if you have to cross an eight-lane road with 50 mph traffic to get to the mall, and then have to walk through a gigantic parking lot, that's not quite an ideal situation (though still better than the quite common situation where there are no apartments anywhere near the mall).

To put it another way- walkability requires density, diversity (of land uses) and design. The apartment near the mall will usually be pretty good on diversity and density, but sometimes fails on design.

PS To all of you- I am quite flattered by the number of comments. There are some posts I expect a lot of feedback on- but I have to admit that this was not one of them!

Developers might be very interested in this concept.

This discussion is very fruitful. I appreciate the points you and Charles make. Maybe developers could embrace this formula?

Malls Versus Grids

Malls conventionally are designed as large superblocks surrounded by wide arterial streets. This design is not pedestrian friendly because 1) the streets have to be very wide to accommodate all the traffic, which makes them less pleasant to walk on and 2) large blocks provide few intersections, so pedestrians often have to go out of their way to find a place to cross.

A grid with small blocks is more pedestrian friendly because 1)because traffic is dispersed on many streets, each street can be relatively narrow, making it a better place to walk and 2)there are frequent intersections where pedestrians can cross. Studies in Portland have shown that small blocks with frequent intersections are the single most important factor encouraging walking.

I think you can design this sort of street grid to have many of the advantages of a mall. Eg, you can close shopping streets to cars, and enclose and air-condition them.

I am sure there are designs for malls that are more or less pedestrian-friendly. You can build apartments across from a mall and make it work for pedestrians with good design, as Michael says.

But a grid generally works better.

Charles Siegel

The "daily exercise" feature

Thanks Charles, that is very enlightening. I think we are really onto something here. The "mall" really does not require a lot of amending and additions to its design, and it would be close to the ideal walkable community.

Of course large masses of people already find the mall highly conducive to their wants, and I think that this is possibly a phenomenon very closely related to the psychological appeal of "walkable" communities. The distances that people walk during a typical visit to the mall, is possibly an unrecognised countervailing input to the excessively sedentary nature of much modern living.

My own elderly mother has regarded a visit to the mall as her "daily exercise" for years.

Malls and Walkable Neighborhoods

I made the standard new-urbanist point about the superior walkability of a connected street system with small blocks over modernist urbanism of superblocks surrounded by wide streets.

Conventional mall design is modernist superblock urbanism. The interior of the mall may be walkable, but the area around it is not, because the wide arterial streets and parking lots tend to cut the mall off from its surroundings.

The Galleria in Milan is an example of how a walkable street system can include shopping areas with the same sort of protection from the weather that you have in a mall.

The pictures at show that the Galleria is covered and protected from the weather.

The picture at shows the entrance to the Galleria (the large arch right of center), and you can see clearly how it fits right into a walkable, pedestrian-friendly area with narrow streets and small blocks.

Contrast this picture of an entrance to the Mall of America: The area around the mall is obviously not walkable.

Charles Siegel

But do commercial imperatives still rule?

Charles, I am intrigued by just how "commercial" the Galleria and the kind of block structure you describe, can consistently be. The whole point of a traditional mall with extensive parking and "corridors" of shops, is maximising exposure of every shop to the flow of foot traffic as well as proximity to car parking.

In the event that the "Galleria" type of structure actually has sufficiently high residential density to make it "commercial", I am sure that similar "residential density" could be combined with the traditional mall so as to secure the best of both worlds. It would merely be a question of interspersing apartments, shops, and carparks without losing the "accessibility" feature of any of them.

Your own example of a supermarket you didn't even know was there, is a similar phenomenon to why developers and retailers do not like "grids" of narrow corridors for the customers to meander through.

I do wonder whether there is a "commercial" future for the "block"-walkable model, especially in long-established urban areas where the cost of land is very high. You can do almost anything on low cost greenfields, of course, as long as there are not urban growth boundaries and so on rendering a large proportion of once-familiar uses of land unviable by pricing them out.

But what are the obstacles to developers offering something that maximises both walkability and auto-friendliness as I suggest? As John Forester says of cyclists, that rather than wish for unique facilities that are fiscally unjustifiable, they should wish for better roads that they can better share with motorists; I think the advocates of walkability should focus on where walkability can be "added" to commercially logical amenities that are commercially logical precisely because of their accessibility by car.

Walkability and Auto-Friendliness

You seem to miss the main point: small blocks with frequent intersections are the key to walkability. If malls don't have that, then they are not the best way to create walkable neighborhoods. You do not even mention this point in your response.

"what are the obstacles to developers offering something that maximises both walkability and auto-friendliness as I suggest?"

