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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Friday, January 23, 2015

Design Review - Hurdle, Safeguard or a Step towards Excellence?

Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth. (H.L. Mencken, the Libido for the Ugly, 1927)
Neither natural ability without instruction nor instruction without natural ability can make the perfect artist. (Vitruvius, 10 Books on Architecture)
That good design adds value to buildings and, on the urban scale, to entire cities, is an increasingly popular insight, yet, not a new one. Design review as part of development approval has been around for decades, a testament to the importance of good design, despite Mencken's spiteful observation. (One of the oldest review committees may be the Vieux Carre Commission, established in New Orleans in 1936, admittedly for mostly historic preservation, a subset of design review).

In Baltimore the importance of design is recognized with the clumsily named Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel (UDARP) whose predecessors go all the way back to 1964.  Other cities such as Seattle or Philadelphia (2012) started design review much later. The questions this article tries to explore are: Can good design be ordained or achieved through advisory peer review? Are those design reviews effective or are they just a fig leaf, or even worse, an impediment?

We will skip over the deeper questions such
Design Review in Baltimore: Mixed use tower at the
Inner Harbor, review of massing models (photo: Philipsen)
as what design is, what is meant by good design or aesthetics, what the government rights are for regulating design in the context of free speech or what the delineation between urban design and architecture is. All these questions bedevil not only drafters of the development codes that establish design review but can get in the way of any given review itself. Instead of a scholarly approach, what is attempted here is simply an overview of how design oversight is practiced in cities around the country combined with some local observations about the practicality, effectiveness, and pitfalls of design review in the everyday arena of review panels and boards.

In most cases design review is embedded in the overall development review process through which any project has to go before a building or construction permit is issued. For those who think development should be facilitated and streamlined, design review is just another hurdle on the path to plan approval and construction. A hurdle that some pro-urban development advocates say cities can ill afford since cities are already disadvantaged compared to "green fields" and suburban or rural jurisdictions with fewer regulations and complications.
The long way from concept to construction: Baltimore's
development review process

On the other hand, no urbanist would deny that indeed, good design matters, and that great cities cannot emanate from badly designed buildings. How important good design really is in the this time of cut-throat competition for markets, residents and a highly educated workforce can be seen in a recent TED talk by ULI Fellow Ed McMahon. He speaks mostly about authenticity, open space, and preservation, but the very same arguments could and should be made for excellence of new construction. Still, can't good design be achieved with good zoning, with design guidelines and masterplans, especially in our age of form-based codes, new-urbanist zoning, performance zoning and all kinds of incentives? Wouldn't regulations that prohibit certain things be predictable and bring about good design while avoiding arbitrary decisions or favors?

No, say the proponents of design review.  No matter how well defined zoning, masterplans or planned unit development guidelines are, good design cannot be ordained or regulated. Not only is the definition elusive – like pornography, one knows it when one sees it – but design by regulation would also be stifling, prohibit innovation and exclude the element of the unpredictable that is so essential to design. The more refined design guidelines are, the more predictable and bland the outcomes. This may be a safeguard against really bad design but is hardly a recipe for excellence.  In fact, Baltimore's attempt to include design guidelines in a draft of the new zoning code, met with vehement opposition of the urban design committee of the local American Institute of Architects (AIA) which I co-chair. Overly specific images seemed to ordain traditional architectural style and "compatibility" with existing surroundings. Compatibility is a favorite of design guidelines around the world and essentially ask for "more of the same", as such this requirement is a formula for blandness and isn't even good for historic districts where one can see in the best historic neighborhoods how diverse and non-compatible good architecture has always been. (Ill conceived design guidelines would present in themselves fertile ground for a separate article). This verdict on detailed, specific and prescriptive design guidelines means that one needs the flexibility and discretion of a panel or board that sees and reviews actual project designs. Only with a review of real drawings can one judge if a design is good, suitable and acceptable in a given setting. In other words, instead of simple checklists one needs also jidgment and trial and error.
Boston's road-map through the development process

Clearly, the approach of subjecting a design to a review by peers, administrators or the public, exposes owner and architect to a potentially very subjective procedure that poses risks to both because of its unpredictability. Owners often dread design review because presentations, particularly those that do not pass muster with the board, cost real money, especially once one adds the cost of necessary modifications and additional presentations. Architects dread design review because they sometimes feel they are back in architectural studio in school, with their peers going on and on about "parti, composition, materiality and context," all terms much loved by architects and without much meaning for the rest of the world. Worse, the peers may not be qualified, or could be frustrated designers getting out their envy on some big name architects and their projects just because they can. On the other hand, a good design review can strengthen the architect's hand for a strong design, and might make the difference in the case of a doubtful owner. Design review as part of a public process also adds transparency and allows neighbors, community representatives and the press access to projects, ideas, and concepts as they evolve.

