Walk Score: “Car-Dependent”

The greatest thing about living in Melbourne city was that anything I needed was within easy reach. I could access everywhere by foot or a short tram ride at most, and having a car was unnecessary. In fact, I used a car so infrequently that it took me six years to gain enough driving practice (120 hours) to get my driver’s license. I have gotten so used to the convenience of a walkable lifestyle that I had to travel half way across the globe to realize how much I miss it. That’s not to say that Seattle is not a walkable city, but where I currently live, on the hills of Redmond, it is most certainly far from walkable.

A couple of the articles we recently read mentioned the site “Walk Score” which rates the walkability of different cities and neighborhoods. Out of curiosity I looked up my address on the site and, unsurprisingly, it returned an appalling walk score of 23 out of 100. The property was identified as “Car dependent”, meaning that “almost all errands require a car”. The walk score for Redmond overall was only slightly better at 44, which is still considered “car dependent” compared with the “very walkable” Seattle at a score of 74. Looking at the walkability map on the site (see map bellow) confirmed my gut feeling that neighborhoods further from town centers in the region score much lower than neighborhoods within Seattle and around the retail cores.


It seems to me that there is an obvious correlation between the density of the neighborhood and its walkability. Our 3,800SF rented mansion sits on a 13,200SF lot, compared with the Seattle median home size of 1,520SF[1] with an average lot size of 5,000SF. It’s simple, larger houses, on larger lots, means fewer households per neighborhood. This in turns makes it difficult to reach the density required to provide the kind services which would make the neighborhood more walkable, like a corner grocery shop or a local café. This low density also makes it difficult to justify conveniently located, frequent public transport.  We do have a bus stop within 15 minutes’ walk of our house, however, the bus comes only once an hour and takes 20 minutes to get to downtown Redmond and 45 min to Bellevue. In the few times I caught this bus, there were on average three other passengers on the bus. So I can certainly understand why it would not make sense to increase the frequency of the service. But it is still frustrating when a ten minutes car ride takes an hour. And if a person like me who is accustomed to use public transport is finding it increasingly cumbersome, how can we hope to encourage more residents to reduce their car usage?

If it was up to me, the simple solution would be to just live in a higher density urban environment like Fremont or Queen Anne. Unfortunately I didn’t have much say in choosing my current address. I live with my partner and four close friends who all work for Microsoft and often carpool the short commute to work. For the majority of our household, our location is convenient, and the large house means we don’t get in each other’s way, while still being together. But from what I’ve seen, we are not the average household in our neighborhood. This makes me wonder how the average sized 2.3[2] person household in Redmond can justify this kind of density. As we move towards a higher awareness of the importance of sustainability, it would be interesting to see how living in this “car dependent” family neighborhood would inform the sustainable values of the next generation.

Those Maddening Bus Bulbs

A blog in the Seattle Times yesterday caught my eye, alerting me to an interesting issue that I was completely unaware of – RapidRide bus bulbs. For those also unaware of what these are, I’ve included a graphic. These bulbs are constructed, at a cost of $100,000 each, with the idea that buses won’t have to pull over and waste precious secondsbulb-graphic after picking up passengers to navigate back into traffic. The City of Seattle and King County Metro view these bulbs as a tool to “tip the time scales toward transit, at the expense of individual drivers.”

These bulbs are being built close enough to the intersection that drivers following the bus get caught in the middle of the intersection, and/or they are unable to get through the intersection on a green light. As should have been expected or predicted (with very little effort), these bulbs are provoking motorists into passing the buses using the oncoming traffic lanes – not to mention increasing the stress and time associated with navigating to or from wherever it is they’re traveling. In short, these bulbs are causing an uproar, and rightfully so. Even worse, more of these bulbs are in the works as the City moves to carry out the new master plan that promotes these in-lane bus and streetcar stops.

Many motorists think the City and Metro are wasting money – and a lot of people’s time. I agree. Although I agree with the notion (and natural shift) of more people taking transit to work or to run errands, there will always be the need (for the foreseeable future, at least) to maintain current infrastructure that allows for efficiently getting people from point A to point B. Not everyone can ride the Metro. If the City and Metro continue with this plan, they should also expect that drivers are going to continue illegally passing these buses in those oncoming traffic lanes in addition to people generally being more stressed and angry during the commute – perhaps leading to more instances of road rage. I think this situation is creating more danger for everybody.