Small blocks can also be most auto-friendly, though it depends on what you mean by auto-friendly. It is less stressful to drive smaller streets than on wide arterial streets, though it is a bit slower. Driving on a suburban arterial or on a congested freeway does not seem like a very "friendly" experience to me. On the contrary, it seems nerve-racking.

As John Forester says of cyclists, that rather than wish for unique facilities that are fiscally unjustifiable, they should wish for better roads that they can better share with motorists;

The Netherlands has the best roads that I have ever seen for cyclists sharing with drivers - and they are narrow, slow streets. Check out the pictures in Needless to say, they also have lots of separate bike paths and lanes.

By contrast, have you ever tried to bicycle on a suburban arterial street? It feels suicidal, even if there is a bike lane striped.

"I think the advocates of walkability should focus on where walkability can be "added" to commercially logical amenities that are commercially logical precisely because of their accessibility by car"

You are saying you want planning for cars first, then add in pedestrians if possible. That is an unbalanced, extreme position. With that bias, it is not surprising that you consider suburban malls your model.

"I do wonder whether there is a "commercial" future for the "block"-walkable model, especially in long-established urban areas where the cost of land is very high."

That statement seems to be out of touch with reality. Look at the commercial success of, for example, SoHo in New York, and look at all the successful new urbanist developments.

"Your own example of a supermarket you didn't even know was there"

My example?? I never said any such thing.

To summarize: judging from all your citations in other comments, you do know something about the economic effects of urban growth boundaries, though you are obviously biased toward sprawl.

Judging from this thread, where you support suburban mall development, you know very little (and you care less) about how to design walkable neighborhoods or about the economic success of many that have already been designed by the new urbanists. Here, too, you are obviously biased toward a suburban model that accommodates cars but does not accommodate pedestrians.

This thread belies your frequent claims that you are against urban growth boundaries because of their effect on land costs but are not against other features of smart growth. No one considers this sort of automobile-centered suburban mall to be a form of smart growth.

This automobile-centered model is not only less livable than a walkable model. It is also disastrous environmentally.

Charles Siegel

I like the Dutch and bicycling and walking, but.....

I am not dismissing your model of walkability, I am just suggesting that it is not commercially viable most of the time. I believe that in the examples you give, there is sufficient local clientele living at sufficiently high density, for a number of reasons determined by economic history.

I also cannot see that malls cannot be made accessible both by foot and by automobile, and even with apartments built into the same development, to give the best of both worlds. John Forester is as dedicated to the cause of cycling as it is possible to be, but he is a realist. I suggest that the proponents of "walkability" need to adopt more of a realistic, co-operative approach, rather than an "exclude the car driver to make the world safe for walkers" approach.

Coincidentally, in the latest issue of "Access" Magazine, which I only read yesterday, the first article supports what I am saying. The rate of walking is highest among residents nearby to high density retail/business areas, but those high density retail/business areas exist only because of access by a critical mass of residents beyond "walkable" distances, who come by car.

Believe it or not, when I was a young fellow at uni I cycled everywhere (didn't own a car till I was 27), and did a presentation on "providing for cyclists" "like the Netherlands". Not long after, I discovered John Forester's book "Effective Cycling" and was converted.

The Netherlands is unique. After all, you can cycle accross the whole country in about 2 hours and it is mostly as flat as a pancake. It is also so densely populated that it is very difficult for lower income earners to exist at all, because higher income earners "buy their way out" of lack of space (to park a car, etc). It must be patriotism that keeps so many of them there, but even so, Dutchmen are prominent in immigration statistics all over the world.

I admire them, BTW. Not many 1st world democracies live with government powers of compulsory acquisition - an essential to keep the lid on already-high land prices. I wish advocates of urban growth containment would frankly admit that this is an essential plank of their platform. Of course, the vested interests (who play "Bootleggers" to their "Baptists") might suddenly turn into opponents instead of boosters.......

Focus-Deficit Disorder

Wodehouse, you seem to be incapable of focusing on the issue at hand. Here, the issue is: which is more walkable, a traditional street system with small blocks or modern suburban street design with superblocks surrounded by wide arterial streets.

Rather than discussing this issue, you have gone off on a dozen irrelevant directions. I will give just two examples:

-- You write: "in the latest issue of "Access" Magazine, which I only read yesterday, the first article supports what I am saying. The rate of walking is highest among residents nearby to high density retail/business areas, but those high density retail/business areas exist only because of access by a critical mass of residents beyond "walkable" distances, who come by car."

Totally irrelevant, because it is feasible to accommodate those people who come by car using either a traditional or a suburban street system.

-- Your write: As John Forester says of cyclists, that rather than wish for unique facilities that are fiscally unjustifiable, they should wish for better roads that they can better share with motorists;

Worse than irrelevant, this clearly undermines your point, because a traditional street system accommodates shared use by bikes and cars much better than suburban superblocks and arterials. Have you ever ridden a bike on a suburban arterial street?