With such opposing views it becomes abundantly obvious that the devil is in the details. How much so was well illustrated ironically on the AIA's own National Headquarters in DC was reviewed by the federal Commission of Fine Arts and the original design didn't pass because of the vigorous objections of renowned fellow architect Gordon Bunshaft of SOM. If the process is badly conceived and executed, design review can easily become all the bad things while a well designed process with highly qualified reviewers can avoid the pit-falls and elevate the design of a city. 
Seattle's design review process

To achieve the desired outcomes, the process of design review needs to be based on a number of good principles that establish who reviews, what and when and what criteria are used. Here some of the basics:

Who should review?

Who would be better qualified to do a design review than peers? In Baltimore and in many other cities like Toronto the peers consist of appointed professionals in the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture and planning. (Toronto also seats an engineering and a sustainability expert on a somewhat larger panel). Sometimes there is also representation of city agencies such as the Planning Department and the economic development agency. In the case of Baltimore the agency representatives give the appointed members a wide berth. The appointed members usually come from outside of town or from academia so to not run into to many conflicts of interest in local development. Some other cities such as Seattle and Cleveland emphasize the professional aspect less in favor of the participatory one. Both cities have extensive reviews all across the city with seven review committees which also include citizens. In the case of Seattle, citizens representation is divided up into residential, retail and development representatives and the professional is only one among the others. I think that design review should not be conflated with community input; they are two different things, each viable and necessary in its own arena.

When should design review begin?

Nobody will deny that development in a city is a political process that involves many more layers than adherence to regulations. Many projects require land acquisition, sometimes through eminent domain, others require infrastructure improvements, like roadways or bridges, often times funded through tax increment financing, bonds and the like, and still other projects may receive direct subsidies. Critics find the process often less than transparent.  Would a design review that begins before all the other deals are done add transparency? By coupling design review to the decisions on support and regulatory exceptions, etc., the thinking goes that communities and the public would have more leverage. Another argument for an early start of design review is that design is much driven by the site, zoning and the like and that a design review that starts after those decisions are made has let the horse already out of the barn.  On the other hand, during site plan review so many variables are still unresolved that design is still very basic and offers little that can be critiqued. In a recent example for a large mixed use tower along Baltimore's waterfront, the presenting out-of-town design team took just that approach and presented in their first "introductory session" only variations in massing models with the express purpose to include the review panel early on. If design review starts early it becomes inevitable that the review process would need to have at least two rounds, probably a good idea for any meaningful "give and take."
A residential tower on a former industrial site at the Inner
Harbor: Design Approved (Solomon Cordwell Buenz)

What type projects should be reviewed?

Most major cities do not require that everything that is built be reviewed by a design review board. In Baltimore a distinction is made depending on project size; smaller projects may just receive a staff review. Baltimore also has a so called "Site Plan Review" as part of a typical development review process, a review by staff that precedes UDARP review and was originally limited to site issues such as circulation, orientation, access and parking but now includes zoning, masterplan review, fire safety and other regulatory review. In Baltimore, if site plan review is required, design review becomes mandatory as well. Staff will decide whether a session with the whole UDARP review panel is needed or staff review suffices. Other cities limit review to very large projects (Philadelphia) downtown or to projects that require variances, have city subsidies or otherwise require special treatment such as Planned Unit Developments (PUD). Toronto put special emphasis on the influence projects have on the public realm. Portland, OR allows applicants the choice to follow strict design guidelines (in the so-called "design districts) or submit themselves to a project design review.

What should be subjected to review?

In Baltimore, urban design and architectural design will be reviewed as well as landscape design and site design. The overlap with already noted site plan review is intentional, whereby the review panel represents the higher level of scrutiny. Most design review panels will only review the exterior of buildings, a line that cannot always be neatly held since good architecture expresses the functions and interior logic on the exterior of the building which requires at least explanations of the interior design. In cities with a multi-stage review like Baltimore (minimum two presentations) the items that get reviewed become more detailed in the second review and include signs, lighting and materials. The attention to detail is one of the strongest arguments for design review since the myriad of details are almost entirely impossible to cover adequately in design guidelines. 
Boston  designguildelines for commercial storefronts

What should the review criteria be?

The question of review criteria is maybe the most important one. Sound criteria can make the review process more predictable, less arbitrary and combine the advantages of review boards while avoiding the negatives. It seems that criteria and metrics can work especially well in the realm of urban design where criteria can be derived seamlessly from regulations, guidelines and masterplans that address setbacks, massing, orientation, uses, parking and the like. Criteria should be performance-based so they are not a template for design and still avoid undesirable outcomes such as blocked views, an uninspiring public realm, overpowering scale clashes, poor place making or lack of landscaping, etc. By contrast, prescriptive criteria would prescribe style, materials or certain forms, all areas that should generally remain free for the designer to choose even in historic districts. As already explained, compatibility is an undesirable and "lazy" criterion, especially when a live review takes place in which a design can prove if it is able to thrive on contrast and add the vibrancy that often comes from diversity. As for all metrics, there isn't one hard and fast "a priori" rule, the exact reason why design review by peers is a good idea in the first place. It is the balance of flexible but clear criteria and the live review that is the formula for success. Absent good criteria, design review can become arbitrary and capricious and devolve into a fruitless expression of opinions that will give the designer little guidance.

