Housing
October 29, 2013

David Brooks in Sprinkler City: America before the bust

Further to the report on The Cost of Sprawl, here is a 2002 article from the Weekly Standard:  Patio Man and the Sprawl People, by David Brooks – the Tom Wolfe of Moderate American Conservatism (a practically endangered species, due for a resurgence in a Tea Party-backlash).  Both acerbic and sympathetic, he reports on Sprinkler Cities – “the fast-growing suburbs mostly in the South and West that are the homes of the new style American Dream, the epicenters of Patio Man fantasies.”

Places like Douglas County, Colorado, which is the fastest-growing county in America and is located between Denver and Colorado Springs:

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Henderson, Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas:

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Loudoun County, Virginia, near Dulles Airport:

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The growth in these places is astronomical, as Patio Men and their families–and Patio retirees, yuppie geezers who still like to grill, swim, and water ski–flock to them from all over. Douglas County grew 13.6 percent from April 2000 to July 2001, while Loudoun County grew 12.6 percent in that 16-month period. Henderson, Nevada, has tripled in size over the past 10 years and now has over 175,000 people. Over the past 50 years, Irving, Texas, grew by 7,211 percent, from about 2,600 people to 200,000 people. …

Sprinkler Cities are also generally the most Republican areas of the country. In some of the Sprinkler City congressional districts, Republicans have a 2 or 3 or 4 to 1 registration advantage over Democrats. As cultural centers, they represent the beau ideal of Republican selfhood, and are becoming the new base–the brains, heart, guts, and soul of the emerging Republican party. …

If you stand on a hilltop overlooking a Sprinkler City, you see, stretched across the landscape, little brown puffs here and there where bulldozers are kicking up dirt while building new townhomes, office parks, shopping malls, AmeriSuites guest hotels, and golf courses. Everything in a Sprinkler City is new. The highways are so clean and freshly paved you can eat off them. The elementary schools have spic and span playgrounds, unscuffed walls, and immaculate mini-observatories for just-forming science classes.

The lawns in these places are perfect. It doesn’t matter how arid the local landscape used to be, the developers come in and lay miles of irrigation tubing, and the sprinklers pop up each evening, making life and civilization possible.

The roads are huge. The main ones, where the office parks are, have been given names like Innovation Boulevard and Entrepreneur Avenue, and they’ve been built for the population levels that will exist a decade from now, so that today you can cruise down these flawless six lane thoroughfares in traffic-less nirvana, and if you get a cell phone call you can just stop in the right lane and take the call because there’s no one behind you. …

The town fathers try halfheartedly to control sprawl, and as you look over the landscape you can see the results of their ambivalent zoning regulations. The homes aren’t spread out with quarter-acre yards, as in the older, close-in suburbs. Instead they are clustered into pseudo-urban pods. As you scan the horizon you’ll see a densely packed pod of townhouses, then a stretch of a half mile of investor grass (fields that will someday contain 35,000-square-foot Fresh-Mex restaurants but for now are being kept fallow by investors until the prices rise), and then another pod of slightly more expensive detached homes just as densely packed.

Full essay here.

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Las Vegas was a ground zero for the Great Recession post-2008, and like every moment at the end of one economic era, the failures still mark the excesses of that time.

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The symbol of the last boom has to be, as it usually is, the tallest building: the $2.9-billion Fontainebleau on which construction stopped in 2009 at 70 percent completion, prior to bankruptcy.

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Across the Boulevard from the Fontainebleau is Echelon Place – an unfinished hotel, casino, shopping and convention complex on which construction was suspended on August 1, 2008.

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Construction is expected to resume on these projects, and other parts of the Las Vegas Strip made it through the collapse.  Nonetheless,  Las Vegas is still littered with the detritus.

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Vegas is not unique in this cycle, where an overreaching, speculative era is marked by the bankruptcy of the firm that built the tallest building at the time, usually opened at exactly the wrong moment.

In Vancouver, it was the Dominion Building in 1910, the Marine Building in 1930, and Park Place in 1984.

 

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For more on Las Vegas, check out the current issue of Price Tags here.