In addition, I’m curious if anyone actually took the time to study not only the time and travel impacts to those non-bus riding drivers, or if they looked at the bigger picture of impacts to air quality through potentially increased greenhouse gas emissions – overall increasing our collective transportation carbon footprint.

New attempt to solve the shortage of bicycle parking lot

Recently, number of commuter by bike and walk has been increasing in response to the heightened awareness of healthy living, as well as the trend of living proximity to working place. These bike commuters create new problem in the prime office area. Increasing bike commuters cause the problem of shortage of bike parking lots. These bicycles are parked on the street and preventing the pedestrian walking and impair the city landscape.
This time, I’d like to think about this problem and introduce one idea which are converted car parking lot into bicycle parking space. Marunouchi area, where is one of the most prestigious office areas in Tokyo, has been suffering from increasing of bicycle parked on the public road. Land price of Marunouchi area is extremely high, and it’s in quite convenient location to commute by train or subway. For these reasons, bicycle commuters are not expected from the design stage, and the bicycle storage is not sufficient secured. However, due to increase of bicycle commuters, the problem of lacking bicycle parking is getting more serious in recent years.
Under these circumstances, conversion from unoccupied parking lot into bicycle parking has been attracting attention. Comparing the lack of bicycle parking space in office area, car parking lot is under oversupply due to decreasing of the number of company cars. Recently, Japanese companies have been intent on cutting cost and have decreased the number of company cars. In other words, this is an attempt to compensate decreasing parking demand by increasing bicycle demand. Actually, one parking company in Marunouchi converted their some parking spaces into bicycle spaces, and succeeded in attracting many bike commuters despite the high monthly charge, US$180. Given that the monthly car parking charge in Marunouchi area is around $700, conversion of car parking space into bicycle parking seems to make business sense. However, in fact these diversions are not carried out a lot, because building regulation prescribes parking ratio and restrict to convert from parking lot into bicycle parking space. Regarding this issue, I think the government should be flexible, because usually the conversion from parking lot into bicycle space require little change the building structure.
In fact, Kyoto-city also had a similar problem, lack of bicycle parking. Bicycles parked on the road deteriorated city landscape. Kyoto-city seriously accepted this lack of bicycle parking problem since many tourists visit Kyoto and keeping beautiful landscape is essential for them. In conclusion, Kyoto-city founded the grant to convert car parking lot into bicycle parking space, and prompt conversion. Now, the number of bicycle parked on the road drastically reduced to one-third.
I think it is urgent task for both private developer and the government to increase bicycle parking spaces in office area in order to cope with increasing number of bike commuters.
Below pictures show converted parking space and road parked bicycles in Marunouchi .

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michigan pride

Reading about the two articles on Hantz’s view of Detroit, I was transported back to my visits to that city which were back in the depths of the recession: 2010 and 2011. The article portays it as entirely a city in decline. I do concur. but I would think there’s a argument for not allowing conversion of deserted buildings and public land into agricultural tree parks by any one single enterprise. THe issue is not a decline of Detroit but a case of no people.

The first time I had a chance to visit Detroit, it was on a weekend to visit the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), and the second time was a trip to check out downtown. Admittedly both trips were downtown and not to the shadier parts of town (which there no doubt are) and my trips were also during early Fall – to Woodward Ave in Detroit.   Woodward is basically the main thoroughfare through to the city in a N-S direction. Comerica Park (where the Detroit Tigers MLB team play) and Wayne State University are both along it, and there are medium rise buildings all along its length which heads into downtown – and where many of the big 3 car manufacturers HQs are. With that in mind, Woodward is not an significant sidestreet and there really should have been more people, more cars.