When I pointed out that suburban arterials cannot accommodate bicyclists, you replied with an even more irrelevant points about the Netherlands. None of your statements about the Netherlands in this last comment have anything at all to do with whether a traditional street grid or suburban arterials are better for shared use by bikes and cars. Based on my experience bicycling in California (not in the Netherlands) I can assure you that it is far, far better to share the road with cars on a traditional street grid than on suburban arterials.

You try to give your comments a veneer of respectability by citing sources such as Access Magazine and John Forester, but it doesn't help to know all the sources, if you are citing data from those sources that has nothing to do with the issue being discussed.

Your only point that does address the issue is your claim that developments with traditional street systems are not commercially viable. You have cited no source at all for that claim. I already responded by saying that many New Urbanist projects using traditional street systems have been commercially successful. Let me add that they command a price premium compared with conventional suburban development, clear evidence that many people prefer traditional urban street systems to the 1950s suburban street systems that you advocate.

In many of your comments, you cite long lists of sources. Based on your misuse of sources in this thread, I have to assume that most of the sources you cite in all of your comments are irrelevant to the issues at hand. I repeat: it doesn't help to know all the sources, if you are citing data from those sources that has nothing to do with the issue being discussed.

Charles Siegel

Google Dependence Disorder.

Charles, you implicitly highlight the value of a formal education. Plus, The Google doesn't have a 'wisdom' button.




"Formal education"

I regard a lot of "formal education" these days as ideological brainwashing.

What's wrong with "best of both worlds" co-operation?

Charles, we are arguing past each other.

The more freeways, the better it is for cyclists, because the secondary routes they use will be freer of cars. My own cycling credentials are impeccable, and I respect John Forester as THE guru for cyclists.

The more drivers can access a mall, the more services the mall can provide. I do not accept that just as many drivers will be able to access any given location solely via a traditional small-block street system. Sure, a few more people might be encouraged by the street system, to walk or cycle to the shops, but no way will the critical mass of customers be anywhere near what automobility access can provide.

You really should read the Access article I refer to. The rate of walking is greater even despite the suburban street system, when there is a higher density of "walk trip" destination locations. But this high density is NOT the result of walker customers being enticed, but viable numbers of driving customers.

I would like to know more about the commercially successful New Urbanist systems you refer to. I believe that these are not widely replicable. Saturation of demand will occur quite early, and developers will avoid building any more of them.

In general, the population density that supports a high level of walking, in developed economies, is unique to a few uber-capitalist havens where the international community of movers and shakers agglomerate. Prices are very high. This is a total contrast to the PRE-"developed" walkable community, where everyone walks because they are POOR. When the size of the city and the amount of destinations anyone can access is limited by foot, the property owner class has exploitative powers - Karl Marx was right about this. So was Henry George. The Rich (property owners) get richer because rising incomes merely drive up rents in the small acreage of property in the city, which is inevitably owned by a few. Mobility based around fixed public transport routes does not change this, because the property owning interests can easily capture the adjacent land. Only the floodgates of "auto accessible" development turned investment in property into a genuinely COMPETITIVE game.

What I am honestly trying to advocate as a co-operative solution for "walkability", is the features of walkability you describe being provided AS WELL AS traditional automobility access. Grade separation, perhaps?

I originally meant that the layout of the mall itself was sufficient to replicate narrow streets safe from interaction with automobiles - a large mall is the size of many "small blocks" of streets. High density apartments can easily be part of the mall design. Even plazas could be provided for small apartments to open onto. I think architects would love this challenge, and it would not surprise me at all if this kind of thinking is already motivating many of them.

What I don't understand is why you have to stick so strongly to the point of old fashioned small block street networks. Why can a mall not incorporate in its design, something that includes all the desirable features of the former?

Or here is another idea - have your small block street network, but with a massive "underground" carpark below most of the whole thing, with entrances at the edge of the small block street network where it meets the auto-arterial "rest of the city". Venting the carpark could be done with cunningly concealed openings, perhaps with tall trees planted in the bottom level growing up through the opening.

I say there is a much higher chance of broad commercial adoption of an idea like this that mixes the best of both worlds. The car driving customers (who are the vast majority of potential customers for anything) would actually love it.

Or is "stuff the driver" really the main point?

More Freeways Better For Bikes?????

"The more freeways, the better it is for cyclists, because the secondary routes they use will be freer of cars."

I think everyone can see how out of touch with reality Wodehouse is. How good is it to bicycle in cities that are filled with freeways, such as Detroit, Dallas, or Wodehouse's ideal, Houston? Compare that with cycling in cities that have a traditional grid and fewer freeways, such as Portland.

