Saturday, April 12, 2014

Transport concept: door-to-door or neighborhood-to-neighborhood?

Thinking about it, I think that there are two large competing visions for transport that have great impacts on how cities are built. I would call these different visions the "door-to-door" conception of transport and the "neighborhood-to-neighborhood" conception of transport. They exist mainly because of motorized transport (cars as well as transit) and define how these are used and how cities are built to accommodate them.

Door-to-door conception of transport

In this vision of transport, motorized transports are seen as complete alternatives to walking. The basic concept of this vision is that someone leaves their home, gets in their car that is parked right in front of their door, less than 10 steps away, or even in a garage. Then they drive to their destination, which has a parking spot right in front of the door, or better yet, an inside parking. They park their cars there, get out of their cars, walk 10 steps and they are inside where they wanted to go. When they want to go back home, they do the same thing.

This is valid for transit too. With the ideal trip being conceived as someone taking a bus that stops right in front of their home, and which takes them directly, or with one transfer, right in front of their destination.

Now, this seems perfectly efficient, right? Motorized transport are faster than walking, so the less far you have to walk, the better it is, right?

Consequences of door-to-door transport

Though it all seems efficient, you need to take into account exactly what such a trip requires to be possible.

For trips made in private vehicles, door-to-door trips absolutely require that each destination has its own parking lot directly in front of it. This parking lot requires a great amount of space in order to avoid having cars "spilling out" in the street or other parking, and having people have to walk longer distances to get to where they wanted to go. Overspill is often considered completely unacceptable because parking lots are private, built and maintained by the owner of the place they are attached to. So if one place's clients overspill in the street or on adjacent parking lots, either the city or the adjacent places will demand that the owner of the overspilling parking compensate them. Paying for something your neighbor benefits from has never been popular.

These parking lots are thus built overly large to have excessive capacity even in peak time for demand. And each car requires about 25 square meters of space (250 square foot), so a business with a floor area of 300 square meters with 30 clients inside requires no less than 750 square meters of parking... two and a half times more area than the business itself occupies!

What is the consequence of all of this? Well, let's visualize. Imagine a traditional commercial area with 12 businesses, 10 small and 2 big, in a traditional area with a narrow street. This is before the car, before even mass transit, you wanted to go somewhere, you walked.
A traditional commercial area: narrow streets and businesses built deep with narrow storefronts
So the blue blocks are businesses. The black area is the street, which is narrow because you don't need much more than that in a commercial area if people move around on foot. The stores themselves are built deep but narrow, to make it easier to minimize walking distances between stores. The entire area is around 5 000 square meters, or 1,25 acre. 

As human beings walk at around 5 km/h (1,5 meter per second), here is a sense of walking distances in seconds:
Walking distances between stores
So, it takes about 6 seconds to go from one store to the other, and 40 seconds to walk in front of every store. Crossing the street takes just 4 seconds.

This also means that walking will be interesting and comfortable, as you will be in front of a new store, a new visual experience, every 6 seconds. This gives the impression of going places fast as the environment around you changes very quickly.

Now, in reality in North America, we have few of these traditional areas, we have more transitional areas with wider streets and sidewalks, which look a bit different but would still be recognizable as a traditional area. It takes a bit more space though, the following example would be about 6 000 square meters, or 1,5 acre.

Transitional commercial area: wider street but the same buildings

Transitional commercial area: walking times
Montréal's avenue Mont-Royal, an example of transitional form
OK, so now let's modify this area for door-to-door trips. First, you need parking, and parking needs to be in front of each store. Why in front?

1- So as to be as close as possible to the door of each store.
2- To increase visibility for car drivers. Setting the stores farther from the street increases visibility of each store front and allows them to place signs next to the street to increase long distance visibility. In a transitional form, a car driver has essentially 2 or 3 seconds to see what store they're passing in front of at speeds of 50 km/h, and unlike pedestrians, they can't just stop. This also means that building will be built wider but shallower, again to increase visibility.
3- Side parkings are too useful for neighboring stores.