However, the feeling I had on both occasions was that of an empty city. It was like walking through a scene from the movie ‘I Am Legend’ or similar apocalyptic films, where a city’s population is completely gone: There was really that few people around. Detroit with wide streets and delapidated buildings appears in many ways, a prime location for that sort of movie. With the lack of people around, and a lack of activity on the street the vandalism rate and amount of crime is rather high. Two memories stay with me clearly: behind the DIA I was approached in broad daylight by a meth addict who rather forcefully tried to trick me into donating to some obscure charity. She had the appearance of a meth addict – wizened, crazy features, terrible posture and teeth decaying. She talked like it too. Whilst I was almost prepared to donate a $5 to the lady (i was a little bit blind to some of these things), my girlfriend who was with me at the time and scared out of wits – urgently pointed out that she was definitely a fake – the lady had no ID tag, her donation pages were cheap photocopies, and she was absent of all things – a donation tin. Extricating myself from there, things almost got nasty, and she actually followed us halfway to our car. Luckily this was broad daylight and there were a few other people around. But i was alerted to the lack of safety in Detroit.

Juxtapose that with the nearby townships to Detroit. Both times I was staying in Ann Arbor (where the University of Michigan is) which is about 40 miles away but may as well have been in a different country for how different it is to Detroit. Life fills the Ann Arbor area, it is extremely walkable in the downtown area, and this town is a magnet for economic activity not least due to the UofM. Undoubtedly, helped though more with the feel of a large town than  I also visited some of the other towns surrounding Detroit – Troy, MI and Bloomfield, MI and these places are also hives of activity though not necessarily that walkable

Detroit is nothing like a tourist destination, and their economy has been wracked by many of it’s industries declining in relevance and economic viability- unlike Ann Arbor which has had the UofM to be its bellwether against economic decline. Plans like Hantz farms help with making Detroit more livable – by removing/turning blighted areas into essentially tree parks, at a later point some have said hardwood timber farms. However there are better solutions. Critics have raised a valid concern that not everyone can purchase a public asset at such firesale prices and benefit from it. Why not let ordinary citizens purchase some of this land? That is what is missing from Hantz’s plan – which has been portrayed as a land grab at fire sale prices.

Could the federal government help with some sort of subsidy? Or could the land remain in the public trust (as has been mentioned in some of the articles) but be converted into something better by receiving some sort of tax increment financing? Of course, the issue is a financial one – see http://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2013/02/21/detroit-tops-2013-list-of-americas-most-miserable-cities/ . Detroit is in massive need of funds and can’t actually do much by itself without having some serious money to put to the problem.  Given that the City has no money to pay and would hence need some sort of loan from the federal government – any bond raised for tax increment financing by Detroit is as good as being a junk bond.

The population exodus (detroit lost 160,000 residents last year) is a major issue. Why not grant land to the people? Incentivise those who are on the margins of considering Detroit by creating flexible zoning ordinances to allow urban farming not just by one big enterprise but by several smaller ones? Perhaps a crowdsourced syndicate of people interested in buying the land could benefit here? An extreme solution would be a system of land grants – controversial but has been done – though not since over 100 years ago. That would certainly be a boost to the population.

Several times I had the chance to partake in a conversion with Michigan residents – particularly college students in Ann Arbor who visit Detroit once in a while. One thing struck me: Michigan Pride. Watching the Superbowl a few years ago with them, the Chrysler 200C ad set in Detroit came to the fore: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKL254Y_jtc , the crowd cheered louder for that ad than the teams they were supporting.

Detroit has more to offer than just slums and abandoned streets. It has Michigan residents who care about the once great Motor City and want to do something about it, why not let them partake in its future golden era.

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Great Park!

During a recent discussion on parks in Seattle, I came to the defense of the Seattle Parks Department. I argued they have created some great parks by pointing out how there is one small park in Seattle that fits in well with the site and creates a great place for neighbors to use. This park is called the Fremont Peak Park. The Seattle Parks Website has a short history of how the park came to be.

Turns out this park had a mix of funding sources including funds from the “Pro Parks Levy, King County Conservation Futures Tax, Neighborhood Matching Fund
and community fundraising.”  The Seattle Parks website also gives credit to the Friends of Fremont Peak Park community group for “spearheading” the development.

So, I was wrong to pick this park as a glorious example of how great the Seattle Parks Department does in their design and execution of parks in our fair city.  Instead this is a good example of how partnerships with public departments and neighborhood groups do work! So we should give our parks department credit for working with the variety of parties using a variety of funding sources to create a great place.


The project did win some awards and was designed by GGLO.  Check out this link for photos and a site map.

