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Posts about Urbanism


Before moving to DC, Walt Whitman was a Brooklyn house flipper

One of Washington's many adopted sons, Walt Whitman is among the most decorated figures in American literature. A lesser-known fact about Whitman is that he wrote one of the earliest descriptions of speculative real estate development, displacement, and gentrification.

Walt Whitman around 1855. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Whitman's essay, "Tear Down and Build Over Again," was published in the November 1845 issue of The American Review. From the perspective of a housing supplier, he explored urban redevelopment, aesthetics, and the attachments to place longtime residents have.

What makes Whitman's essay unique besides its early date is that it was written not by a housing reformer or displaced resident, but by an entrepreneur making money from the creative destruction of New York City neighborhoods.

"Let us level to the earth all the houses that were not built within the last ten years," Whitman wrote in 1845. "Let us raise the devil and break things!"

Penned more than a century before the Housing Act of 1949 introduced urban renewal to aging and distressed city neighborhoods, Whitman was writing on the eve of his brief career in Brooklyn as familiar urban character: the house-flipping gentrifier.

According to University of Cambridge literary historian Peter Riley, Whitman was itching to get into a booming Brooklyn real estate market. Riley examined Whitman's notebooks and analyzed "Tear Down and Build Over Again" to contextualize how the poet jumped on the real estate "speculative bandwagon."

Between 1846 and 1855, notes Riley, Whitman bought and built several properties. Profits from redevelopment and house flipping allowed Whitman to buy an un-mortgaged home for his family and financed publication of Whitman's first book, Leaves of Grass, in 1855.

Brooklyn row houses around 1935. Photo from the New York Public Library.

Though written 118 years before sociologist Ruth Glass introduced the word "gentrification" to popular and academic discourse, Whitman's essay clearly captures the subject's supply and demand dimensions and the social costs—better housing, good investments (positive) and displacement and alienation (negative) wrapped up in the process.

In modern terms, Whitman effectively described neighborhood upgrading through reinvestment resulting in displacement and the churn of properties from the less wealthy to better off residents.

In other words, Whitman was describing gentrification.

Whitman did have concerns about redevelopment

Though clearly writing as an unabashed capitalist housing producer, Whitman also recognized that the people displaced from the older homes had strong attachments to the properties and to the neighborhoods where they lived.

"Then fled tenants from under roofs that had sheltered them when in their cradles," he wrote. "And had witnessed their parents' marriages—roofs aneath which they had grown up from childhood, and that were filled with the memories of many years."

As Whitman was writing about the loss of old buildings and familiar places by their occupants, he also expressed some disdain for new construction in ways remarkably similar to how contemporary Americans write about McMansions:

"Then there are those who would go farther to view even Charlotte Temple's grave, than Mr. Astor's stupid-looking house in Broadway… To such, greatness and goodness are things intrinsic—mental and moral qualities. To the rest of the world, and that is nine-tenths of it, appearance [emphasis in original] is everything.

He was also witnessing the birth of historic preservation

Whitman also was writing at a time when American culture was developing its own sense of national heritage. By the 1850s, a "Cult of Washington" had emerged that elevated the Revolutionary War hero and first president to near-mythical status.

Besides writing what may be the earliest chronicle of American gentrification, Whitman also captured the birth of America's historic preservation movement. In addition to memorializing Washington through monument construction, there were growing numbers of people concerned about the disappearance of places associated with George Washington.

"… when we bethink us how good it is to leave no land-mark of the past standing, no pile honored by its association with our storied names, with the undying memory of our Washington, and with the frequent presence of his compatriots," Whitman wrote about a decade before efforts began to buy and preserve Mt. Vernon.

"Tear Down and Build Up Again" is an important and relatively un-recognized chronicle of the birth of early American urban redevelopment written by one of the nation's most important poets.


Arlington's upcoming County Board election is a big one. Here's the scoop on the candidates.

Elections for two seats on the Arlington County Board are on November 3rd. The results will have big implications for the county. Here's a rundown of where Arlington's candidates stand on issues related to I-66, bike safety, and transit.

Photo by Mrs. Gemstone on Flickr.