Of course, this claim about freeways and bikes is totally irrelevant to the current discussion, like many of Wodehouse's remarks. It has nothing at all to do with which is better, a traditional street grid or suburban superblocks and arterials.

But in addition to showing that he cannot stick to the subject, this claim does reveal a lot about his overall thinking.

I am happy to leave it to the reader to judge (as Wodehouse says). I am sure that all the readers think it is futile for me even to try to reason with someone who claims that "the more freeways, the better it is for cyclists."

Charles Siegel


I think everyone can see how out of touch with reality Wodehouse is.

Or he may be in touch with pimpin' auto dependency.



Oh, for goodness sake, who is out of touch with reality?

Charles, having done the amount of cycling I have done, I have no problem with saying that cycling with the purpose of actually getting places, is an absolute nightmare on narrow roads with frequent intersections, with dense living and shopping. How many car doors have you had opened in your face, or children dashing out in front of you, or pedestrians milling over the road bringing you to a halt, or joggers swerving unpredictably and tipping you off? (A friend of mine ended up in the harbour once, bicycle and backpack and all, in this way).

If you are talking about meandering along on a cruiser bicycle as a kind of elitist cultural fulfillment, your comments make sense. But any genuine utilitarian cyclist following this argument will agree with my comments, not yours.

For actually getting places on a bicycle, there is nothing better than a multi lane suburban connector route with wide shoulders, multiple lanes and minimum intersections - especially one from which the bulk of the traffic that used to use it, has been removed by a new freeway.

John Forester is in any case a world leading authority on cycling and you very clearly are not. You really ought to make a bit of time to learn something from his website.

My suggestions regarding urban form are practical approaches that enable walkers and cyclists to get maximum advantage from facilities that economic and commercial realities dictate must provide for "driving", first. For example, John Forester has been arguing for decades now that cyclists should be asking not for cycle lanes and dedicated cycle routes in urban areas (in low density areas and parkland, cycling routes are so easy they are almost a "given") but for wider roads and wider shoulders. Motorists benefit from these things anyway as well as the cyclist. But as Forester points out, cyclists suddenly popping out at intersections from a separated cycle route, or even from a position "in the gutter" rather than a good few feet out from it, are at far greater risk from inattentive motorists than if they were part of the traffic flow in the first place.

I have been a staunch devotee of Forester's "vehicular cycling" riding technique ever since I first obtained his book by international mail order from "Cycl-ology" about 25 years ago. It WORKS, reducing the risks of riding in traffic.

Developers and architects are already working towards commercial and non-utopian solutions to combining walkability and automobility, including along the lines I described. Utopians who dogmatically insist on romantic, nostalgic, car-hindering "solutions" merely make themselves irrelevant to our age.

Habits and Habitats

Beware the one-size-fits-nobody approach.

A 'Vehicular Cyclist' is confident and fast and can hold their own in urban traffic.

Most casual cyclists are wobbly and slow and will have to use pedestrian crossings to get across even a two-way street, let alone multiple lanes.

In one of the most sprawling cities on Earth, Auckland, we have a cycle/pedestrian lane parallel to the Western Highway 16 that runs about 20km out from the CBD. Its success has been duplicated on the Southern Highway 20, still under construction.

Thanks to a little extra vision, the Highway actually is the cyclist's friend here, because we have separate provision.

The route can be joined from byways and residential roads throughout its length and benefits from fewer intersections with arterials and feeders. Stop/start cycling is tiring, it wastes energy that you can feel in aching muscles and sweat. Being able to ride 5km at a stretch with no traffic lights is a big improvement.

Because it follows the long grades and cuttings of the Highway, it is far easier to ride than the traditional roads with their blind crests and steep ascents.

It is this kind of provision which encourages the casual and occasional cyclist to become a regular.

Additionally, during peak hours drivers can observe riders ploughing on by and think on their transport choice and sense of timing.

Pro-cycling does not need to be Anti-car.

Good comment, but Akl is not low density

Its great to see others, including the new comment at the top, who are aware of "vehicular cycling" technique.

By the way, Auckland is of similar density to LA, which is the USA's densest city. Kiwis and Aussies are flattering themselves if they think they have retained any semblance of LOW density living over the last 30 years.

You need to use honest figures that are not distorted by false comparisons between areas inside political boundaries rather than actual "built up" area of a city.

Not Walkable, but Workable

Your thinking is well taken, but I humbly suggest that miss your own point. Housing demand and development consistently trumps inclusive community/social development needs. This is a well known disappointment of planning. I suggest your interest in this subject expand to another line of inquiry by defining the issue without the bellyache. It is getting much too late to portray the failures of capital and time focus more intently than ever on the creative formulas that defeat its ills, if not the cold lack of humanity in which it functions. It isn’t about the “walk”, it is about people (and, I know you know this).

