Mobile connectivity and urban interaction

What does it mean to be social?

Being “social” used to mean that a person was outgoing and enjoyed interacting with people – an extrovert. Today, most equate the term “social” with social media and online communities.

The most social among us are perceived to be those who maintain several social media accounts and have a large group of followers they interact with regularly. Has this sociological shift also had an impact on how we interact with our physical urban spaces? Do we even take notice of our environment while we’re walking around the city with our mobile devices?

Emily Badger (@emilymbadger), writing for Atlantic Cities, recently profiled a team of researchers who have found that the use of smart phones has weakened the degree of social interaction in our public gathering spaces.

I don’t believe the conclusion here is a sociological revelation by any means, since most of us have observed the trend personally. (Right now I’m recalling the last person I walked by at the grocery store who appeared to be having a heated conversation with their self, only to discover they were talking on their mobile phone using a hands-free headset.)

The article is summed up with a proposal that our physical public spaces may need to be redesigned to accommodate the “new” social, using the very same mobile technology in a socially-positive way. But in what ways can mobile technology increase physical interaction with each other and the urban environment?

Here are examples of online resources and activities that are already attempting to do just that:

  1. Meetup (www.meetup.com) is an online community with over 9.5 million members in 45,000 cities that makes it easy to find and sign up for events with others with similar interests and causes. “Meetup’s mission is to revitalize local community and help people around the world self-organize. Meetup believes that people can change their personal world, or the whole world, by organizing themselves into groups that are powerful enough to make a difference.”
  2. Foursquare (www.foursquare.com) allows users to use tools that help “keep up with friends, discover what’s nearby, save money and unlock deals.” What is significant about this tool is that the user is actually “checking-in” at a physical location, where other social media activities are not location-dependent.
  3. Geocaching is an activity that uses mobile devices, including smart phones, to participate in real-life explorations as individuals or in teams. According to Geochaching.com, “Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.”
  4. Social Media Breakfast (www.socialmediabreakfast.com) is a regularly occurring breakfast program that promotes “feeding your belly and your brain”!  The organization, which currently has more than 40 cities around the world with affiliated groups, states two goals of the program: (1) Face-to-Face Networking and (2) Education on “social media best practices for business”. Locally, Social Media Breakfast Fort Wayne (SMBFW) meets the last Tuesday of each month. Check out details on Twitter (@SMBFW) or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/smbftw ).

Are these efforts moving us in the right direction, and if so, what can we do to build on what’s already in progress? If not, what strategies will redirect us toward reclaiming physical interaction?

Today’s rant: Get off my road!

Or: My way is the highway.

From today’s News-Sentinel:

Bicycles, mo-peds and buggys, if they are going to use the highways, they need to have plates, insurance and a safety flag sticking up so they can be seen.

And if pedestrians, pets, mailmen and woodland animals are going to dare cross a street, they must wear blaze-orange vests and blast air horns, just in case approaching motorists are distracted by the radio, cell phone and/or mascara applicator.

Evidently not needed: Motorists to pay attention while driving.

A better Barr Street, or a barren one?

We at The Good City are all for downtown development, but I wonder if the improvements happening on Barr Street will have anything more than a cosmetic effect.

Above is the artist’s rendition of what the area will look like. The Journal Gazette said this:

Over the next three months, the city will fulfill a plan to make Barr Street more attractive with new trees, sidewalks, streetlights and curbs.

The streetscape project is part of downtown improvement plans and will enhance the Cultural District on the east side of downtown.

The city of Fort Wayne says this was a good street to develop:

City officials selected this area for investment because of the buildings already in place — Fourth Wave, the History Center and Barr Street Market, Renaissance Square and the First Source building.

“We don’t want to put in new trees and sidewalks in an area that could soon be under construction,” said Redevelopment Director Greg Leatherman. “Since this section of Barr Street is already developed, it was a perfect place for us to put these ideas into action.”

The street is developed, but consider how it’s developed. Below is a photo:

The street is not much more than parking lots and blank walls. On one side, the First Source building offers the street enormous garage doors. On the other side is a blank brick wall.

A block south, the Renaissance Plaza building is no better with its mirrored windows.

As David Sucher writes in City Comforts, a pedestrian friendly street is lined with buildings with permeable walls — this connects the inside of the building to the sidewalk.

In the artist’s rendition at the top, the white pavilion with tables and people is now a parking lot — but there are no real plans for anything but a parking lot.