What should the power of the review board be and what the consequences?

Review boards are typically advisory to the Planning Commission or the Planning Director with stronger regulations requiring the involvement of the review board but not giving them veto power. Appeals may be possible but the appeal would address those bodies who are empowered by the city charter to make final decisions, not the review board. 


I have attended many Baltimore's UDARP sessions as presenter and as listener. Together with the local AIA, I was involved in the reform of the review process leading to the current form in 2007. I also served for ten years on Baltimore County's Design Review Panel and did design reviews as a Borough Council member in Germany. From those observations I see mostly cordial proceedings in which the presenting architects gladly explain their design approach. In most cases the design team acknowledges that the review has helped them to think their design through in a more thorough way or in the consideration of factors that they may not have seen on their own such as other nearby projects, public works plans or the history of the site for which earlier projects may have been designed that fell through.

With Baltimore's renaissance shifting into higher gear, bigger, better and more elaborately designed projects become more frequently the subject of the reviews, often times presented by highly regarded local or out-of-town firms. The more reputable the firm, the more deferential the peer reviewers. Still, the questioning is often relentless and frequently for a good reason because even the best designers overlook things or create weak spots. Once in a while a poorly designed project gets really ripped. In that case, the review results in a rejection that requires the team to come back with an altered design without advancing to the next level. 
Steven Gorn of Questar presenting at UDARP
(photo:The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Even though panelists sometimes enjoy pontificating or showing off, overall comments and discourse improve design and resolve unfortunate design features that occur even on the best and well thought out designs, often times by inadvertently overlooking certain views or exposures that require good local knowledge. "Second tier" east coast cities like Baltimore, hobbled by economic restructuring, and with a large historic building stock are often quite conservative in their approach to architecture and design or accustomed to the idea that beggars can't be choosers. Design review can help to raise the bar. The more excellent projects that are built, the better the ones that follow usually become. Excellence begets excellence, and so does mediocrity. 

There are many cases where the presence of professional peers has encouraged owners and their architects to become more ambitious in their design. I would imagine that this encouragement also helped architects to present better and more daring designs to their clients who may otherwise have settled for plain vanilla. Overall, design review boards or panels are not only a good safeguard against really bad design but may even be one against bland design.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

last update:

Quotes from Baltimore's Urban Design Review Panel:
School buildings in the past were "always introverted as opposed to being extroverted and transparent ... and they almost always ignored their context," Burns said. "You have a tremendous opportunity to design a building that engages the community, that makes not only physical connectivity but that is extroverted and transparent because it's a new building." (Design review panel architect Richard Burns addressing school designers from Grimm and Partner Architects).
"It's a much stronger building than we saw last time," said panelist Richard Burns. "I applaud you all for listening to our comments, and I think we have a better building." (Design review panel architect Richard Burns addressing architects Soloman, Cordwell Buenz of Chicago at the final review of a residential tower at the Inner Harbor)
Panelist Gary Bowden said he thought the plan was a compromise. "What we have is a hybrid of an urban and a suburban environment," Bowden said. "I like what you've done and I think you've responded to all of the comments up until now."  (Design Review panelist Gary Bowden, FAIA addressing shopping center designer Brown, Craig and Turner Architects of Baltimore)
External Links:

Newspaper articles about Baltimore's Design Review Panel:

Baltimore SUN: Articles about the Design Review Panel UDARP
News report about current UDARP review
UDARP Review of $1B Schools Construction
UDARP Grants final Approval to 414 Light Street Tower
Redevelopment Plan Gets Approval on Third Try

Design Review in various cities:

Design Review Baltimore, MD, Requirements
Design Review Baltimore County
Design review Philadelphia, PA
Design Review Cleveland, OH
Design Review Seattle, Wa
Gallery of Great Projects (Seattle)
Design Review Pasadena, Ca
Design Review Boston, MA, Development Review, Boston
Design Review, Toronto
Design Review Portland, OR
Commission of Fine Arts

Articles and papers about design review and design:

Philadelphia: Antidote or additional burden?
Aesthetic Control: Berkeley Paper
The Libido for the Ugly (H.L. Mencken)
Where am I? The Power of Uniqueness (video)

Friday, January 16, 2015

How to Keep Roads Snow-Free Without Pickling the Environment

When on a snowy night we half wake from the rumble of the plow and see the yellow flashers reflected on the ceiling, we go back to sleep with the conviction that the mayor and the local public works crew are doing a great job keeping our streets clear.  The politicians know, if voters don't see snow and ice combated military style, their re-election is in jeopardy.
Salt in abundance

But the thing that should be keeping us awake is the ugly flip side of the battle for clear roadways. Recent news highlighted the increasing salinity of our rivers and streams, and points the finger at one chief culprit: the exponentially growing consumption of salt, sodium-chloride, to fight icy roads, a practice that started in the US quite a bit after the automobile, in 1938.

