Walkable West Palm Beach

Citylab: Street trees improve the wait experience of transit users

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Street trees are one of those low hanging fruit investments that can make all the difference over time, but too often are neglected. Trees don’t have the political appeal of a mega project ribbon cutting, but in terms of building great cities, I’d argue their return on investment is greater without the potential downside of megaprojects.

As if we needed more reasons to prioritize street trees, Eric Jaffe of Citylab posted this article about how trees make waiting for the bus feel shorter and help mitigate for unpleasant conditions such as traffic and air pollution. From the article:

Planting trees around stops offers local authorities an opportunity to significantly improve users’ wait time perception, but falls outside the purview of transit providers themselves. The ability of the presence of trees to compensate for the negative effects of pollution and traffic suggests that planting trees or moving a problematic stop to take advantage of existing tree cover can significantly improve the user experience at reasonable costs.

Because many bus stops in Palm Beach County tend to be located in places with wider rights of way and generous swales (at least compared to downtown WPB), bus stops seem like an ideal place to engage in street tree plantings in order to bolster the appeal of transit. Something for cities and the county to work together on as the Palm Tran Service Board moves forward on building a better bus system.

 

h/t Joe Roskowski


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Andres Duany: Street trees a “technical and social necessity”

You won’t look at street trees the same way after listening to this old clip by Andres Duany, from a lecture given way back in 1989. Andres is entertaining, sometimes controversial, and always worth your time to watch. This whole lecture is great, really, but start the video from minute 42 if you want to skip to the part on street trees. Thanks to Joe Minicozzi for making me aware of this great lecture.


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Increasing tree canopy to reduce street flooding

Today’s guest on Walkable West Palm Beach is Robert Taylor. Robert and his wife Jeanne created the Tree Canopy WPB advocacy group [be sure to like their page!]. Its mission:

Tree Canopy WPB is a grassroots organization whose mission is to outreach to neighborhoods on the benefits and importance of increasing urban tree canopy and to provide support to neighborhoods who engage in tree planting projects.

Robert Taylor’s abbreviated bio: Robert Taylor is a Certified Environmental Professional (CEP) with 35 years of professional work experience.   He is currently with the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) as a Lead Environmental Scientist for the past 12 years.  Mr. Taylor was the recipient of the 2013 US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) Regional Director Honor Award for his contribution to the Everglades conservation project.  He has successfully designed and implemented large scale research projects and authored complex memorandum of understanding between the SFWMD, State of Florida and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. As well, Mr. Taylor and Jeanne Taylor volunteer to assist local communities on the value of trees and green infrastructure projects.

The reasons for urban tree canopy are many. We usually focus on the specialized role of street trees in the urban transect here on Walkable West Palm Beach and their benefits to placemaking. Robert’s article goes in depth into another role street trees play – the substantial environmental and stormwater runoff benefits. This is the type of relatively low-cost, high return on investment project the city can pursue to make West Palm Beach a stronger and more walkable city.

 

 


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Fern Street to become a great street

The City of West Palm Beach is about to begin final design on Fern St. improvements. The project received a grant from FDOT for construction in the amount of $660,000. Kudos to City staff for putting together a successful grant application. In this post we will discuss the design proposal in the grant application and provide some alternative designs for Fern St.

The project hopes to achieve the following for Fern St.:

  • “complete street” offering multiple transportation options
  • pedestrian enhancements
  • beautification enhancements. e.g. landscaping, decorative street lights.
  • better bicycle facilities
  • reduce stormwater discharges

Fern Street has 80′ right of way with 13′ wide sidewalks, two travel lanes, and angled parking. Here is the existing typical section:

fern-st-existing

 

and a Google street view of what most of Fern St. looks like; followed by view of the improved section of Fern from Sapodilla to Rosemary:

Fern_Street_view_ugly

 

Fern_Street_view_publix

The amazing thing is that the two sections of road in the photos above are geometrically identical. Street trees make all the difference. Decorative street lights and patterned / colored crosswalks are nice, but a tree canopy makes a great street.

