Lifting the “Veil of the Familiar”
I’m not an engineer—but I am an architect. And just as in the engineering profession, we too have our institutional regulations and “standard operating procedures” that dismiss the concerns of residents, defy common sense, and ruin public places. I admit, for much of my career, I just took these standards and codes as doctrine that I never really questioned. I call it “the veil of the familiar”: when you see something everywhere and it is so common, you don’t even think about questioning it.
A few years ago I became more interested in the knowledge we seem to have lost about how to build towns and cities. This has led to quite a bit of self reflection, research, reading—including Charles’ book Strong Towns—and discovery. After reading Strong Towns, I began to look at the streets in my community much differently. In fact, as we drive around our neighborhood, my wife and kids now roll their eyes whenever I blurt out, “This is a stroad!” and I begin telling them why it’s so bad.
One stroad of note that cuts through our neighborhood in north Denver is Federal Boulevard. And they use the term “boulevard” loosely. I’ve always interpreted “boulevard” to mean a road lined with trees, and often with trees down the center. Many sections of Federal do not have any division down the center; those that do have what I would describe as a two- to three-foot tall planter, which acts more like a wall than anything else. At one point, I had heard that the stretch of Federal between Interstate 70, south past Mile High Stadium, had the most vehicle/pedestrian accidents of any one mile stretch of road in the U.S. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s completely plausible. I would guess average speed on this road exceeds 45 or 50 mph even with the posted 35 mph limit; and with much of this stretch lined with restaurants and stores, it’s the poster child for a stroad—a road trying to be a street (see Confessions of a Recovering Engineer). I believe the installation of the “planters” down the center over the last several years is less about having a place to plant trees and more about deterring people from trying to cross the road anywhere but at intersections.
But even the intersections are dangerous. A couple of weeks ago, my family actually saw a pedestrian get hit while she was crossing at the intersection a few blocks from our house. The road is five lanes across (two lanes each way and a center turn lane). A fifteen-year-old girl, who lives in the neighborhood and takes the bus home from work, is required to cross Federal after she gets off the bus. The crossing light is rather quick and she just couldn’t make it all the way across in time. As the light turned green, a truck that was rather quick off the line clipped her in the face with its rear view mirror, and then actually left the scene. My family stayed with her until paramedics arrived, thinking she might have a broken cheek bone. Luckily, she was relatively okay, but a couple of inches more and it could have been a much worse outcome.
I guess my confession is this: You don’t need to be an engineer to understand that how we are designing our roads is destroying our communities and making them less safe. And once you recognize it, and the veil of the familiar is lifted, it then seems so obvious as to what is wrong. Confessions of a Recovering Architect?
A Close Call
The pedestrian signal turns on instantly along my cycling commute, even if vehicles are turning left with a green turn arrow. I stopped using it regularly after seeing this. One time when I waited for the signal a left turning car almost hit me while I was halfway across!
— Marcus Batson
Anger Is a Natural Reaction
As an active transportation advocate in past days, I might have kicked out the headlights and/or taillights of a few of the cars that have almost run me or other people over while we’ve been walking and/or biking. I should probably plead the fifth, but one of my ongoing frustrations is the unreasonable expectation that people walking and biking should remain calm and level-headed, even after our lives have been threatened either intentionally or negligently by those who are driving. The reality is that anger is a natural reaction, and it is especially frustrating when you know that a driver is not going to face any consequences for their actions.
— Mike Christensen
“I Was a Traffic Addict”
Hi, my name is Reuben, and I was a traffic addict. It’s been 17 years since my last sole prioritization of the movement of automobiles over human beings who walk, bike, and travel by bus. I was awakened by the reading of Suburban Nation to the high cost in lives and quality of life that building to the single-occupant vehicle gives us. I moved from a rural to urban home in 2017 and greatly enjoy the newfound quality of life I have from living Downtown. My primary doctor, my barber, my church, my employer, scores of restaurants, drug store, convenience store, two major parks, the bus station—all are within a five- to fifteen-minute walk of where I live. What I save in transportation costs greatly offsets the cost of rent downtown, and life is good. Our city, Raleigh, North Carolina, continues to add bicycle facilities, complete sidewalk projects, add bus routes, and is now adding Bus Rapid Transit. In penance for my past transgressions I work to provide Complete Streets for my fellow citizens.
— Reuben Moore
Not Just Roads
You need to include sanitary sewers, not just roads. I was a part of getting all that EPA/RD grant loan money back in the day. Those grants saddled small rural communities with systems they couldn’t afford, and didn’t maintain, and are now looking for more government money to repair or replace them (not all of them of course, some are responsible). One of my favorite quotes came from a Pennsylvania planner: “People, like rats, follow sewers.”
Questioning Past Assumptions
My start in professional residential architecture was as part of the design team of a developer-owned construction company. We did custom homes and houses intended to be sold, many within a gated golf course, planned residential community on the outskirts of my town. I’m not ashamed of the any of the work we did—we strived to create homes that met the needs of future occupants and were aesthetically pleasing to neighbors. The part that I question now is my assumption that the projects on my desk existed solely as a response to market forces. It did not occur to me that a variety of building styles—smaller houses on smaller lots, townhouses, courtyard styles, pocket neighborhoods—were rarely being built where I live, not because no one wanted them, but because our city planning regulations made these types of housing more difficult (more risk and uncertainly, longer timelines, etc.) or downright impossible to build. Decades later, it is clear to me that we have used land unproductively and have created crises in both transportation and affordable housing. We have also effectively excluded large segments of the population from our community…to their detriment, and also to ours.
— Marlene Druker