 

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Given the dilemma that the Las Vegas Strip faces, having maxed out on both road and sidewalk space, with satisfactory results for neither – what should it do?  One way or another, more sidewalk space must be found, which means taking space from the road, which means that there has to be an alternative for drivers, which means some frequent and practical transit, which means taking more lane space from the drivers.
It can be done.
Back in 2002, a graduate student at UCal Berkeley, Darrin Nordahl, submitted a thesis for his Masters of Urban Design, later published as The Architecture of Mobility: Enhancing the Urban Experience Along the Las Strip.
Darrin has gone on to other good things (Making Transit Fun, Public Produce and other books here), and forunately, Google has made his thesis available online.  Very briefly, here’s his idea:
* Narrow the travel lanes.  At the moment, they’re 12 feet wide.  Reduce them to 11.  (They could even get away with 9.)
* Planted medians range from 8 to 65 feet wide. Lots of room there for redesign.
* Left-hand turning lanes can be as long as 400 feet, suitable for up to 60 cars.  Most often they only need room for about a dozen.
So even without reducing road capacity, there’s room to accommodate more space for pedestrians.  But where?
As Nordahl, notes, the Strip is as long as San Francisco’s Market Street, as wide as the Champs-Elysees, with as much median space as Las Ramblas in Barcelona.  And it is the latter that gave him his inspiration: Create a wide and uninterrupted pedestrian realm down the centre of the Strip, no more than three lanes from either side.

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No need to remove the curb cuts on the existing sidewalks. Pedestrians get better views of casinos on both sides of the Strip.  There’s the opportunity to provide distinctive paving and lighting, more appropriate shade trees, and the possibility of transit easily accessed from both side of the median.

He even comes up with a rather outlandish (hence appropropiate) idea for a tourist conveyor: the San Francisco cablecar bred with the desert tortoise:

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Likewise he proposes over-the-top structures at the intersections to either allow scramble crossings at grade or separation of the peds and cars: A Rialto Bridge near the Venetian or a Brooklyn Bridge at the New, New York intersection, an Arc de Triomphe on a traffic circle near the Paris, “the once proud pink champagne-bubble sign” to recognize Bugsy Siegel at the Flamingo.

Likewise he proposes over-the-top structures at the intersections to either allow scramble crossings at grade or separation of the peds and cars: A Rialto Bridge near the Venetian or a Brooklyn Bridge at the New, New York intersection, an Arc de Triomphe on a traffic circle near the Paris, “the once proud pink champagne-bubble sign” to recognize Bugsy Siegel at the Flamingo.

Nordahl’s scheme may not address all the transport problems facing Las Vegas, but it’s exciting and very much in the spirit of the place – if the place has the spirit and the courage to rethink its public realm from top to bottom, from one side to the other.

If it continues to grow as the City of Entertainment and a major conference centre on the planet, it may not have much choice.  The status quo won’t stay static.  And why not serve the public where the public increasingly is: on foot, coming through the front door.

You’ll know the world has changed, and that Motordom has met a symbolic end, when one day, in the glorious spirit of Las Vegas, they implode one of the unneeded overhead ped walks.

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This series started here.

 

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The Las Vegas Strip,  now rivalling Disneyland and Times Square as one of the most intensely used entertainment zones on the continent, has some choices to make.
It can keep the traffic moving now that it has leveled off  (down from 72,000 vehicles a day on the Strip before the 2008 Recession, to about 65,000 on the busiest stretch).
But the customers coming in the door, by an order of two to one, are more and more coming in by foot – and the Strip will need to find more room for them, while offering what they come to Las Vegas for.  To do that, they need to celebrate and enhance the pedestrian experience.  So far, not so good: wide roads, narrow sidewalks – and both are failing to move the traffic.  But while the Strip is designed to enhance the cruising experience by car, on foot it drags.
Even with most of the overhead pedestrian bridges, there’s no playfulness or extravagence .  Some have chain-link fencing and feel like cattle chutes.

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Revealingly, in a city that loves extravagant lighting, there are no displays on the passerelles – not even, in some cases, any pedestrian-scaled lighting at all.
How can a place with so much money do such a lousy job of the public realm?

The newest casino-resorts – the Bellagio, Venetian and Paris – have tried: wider sidewalks, no curb cuts, treescapes for shade, and something to gape at.  Fountains, canals, towers – and streetscapes that integrate cafes, shopping and amazingly good fake architecture. .

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But eventually they will have to stop fighting the obstructions that can actually enhance the pedestrian experience and get on with widening the sidewalks.  Las Vegas will have to learn from New York – and not just how to serve those on foot but even those on bike.  Yes, Las Vegas might even consider a separated bike lane now that the kind of visitors Las Vegas wants are cosmopolitan, and will have increasingly tried out cycling and bike-sharing systems in other places and will want it as option for their vacation experience.  Can you imagine the politics of that?
Any new option means at least narrowing the existing 12-foot traffic lanes or possibly taking space from motordom for other modes – practically unimaginable in a southwestern American county at this time.
But if Las Vegas wants to remain globally competititve, it will mean offering visitors the option of driving less, not even having to rent a car, because they will have some practical choices.  Including, of course, transit.  If enough people could be moved by transit, taxi and foot, the number of vehicles could continue to drop to the point where the loss of four lanes on a ten-lane arterial could actually improve the flow.
But what would this look like?  Fortunately someone has already figured that out.
Part 7 here.