The City proposed in their grant application to replicate the section of Fern from Sapodilla to Rosemary with the addition of sharrows and bioswales. For those not familiar with bioswales you should check out this video from street films about the Indianapolis cultural bike trail.  One thing to note in the video, is that the cultural trail had long runs of bioswales where no had to step out of  a parked car.

The proposed sharrows, a.k.a. shared lane markings, in the grant application are troubling as it is a well known fact that bicycle facilities shouldn’t be placed in streets with head in parking as cars backing out don’t always see cyclists. If the City wishes to utilize the Fern concept then the solution is to change the parking to head out angled parking. Here is a great video explaining head out angled parking. The problem with head out angled parking is that it can be a tough sell.

Presumably, the City prepared their grant application for Fern prior to All Aboard Florida’s plan to close Datura and Evernia and without the knowledge of the subsequent increase in traffic that Fern will experience.  Painting sharrows, adding street trees, and converting to head out angled parking will make Fern a better street, but it is disingenuous to believe that this will bring any meaningful increase in cycle ridership.  Painting sharrows was probably added to the design so that project scored higher on the grant application. Dedicated bike lanes or cycle tracks provide a much better cycling experience than sharrows.

At walkablewpb we take a holistic view of street design and don’t think that every street in the City needs a bike lane or a protected cycle track. However, the City does need a strategic cycle network. The strategic cycle network as envisioned would be akin to what the interstate highway system was intended to be before it became a tool of suburban sprawl and to paraphrase Enrique Penalosa, it would be built to standards that you would feel safe letting your eight year old ride their bike on. If we are serious about providing a City where a person doesn’t need a car for every errand then one of the most important routes on the strategic cycle network would be from the Tri-rail / Palm Tran bus station to the downtown area and the future All Aboard Florida station. With the proposed closure of Datura and Evernia, Fern street is the only logical street for a continuous east-west strategic connection. Datura and Evernia have merit, but these streets won’t be a straight connection to the proposed north-south strategic cycle network cycle tracks on Tamarind and  Flagler. It should be noted that Evernia is a twin of Fern so that all of the options presented for Fern are applicable to Evernia.

What would Fern St. look like with proper bike facilities? Well, we have developed a smorgasbord of options. The existing 13’ wide sidewalks on Fern are very wide and can be reduced. For a frame of reference the French quarter in New Orleans has 7′ wide sidewalks. If a restaurants were require additional outdoor seating then they could install parklets in on-street parking spaces.

Presented are concepts which keep the 13′ wide sidewalk and those that reduce the sidewalk width to 8’. Inspired by the Ramblas in Barcelona, we have included concepts with a cycle track in the center (median) of the road. There are already a few median cycle tracks in the U.S. Links to existing median cycle tracks are included later in the post. One pattern that emerges from the concepts is that 13′ wide sidewalks support parallel parking on both sides of the street and 8′ wide sidewalks support a combination of  parallel parking on one side of the streets and angled parking on the other side of the street. Once you decide on sidewalk width then it is simply a matter of where you place the parking and the cycle track. For your consideration are the potential options to make Fern St. a great street:

Option #1 – Buffered cycle track with parallel parking on both side of the street:

fern-st-buffered-cycle-track

Simple and effective. The  parallel parking and buffered bike lanes are the exact width of the existing angled parking. For most of Fern all that is necessary is that you restripe the road and add some street trees. Five feet of the 13′ sidewalk has been turned into a bioswale. Moving the parking away from the curb allows for a passenger unloading area that doesn’t conflict with the bioswale.

Option #2 – Buffered cycle track with parallel parking on one side and angled parking on the other side of the street:

fern-cycle-track-w-angled--parallel-parking

Higher parking yield than the parallel only parking options, but with an 8′ wide sidewalk there isn’t room for long linear bioswales.