Did you discover density without walkability or a place where something much more interesting and complex might occur given these restraints? Density offers every community the opportunity to build a powerful social context to meet thousands of purposes or unmet needs. As sugggested, I explored several map resources to look around -- less walkable than most, but also very, very workable. I cannot think of a place on the planet where making it work would be more interesting. Is it possible to undo appalling development practices with good planning here? I think it would be, and if not why not?

A Matter of Network Design

Michael’s lesson, that density alone is not a sufficient condition for walkability, deserves attention. The implied solution, however, is neither the only nor the best known practice. A grid is inappropriate for a hilly terrain, as he suggests, and could also be wasteful and risky (as explained in the “Beloved and Abandoned” Planetizen article on Portland) .

In sites such as San Francisco’s, walking up the hill with groceries and age or physical limitations would be a daunting task; bicycling is impossible. Mothers with children in arms or in strollers and wheelchair users would face the climb with apprehension, particularly in bad weather. A solution for better connectivity, and thus walkability, should accommodate ALL users and, ideally, favour walking and biking over driving.

Better connectivity is evident on the same map in the district that includes the Hose San Martin street, a mix of uses and a shopping mall. Most blocks contained within the arterial ring are traversed by foot-streets at frequent intervals. These result in a Fused Grid network of car roads and pedestrian connectors that raise connectivity, and improve livability. With the idea of Fusion in hand, a site-specific network that entices walking can be devised. (See Michael’s Planetizen article “Culs-de-Sac and Grids: A Middle Ground (Or Two, Or Three)”.

Street "Design"?

I discovered that there was in fact a small supermarket a ten or fifteen minute walk away, but because of the messy street design (and admittedly, the rough terrain as well) we were unaware of its existence.

I'd assert they weren't designed, but just happened. The 'market urbanists' will be upset, but what can you do?



Commercial confusion?

" a neighborhood with enough of a grid to distinguish commercial from residential streets, commercial destinations are easy to find."

I would think the opposite. The commercial streets easily distinguish themselves in Jerusalem. I think commercial areas are in fact easier to find in Jerusalem because of terrain, limited (thus well traveled) direct streets, and bottlenecks. These are the areas that tend to attract commercial development since they are at the places where the traffic passes. There's a reason why the mall and stadium near Avraham Perrera are right there in that highly visible valley. They are taking advantage of the ridge chokepoints, high visibility and the convergence of thoroughfares. Sure, the ridge districts have windy hard to access streets, but I don't think their residents see that quality as a disadvantage. Even for those that depend on walking and transit.

In fact, Jerusalem is a wonderful, transit-friendly environment and could be even superb for transit if it continues on its current trajectory of giving transit primacy, especially at chokepoints, convergence nodes and on highly traveled urban streets. You can perhaps even contemplate many potential links that create shortcuts exclusively for transit, as Jarrett Walker suggests in difficult street pattern density. Transit primacy is something that Jerusalem's planners are aware of and, you have to note, are actually implementing more and more, to the chagrin of some auto-oriented citizens.

Levine and Garb; very clever people

I don't know how influential THESE people were on what policies Israel has followed, but this is some of the most well informed analysis of transport and urban form issues that I have ever read (even if I disagree with what they are trying to achieve):

Jonathan Levine and Yaakov Garb (2000): "Evaluating the Promise and Hazards of Congestion Pricing Proposals: an Access Centered Approach"

Michael Lewyn's picture

I'm not a cyclist, but...

it seems to me that one can resolve Wodehouse's claim by looking at where people cycle more: places like Jacksonville (wide, high-speed streets) or more urban places like Toronto?

Cycling in Different Cities

Houston or Portland? Albuquerque or Amsterdam?

Michael, in your experience, how common is bicycling in Jacksonville? I live in Berkeley, where there is a traditional street grid, and bicycling is common here (compared to the average American city). Likewise, bicycling is relatively common in San Francisco, with its traditional street grid and few freeways, despite its hills.

I myself spent seven years, an hour each day, commuting by bicycle on a traditional street grid, and I never had the problems that Wodehouse describes. Needless to say, I rode on the little-used streets. A traditional grid has many parallel streets, so it is easy for bicyclists to avoid the busy streets.

I have spend dozens of hours bicycling on suburban arterials, and I was terrified most of the time. There is lots of high speed traffic cutting across the bike lane to turn into parking lots. It is even worse near freeway off-ramps, because cars coming off the freeway cut across the bike lane without thinking that they are back on a city street with a mix of users. This suburban street pattern with large superblocks gives bicyclists no choice but to ride on the busy arterials; there are no parallel through streets.