So all in all, this is what your new commercial area will look like:

The new door-to-door commercial area
Example of door-to-door commercial area, Lasalle in Montréal

It's the same number of businesses, about the same commercial area, but the total area used is 3-4 times as big. 22 100 square meters (2,2 hectares, 5,5 acres) instead of 5 000 or 6 000. This is the rational design of a commercial area based on the door-to-door vision of motorized transport.
Size comparison between traditional, transitional and modern commercial areas
And what happens to the walking times between stores for pedestrians?
Walking times for pedestrians in a commercial area built for door-to-door car transport
Basically, the walking times have been multiplied by 3, even going from the sidewalk to the stores is a 15-second trip across a parking lot. Crossing the street takes 40 seconds... if you jaywalk! If you have to cross at specific points only, then it may double or triple the time easily.

Not only does it take a lot more time, but it's much less pleasant. Pedestrians on the sidewalk are surrounded by asphalt everywhere, and exposed to the wind and exhaust from vehicles on the street. As visibility is "good", pedestrians have the impression that they're not going anywhere, that they're standing still. It may take 30 seconds or more for them to get a change of environment, and even then, that "environment change" is limited to the extremity of their viewing field, their adjacent environment stays the same: parking lot on one side, street on the other.
Pedestrian viewing environment supposing a 90-degree viewing angle
And crossing parking lots is uncomfortable, even dangerous. Many people on foot, especially children are hurt or killed crossing parking lots.

But for cars, this is a great street. Good visibility, with good object-free clearance zones on each side of the street, inciting them to drive faster. In fact, for drivers, the time to get from one business to the other look pretty good, and their viewing environment changes relatively quickly.
Driving times between parking lots
Notice something funny? In the traditional commercial area, it took about 6 seconds to get from one store to the other, and 40 seconds to travel the entire area. Now, with cars that go much faster, it takes 10 seconds to get from one parking lot to the other and 30 seconds to travel the entire area. Despite going faster, you don't move around any faster in terms of travel times!

The new commercial area has thus become a no-man's-land. Walking is too slow and unpleasant, people merely use the street to get from one point to the other. There is no more life on the street or public area where people may meet, people start from their private bubble (their home), then hop on to a moving bubble (their car), getting out just to get inside another private bubble (stores, restaurants, etc...). There really is no public realm anymore.

Door-to-door transit 


Door-to-door travel tends to be principally made in private vehicles, but the concept also manifests in public transit. Door-to-door transit tends to be made up of a great variety of bus lines with very frequent stops. The routes are indirect to maximize the coverage and to reduce walking distances.

The result is a great number of generally infrequent and slow lines (as the routes aren't direct). However, many people can thus go where they want to go with very little walking. A city built for door-to-door car travel tends to be very hard to serve by anything else but door-to-door transit.


Is there an alternative to this door-to-door conception of cities? The traditional area I showed at the beginning of this article dates before the car. Unless we want to roll back the car completely, people need to park somewhere.

The alternative is the "neighborhood-to-neighborhood" concept of motorized trips. In this vision, cars and public transport aren't ALTERNATIVES to walking, but are rather SHORTCUTS in walking trips. The idea is that these fast modes of transport are about getting you from one neighborhood to another, but you still need to make the rest of the trip on foot in the neighborhood of your destination. That way, cars do not replace walking, they complement it.

Instead of private parking lots in face of every building, you have public, shared parking lots for all people who want to get to these buildings. These parking lots do not need to be right next to stores, you can have people walk one or two minutes to get to their destination, but once there, the buildings are still in a form favorable to walking.