Option #3 – Median cycle track with parallel parking on both sides of the street.

fern-bike-boulevardFor this option the cycle track is moved to the center of the road and there is now room for additional trees in the median. With on-street parking next the curb line the bio-swale would have to be moved to the middle of the sidewalk which isn’t impossible, but it makes the piping more expensive than placing the bioswale right behind the existing curb line.

Option #4 – Median cycle track with parallel parking parking on one side of the street and angled parking on the other side of the street

fern-st-median-cycle-angle--par-parking

For this option the angled parking will probably have to be placed at 45 degrees since the median reduces the amount of room to back out. The angled parking options without the median will probably be 60 degrees since you have two lanes to back out.

For good measure we have thrown in two options where parking is placed in the center of the street. These design have the highest parking yield since there are no driveways to interfere with parking. The downside to this option is that pedestrians don’t have the buffer of parked cars at the curbside.

Option #5 – Bike lanes with a combination of center angled and parallel parking.

fern-st-bike-lanes---center-parking

  Option #6 – Median cycle track with center parallel parking and bioswales.

fern-st-cycle-track-center-parking--swale

With option #6 you end with long expanses of bioswales at the correct location to receive storm water. These bioswales would very beneficial in providing a buffer for pedestrians on the sidewalk.  Option #6 shows a single tree in the center which would be lower cost to construct than the two tree medians shown in the other options.

There you have it. An evaluation matrix of each option comparing  cost, street tree canopy, parking, pedestrian comfort, stormwater, and cycle facilities should be prepared during the design process and based on the project priorities a design can be chosen. Some options do one thing very well, while others are like goldilocks. Feel free to let us know what design you like in the comments.

Several of the designs presented include a median cycle track. Two recently constructed median cycle tracks are Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC and Sands St. in Brooklyn New York. Sands St. Click on the below images to see these streets in google street view:

Here is another example of  a tree lined multimodal path in the median of downtown Winter Garden, Fl:

Finally, here is the obligatory Parisian example. You have to look carefully as the landscaping hides the bike path in the median.

We hope that the City and their consultant give the median cycle track due consideration.

To reduce stormwater the City should consider pervious pavers. Pervious pavers could be installed in the parking area for those options that don’t have space for bioswales. This would provide stormwater benefits while at the same time providing a texture change between the various realms of the street.

Project priorities. The $660,000 allocated for construction doesn’t go very far. The priorities should be cycle track and getting the street trees in the right location. Everything else can be added later.

City staff has indicated that are just beginning the design of this project. We hope that the City will reach out to the public and improve upon its initial concept.  Again, great job to everyone at the City who obtained this grant.

Finally, if you have read this far then it is worthwhile to read this quote from Jeff Speck’s Walkable City on what would happen if we were to design the typical main street to keep each specialist happy:

First we would need at least four travel lanes and a center turn lane, to keep the transportation engineers happy. These would need to be eleven feet wide – no, wait, make that twelve feet, because the fire chief might want to pass a bus without slowing down. To satisfy the business owners, we would need angle parking on both sides (another forty feet), and eight-foot separated bike paths against each curb for you know-who. Then we would need to add two-ten foot continuous tree trenches to satisfy the urban forester, and two twenty-foot minimum sidewalks for the pedestrian advocates. Have you been doing the math? We now have a Main Street over 175 wide. This is more than twice the normal width and about as efficacious an urban environment as a large-jet runway-and just as conducive to shopping.

 

 

 


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Walk to the grocery store challenge

Strong Towns recently issued a challenge for its readers to walk to the grocery store. The idea is to get out of the car and experience this essential activity from a different perspective that doesn’t involve driving, whether it be walking, biking, or taking public transportation. There will be more of these “Strong Citizens” challenges and the hope is to involve increasing numbers of people in everyday ways to make our communities stronger places. If you have a Strong Citizens idea, you can submit it here.