Note that Wodehouse also advocates low-density development, which makes it difficult to cycle because distances are much longer.

Maybe Wodehouse doesn't understand what I am saying because strip malls are less common in England than in America. He seems to have experience cycling (decades ago) on rural highways that had wide shoulders and were largely free of development; he is right that this sort of road is good for cycling. But he doesn't realize that, if we build the sprawl that he advocates, those rural highways will turn into American-style strip malls that are ugly, frightening places to bicycle.

The difference in perspective might be a major cause of the disagreement between Wodehouse and the rest of us. Wodehouse lives in England, where there are fairly strict controls on land-use, so he is sensitive to the impact that these controls have on housing costs but is not aware of the problems of sprawl - not even aware that it is dangerous to bicycle in a strip mall. We live in the United States, where there is lots of sprawl, so we are very sensitive to the problems of sprawl but perhaps not sensitive enough to housing costs.

Charles Siegel

Cycling and wider urban policy issues.

Charles, thanks for these most amicably made points. I get your point about a grid system having parallel streets with less traffic. But the same effect applies regardless of the scale - if there is a wider, faster route, car traffic will use it. If there is a freeway, the suburban artery will be clearer of traffic.

I enjoy cycling on the kind of streets you refer to - semi deserted SUBURBAN "grid" streets, even if they are medium density rather than "low" - I thought you were referring to the very high density urban streets where a cyclist almost has to constantly dodge the "sidewalk cafe" coffee tables and waiters with trays.

I think John Forester's advice on "vehicular cycling" technique goes a long way to overcome nervousness about riding on wide arterials with strip malls. You may simply be more of a sightseeing cyclist - where I am coming from, is hardcore utilitarian "ride everywhere" cycling. Heart rate monitor, bicycle computer, Camelback, trying to keep average speed above 25 m.p.h., etc. Asserting myself in traffic - thank you, John Forester. (I am referring to a higher-fitness past, as you guessed. But I am still no slouch, and still ride in the same manner even if not as rapidly).

I assure you I was NOT talking about ".....rural highways that had wide shoulders and were largely free of development.....". I honestly prefer, for utilitarian "get you there" purposes, in DEVELOPED areas, a multi lane arterial with wide shoulders. I vastly prefer riding on such a road, past comparatively widely spaced "entrances" to commercial, retail, and residential properties, rather than past much greater numbers of entrances with far poorer visibility and in a narrower street with far less room to dodge emerging cars (and children, dogs, joggers, what have you). Maintenance (potholes etc) tends to be better on the wider roads too.

When you have very high urban land prices, as in Britain, every property is small and crammed in, compared to the alternatives. This adds up to far more entrances to properties, per mile of road, and also because of the land costs, wider roads or road widening (or even dedicated bike routes) is simply too expensive or involves too much opportunity cost. Shoulders? Forget it.

LOW density tree lined suburbia on a grid pattern would be bliss to cycle in. I can see that the tendency of US style suburban sprawl to "cul de sac" street layouts is counter productive to efficiency of every kind. But believe it or not, Britain has very similar, only with far smaller lots and higher density (due to land costs) in "post-automobile" developments. The difference between the US and Europe is smaller than what is often asserted - "sprawl" is everywhere there is higher incomes. But "sprawl" can vary in density - LA has "dense sprawl", but New York has such LOW density sprawl, it ends up with a lower average density than LA once you have drawn the boundary far enough out from Manhattan.

I would far rather cycle in low density sprawl than high density sprawl, or indeed in high density of any kind.

I really appreciate your last paragraph. But you are not just "not sensitive enough" to the "high housing cost" consequence of urban growth containment, there are numerous other negative consequences too. Six decades of urban growth containment has played a part in Britain's low economic productivity, low social mobility, increasing inequality, entrenched cross-generational welfare dependence, high social exclusion, low and unequal health outcomes, old and dilapidated housing which is unevenly shared, low floor space per person, low green space and flora per person (the last 3 are contributors to poor health outcomes), high "social housing" burdens, and high entrenched unemployment, especially outside London (capital cities have taxpayer revenue spent locally, and international capital flows also pass through London's economy).

If you have to have urban growth containment, the Dutch show how to do it without having so many negative consequences - compulsory acquisition of land for new development, and the elimination of "planning gain" in property values. "Planning gain" in new development, feeds into the value of ALL urban property. Handing a few land owners every year, a few hundred or even a few thousand percent "planning gain", leads to median multiples (calculated from the entire housing stock) of 6, 7, 8, 9, and higher - instead of around 3. Think about this. The losers under each scenario are: a few might-have-been-lucky-once land owners - OR, every young person who does yet not own property. Why are we so morally "at sea" over this? I refer to the British particularly, but every city and country that has enacted urban growth constraints bears this moral responsibility that needs to be faced up to.