Imagine this: US road salt consumption jumped in 25 years from 9.5 million metric tons annually (1980) to 19.6 million tons in 2006 (in 2013: 22 million tons).  Knowing that one truck holds about 7 tons of salt, that is a fleet of over 3 million trucks that dumps its entire cargo into the environment.  That many salt trucks, lined up bumper to bumper, would stretch over 20,000 miles or more than 4/5 of the way around the earth. That is to say, 22 million tons is a lot of salt! 
The common and rather simple method of salt application
on roadways via tilted truck bed and spinner

Especially if one considers that that sodium chloride is a stable compound (or chloride a conservative ion) which doesn't dissolve but only dilutes.  In other words, each ton of salt brought out onto the roadways and ditches will stay in the environment forever. While road salt application is measured in pounds per lane mile, salt in the water is measured in milligrams per liter. Highway folk easily bring out 400-500 pounds of salt per road mile. Environmental agencies set the toxic threshold for salty water at around 600 mg/liter, but aquatic life is affected on anything north of 250mg (also the threshold for drinking water). Values found in many streams around the nation are much higher, and increase in winter, a clear indicator of the cause.
Increased salt usage 1972-2005 in Madison Wisc.

Just what we need, another environmental scare! Do we really have to worry about road salt in addition to the salt in our diet?

Environmentalists and those who watch and guard our water supplies certainly think so. Rivers, streams and roadside plants are just the first victims, shallow groundwater and wells are next. 

Time is money and ice free roads are a basic requirement for safety, so what can one do other than shrug and move on? Salty rivers, how bad can it be?  Just remember last year's Snowmaggedon in Atlanta (Jon Stewart on the event) and the estimated billion dollar loss from it, all because road crews had not been out there fighting the ice and snow.

Because salt used to be cheap and abundant, users were extremely wasteful. The sharp increase in usage can be attributed to three major factors: 
- Decreased tolerance for impeded mobility due to more vehicle miles traveled, just in time delivery models and a general acceleration of daily life. - Increased inclination to consider snow removal as a proxy for the effectiveness of local government.  - Continued sprawl presenting a larger and larger road network to be treated (imagine that Virginia DOT alone is responsible for 150,000 lane miles to treat, that all US roadways together are 4.1 million center line miles (17 times to the distance to the moon) plus about 13,500 lane miles of roadway a year (average between 2000 and 2012).
Before it is possible to see if this salt splurge could be curbed for a less salt rich diet it helps to understand a bit better what salt does and how it is applied to the roads today.
Salt is a freezing point suppressor that alters the phase
transitions of water (source: Salt Institute)

First, salt gets mined and even the product itself varies between countries. In Europe finer salt allows more accurate dosage and distribution, in the US chunky rock salt makes exact distribution much harder. Then the commodity gets transported via ships, trucks or rail to ports or shipping terminals before getting delivered to the salt stock-piles of highway administrations or local public works departments. We will skip here straight to the end user and address only practices that are directly in the control of those agencies that put the salt on the road.

The first big best practice element deals with how salt is stored and whether it is well-contained during storage.
Eventually, salt will get loaded into dump trucks which then fan out to treat the roads and streets. At this point practices and equipment vary widely: Typically, the more northerly a state, the better the practices. Does the truck drive into a covered and contained facility or does the salt get loaded out in a yard? Does the yard have containment facilities and how sloppy is the loading? Do the trucks have regular loading beds (those that can be tilted up to make the load slide back) or do they have special cone shaped salt containers which bring the load to a controlled discharge point by gravity? Or do they even have a mixer installed that mixes dry salt from the container with water to make sticky wet salt or a slurry?  Finally the spreader, is it a rotating disk (called a “spinner”) that turns at a constant speed or is it tied to the speed of the truck? Is it a simple disk or a device scientifically shaped to create a layered and effective spread, or is there no disc at all and the salt just dribbles off the edge of the loading bed? Does salt get recovered by sweeping or loading snow mounds? Is salt mixed with abrasives or other components designed to make ice and snow less slippery? Or does the agency use tankers with liquid brine? 
Salt truck with special salt holding container and  mixing
apparatus in back for wetting salt and speed sensitive
spreader technology

Yes, there exists research on the topic. There is even a Salt Institute with its own "Snowfighter's Handbook." One of the independent researchers is Wilfried Nixon, a professor of the University of Iowa who has written papers for the Iowa Highway Research Board and is kind of a salt guru advising state and local governments across the country how to use less salt. He spoke at the 2015 Transportation Research Board Conference in DC about how salt is really not melting the snow as much as depressing the freezing point, how the goal is to depress the bond between snow and ice and asphalt and in which situations the use of salt is completely useless. 