I’m well situated to walk to the grocery store because my neighborhood makes it an easy choice. Notice I didn’t say “I’m lucky to live near a grocery store”. Living in a neighborhood with a high walk score and low car dependency was very much a conscious choice, a lifestyle choice. I would go as far to say that I choose the kind of place I’d like to live, then choose a job in that place or as nearby as possible. This strategy allows one to be rooted in the community, rather than having little ties to the neighborhood because the experience of it is always behind the wheel of a large automobile.

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Our nearest grocery store is a Publix about 1/3 of a mile from our condo building. It’s a pleasant walk and the easier route is to walk along Rosemary avenue through CityPlace, a New Urbanist mixed use development which offers a covered arcade with outdoor fans along much of the walk, and pretty good shade trees.

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That would be the easy way out, though, and I figured it would be more interesting to blog about the walk taking another route along a lesser street, Fern Street. Fern suffers from a lot of deficiencies: Too wide, curb radius at Quadrille are insanely huge, lack of shade tree cover. It’s not as important in the dry season, but when it’s wet season in South Florida (the other half of the year), walking is a real struggle through the molasses-like humidity and heat. This is the street that most folks need to take, because many of the residents of downtown live on the east side of Quadrille Boulevard, a major arterial and divider between east/west downtown. Due to the impending street closures at Datura and Evernia Streets for the All Aboard Florida rail station being built, Fern becomes that much more important as a connection for people walking and bicycling from the east side of Quadrille to get to the Publix, the only downtown supermarket.

Leaving my residence, a nice row of live oaks along my building is really starting to mature, planted around the time this building was completed I’m certain. The crossing over Quadrille Blvd is downright treacherous, with cars averaging 35-40 mph, and never stopping for pedestrians in the painted crosswalks. Raised crosswalks would have made a world of difference here and actually elevated the pedestrian to a position of respect where drivers might actually stop. I’ve been told sight line requirements also prohibited the City from planting trees between the roadway and the sidewalk, which is best practice for urban planning as it provides a physical barrier between speeding cars and vulnerable human beings on foot, not to mention psychological benefit of feeling safer. It’s just nicer. But it couldn’t be designed appropriately since this is an FDOT road and FDOT can’t tell a highway from a highline.

There’s no light at Fern Street to cross Quadrille Blvd, so you’d better be fast getting to that pedestrian refuge island in the median because the cars ain’t stopping. Not the easiest task for the many senior residents living nearby who walk here everyday. If you want to cross at Hibiscus Street at the light, you may need to walk several blocks out of your way, depending on where you live. Once you make it to the light, you’ll discover the pedestrian button is broken. And even if it did work, you have to contend with left-turning and right-turning cars into your path in what is a very poorly lit intersection. Once you make it to Fern, pray for trees to be planted as you walk the last couple blocks to the corner where the Publix is.

There it is: Nirvana. Raised intersections, curbless, gutter in center of street, brick pavers make Rosemary Avenue a walker’s delight.  Publix is well placed at the corner, with an entrance onto the street as well as from the back parking lot, which is brilliantly concealed by being built below grade. Ample shade trees (live oaks) make the blocks on CityPlace a fantastic public space.

This walk is really the tale of two streets: One maintained by private property owners, the other by the City. The former is comprised of CityPlace and the right of way adjacent to my condo building, which is required to be planted and maintained by the building. The latter is city right of way where redevelopment hasn’t occurred yet – pretty much all the pictures that show poor conditions in the public realm. Even excellent Rosemary Avenue isn’t spared – the City still maintains the trees along it, and they are stunted live oaks that will never reach their potential.

This post probably sounds very critical at this point. It is because I know the area well because I walk it almost daily, and I’m passionate about making it better and safer. I still choose to walk to the grocery store nonetheless. Most of the time I bike there because it makes it that much easier and fun. With an upcoming project slated for Fern Street, there is hope Fern will become a much better street in the near future for walking to the grocery store. How does a street get better? Here’s what we said after Victor Dover’s talk in May:

Who leads in street design? Government. Once a street is designed as a place and investors have certainty, private investment will follow. So much of our public realm is utterly depressing that it does not provide a platform for long-term value, but rather short term gains. Good streets are a public good with benefits that accrue to the citizenry at large and cannot be privatized. Only local government can do this job; in fact, it is at the core of what good local governance is all about. I asked Dover what are some of the best investments a local government can make to provide a quality street, public investments that will attract people and private investment? Street shade trees and bicycling, he said.