Photo from GGLO Website http://www.gglo.com/our-work


Waste not

Chapter 4 of the A Carbon City and associated articles talk about the concept of ‘waste not’ – creating compact, sustainable, low cost buildings that last – both with a smaller carbon footprint, and oftentimes easier on the hip pocket too.

In my travels as a project engineer in the construction industry: (off-site) modular building, Lean construction and BIM technologies are three emerging themes in the world of construction and design which tackle the issue of poor design, and poor construction processes that result in too much material,  too much waste.

For the uninitiated BIM is a set of technologies revolving around CAD design and forms the link essentially between design and construction. A whole cottage industry which many designers are familiar with includes software tools like Revit, Navisworks, Rhino and ArchiCAD. What these tools do is essentially designing and modelling of the building – so more of it gets figured out before any work commences. This results in higher productivity, better buildings, better design, faster construction times, lower cost and of course more sustainable buildings. Some estimates are that post-construction is typically when 80% of the lifecycle costs are expended, and a better design (like LEED technologies) – Along with better use of the building of course would help make a significant inroads into helping sustainability – and reduce the impact of energy use during the building operation.

Utilised correctly theres a whole other field of tools in use that help streamline the building process that help the other 20%- the construction end..In my experience this has been seen through collaboration technologies – such as Aconex (in Australia), Viewpoint TCS, Latista ( in the US east coast) , 4Site in the UK,  Simply look up construction collaboration and 50 providers will pop up.  The basis of this is that paper is a relic of the 20th century, and that to project manage you need to effectively coordinate information and ensure phasing and sequencing of work activities happens in the right order – with everyone being on the same page at the same time. Countless contractors will point to losing money on work, by having to do rework, and countless building owners will say they blew the budget because they had to make change orders. Waste on the construction site (not including change orders) can be anywhere from 15-30%.

Some wasted work happens because one party didnt get the right communication or is working off documents that are 5 revisions old, these collaboration technologies usually through a graphical interface ensures everyone is on the same page – in realtime. These days using such collaboration technologies means to be efficient, and to be efficient is good practice for all – the contractor, the building owner, and the building occupant. For more information on this area have a look at the blog –  http://extranetevolution.com

Whilst discussing the ‘waste not’ principle two other points come to the fore.

THe first one I will discuss briefly is the LEED certification. LEED, does I believe, measure the actual construction processes and proper counting of waste. LEED is a point system (and if a building reaches a certain number of points- through design, construction processes, and other areas – then it achieves a certain rating (silver, gold, platinum)).. hence chasing this criteria does actually not just make the building itself more efficient (or LEED rated) but also achieves savings through making contractors who are chasing this certification more conscious and diligent in the actual construction phase.

The second point – is an interesting one – offsite modular construction. The premise behind this is again reducing construction costs, and improved sustainability. Reducing construction costs occurs by reducing the time to build, and by using less materials. Through using factory labor and factory processes this is achievable – and the results are faster, cheaper buildings which are usually at a better quality for all involved.

The final point – and referring back to the point in Chapter 4 –  is that usually most of these modular units are smaller ones in line with the fact that multifamily is one of the best arenas to utilize modular construction. A typical modular unit is a 65ft x 16ft sized container which can be stacked and arranged to make the entire building by itself or with another container added to it. This results in a typically home size of 1000gsf but smaller sizes are certainly possible.

I was lucky enough to last quarter visit the Method Homes factory in Ferndale, 100 miles north of seattle for a research study. Method Homes is a new modular builder and their aim is to build cheaper, at a better quality and with more sustainable aims. Construction costs for single family (several modular) units which was their stock in trade at the time was around $150/sf – which results in a typical cost of $150,000 per unit – that apparently is a typical cost for that size of unit – site built or off-site- however with many more iterations to come, the cost psf for method homes would undoubtedly get lower. The most important thing to note given the reduction in material use, wastage was much lower than site built, and the sustainability factor was improved as well.

Offsite modular, combined with BIM and utilizing Lean construction, could result in savings of 30-50% if combined altogether. THese savings result in often smaller, more efficient, cheaper to build and better quality buildings. Which raises an interesting point – all these reduced costs can be seen as resulting in a better bottom line. With this in mind – we waste less on inefficient building and society can better afford more improvements to the things that matter.