The good news is that there is lots of room for improvement on salt application practices before much effect would be noticeable regarding road safety. Salt usage could be brought down sharply while still having clear roads, stopping or even slowly reversing the increase in salinity of rivers.. The following are some of the possible measures, all reasonably simple to implement:

- Keep all salt storage covered so rain cannot dissolve salt and wash it away while being stored.  - Capture all run off around salt storage and loading yards and filter it. Recycle captured salt.  - Do not salt at temperatures when it is too cold to be effective, i.e. below 5F (-15C) pavement temperature (not air temp!).  - Pre-wet the salt so it sticks and doesn't bounce as much on the road surface - Use up to date spreader technology that is efficient and speed correlated. Tilting the truck bed back and letting the salt run out doesn't not qualify as an efficient spreading method.  - Adjust the pounds per lane mile (or grams per square meter) to what road conditions and snow fall suggest using the guide tables which provide a range from 100 to 500 pounds per mile.  - Change to liquid brine application. This probably is the least wasteful chloride application method. 
Brine application prior to snowfall as a pre-emptive method 
 This blog usually investigates cities, transportation and the environment. It turns out, salt, its use on streets, and its presence in freshwater as well as its impact on animals and vegetation is related to all of these topics. Ironically, the cost of road salt is not even limited to the environment but also includes the accelerated deterioration of our infrastructure, roads and bridges, and destructive corrosion on utilities and equipment. Maybe most ironically, it turns the very cars it is supposed to protect from crashing into rust piles.  Road salt and its cost burden in environmental and financial terms is one of the ugly sisters of our automotive mobility society which we like to hide in the closet. 

Needless to say, not all mobility requires salt, certainly not rail transport and even aviation is rather harmless in terms of salt with its well-controlled settings. Certainly there is enough cost to seriously think about best practices and alternatives in cities, in the suburbs and in the open landscape.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Ten Ways to Improve Bus Transit

This article is part of a series on simple measures how to improve urban transport. See also: Pedestrian Safety, Water Transit and Complete Streets 
No matter how much sexier and livelier the debate about streetcars, light rail, subways or commuter trains is, the reality is that the majority of transit in the US happens on buses. Last year, buses were used nationwide for more than 5.35 billion "unlinked" trips (APTA report), which means bus trips account for half of all transit users and thus outdoes all other transit modes combined.
Bus stop on Charles Street, Baltimore

The most frequented mode of public transportation is also the most maligned, the least popular and the one with the biggest image problems. One could add to that list that it is the most poorly funded: With only between 23 and 27% of all transit investments the mode which transports more than half of all passenger gets only a quarter of the money.

One would think that there would be a rich body of policies and strategies on how to free the bus from this poor position, tons of ideas how to run bus service more effectively or how to measure customer satisfaction, and that the world would be full of agencies that race to implement the latest findings.

However, surprisingly this is not quite the case. Sure, there are is research and there are reports of the wonky National Transportation Research Board (NTRB) which once again will convene this week in DC. Also, there are enough agencies that have some type of service improvement program underway. Due to a lack of generally agreed upon performance metrics or customer satisfaction standards or national reporting, each agency seems to do their own thing and the bus remains the stepchild of public transportation, with just a few cities standing as exceptions.
The bus route planning game includes cost, number of those
serviced, layover and available streets
(Source: MTA, Michael Walk)

One bus initiative is happening right here in Baltimore, the Bus Network Improvement Project (BNIP), currently being undertaken by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), addressing the local bus system. In spite of its bulky name, BNIP started with a hip web-centric approach promising a quick succession of improvements but since has bogged down in the swamps of the bureaucracy.  (See Phase 1 improvements of BNIP in this video). This appears to be a common fate.  Almost all bus improvement projects I reviewed for this article are anything but simple. For starters they don't seem to be derived from a clear set of goals and objectives or even from a clear understanding of what problems should be solved with which priority.  The transit systems in which the bus fleets are operated, maintained and put on the streets day after day are too complex, the hurdles that are put in the path of real change too cumbersome, the traditional ways of how things are done and have been done for decades too entrenched, and the ruts in which the bus transit discussion takes place too well worn.

By contrast, bus riders have a much simpler view on things. The frog perspective of the want-to-be riders that stands at the stop and peers down the street to see if the scheduled bus is really coming is probably the clearest view.  The biggest complaints about buses are that they are unreliable and slow. Why can't buses show up on schedule, why do they come in bunches, why don't they show up at all sometimes, and why is it always a mystery when the bus will be there until it is in clearly view?  Why do bus riders feel like cattle, under-appreciated and forgotten when they are clearly the backbone of transit service across the nation? The rider really wants three things: That the bus shows up ( reliability), that it gets to the destination in a reasonable time (speed) and thatgetting to the bus, the wait and the ride aren’t too cumbersome (convenience). 
Real time bus arrival signs in Portland, OR bus stop
(photo Philipsen ArchPlan)

To discuss improvements with more clarity it is worth to start with the rider's three generic metrics and not the operator's perspective. Of course, before considering remedies it helps to better understand why riders' expectations are disappointed every day in so many systems. Complexity sets in right away partly because the three rider metrics are clearly interconnected. A bus that is deadly slow will easily become unreliable and both of those characteristics are clearly inconvenient. 

