Saturday, October 09, 2010

John King's Icon-Mania

John King, the "urban design" critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, once again provides a perfect example of how ignorant modernist critics are of the fundamentals of urban design.

His latest column is about an overpass near the Pleasant Hill BART (rail transit) station, going over Treat Boulevard. Like a typical modernist, he thinks of the overpass purely as an esthetic object, a sort of abstract sculpture:

"instead of tapering inward, as is common for bridges of this type, the arches fan outward from the deck.... From the street, it's as if enormous silver bows were poised above you. On the deck, you move amid sculptured butterfly wings ... Robert I. Schroeder Overcrossing shows what an icon can be."

Anyone who has the slightest idea of how cities work will have a very different reaction when they look at this picture of the overpass.

On the far side of Treat Boulevard, you can see the transit village next to the BART station. The transit village has stores facing the sidewalk of Treat Boulevard, but anyone who uses this overpass will touch ground far beyond that sidewalk. This overpass makes it more likely that the sidewalk will be empty of pedestrians and the storefronts will be vacant.

There is an office park right across Treat Boulevard from the transit village. It would be very convenient for people from the office park to walk across the street to the stores in the transit village. But in order to use the overpass to get there, they would have to walk about a half-block away from Treat Boulevard to the place where the overpass touches down on their side, and after crossing , they would have to walk a half-block back to get to the stores. They would have to walk two blocks out of their way to get to the stores right across the street - and instead, most of them will find it more convenient to drive somewhere to do their shopping.

In addition to not working for pedestrians, the overpass does not work as placemaking. Anyone on the sidewalk of Treat Boulevard feels like they are next to a freeway, a street so dangerous that you need an overpass to cross it. (Almost anyone: the only exceptions are architecture critics who do not notice the dangerous traffic and narrow sidewalk because they are contemplating the esthetics of overpass design.)

They could have made the crossing safer and made the street more pedestrian-friendly for much less than the cost of this overpass. Notice in the picture that the intersection has free-right-turn lanes to speed up traffic at the intersection. In addition, though you cannot see it in the picture, the sidewalk is cut back in front of the transit village to speed up cars making a right turn there.

The obvious first step to make this intersection more pedestrian friendly is to eliminate the free-right-turn lanes and the cut-back in the sidewalk, in order to slow cars down by giving them a tighter turning radius and give the transit village a full sidewalk for the customers at its stores. In addition, they could retime the traffic lights to slow traffic a bit and to give pedestrians more time to cross. These minor changes would encourage more people to walk across Treat Boulevard to shop.

Currently, the world of urban design is split between New Urbanists, who want to design good places for people to be, and avant gardists, who want to create striking sculptural objects.

What I have said about this intersection is very basic New Urbanist design, and it is very obvious to anyone who cares about creating good places for pedestrians.

But the Chronicle's urban design critic does not think for a moment about placemaking or about pedestrians. He does not even notice the obvious fact that, to use this overpass to get to the shopping across the street, people in the office park would have to walk two blocks out of their way.

If you want to know the one thing that he does think about, you do not even have to read his article. It is enough to read its title "Footbridge an Elegant New Icon."

see John King's article at