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There is one over-riding imperative in transportation management on the Las Vegas Strip:  keep the traffic moving.
Las Vegas has bet that it can accommodate ever more vehicles and people – but this gambling town may be reaching its limit: they’ve maxxed out on traffic lanes for vehicles; now they’re trying to squeeze space on the sidewalks for pedestrians.
Last November, the jurisdiction responsible for the Strip, Clark County, received a study that measured what’s happening on their sidewalks:

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The study is rooted in research from the 1970s and 80s – and it shows.  Pedestrians are seen as another form of vehicle, and the analysis assumes the primary purpose of walking is speed.

 …speed is an important level-of-service criterion because it can be easily observed and measured, and because it is a descriptor of the service pedestrians perceive …

So they used a motordom measurement – Level of Service (LOS) – and gave grades to predestrian flow: A to F … green to red … free-flowing to collision.

And sure enough, the problem was determined to be the same ailment that afflicts traffic: unsatisfactory Levels of Service.

For example, here are the sidewalks on a holiday Saturday:

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Red is not good – and there’s a lot of it.  The Strip is becoming what Times Square was: so crowded that walking within the sidewalk space was getting impossible, and people started spilling out into the roadway, taking a lane from the cars.  Interfering with traffic!

But the Clark County analysis never mentioned the obvious: widen the sidewalks.  Taking space from the car – as New York did in Times Square – was clearly never on the table to be discussed .  The study, instead, took the same attitude to the sidewalk as transportation engineers have taken to the road:  Get rid of obstructions that might slow things down.

Most of the recommendations deal with extending and enforcing “No Obstruction” zones – and also with the need to “contain the pedestrians,” as they have in places up and down the Strip, using devices from Jersey barriers to artful fencing (left).

Ironically, some of the obstructions that hinder pedestrian flow are there to ensure that there are no obstructions hindering vehicle flow (right).

By the end of the report, one almost gets the sense that pedestrians are seen as a kind of pest, needing to be contained – especially when there’s a danger that a few might break free and make a run for it:

 

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Solution: build fencing along the medians to discourage any hope of sanctuary.  And of course: build more and wider pedestrian overpasses..

Ah, those pedestrian overpasses.  Las Vegas is already, I’d bet, the capital of passerelles in America.

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All have escalators, to ensure that no one might have to climb a set of stairs …

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… but many of which are “temporarily out of order”:

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Consequently, as they walk between acres of slot machines and gaming tables, from casino to buffet, along the Strip and over the passerelles, Las Vegas tourists may get more exercise than normal without even realizing it.  That may have something to do with why they enjoy the place.

But in the long run, the Las Vegas approach to transportation management isn’t improving either the visitor experience or the traffic flow.  So what should they do?

Part 6 here.

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Las Vegas is Motordom Triumphant.  The city and county have practically from their birth, and certainly in their growth, assumed the dominance of the motor vehicle.
Here’s the first shot I took after arriving on the Strip:

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For most visitors, renting a car is practically compulsory.  But the region is not without transit.  Indeed, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada has tried to provide a targeted transit service to appeal to visitors navigating the Strip – the cleverly named double-decker Deuce (right) and the express SDX – with sparkling buses and affordable extended fares.

But the design of and the space for the regular-service bus stops tell you everything you need to know about how transit is seen in this society: a service for the service workers, or for the poor, the disabled, the young and the old unable to drive.  (We did try the regular service on our first night to get Downtown, and were disappointed when the express simply didn’t show up.)

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Regardless of the quality or frequency of the bus, it’s just another vehicle caught in the traffic: transit has no separate lanes, no priority signals, or few pull-outs or stops with real-time information.
The view from the bus driver’s seat:

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There is a privately-funded monorail on the east side of the Strip, typically a half-kilometre or more from the boulevard, at the back of the casinos, if you can find a station.  We didn’t bother.

The monorail has had an unhappy operating experience, and, at one point in its bankruptcy, did more to discredit this kind of transit than encourage more of it.

There are also a couple of small private monorails connecting casinos owned by the same company.  No longer than a kilometre, they are at least integrated into the complexes and free to use.

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The absence of a dedicated right-of-way for serious high-capacity transit in the place where it is more critically needed – on the Strip itself – indicates that the problem is going to have to get significantly worse, with all other options eliminated, before the inevitable is considered:  a balanced transportation system, where the vehicle is just one choice in a menu of practical alternatives.

 

Part 5 here.