This is the first time since 1975 where two seats are open on the five-member Arlington County Board. Meet the candidates:

  • Katie Cristol, though a newcomer to the Arlington political scene, won the most votes in June's heated Democratic primary.
  • Christian Dorsey, the second Democratic nominee (he finished behind Cristol in the primary), is a long-time political activist in Arlington, though he has been less visible in recent years.
  • This is Audrey Clement's fifth attempt at securing a County Board seat, though this is her first as an Independent rather than under the Green Party label.
  • Mike McMenamin has had two failed campaigns under the Republican banner, but is hoping to follow in John Vihstadt's footsteps and launch a successful campaign as an Independent this year.
  • Of note: there are no incumbents. Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada were both up for re-election to the Arlington County Board this year, but after John Vihstadt won a full term and the board canceled the Columbia Pike streetcar, Hynes and Tejada announced they would not run again, leaving the two open seats.
Arlington's board has undergone massive turnover in the last four years. After this election, Jay Fisette will be the only active board member who was also around at the start of the 2012 session. Will this be a new board finding a new way forward? Will it search out and implement "Smart Growth 2.0," as departing chair Mary Hynes suggested? Or will it slide back toward the car-dependent policies some of its neighbors are known for?

On Friday night, all four candidates participated in a candidate forum sponsored by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and the Sierra Club's Mount Vernon Group, all organizations that can comfortably be described as pro-urbanism.

Here's what the candidates had to say:

What to do about I-66

Virginia's Department of Transportation has long wanted to widen I-66, and Arlington has a long history of fighting it. VDOT finally agreed to do a study that would not just examine widening, but also a range of ways to make traveling inside the I-66 corridor easier.

The results of that study formed the basis of the current VDOT proposal for I-66 inside the beltway: High Occupancy Toll Lanes during both peak travel periods in both directions, the toll money going toward multimodal travel solutions. Also, a a commitment to only widen if the conversion to tolls and multimodal solutions were insufficient to handle congestion on I-66.

Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

Dorsey says that the current VDOT plan needs more work and that he is still waiting to see more data on what effect it will have on traffic. He also is concerned that the tolling project is just a setup for pushing through a widening of the highway.

Cristol, the other Democrat, says she still has a lot of questions about the proposal such as what multimodal solutions the tolls will fund, what impact it will have on Arlington's local streets and whether tolling the non-peak direction is truly necessary.

Clement supports focusing on better enforcement of the existing HOV rules via "high tech cameras" that can "definitively determine the number of occupants in a car" and stated that if enforcement is insufficent to improve congestion on I-66, that it should switch to HOV-3.

The other Independent, Mike McMenamin expressed support for widening I-66 and stated that Arlingtonians must face that widening is inevitable.

Build more protected bike lanes?

Protected bike lanes are the new gold standard in bicycle infrastructure, as they're the kind of thing that makes biking attractive and pleasant for everyone, not just the bold or athletic. DC has been moving forward with a network of protected lanes, and Montgomery County has put forth a bold vision for White Flint and is working on a county-wide plan.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Arlington, on the other hand, has a bike plan from 2008 that still thinks sharrows are an exciting new innovation in bike infrastructure, and there's no concrete plan to update it.

Cristol supports building protected bike lanes "where possible" throughout the community but also stressed that community engagement is key to bike lanes' success.

In contrast, Dorsey admits that he has a lot to learn when it comes to bike infrastructure, and is open to what people's experiences are. He isn't fully convinced that it's necessary to protect cyclists from cars and noted that he spoke to some cyclists in DC who said they preferred riding in traffic over riding in protected bike lanes.

Clement supports more lanes, but says she's against building more trails because it would require cutting down trees.

McMenamin says he would consider protected bike lanes on a case-by-case basis and that their impact on drivers is a major concern for him.

How to expand transit

With the Columbia Pike and Crystal City Streetcars cancelled, Arlington is re-examining what the future of transit is for the County as a whole and for Crystal City and Columbia Pike specifically. Will it be Bus Rapid Transit? Personal Rapid Transit? Metrorail expansion?

At the forum, all four candidates spoke in favor of improving Arlington's transit network, though McMenamin tempered his remarks by asserting that transit is important but not enough; Arlington, he said, also needs to increase its parking supply.

Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

Both Cristol and Dorsey spoke at length about a transit network that supports car-free living by serving trips beyond the regular commute. They also spoke about the current state of Metro and how important it is to turn Metro around, while acknowledging that Arlington cannot do so alone.

Clement wants a reversible lane on Columbia Pike to speed buses in the peak direction of travel and an extension of Metrorail from the Pentagon to Skyline. Beyond that, she claims that Metro's problems are the direct result of Congress cutting the transit benefit.

Transit-oriented development and parking

Arlington has been a leader in Transit-oriented Development, concentrating growth around its Metro stations to create a series of "urban villages." The county has seen great success, growing its population and tax base without large increases in traffic congestion.