The fact that parking lots are shared also has a great benefit. It allows to pool capacity and thus removes the need for excessive parking, because it is rare that every business, office and residential building all have maxed out parking. In fact, in general, residential parking are full on the week-end and at night, retail parking lots are at their maximum during the day and the week-end, office parking lots are at their max during 8 hours during weekdays. So if a parking lot exists that is used by all those uses, you need much less spaces. Overspill is also not really an issue. The problem instead is a shortage of parking that may be dealt with in a variety of ways, by turning vacant lots or unoccupied buildings into parking or by pricing parking to reduce demand for parking.

So you could have the usual traditional building, but with small parking lots spread about the area and on-street parking (not a fan of it in residential areas, but it's acceptable in commercial areas), or parking behind buildings.
Transitional commercial area with small off-street parking lots spread around the area

Same thing, but with a bit more parking lots

Parking lot behind buildings, car drivers have to walk more, but no impact on pedestrians
The smaller parking lots allow the are to retain its traditional or transitional form, pleasant and accessible to pedestrians.

So in this case, people can still take motorized vehicles to get to the are pretty quickly, but once they arrive, they have to walk a bit more to get to their destination. But the time loss for car drivers is low compared to the time loss the modern door-to-door commercial area imposed on every non-car user. So overall this form is objectively and quantitatively superior, as benefits to non-car users are great, and inconveniences to car users are low. Now you only need to put that commercial area in a densely populated area and you're all set! As a lot of people will be able to get there without cars, you'll need even less parking.

Another big advantage is that you salvage the street as a public area, as a living environment. The car drivers, who used to destroy the street for pedestrians by forcing everything to be spread out, are instead forced to mingle with pedestrians and with the public life in the area.

Now, some may ask if I am merely a fool, if this kind of place does exist and work somewhere on the Earth?

Well, looking at many small European cities, it seems to be exactly what they do over there. So even if cars are still needed to get around in rural areas, the small city at the center of the region is still walking-oriented.

Here is an example from the UK:
Small British city: the commercial street is pedestrian only
 Here is another example from France, from a small town of 6 000 people called Chauvigny, in the middle of a rural area of 12 000 people:
Chauvigny downtown
The region is very rural, so people need cars to get around, but once they come to town, they just park there and do the rest of foot, contributing to the street life of the town.

Finally, here is a North American example, the "urban village" of Saint-Lambert (commercial in green, parking in red, the arterial street in orange):

Parking here is mostly located behind the commercial buildings and shared between them all.

Note that I say "commercial" but I include all uses that may draw people to the area: retail, restaurants, services, offices, etc...

Neighborhood-to-neighborhood transit


Most rapid transit are already made for neighborhood-to-neighborhood trips. To be fast and reliable, they need to have fewer stops, so it is rare that people have a stop right in front of their home and another right in front of their destination. The point is to take people from one neighborhood to another. It's really a shortcut in a walking trip. Many transit experts call this, the fact that rapid transit rarely leaves people right where they want to go, the "last mile problem". I'm saying that we should all learn to stop worrying and love the "last mile problem". What this means is that this "last mile" can be made pedestrian-friendly and into a public space worth going to.

The best example of a transit-oriented city is Tokyo. Train stations are the heart of every neighborhood, where businesses, offices and high-density residential buildings are concentrated. But the Japanese see no problem at walking 5-10 minutes to get to the station, then another 5 minutes at their destination. Which means that on many trips, they may spend as much time walking as they do in a train, but since the built area is pleasant to walk in, there is no problem with it.



In terms of building better, more livable cities, the "neighborhood-to-neighborhood" approach is by far superior. It is also much fairer and equitable to all modes of transport, whether pedestrians, cyclists, transit or cars. Unfortunately, for decades we have been building our cities following a "door-to-door" vision, which penalizes and harms pedestrians a lot all to shave off a few seconds off of car trips, imposing sprawl to all sectors while destroying the public realm of our cities.

We need to rebalance our priorities et rehabilitate our cities by favoring instead a "neighborhood-to-neighborhood" approach to transport inside our cities. 

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