Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Really Narrow Streets need good trains

I've written before about the concept of Really Narrow Streets. I got an email (and I know some of you got it too) about a project to build a new village in Maine with Really Narrow Streets. Conspicuously absent from the sales pitch was any explanation about how people would get to and from that village - except for one sentence saying that parking would be restricted to the outskirts of town. The proposed location is over a hundred miles from the nearest train station, and even buses don't go any closer than Bangor, more than 35 miles away.

The village sounds like a wonderful place, but if you want people to live there or even visit, they have to be able to reach it. And no matter how wonderful a place is, people sometimes have to leave. A village-sized community in particular will have some people who live there working outside, some people who live outside working there, and people leaving for shopping and services that a village of that scale is unable to provide, such as specialized medical treatment.

A couple weeks ago Alon discussed the division of trips into commuting and non-commuting. Here's the table I made based on one he gave:

Short trips
Foot or bicycleCar
Long tripsTransitTransit/walkableCommuter suburbs
CarAuto-oriented denseSprawl

The Piscataquis Village project is clearly in the quadrant where short errands can be done by walking, but longer trips have to be done by car. Residents and workers will all therefore be expected to have cars and use them on a regular basis. This makes me suspicious that, as on Roosevelt Island, people will be tempted to drive their cars into the village and colonize the Really Narrow Streets for parking "just this one time," or "just because I have a mobility impairment," or for hundreds of other reasons. People are always creative at finding reasons for the rules not to apply to them.

Almost all the Really Narrow Streets on the Piscataquis Village slideshow (photos mostly borrowed from Nathan Lewis, who borrowed them from random tourists) are easily accessible by train. When I was a kid, my parents took me on vacation to a small tourist town in Liguria. I remember being enchanted by the Really Narrow Streets, in particular one that turned into a path winding up into the hills to the next town. I also remember the train station right in the middle of town; the town was easier for tourists to get to by train than by car. The streets that I showed in Boston, Quebec and Rockport are all accessible by train. So are the streets that Lewis shows in Tokyo, London, Paris and various Italian towns.

This is true not only for old Really Narrow Streets, but new ones as well. There's a great development in Sweden built right on a commuter rail stop with hourly service (PDF). Residents who need goods and services that are not available in the village can hop on the train and be in Lund in five minutes.

Some day in the future there may be enough people living carfree in Piscataquis County to support restoring passenger service on the Bangor and Aroostook line, and then a new village with Really Narrow Streets will make perfect sense. Until then, we should look to development sites that are convenient to existing transit. Ideally, we are looking for a brownfield less than an hour away from a major job site on a train or bus line with frequent service all day and evening. It would also be nice to have walkable connections to an existing street grid, so that it can "infect" the surrounding area with its walkability.

Perhaps once we've built a few of these, we can propose an entire new or revived train line, with a series of walkable villages with Really Narrow Streets right next to the train stations and comfortable walking paths connecting them. But a walkable village without transit is a village of drivers who walk every once in a while.


Phil LaCombe said...

It would have been nice to ride into Union Station in Bangor. What a beautiful station it was!

My hope is that Piscataquis will be the Seaside of Old Urbanism. Once the concept has been demonstrated, more urban areas will hopefully open up to allowing the construction of new small/narrow streets.

As we both well know, there are plenty of park and rides out there that are large enough to accommodate a small Old Urbanist village.

Emily Washington said...

I think that part of Piscataquis' chances at succeeding in being a walkable town depend on it becoming a tourist destination. Coming from Colorado, Aspen, Telluride, and Ouray come to mind as towns that are very walkable while having minimal transit and being difficult to get to.

The amenities that these towns have for tourists -- shopping, coffee shops, great restaurants -- make them pleasant for walking, and the tourist presence in the streets makes them more inviting for locals too.

Of course not being located on a world-class ski resort hurts Piscataquis' chances in this department, but perhaps its urban form will be different enough from most US development that it could draw some visitors based on that alone.

Tracy L Gayton said...

If the question is: “Where is the best location in the USA to build the first compact, pedestrian, Traditional Village?”, we agree that a brownfield site on a frequently used commuter bus or rail line would be a sweet spot.

For us though, the residents of Piscataquis County, the question is: “How do we create the highest quality living space for ourselves, our kids, and attract future residents to the county while retaining our rural character?”

We can’t be packing up our trucks like the Joad family, depopulating the place many of us were born and raised, settled by our ancestors, to emigrate to an infield site somewhere. There are some places in the USA that perhaps do have a population too great to be sustainable in the long run. We don’t think Piscataquis county, rich in agricultural land, forests, water, and other natural resources is one of them.