Unreliable and slow service can be caused by both internal and external causes. The external factors are those that are not the responsibility of the bus operators and their agencies such as increasing congestion in urban areas that makes all traffic slower, including buses. Then there is the creeping deteriorating of all infrastructure that not only leaves many city streets strewn with potholes, sunken manholes and warped asphalt putting extra wear on the fleet, but also leaves transit agencies underfunded for employing enough operators, maintaining the fleet or buying replacement buses. Lastly, there are political influences on every level of government down to an individual council person which make certain bus stops or routes untouchable, not to mention regulations such as Title VI (Civil Rights) or Maryland COMAR 7-506 or 7-208 requiring public hearings and 35% fair box recovery respectively, or rules about charter service (prohibited) or bus replacement schedules (ten years).
Model graph illustrating how uneven headways such as
delayed and bunched buses (the vertical
lines) affect boardings at bus stops (red graph) and
overcrowding of buses
(Source: Michael Walk, MTA)

But then there are a slew of internal reasons that vary from agency to agency, except for one core reason: Unlike private airlines, bus operations are monopolies without competition whether they are public or private. The lack of competition and their dependency on government procedures makes transit operations anything but nimble, slow in adopting new technology and slow in truly vetting their operations for efficiency. There is a tangle of rules, traditions, and bureaucratic nightmares regulating everything from operator breaks, to driver bathrooms, all items for which the public usually has little sympathy.

Actual bus runs in a time-space diagram would show buses run in even
parallel diagonals from stop to stop if they followed the regular headway
schedule. However they distort due to heavy boarding delays which
then exacerbate in a feedback loop to cause bus bunching 

Yet, there are bus companies that run their buses more efficiently, more reliably and more conveniently than others, who approached the bus service problem in a straight forward manner, namely Los Angeles. (The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has become a leader in various transit initiatives ever after Antonio Villaraigosa became Mayor in 2005 and proceeded to turn LA from an auto dominated sprawl city into one with viable transit and concentrated growth including learning from Curitiba, Brazil). MTA began in 2005 to improve bus service with a simple set of goals, and clear metrics based on solid information about the then existing conditions, especially ridership per line, rider satisfaction, bus speeds per line and schedule adhesion.
Branding and service types of LA bus transit
(Source LA MTA)

Next they set up two demonstration "rapid" lines up much like a scientific experiment, controlling for variables such as # and location of stops, route length, bus speed, signal priority etc. so that the effectiveness of each improvement could be measured against the baseline. The two demonstration lines were so successful on all counts that the Rapid Bus system has since grown into a full network of over 40 such bus lines. (For a detailed report see here).  I learned all this when Baltimore considered just one rapid line service and I traveled to LA to research their system. The methodical LA approach allowed them to avoid most of the usual political hackling over where service has to be. 

The wonky way of studying bus service
(Source: TRB conference. Photo: ArchPlan)
The remarkable finding was, that giving the rider a faster, more convenient bus not only made it more reliable but also made the agency run buses more efficient as well. The MTA found that the initial Rapid Bus routes with their investment in branded buses, new stops, signal priority and a number of other improvements almost paid for themselves through increased efficiency and ridership.

The example of LA in particular shows a few principles with which to address the three rider goals of reliability, speed and convenience:
  • Expand capacity for service through increased efficiency, not through more of the same. Transit providers who operate at the edge of their capacity in terms of vehicles or personnel need to create a margin so that small mishaps will not derail the service and ripple throughout the system and day. If in doubt, it is better to operate fewer lines or a slightly less frequent service and do it reliably rather than doing more and being overextended and vulnerable. 
  • Create a service hierarchy:  Careful analysis of origins and destinations will allow the creation of priority trunk lines that become the backbone of reliable fast service. Those lines should be branded and be the ambassadors for the entire system by being extra reliable, fast and convenient.  
    Simple evaluation metrics for the LA Rapid Bus demonstration
    (Source: LA MTA)
  • Use increased speed as the magic bullet: If the service area is large and fixed and additional funds are hard to come by, capacity, efficiency and reliability can be increased by increasing the speed of the buses. This is the Southwest Airlines approach, which cut gate times by using a new boarding method and flying into less congested airports. That made them more reliable and efficient with more jets in the air than the competition. For buses that means three things:
    •  Cut long routes because they are more vulnerable than short ones. Shorter lines make operations easier to manage and more predictable. The disadvantage of more transfers is more than offset by the convenience of more reliable service.  
    • In collaboration with local government, attack external slow-downs like conflicting car traffic, signals, bad road surfaces and bad stop locations
    • Accelerate the bus by eliminating overly frequent stops and long dwell times which slow buses more than anything else. Both of these causes the transit agency can control. The biggest contributor to long dwell times are cash payments at the fare box. Second is the number of stops and third their placement. 
      DC Metrobus latest vehicle
These three principles should be central to any improvement plan and once addressed, magic things like increased rider satisfaction and happiness will happen right away. Quicker buses will result in better fleet utilization, lower labor cost, more revenue and increased flexibility. Buses that save 10 to 25 percent of their running-time on a route will be back faster for the next service.  No cash payments also will result in less cost for maintenance, vaults and cash management, potentially large savings. In short, a few things done right have a ripple effect that results in better service for less money, imagine that!