And without on-street parking, Barr Street remains very wide. That encourages drivers to speed and discourages pedestrian traffic.

Hopefully, the trees and curbs will help. But with buildings and parking lots that discourage pedestrians, the Barr Street experiment won’t bring a lot of pedestrians to the street.

One-way vs. two-way streets

The citizens of Richmond, Va., last year had a vigorous discussion about converting downtown one-way streets into two-way streets.

The Urban Richmond blog took some time to break down some of the arguments for and against such a conversion. The arguments are nowhere near cut-and-dried either way.

The blog divides up the arguments like this:

Reasons for converting to 2-way streets:

  • Slower traffic speeds.
  • Decrease “Vehicle Miles Traveled” by eliminating indirect routes (driving around the block to get to your destination).
  • Increased access to businesses.
  • Possibly: safer for pedestrians.

Reasons for maintaining 1-way streets:

  • Conversion is very costly.
  • 1-way streets allow for more cars, thereby decreasing congestion.
  • Easier than 2-way streets to time stoplights (timed lights improve traffic flow and decrease idling (& therefore pollution)).
  • Fewer turn prohibitions.
  • More on-street parking.
  • Possibly: safer for pedestrians.

The author of the blog lamented that so much of the information for or against conversion to two-way streets was highly partisan. But he did link to some studies he thought were more balanced:

Downtown Streets: Are We Strangling Ourselves on One-Way Networks?

Published by the Transportation Research Board, the article … argues that 1-way street networks provide many more possible types of street intersections. … 1-way street networks increase the variety and kind of conflict points creating more confusion for pedestrians and motorists.

A MICROSCOPIC SIMULATION STUDY OF TWO-WAY STREET NETWORK VERSUS ONE-WAY STREET NETWORK

This article says, “The additional turning movements for a one-way street network increase the occurrences of vehicular-pedestrian conflicts at any given intersection, and also result in a system-wide increase in vehicle mile of travel (VMT) as compared to a two-way street network.” In other words, you have to turn more on a 1-way street network, and therefore have more chances of running over people.

No Two Ways About It: One-Way Streets are better than Two-Way.”

The most convincing evidence produced in this paper by The Center for the American Dream of Mobility and Homeownership is that pedestrians were hit more frequently after streets were converted to 2-way in several downtowns in the U.S.

Urban Richmond would like to see more empirical data for the conversion of one-way streets to two-way, and so would I. Are there any more studies that any can point out that can help a citizen think rationally about the topic of pedestrian safety? And what do you think?

— Photo by z6p6tist6 on Flickr

Walkable urbanism

Can walkability save a downtown? Christopher Leinberger in his new book, “The Option of Urbanism,” makes just such a case.

This column by author Neil Peirce begins with a little suburban history lesson:

(A)fter World War II, with Americans’ rush to thousands of new suburban locations, a never-before-seen norm appeared. Leinberger calls it “drivable sub-urbanism.” And what a market smash it proved, offering Americans a sense of freedom, mobility, privacy, their own piece of turf and a yard for the kids to play. Plus plenty of jobs and profits, from autos to oil to real estate to fast food. …

But in the 1990s, the model began to lose some of its luster. Suburbia’s big parking lots and low-density zoning meant an auto for every trip. Walking and transit were impractical. Older suburbs began to decline, inducing families to drive farther and farther to new suburban rings. Thousands of malls and shopping strips were abandoned. Traffic congestion — and Washington is no exception — became so severe that many families were obliged to build their lives around it. Kids had to be driven everywhere. Vehicle miles driven in America shot up a stunning 226 percent from 1983 to 2001, while population increased just 22 percent.

The suburbs aren’t going to go away, of course. But more recent trends may begin to favor the more traditional urban model:

(W)alkable urbanism has demographics going for it. The share of U.S. families with children at home has been declining sharply; the largest household growth will be empty nesters, never-nesters and singles, many likely to look to cities and their excitement. And cities, competing, will likely keep heeding advice to lure creative young professionals; in fact, those that don’t offer true walkable urbanism, Leinberger suggests, are “probably destined” to lose out economically.

You can read Peirce’s entire article and then visit Leinberger’s Web site, with links to dozens of PDFs of stories about walkability in different cities, such as Dallas and Detroit.

Hat tip: DFWB · Photo by Moriza on Flickr