McMenamin says Arlington needs to get "smarter about smart growth" because in his mind, more cars join the road when places get denser.

Clement has issues with Arlington's development practices, but for a different reason, saying that while she likes Transit-oriented Development, Arlington has engaged in too much "densification," which has, in her estimation, increased land values and therefore housing prices.

Dorsey says that Transit-oriented Development is important, but that there are certain types of residential units that can support reduced parking requirements and others, such as large family units, cannot.

Cristol says "stopping development doesn't solve our problems," that "growth is better than stagnation," and that the key to parking reductions is to put alternative transportation options in place.

Arlington residents should be sure to cast their votes in the County board race on November 3rd. What stands out to you? Which candidates are getting your vote? What smart growth messages are getting through to candidates, and which issues do urbanists need to do a better job on?

What Back to the Future got right about cities

Hill Valley, California, Wednesday October 21, 2015: Marty, Doc Brown, and Jennifer arrive in the future in the epic second part of the Back to the Future franchise. Much has been made about the technological predictions the movie got right. But what about the form of the city?

Hill Valley, 1985.

The trilogy is set in the fictional Hill Valley, a small California town. And because the Doc has invented a time machine, the viewer gets to see the town in 1955, 1985, 2015, and 1885. And the transformation is amazing.

In the 1955 version of Hill Valley, life in the town is centered on the bucolic courthouse square. A diner, garage, and other shops front on a grassy park. Sidewalks are busy with a variety of people from different walks of life. Leafy streets surround the town center, and we see Hill Valley residents walking and biking around.

Hill Valley, 1955.

But by 1985, downtown Hill Valley has been transformed. The courthouse square has literally been paved and is used as a parking lot. One of the two downtown movie theaters has become a pornographic theater, the other is a church. A bench notes that Zales (on the square in 1955) is "now in Twin Pines Mall."

Instead of the leafy streets, which presumably are still there, we see Marty's neighborhood, built two miles outside of town. It's a typical suburban cul-de-sac, and lacks the fine-grained detail of the older neighborhoods. We also see Marty skateboarding along a commercial arterial lined with fast food establishments. Clearly, the synergy in 1985 Hill Valley has moved away from the downtown and out to the suburban fringe around town.

The decline of American city was pronounced by the mid-1980s. The shift from the more pedestrian and community-focused small town of the 1950s to the auto-oriented suburb and the urban decay would have been readily visible to movie goers when the film debuted in 1985. Perhaps it is a bit more pronounced for effect in the movie, but the transition is telling.

In 2015, Hill Valley has transformed once again. Now the town has been refocused on the center. The courthouse has been repurposed into a posh urban shopping center. Replacing the parking lot, the square is now a pond, where we discover hoverboards don't work. The Essex movie theater has transitioned from being pornographic to being holographic (the shark still looks fake).

Hill Valley, 2015.

Once again, the courthouse square appears to be the center of civic life in Hill Valley (though the community still hasn't gotten around to fixing the clock tower).

And the suburban fringe, once desirable, has become a slum. Marty is excited to learn he lives in Hilldale, the nicest quarter of Hill Valley in 1985. But as we learn, like many of the once-nice suburban neighborhoods in real life, Hilldale hasn't withstood the test of time well.

Hilldale, a slum in 2015.

Twenty-six years ago, when Back to the Future Part II came out, the reinvestment in central cities wasn't even on the horizon in most places. But today, the urbanist revolution is underway even in auto-dominant sunbelt cities like Dallas and Atlanta.

Whether the filmmakers actually anticipated this change is unknown. I suspect that they were just trying to create a Hill Valley that was diametrically opposite the 1985 Hill Valley. And that meant having a vibrant center.

Regardless of their intentions, the film series does an excellent job of capturing sixty years of urban change, from the traditional format beginning to change in 1955 to a low point in 1985 and finally to a resurgence in 2015.

Public Spaces

Ice cream: your doctor may hate it, but your city loves it

Sunday is National Ice Cream Day, which is great for fans of cold desserts. But it's even better for urban places, because ice cream is a great tool for placemaking.

Moorenko's Ice Cream in Silver Spring. All photos by the author unless noted.

One of the best ways to create a busy, active sidewalk or plaza is by putting food there. Especially ice cream (or gelato, frozen custard, frozen yogurt, and so on). Why? People of all ages can enjoy it, and it's generally cheap enough that most people can afford to eat it.