Perhaps not even all of the inhabitants of our area know of our rail resources. Piscataquis County contains the rail nexus that connects the Atlantic seaport at St. John, New Brunswick with Montreal, Quebec, and south through Bangor to the Maine port at Searsport. It’s claimed that at one time, Piscataquis County contained the second largest railroad yard in New England, after Boston. As recently as the late 1980’s one could catch a passenger train from Piscataquis County, direct to Montreal. True, only freight service is offered in Piscataquis now, but if you believe that energy costs will rise faster than inflation over the coming decades, our area could possibly see a revival in rail, maybe even passenger rail traffic. It’s too early for us to have yet identified a site for our “125 acre experiment in alternative zoning” more specific than the southern third of Piscataquis County, but rail resources, as well as some of the county’s mostly vacant business parks should at least be considered. Even if we were to locate in a greenfield between two of the existing population centers in the county, the threshold population needed to profitably support the short van/bus commute from Piscataquis Village to those population centers may be achievable.

We think the car free Gaslight Village in Philadelphia would have been a great location, but apparently that proposal is dead. There was the Dunstan Corners new urbanism style project in Scarborough, Maine - radically gutted to achieve approval.So many good proposals killed or denied. It’s almost enough to lead one to believe those “ideal” locations are just too Utopian to get on the ground. Maybe it’s time to try a golf course sized experiment in “Old Urbanism”, even if not in an ideal location, to serve as a living example of another option, and maybe rural New England, where towns are still governed by direct participatory democracy,holds the best chance for this common sense proposal to be tested.

-Piscataquis Village Project-Tracy Gayton

Seth said...

Its a big county and the location isn't set yet. As one of the contingent investors I'm probably not alone in wanting to sort out a transit plan for any possible location. We are all fans of walkable areas and transit anyways, that is part of the strength of getting like minded people together. In the current regulatory environment it mite end up being easier to build the place under the radar first and connect it (now that a voting block and tax base is created) then find a location with proper infrastructure (and being a target).

Thanks a lot for picking up the idea.

Charlie Gardner said...

The Ligurian towns (the Cinqueterre?) were the beneficiaries of the coastal Rome-Genoa train line, and justify their stations through their high tourism value. The vast majority of Italian towns of that size do not have direct rail connections.

Even so, a small rural town of narrow streets still brings many benefits. If the complete range of necessities is available in the town, the need to go elsewhere is greatly reduced, and in-town traffic, even with cars permitted, should be almost non-existent (this is speaking from experience from having spent some time in a rural Campanian town of approximately 4,000 people with no rail connection). If the location is sufficiently isolated, there simply aren't many other places to go, or at least, places that would have much more to offer, reducing long-distance car trips.

So, I don't see why the narrow street format shouldn't be applicable to rural towns as well as urban areas. A transit-accessible location would be ideal, but I don't think it needs to be a prerequisite.

Mike Hicks said...

There were some nice visualizations posted to the Small Streets Blog apparently just hours before this post went up.

In the extreme of course was the Kowloon Walled City, which had a network of streets and alleys on a tiny plot of land and managed to cram in 30,000+ people. The area was only 7 or 8 acres (Wikipedia says 6.5, but using some online tools to measure the old footprint gives me slightly larger numbers).

By comparison, the center atrium at the Mall of America is 7 acres in size and houses a small amusement park. It's also about the size of a standard city block in Minneapolis.

KWC is an extreme example, but clearly options abound for building good transit villages.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for writing, all! Tracy, I think we share a lot of goals, and I hope your project has transit as soon as possible.

Charlie, in the definition of "urbanism" we're using, rural towns can be urban. I think it comes back, as always, to competition. Is it easier to get to "stuff" on the outside by bus or by car?

Mike, thanks for that link to the Small Streets blog - I didn't see that in my RSS reader until the following day. I guess great minds think alike!

Condor said...

It is certainly much easier to build pedestrian environments with pedestrian "Really Narrow" streets of 12-20 feet wide when there is good public transit available. However, that is not necessary, and I've spent much of the last year or so establishing design formats which retain the character of carfree places (Really Narrow Streets) while incorporating parking for one or two cars per household.



In many places in the world, rural towns do not have public transportation, but have a Traditional City form. People have cars, but they don't need them so much because they can walk around their town. The car is just for traveling outside the town. Many small, historic Italian villages simply have a parking lot outside the town borders.