Pedestrians, Bikes, and Cars: Designing for Multi-Modal Transit in the 21st Century City

A Q&A with KieranTimberlake Architects on multi-modal transit and citizen engagement.

For the past three years, Metropolis’ director of design innovation, Susan S. Szenasy has led Think Tank, a series of conversations on human-centered design. On September 19, 2017, she visited the Philadelphia-based firm KieranTimberlake to discuss multi-modal transit and citizen engagement. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity by S.T. White.

James Timberlake, partner, KieranTimberlake (JT): Today we’d like to discuss holistic planning of an intra-modal city. About 90% of our firm bikes, walks, uses mass transit, or some combination to commute to work. When we looked for a new building for our office, it was critical to be close to where our staff lives. The building has become a catalyst to continue developing the remainder of the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Andrew Stober, vice president of Planning and Economic Development, University City District (AS): One way to describe Philadelphia is, impose 21st century demands on 18th century infrastructure with 20th century attitudes in government. Reconciling these three dynamics presents a big challenge.  In most parts of Center City, there is a 26-foot wide cartway that can only be shared so many ways. On top of the record number of bicycles, there are unprecedented volumes of pedestrians since more people reside here. SEPTA has more riders than ever before, too. Meanwhile, the 20th century attitude in city hall prioritizes getting  private vehicles through quickly.

SSS: Sarah, as the executive director of Philadelphia’s Bicycle Coalition, what are your aspirations?

Sarah Clark Stuart, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia (SCS): We’re a nonprofit advocacy organization born in 1972. Our mission is to advocate for Philly and the eight surrounding suburban counties so that anyone can bike anywhere throughout the whole region. We want all streets throughout the nine county region to be safe so that everyone could feel like they could ride their bike.

We advocate for a high quality bikeway network on the city streets that is seamless and connected. We advocate for the political support and funding to implement the vision.

SSS: Are you the puppet masters behind the scenes pulling strings for your candidates?

SCS: We work both the inside game and the outside game, including developing relationships with city officials. I’m not there saying, “I’m Sarah Clark and I want this.” I’m speaking for thousands of people behind me who want to realize this vision that they believe would substantially benefit the city and region.

SSS: Dena, what role does your organization play?

Vision for Spring Garden Greenway in Philadelphia. Photo © PA Environmental Council

Dena Ferrara Driscoll, co-chair, 5th Square PAC (DD): 5th Square is a political action committee in the City of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania. We’re funded mostly by small donors giving under $50. Everyone in the group is a volunteer and has a full-time job.  We believe that you can either have a good city for cars or a good city for people and we are here for people. We support candidates who want to make smart decisions in zoning, transit, and pedestrian safety. As a PAC, we can endorse candidates, and make sure that once we help elect them, they push policies we want.

SSS: Alan, as former deputy mayor for economic development for the City of Philadelphia, can you help us understand how city governments adapt to change?

Alan Greenberger, FAIA, department head and distinguished teaching professor, Department of Architecture Design & Urbanism, Drexel University (AG): They say politics is the art of the possible. I’m not sure I still believe that after eight years. Sometimes it’s the art of the impossible. I agree with Andrew’s analysis that we have a fixed infrastructure with legitimate, competing demands in that space. There was an article this weekend about this confluence of bicycles, pedestrians, and cars. It really depressed me because it focused on the culture war angle of it. There’s no question that bicycles can represent a kind of cultural marker of how things are changing in ways that people don’t like. I would really like to stop centering conversations around the culture war. To me, it’s uninteresting and it makes a serious discussion almost impossible.

This is about mobility. A lot of young people don’t want to own cars. Since we have to navigate a fixed infrastructure, incrementally adding bike lanes is effective, and over time, people get used to cultural changes.

SSS: One very interesting part of the 21st century condition is data, something we haven’t applied in urban planning before to the degree we can now, like how and when people use spaces. How do you think data will contribute to the self-concept of urban communities?

AS: Data can help us discuss inequity, one of the most important issues to consider when changing our infrastructure.  If we don’t put reversing inequity at the center,  then the best we can hope for is already entrenched inequities will become more inflamed. Maintaining affordability of transit options has an impact on the social fabric since pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders are choosing the most cost-efficient methods of moving around the city.

DD: At 5th Square, data helps us reach a range of people and find out what issues they’re most interested in supporting.  We learned that people in Northeast Philadelphia are interested in open streets, even though we may have assumed they prefer cars.

AS: I think for 5th Square and the Bicycle Coalition, the best defense is a good offense. Someone has to be pushing for these interventions. Mayor Kenney never would have committed to 30 miles of protected bike lanes unless the Bicycle Coalition and 5th Square had made it an issue using data to support our ideas.

SSS: The density of urban life produces a particular kind of connection and civility, like eye contact that happens on a subway that can’t happen in a car. How do 21st century cities build upon that existing pillar of urban culture, the potential for empathy?