Most importantly, ice cream melts. You have to consume your ice cream soon after buying it, meaning that people tend to linger outside of ice cream shops.

Of course, ice cream doesn't automatically make a place great. But it definitely helps. Here are a few tips from great ice cream stores and great places around the DC area and beyond.

Getting some frozen yogurt at FrozenYo.

Provide outdoor seating.

"Make your own" frozen yogurt places are a dime a dozen these days. But you'll always see people hanging out in front of FrozenYo in Columbia Heights. It's because there are lots of places to sit outside with your frozen yogurt, from tables and chairs to ledges and even a grassy lawn.

Have big windows.

Like any good storefront, ice cream shops benefit from big windows, which break down the barrier between inside and out. People inside still feel a connection to the street, while people on the street can see what's going on inside. And if there's ice cream inside, people are likely to come in.

Paleteria Fernandez in Port Chester, New York. I really want to go here now. Photo by June Marle on Flickr.

Dolcezza Gelato, which has locations in Logan Circle, Bethesda, and elsewhere does an especially great job of this. Their spin-off location in Fairfax's Mosaic District, Mom & Pop, is basically a glass box in a plaza, which makes for great people-watching whether you're inside or out.

Have a walk-up window.

I scooped my way through college working at Gifford's Ice Cream, the now-defunct local chain that began in Silver Spring in 1938. Customers could either come in through the door or at a walk-up window on the sidewalk. As Dan Malouff notes, walk-up windows give people walking by something to look at while putting more "eyes on the street," which deters crime. They're also great for people with dogs or strollers or anything that might be difficult to carry inside.

Keep it local.

Local shops like Gifford's, Dolcezza, or Moorenko's seem to be one of the few places a teenager can still get a summer job, which is a big deal for placemaking. Knowing the kids behind the counter gives their friends, parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, and so on more reasons to visit, which builds community ties.

These rules work in suburban settings, too.

Creating street life can be challenging in suburban places where most people get around by car. But ice cream stands seem to be the exception.

Goodberry's in North Carolina. (Ask for the Carolina Concrete.

Goodberry's is a chain of frozen custard stands in Raleigh (and in Canberra, Australia) whose locations consist of walk-up windows in big parking lots. But there's also a little plaza closer to the street with some picnic tables. Even from a car, you can see the activity happening here, which draws people in.

Closer to home, Jimmie Cone in Damascus has a similar setup. As a result, fans call it "the closest you could get to having a local pub setting" in an otherwise dry town.

Together, these things can help to make a great place where people want to gather and have a good time. Ice cream isn't a necessity, but to mix food metaphors, you might call it the cherry on top. What's your favorite ice cream and placemaking experience?

Become a great advocate (and a blogger) for safer streets, transit, and more at StreetsCamp 2015

Next Saturday, June 20, join Greater Greater Washington and urbanist organizations in the DC region to up your smart growth game at StreetsCamp 2015.

Schedule board at Transportation Camp, a national unconference for transportation professionals. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

After 50 years of being auto-centric, our region still has too many dangerous streets, too many surface parking lots that could be housing for new neighborhoods, and too many schools or Metro stations that are unsafe or too hard to walk to.

The groups that advocate to counter this through smart growth and sustainable transportation can't weigh in on every neighborhood detail on their own.

StreetsCamp is a one-day summit where you'll learn background on key issues and advocacy skills to help create change in your community. You'll also get a chance to meet many of our contributors and commenters in real life and connect with people who share similar goals for the region.

The event is $20, which includes lunch. The day will be jam packed with expert-led panels on topics you've read about on Greater Greater Washington, including best practices in street design for walking and cycling, zoning, how we can improve transit in our region, safe routes to school, and transportation equity. There will also be panels on how to blog and organize a campaign.

Share what you learn

We know not everyone can attend, so we're making sure to compile StreetsCamp's most salient lessons here on the blog.

We need your help to do that, though: we're asking everyone to tweet facts and tips you pick up in each session with the hashtag #streetscamp. When you tweet, consider whether others would learn from what you're sharing: for example, "Two-way streets can be safer than one-way streets" fits that bill, while "We're talking about two-way vs. one-way streets" doesn't.

We're also recruiting volunteer curators, and they'll pull the top tips together and turn them into Greater Greater Washington posts. If you're willing to help, shoot an email.

The details matter, and that's why it's essential that more people become informed and engaged in the business of working with their neighbors for safer, more sustainable, more equitable ways of getting around and living together.