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Las Vegas Boulevard – the ten-lane arterial that services one of the largest entertainment zones on earth – is not a nice place for a pedestrian.  And not just because the sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate the crowds generated by the huge hotel-and-casino complexes that are now close enough together, and in some cases seamlessly integrated, to encourage such surprising behaviour as getting North Americans to walk.
No, one of the other unpleasant realities is this:

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The volume of pedestrians on Las Vegas Boulevard feels like it has reached Times Square levels – but unlike in New York, there is continual conflict with vehicles crossing the sidewalk to access the stores and parking lots behind.  As a consequence of the parking-lot pattern of the previous era – and the sheer number of curb cuts – peds and cars play a continual game of chicken.

Here is one side of one the Strip’s busiest blocks – with a dozen curb cuts:

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And while you might expect in this frontier culture that the car would have or take the right-of-way, that’s not what happens.  The flow of people on feet is so relentless, there’s seldom a break for the vehicles, which then start to back up and obstruct the traffic flow behind them.

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It gets so bad that private security begins to function as traffic cops – and are often simply ignored:

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All this might be alleviated if there were, as in Vancouver, rear lanes from which the parking could be accessed.  But even in new developments, especially those that demand huge floorplates for their casinos, porte cocheres for the hotels and underground parking are still accessed from the boulevard:

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Unbelievably, these driveways are often entered from across the traffic flow, requiring left-hand turns across three or four lanes of oncoming traffic, without signals:

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It’s not just in the casinos that Las Vegas visitors are making big bets.

And it’s not that they don’t know they have a problem. 

Part 4 here.

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Las Vegas for the tourist consists of three parts: the four-mile Strip, the Downtown and the suburbs.

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The majority of the tourist and conference action is on the Strip; Downtown had, like many American cities, fallen on hard times.  Still sort-of-cool, sort-of-depressing, it was the original townsite and gambling district of Las Vegas, prior to the Strip, and still attracts a crowd to the Fremont Street Experience – a quasi-enclosed pedestrian mall, worthy of an analysis all on its own.

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There’s more: an Arts District and Symphony Park with the new Smith Center (below), LV’s outreach to the fine arts, so scrupulously and expensively done in upscale Deco that, regardless of public favour, architects will hate it.  But there’s also a Frank Gehry-designed brain clinic and the vast Jon Jerde-designed World Market Center on the western fringe.

While most of the core is not yet comfortable to walk around, that may change as the area attracts the high-tech crowd, led by Zappo’s CEO, Tony Hsieh, who intends to move his operations from a suburban business park to the old city hall, just as the new Mob Museum occupies, appropriately, the old court house.  (Seriously, it’s really good.)

Anyway, back to the Strip.

Take a close look at the Las Vegas grid, laid out like the rest of the West in one-mile squares, and you can guess at the problem:

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Because of the airport, there are only four east-west arterial roads connecting a huge chunk of east Las Vegas with the north-south freeway – and they cross Las Vegas Boulevard to do it.  Which means a whole lot of through traffic is intersecting with a hundred thousand or so tourists, a lot of whom anticipate having their own wheels to get around.

So no wonder it looks like this:

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That’s not the Boulevard; that’s the ‘side street’ backed up to the freeway at 2 in the afternoon.

And that’s not the worst of it.  There’s another problem inherent in the design of the place that frustrates attempts to keep the traffic moving. 

Part 3 here.

 

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The week: Reflections on Las Vegas.

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Las Vegas is s city of the imagination: we all have a sense of what it’s like.  We’ve been there, through the movies, ads, images, songs and words.

Sure it’s fake – of a very high order.  Yes, it pushes boundaries; excess is the point.  (“What happens in Vegas …” etc.) .  This is where the tourist comes to explore the outer limits of American popular culture, where the ups and downs are higher and lower than anywhere else.  And where Motordom prevails, and always has.

But they’ve got a little problem.

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Too many pedestrians.

In the last couple of decades, the Las Vegas Strip has seen an almost complete reconstruction of the classic desert resorts associated with the Rat Pack, Liberace, Elvis and the Mob. Ten of them – the Dunes, the Sands, the Stardust and more – have been imploded, to be replaced by a dozen or so massive hotel/casinos with three to four thousand rooms each.

What was once this:

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Is now this:

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But my guess is that Las Vegas thinks it’s only a bigger version of this:

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More urban, yes, but still a town to be experienced by car, preferably a stretch limo, where the traffic has to be kept moving 24/7.

So they’ve widened the Strip to ten lanes, removed any curbside parking, prevented any crosswalks at major intersections, constructed overhead walkways for pedestrians, and prohibited taxis from stopping when hailed.  And of course, no special treatment for transit, certainly nothing that would require a separate lane.

This is Motordom Triumphant.

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And it’s failing.

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Part 2 here.

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