JT: Cars are kind of the ogre in the room. We all agree that a car driver has less connection to others than pedestrians or cyclists do. When I came to Philadelphia in 1974, people were still moving out of Center City and pedestrians walked defensively down the street. So many pockets of the city have become more connected in the past 15 years that it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come culturally.  Though we may not end up reducing the number of vehicles, behaviors are shifting due to Amazon and other delivery methods.

Future vision of JFK and West Market Street. Photo © Center City District

SSS: I’m really curious about our audience today, many of whom bike to work. What are your attitudes about the new changes in the city?

Audience: I’m an architect. I would like to bring up two ideas. One is spending many happy hours of my life driving elderly relatives through provincial towns in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The congestion is terrible by American standards, but it’s the price of not having an expressway through the middle of town.  Congestion is a sign of activity, not just a nuisance to feel intolerant towards. The second is management. Do any of the management entities in Center City–the police, parking authority, Center City district–manage delivery?  Are alleys optimized for delivery? What about ambulance and fire calls?

AS: Yes, it has been done, but it has to be renewed regularly. For example, we changed the loading policies on Walnut Street so it was only from 6 to 10am. We worked with the major delivery companies and the parking authority to find spots for them since they can be in a single building for 40 minutes. When they double-parked, the parking authority towed the truck, which got their attention pretty quickly.  We could also price commercial loading zones, which New York has done. It’s true that management has a big toolkit that can relieve pressure on the infrastructure.

Audience: I’m a resident of West Philadelphia but I grew up east of Fairmount Park. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time biking into the city, so I can appreciate the improvements in bike safety in recent years. But I’ve noticed pushback from older drivers. It made me wonder what’s going to happen as older drivers age out of their vehicles?

Representatives from KieranTimberlake give attendees a tour of the studio. Photo © Rob Cusick.

AG: I think a lot of older people are empty nesters who have moved back into the city and are not so reliant on their cars. Some chose to live here because they would be able to get around the city without a car. Sometimes when I have meetings in the city, I drive to the subway and take it the rest of the way. It doesn’t hurt that I’m over 65 and get to ride SEPTA for free. It’s fantastic.

If you live in a city, you have to practice empathy, or hope for it, because your neighborhood might change. New people move in, and our mindsets and habits are capable of evolving. The Lower Northeast is becoming a melting pot, like Queens, with Jewish, Dominican, and Lebanese businesses on the same block.

Of course, change is often not welcome. At a talk in Southwest, a guy asked me, “What can you do to stop gentrification?” which no one had ever asked me quite so directly. On the one hand, I won’t get in the way if someone wants to accept a boatload of money for their house. But on the other hand, the best way to mitigate gentrification is a strong community, a strong sense of who your neighbors are and how you work together. It can start on an elemental level: picking up your neighbor’s trash or helping shovel snow. Actions like these build empathy, so when changes come, like bicyclists, you have somebody to talk about it with. You might decide it’s not so bad, or that you want to tell them not to ride so fast because there are children darting out into the street.

An engaged audience member poses a question to the panel. Photo © Rob Cusick.

DD: I would love to talk about transit improvements that would help both new Philadelphians and those who have been here forever. One campaign we are working on is free transfers. Also, after the age of five, children are a full adult price, which can make using mass transit as a family prohibitive. Finally, we’re working towards colleges purchasing passes for all of their students. That way it would be part of their tuition and give them a key to the city.

JT: One thought I have is, obviously, these aren’t simple issues that can be summarized in opinion pieces.

They are complex and cities are living, organic entities just like human beings. They are young and get old and they outlive everybody in this room and serve generations to come. A couple cities that I travel to frequently are London and Rome. After the Second World War, they faced similar anxieties that we face now about congestion and transit.  We are not a museum.  Old churches, schools, and museums serve us culturally and are very much a part of our everyday life.

London and Rome adapt to accommodate vehicles and pedestrians. In Rome, on weekends the city closes avenues to cars for città aperta, open city. One thing we keep returning to are absolutes, about what we ideally want to remove, even though we know that it can’t be thought of in absolute terms. Rome has been changing for three millennia, and we’re a relatively young city. Hopefully, as we adapt we will meet the needs of as big a range of people as possible.

Szenasy addresses the audience. Photo © Rob Cusick.

Sarah Clark Stuart, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia

Dena Ferrara Driscoll, co-chair, 5th Square PAC
Alan Greenberger, FAIA, department head and distinguished teaching professor, Department of Architecture Design & Urbanism, Drexel University
Andrew Stober, vice president of planning and economic development, University City District
James Timberlake, partner, KieranTimberlake

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis magazine

The Metropolis Think Tank series is presented in partnership with Corian® Design, DXV/Grohe, KI, Sunbrella Contract Fabrics, and Teknion.


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