Inequality: UK vs USA

"Six decades of urban growth containment has played a part in Britain's ... low social mobility, increasing inequality, ... low and unequal health outcomes"

I wonder if you know that, despite being the world leader in urban sprawl, the USA has lower social mobility, greater inequality, and worse health outcomes than the UK and the other developed nations. It is hard to believe, because we tend to think of the UK as a rigid class society and the USA as a a land of opportunity, but recent studies show that the USA has not only more inequality but also less economic mobility.

I thought you were referring to the very high density urban streets where a cyclist almost has to constantly dodge the "sidewalk cafe" coffee tables and waiters with trays.

Have you ever bicycled in Amsterdam? It refutes your claim that "very high density urban streets" cannot be good places to bicycle. It is not the best place for athletic bicyclists who want to go 25 mph; I saw the lycra spandex crowd working out on rural roads south of Amsterdam, not in the city. It is one of the best places for having large numbers of ordinary people who are not athletes and who bicycle for utilitarian purposes. There will never be more than a tiny minority who bicycle 25 mph in traffic on wide, busy streets. Yet it is easy to bike around Amsterdam, despite the lower speeds, because they have short distances to travel.

I get your point about a grid system having parallel streets with less traffic. But the same effect applies regardless of the scale - if there is a wider, faster route, car traffic will use it. If there is a freeway, the suburban artery will be clearer of traffic.

I am talking about a grid with about the same capacity as suburban arterials. Break up the superblock into smaller blocks, and replace each 8-lane arterial with four 2-lane streets. It is about equally easy for cars to get around - maybe a bit slower but also less stressful. There is also much more on-street parking, and so less need for parking lots.

You are talking about dramatically increasing capacity and speed by building a freeways in addition to the suburban arteries. It is well known that the added capacity generates more traffic, which fills up the freeway; and as some point, that traffic exits from the freeway and fills up the suburban arterials. That fact is so well known that it has even reached the Flash comic book It is obvious when you look at any American suburb. Surely, you can't deny it.

Charles Siegel

I still pick the USA, like Daniel Hannan does

I have always agreed with what you say about grids versus superblocks (and suburban cul-de-sacs), I just still like to have arterials and freeways as well. Even if they fill up with traffic and some spillback onto secondary roads occurs, the secondary roads are more stress-free for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians because there is so much traffic on the freeway that would have been on the secondary roads otherwise (this traffic remains the bulk of what is on the freeway even if there is "induced traffic" as well).

I also think that freeway building has been far too distorted (by Federal involvement) in favor of radial networks focusing on CBD's. The evolution of cities has long been to decentralisation in spite of such a focus of transport planners on centers and radial networks. Far greater gains in efficiency are possible by doubling inter-suburban route capacity (from 1 lane each way to 2, or 2 lanes to 4, and so on) than by adding 2 lanes to 12 into the CBD. Inter-suburban and intra-suburban traffic uses roads in both directions at both ends of the day, unlike the Great Crush converging on the center. So value for money is nearly doubled by that factor alone. And "induced traffic" effects are little understood yet for inter-suburban roads - dispersing congestion and dispersing the "induced traffic" effect has to be helpful. It is probably powerful CBD property owning interests who try to stop this happening.

I agree that meandering through bustling olde-world streets on a bicycle for short distances is enjoyable. I think the Netherlands is easily the best example of this kind of living because: 1) they use compulsory acquisition to keep land prices cheap, their economy competitive, social mobility high, social exclusion low, and productivity and incomes high 2) they are a near monoculture with very (once at least) strong Protestant ethics.

This is why Amsterdam is worlds apart from Liverpool. I fear that Liverpool is the more likely result of blunt policies of physical determinism, unless the Netherlands advantages can be replicated by practitioners of smart growth.

The NYTimes article you cite on inequality in the USA, includes some balance. I think there are dozens of variables that need to be evaluated to give a truly fair picture.