Taking all the above into consideration will finally allow a list of ten common sense steps towards better bus service addressing speed, reliability and convenience:

1.   Break long routes into shorter pieces. Connect the route ends in transit hubs for easy transfer. (Reliability)

2.   Get rid of cash payments in favor of collaboration with convenience stores that sell chip cards that can be loaded via cash or credit cards. There would still be farecard readers on the buses. Vancouver  and Seattle want to do this in North America, London does it already in Europe. There is really no good reason why such a system couldn't be implemented in short order even in populations that have a strong cash economy. In the long run, with additional fare card readers, all-door boarding would allow even shorter dwell times. (Speed)

3.   Eliminate about 25% of bus stops, especially in areas where stops are located in each block. The selection of stops to be eliminated needs to be based on public input and on boarding data. If the stop selection is based on a transparent set of metrics it is easier to defend eliminations and removes this topic from being a political football for local politicians and lobbyists. (Speed)
Urban bus shelter with windscreen and seating
Portland OR (ArchPlan)

4.   Negotiate with the local government about signal priority, queue jumpers and dedicated bus lanes in strategic areas. This, too should be based on clear metrics i.e. focused on areas where the other improvements still leave the bus travelling with a below average speed. It is easier to get those improvements in a few areas with a high return on investment than trying to make this happen as a general policy change. (Speed)

5.   Implement an app for smart phones combined with a call-in service that allows real time bus information for each line and every stop. This isn't rocket science since most transit vehicles in the US are already equipped with GPS and transponders that emit the actual bus location. Knowing when the bus will actually arrive is possibly the biggest advance for riders even if it doesn't make the bus faster or more on time. But it gives riders certainty and allows users to manage their time avoiding unproductive excessive wait times. (Convenience)

6.   Larger cities should tier their services into clearly differentiated and branded service types such as local bus, rapid bus, circulator or shuttle, and commuter bus. Within each type, simplicity should rule and the entire confusing thicket of variations be eliminated in which buses with the same line designation run as express or take different loops on the route depending on the time of day or their schedule time. The services on top of the hierarchy need to have the biggest ridership and run the fastest. (Convenience)

7.   Clean and maintain buses well, and buy higher end models that are quieter, have a smooth ride and are fuel efficient. Recent model hybrid buses have finally caught up with the European Standard City bus in design and ride comfort, and most agencies have dispensed with dark tinted windows and unsightly advertising wraps. Good bus, good service equals better image and more riders. (Convenience)

8.   Provide good information on paper, online, on the bus, and on the route about where buses go to and where transfers are located. (Convenience)
LA Success (Source; LA MTA)

9.   Provide some basic amenities at bus stops. With fewer stops this will be less costly to do, especially when amenities such as shelters are sponsored by private industry. Generally, as the need for amenities decreases, the more reliable and predictable the service (Convenience).

10. Finally, a set of things not seen by the rider: Staff "back of house" operations with qualified people. Use clear quantifiable metrics to gauge progress. Provide impeccable customer service and allow riders immediate and simple feedback about each service. Use that feedback to steadily refine and improve the service. In spite of union rules try to implement performance bonus payments based on customer satisfaction. 

As noted, implementation of even simple measures is not easy in the environment of public transportation. Not even mentioned here are complications that arise when transit agencies have to integrate bus service with light rail or subway systems in terms of schedule, ticketing and transit hubs. Still, one can assume that the principles would hold true and be successful. Bus as the workhorse of public transportation in America deserves all the attention it can get.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Edited by Ben Groff      last updated 1/12/15 11:46

External Links:

Improving Transit Bus Speeds (TCRP Report 110)
Better Bus DC: WMATA Program

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Architecture of Community: Churches

This is the fourth in a series of articles investigating building types and uses that create community. The previous articles addressed public libraries, schools and public markets.
 Articles begins below photos
Frederick, MD on the evening of the 28th Annual Candlelight Tour of Historic Houses of Worship
(all photos ©: K. Philipsen, ArchPlan Inc.)
Historic Frederick Home
Illuminated historic storefronts on Market Street

Festive W. Patrick Street
The small Maryland town of Frederick, looks good on any day of the year. On this balmy and clear 26th day of December, however, it looks truly breathtaking. This is the day of the annual historic church walk, now in its 28th year showcasing why this town is famous for its steeples. It is hard to imagine any town of this size possessing a greater number of active, historic churches in such a small area.
Evangelical Lutheran Church, Church Street

In teachings of the history of cities and urban design it is often noted that houses of worship used to be the most impressive structures in human settlements, until banks and insurance componanies came along and the elevator was invented. Without getting further into this line of reasoning (certainly palaces and sports arenas always competed with churches), one can safely say that in Frederick churches remain the most impressive structures, and their steeples are the what shapes the city's skyline.