 

Walking to the grocery store could be a pleasure, adding to the placemaking potential of West Palm Beach, rather than a challenge. We just need to make the small incremental steps to get there, starting with planting shade trees in the right of way, fixing lighting issues, and repairing pedestrian crossing buttons and timing.

 

 

 

 

 


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We talk downtown WPB with Jeff Speck

[Thanks for coming out last night for ‘Walkable Wednesday’! It was stimulating conversation all around. Next month – same time, different place: J Flynn’s Irish Pub on Clematis at 6 pm on March 26th. And don’t forget tonight’s “c’est la via” event downtown, and Critical Mass this Friday. Follow community building events on the blog calendar.]

Last week, Jeff Speck was in town to start his walkability study of our downtown. As part of this process, he met with stakeholders in the downtown to get up to speed on the facts on the ground, and opinions on what is most needed to improve walkability. Aaron Wormus, Joe Roskowski, Joe Chase, and I met with Jeff at Terebinth, the new art gallery/organic cafe on Dixie and Evernia Street downtown.

If you haven’t read Walkable City yet, put it at the top of your list. I have a copy if you’d like to borrow it. This book along with the Smart Growth Manual are two of the best books for understanding how to make great places for the layperson and they’ve been a big influence.

Here is a recap of the ideas we discussed at the meeting:

First up on the list: Maintenance issues downtown, especially the lack of priority for street shade trees. This is one of the most noticeable detriments to a decent walk.  See this report for a sample of the tree issues the downtown community has identified.  Jeff devotes an entire chapter in Walkable City to street trees, and states: “It’s best not to pick favorites in the walkability discussion – every individual point counts – but the humble American street tree might win my vote.” It’s great to have a renowned urban planner working on this plan for improving our downtown.

Joe Chase discussed the lack of connectivity between Banyan Boulevard/Clearlake office park area and Clematis Street, and the missing bicycle link between these two areas. It may be difficult to improve walkability in this area, but bikeability seems very achievable and an easier fix.

Parking: I made another call for higher standards for surface parking lots downtown. We have an abundance of surface parking lots, poorly maintained and without any landscaping. Our code only requires new surface parking lots to be screened (which we shouldn’t be building more of anyhow) but says little about landscaping and shade tree buffer on existing lots.  We should also consider the feasibility of installing a green wall on the Evernia and Banyan parking garages, as Naples has done. Lastly, require city employees to pay market rate for their parking, or at least provide a parking cash-out. May be politically difficult, but it would be a shot in the arm to Clematis retail. I’ll need another post to go into the reasons why.

Two-way Olive and Dixie. Another idea that deserves its own blog post, and has been kicked around and talked about for years.

Aaron Wormus brought up the Sunset Lounge, and the CRA plan to revitalize it. This led to a discussion about how to reconnect the Northwest neighborhood with neighborhoods to the south and east. We all emphasized the importance of maintaining our street grid, not abandoning streets and alleys. We supported following through on the downtown master plan to create new streets west of Sapodilla and break up the mega-blocks, and creating the frontage road on the west side of the FEC right of way.

Joe Roskowski had much to say about Okeechobee Boulevard and how unpleasant and unsafe an experience it is to cross, on foot or on bike. Everyone strongly agreed. Same goes for Quadrille Boulevard. Even after the FDOT grant project, it maintains a highway speed geometry, with excessively wide lanes, much too wide curbs, and angry drivers who don’t like bicyclists sharing the road.

What would you have told him? Tweet @JeffSpeckAICP.

That’s a recap of the meeting. Jeff’s report is due to be released sometime this summer, most likely in June. Stay tuned – we will need everyone’s help to see that the plan is carried through.


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City of WPB video on the benefits of trees