Income distribution and wealth distribution can be quite different things. "Old wealth" tends to be far deeper in Europe and the UK.
The USA is now a more widely disparate collection of economies than it used to be. If someone moved from their home town in California to Texas, they might well have lower incomes than their parents, yet their financial condition will be very much better than if they had attempted to stay.
The USA has far higher numbers of low quality immigrants (whether it wants them or not). This has been very bad for the incumbent low-educated population, who has to compete with these people for jobs.
Flows of "remittances" from immigrants in the USA back to their countries of origin, are many times higher than what occurs from any other nation.
The more rapid economic growth is, the more unequally the benefits are shared. Rapid economic growth is partly dependent on the political conditions that allow wealth creators to keep a larger share of what they create.
"Absolute mobility" (in contrast to relative mobility), the NYT article points out, is unfortunately not measured by other countries.
The USA has a higher incidence of solo motherhood and fatherless children.
I frankly find the idea hard to swallow that the USA has more people in hopeless positions at the bottom of society than the UK. The difference in the opportunity for and the cost of home ownership or obtaining land for any purpose at all, is so massive that this has to make an insurmountable difference.
It is all very well to examine movement between "quartiles" but if across generations, the younger generation are ALL 20% worse off than their parents in the UK, and if they are 20% better off in the USA, why would the UK's result be considered superior because there was less movement between quartiles? Nations need to be looking at this consideration more seriously.
I will also not be very surprised if the USA is the ONLY "rebounder" from the current global economic crisis. It's "deleveraging" process is already 50% of the way through, while most other nations are hardly starting and indeed remaining in denial about even starting it.
And if the USA did not include California, it would hardly have had a crisis at all. California really belongs in the EU, not the USA.

British MEP Daniel Hannan says that after travelling the USA for a few months, his overwhelming impression is that Americans don't have a clue how lucky they are, and take too much for granted.

Michael Lewyn's picture

bicycling in Jacksonville

is not very common and probably not very desirable, at least on the 8-lane street that dominates my old neighborhood. (See 9900 San Jose Blvd. on Google Maps to get an idea what I am talking about).

I almost never saw a cyclist using the bike lane. I did, however, see cyclists using the sidewalk.

I very rarely saw people I knew, or people who I thought were middle-class people, biking; it was mostly recent immigrants who may have lacked other options.

In short, 8-lane streets with 50 mph traffic were not (at least in Jacksonville) good places to cycle, I suspect because of the risk of instant death from speeding cars.

Sprawl and Walking

I have looked on google maps. It is typical suburban sprawl street design: a large arterial street rather than the street grids designed by New Urbanists.

I see there is both housing and shopping nearby, but I bet it was rare for the people who live in the housing to walk to the shopping. Suburban arterials work for cars but do not attract pedestrians.

Look on google maps for Celebration, FL, to see a suburban development in Florida where the housing and shopping are connected by a street grid that works for both cars and pedestrians.

Charles Siegel

But what's stopping anyone CHOOSING to cycle?

Presumably there are parts of Jacksonville that are "nicer" for cycling.

But there is a BIKE LANE on this arterial? As if there are such luxuries in the less "auto oriented" countries without "arteries". The opportunity cost of urban land when growth is constrained and prices are dozens or hundreds of times higher per acre, is one of the worst hindrances to this.

John Forester criticizes the "instant death from speeding cars" attitude as misplaced. The most important thing is that the road's shoulder is wide. The number one myth that scares potential cyclists, is the "being run over from behind" myth. Drivers don't all emerge straight from "Death Race" and look for cyclists to mow down. The true riskiest moment for any bicycle rider, is popping suddenly into a driver's peripheral vision from out of the gutter or a bike lane or a cross route. The further from the kerb and the closer to the passing traffic the rider is, the higher the chance of being seen (especially when wearing high viz clothing) and the LOWER the chance of getting knocked off.

Bike lanes actually are responsible for MORE cyclists getting knocked over when motorists have to turn across them, because the bike lanes frequently take cyclists out of the driver's peripheral vision at crucial moments. Riding as close as possible to the edge of the bike lane where it joins the car lanes, is the best action.

I don't know of a better author for cyclists to read, than Forester.

If timid people ride on the footpath without being cited, that won't be a lot different in speed outcomes to cycling in Amsterdam. Again, the footpaths are usually wide in low land cost, "auto oriented" cities.

correcting some notions

I would add here that:

1. Bicycling for pleasure and for transportation are two very different things and have different requirements. If one is in the suburbs, it is more likely that one rides for pleasure, as distances from origin to destination are often too great to make riding for transportation practical (see Michael's Jerusalem example).

2. When riders use the sidewalk/sidepath instead of the street (with or without a bike lane), it is almost always because they do not perceive using the street or bike lane as safe. Backstop that observation by checking the numbers of women riding...women are particularly sensitive to safety issues, real or perceived.

3. Using the sidewalk/sidepath is perceived as being safer, but is in fact less safe. Motorists are not expecting faster-traveling traffic (bicycle riders as compared to pedestrians) in that space. Faster traffic is expected in the roadway. There is a single study (Wachtel) that confirms this, but obviously more studies are needed to prove it so.

From a planner's perspective, it's good that people ride for pleasure, but riding for transportation is far more important, for many reasons, not least of which is what it says about the quality of the community. A safe cycling environment also allows the citizenry a wider array of travel options, from inexpensive to expensive. This is true freedom.

Transportation planner,
Former bike race official, and
Former competitive cyclist

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