Walking among the throngs of people who mill about throughout the festively illuminated downtown with its many small mom and pop stores and lovely decorated storefronts, one gets the impression that happiness really resides in Small Town USA. Everything looks picture postcard perfect, including the smiles on the faces of adults and children.

The churches which sit on so many blocks here, rarely occupy the corners, but rather sit tucked in between, sometimes mid-block, sometimes a bit set back on account of their larger size. They look well-kept and many glow against the dark blue sky of the late dusk. Today their doors are wide open, beckoning with lines of candles in paper bags, with the sound of song, organs and harps emanating from the naves and with glockenspiel wafting through town. And then there is soup, cookies and coffee being served to guests in the basements and the additions of those historic houses of worship.  People who don't know each other sit down for a moment of rest and companionship at the long tables. Who would not smile?
Trinity Chapel, United Church of Christ,
Church Street

The architecture of these churches varies widely. Some are modest and smallish, some are grand, some bright, some dark, some are painted white and some are natural brick, some stone. Church steeples come in various shapes as well, even in a twin version. The naves are long and narrow or short and wide, some churches even have a cross nave. Some hide their organ, some present it as the focal point right behind the altar. But in all cases the churches are made for people to come in, sit down, and share –share prayers, listen to a sermon, sing together, stand up, kneel, sit in unison – the churches are made for the individual to melt into a community. Churches make communities but it were  the communities that made the churches. The 18th century settlers who came from Pennsylvania, and those who moved west from Baltimore, had different denominations, but one of the first things they did upon settling was build a house of worship.

It is possible that there was always an element of competition among the various sects and creeds, but mostly there was a desire to express the Old World traditions that were remembered first hand, or that were part of the narrative of their family, with the means the settlers had at their disposal. The originally quickly thrown up structures were soon enlarged to accommodate the newcomers who kept arriving. The handouts provided by the churches explaining the history of the various buildings speak of demolition, additions, extensions and mergers, of added second floors in tall naves and many other manipulations that make it often hard to see what the original architecture may have been like in those days before photography could record it.
Calvary United Methodist Church nave,
N. Bentz Street

While walking along the streets to find the next participating church one sees some sacred architecture that remains dark, churches that have closed and their buildings adaptively reused for worldly purposes or downgraded to support other functions, such as community rooms or daycare facilities. This suggests that at peak times there actually would have been even more houses of worship, as hard as that is to imagine. The City of Frederick is the second largest incorporated town in Maryland and both, the town and the surrounding county, are rapidly growing in the orbit of thriving Washington. Maybe it is this continued growth that keeps all those churches going. This annual day of the walk in which each congregation tries to show itself from its best side likely helps as well.

In Baltimore, Maryland's largest city, the condition of the many churches in the inner city communities and in downtown is more precarious as it is also in many other cities. Churches are sold and demolished for lack of a parish even though many of the grand old churches draw their congregations from as far away as the surrounding counties while the immediate surrounding community often crumbles.
Tiffany window in the chapel of Calvary Church

The Frederick experience is almost like a throw-back to another time when churches were walked to, the parish lived in the surrounding streets, and no massive parking lots were needed.  It is also a reminder that architecture can express beliefs and build community, and be more than just a functional shell or an embellished shed. It is a reminder, too, that even in hard times it is worthwhile to erect edifices of which future generations will not only be proud but will also turn to and use.

The Frederick churches, and grand places of worship around the world. teach us that sustainability is much more than using green materials or saving energy. Sustainability includes preservation, adaptation and a level of social stability and cohesion.  Monuments of service and pride are a result of such consensus, but they can also help maintain it or even re-create it in that they are an aspiration of permanence. They were that even in the middle of all the change that the early settlers went through, and they can be in our generation, which experiences tumult and upheaval in different ways. Clearly the historic houses of worship are a rejection of the type of disposable architecture for which we often now settle.
St John Catholic Church, choire and organ,
E. Second Street

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

edited by Ben Groff

Related articles on this blog:

Public Markets - Places of Community
Three Libraries - Places of Community
Schools as Place Makers

External Links:

Guide to Frederick Churches
Candlelight Tour of Historic Houses of Worship Dec 26
Deep Placemaking, a Theology of the Environment (podcast of a lecture)
Ecclesiae pro Pauperibus
Architecture of Worship (Yale)
Religious Architecture (St Bonaventure)

Richard Leyman, a DC blogger and revitalization advocated brought his 2012 article to my attention which delves much further into the issues of church and community, demographic changes, adaptive reuse and the transformation of how communities relate to religion and churches.