We hope to see you there!


Ask GGW: What are the best urban planning and policy books?

A while back, we rounded up a list of urbanist books for kids. But what about grownups who want a bit more detail and background? We asked our contributors for their recommendations.

Photo by Chris Devers on Flickr.

Abigail Zenner's favorite is Happy City, by Charles Montgomery:

Montgomery talks about how the built environment and transportation choices affect on people's happiness. It's written in a way that's accessible, and it really provides good arguments for why these things matter to people.
One book in particular gave Canaan Merchant a better foundation for processing our subject matter.
Suburban Nation, by Jeff Speck, Andres Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk was my introduction to a lot of what we cover at Greater Greater Washington. Before I read it, I knew there were things that made neighborhoods work, but I couldn't articulate them. Suburgan Nation talks about why some designs that encourage walkability are either discouraged or outright banned today, which explains why some in some places make walking easy and pleasant while some only encourage driving.
Brian McEntee's recommendation is Downtown: Its Rise and Fall,1880-1950:
It's a fairly comprehensive history of the various factors (real estate, transportation, prevailing social attitudes) that shaped development and downfall during the a seminal period in American urbanism. It's a history book, not a policy book, but it does help provide a really useful "how we got here' perspective.
Kate Ascher's The Works is Kelli Raboy's manual for understanding the basics:
It's a fun look into the what/why/how of infrastructure operations in an urban environment, specifically using the backdrop of New York City.
Matt Johnson listed four:
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. This is a staple of planning. Written in 1961, it was one of the first attempts to criticize the planning decisions of the time, but Jacobs also predicted a great many things that wouldn't become "obvious" to mainstream planners and engineers until the 1990s.
  • Fighting Traffic, by Peter Norton. This book talks about how the automobile came to dominate our cities. While cars and traffic seems like a foregone conclusion today, it certainly wasn't in the 1910s and 1920s. When the car first came on the scene, there was a battle to save urban streets.
  • The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald Shoup. A book about parking policy and how there really is no such thing as free parking. Another must-read.
  • Great Society Subway, by Zachary Schrag. A history of the Washington Metro. It's a real page-turner. Schrag talks about the history of building a Metro, DC's fight for enfranchisement, and many other related topics. It's a fascinating biography of the region, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
  • Ben Ross, himself the author of Dead End, said two in particular fly under the radar:
    Jason Henderson's Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco and Japonica Brown-Saracino's A Neighborhood that Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity are two books that aren't as well known as they should be, and both are particularly relevant to current issues in DC. (With A Neighborhood that Never Changes, you may want to skip the rather academic introduction and first chapter.)
    David Alpert's go-to is The Option of Urbanism, by Christopher Leinberger:
    It lays out very clearly the difference between walkable urbanism and what he calls "driveable sub-urbanism," why it's hard to switch a place from one to the other, why it's easier for people building cookie-cutter sprawl to get financing than people building urban mixed-use, and much more.
    Aimee Custis said,
    Human Transit, by Jarrett Walker "is a really terrific primer for non-planners on transit: why it's important, how it works, how it interacts with land use, why some systems succeed while others fail, and how to build a good transit system. And Walkable City, by Jeff Speck is a great 21st century complement to Jane Jacobs, which Matt recommended. Still read Jane, but if you get a little bogged down or want to understand exactly what's happening today, Jeff is a fantastic and engaging writer."
    Chris Slatt offered a book that's heavy on visuals:
    I'm partial to Victor Dover's Street Design. The text is a bit dense and heavy, but there is a ton of great knowledge in there about designing streets and the delicious creamy center is hundreds and hundreds of pictures showing actual examples of great streets all across the globe. His book is excellent for countering the inevitable "well that could never work" response that comes when redesigning for Complete Streets and shows just how far we have to go to catch up with the rest of the world.
    Tracey Johnstone's pick is useful for understanding how urbanism fits into today's politics:
    Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation, by William S. Lind and the late Paul Weyrich makes a politically conservative case for investing in mass transit. The reasons the authors have for supporting transit are a lot like those of any transit advocate: that people who don't ride transit still benefit from it, and that that mass transit contributes to energy conservation and independence, which in turn help with national security.
    Melissa Lindsjo added Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation, by Sonja Hirt, and Jeff Lemieux recommended Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.

    Finally, Brent Bolin asked a follow-up question:

    I am always looking for the go-to primer for elected officials (or community members) that don't understand urbanist issues. I've taken the time to read a lot of these, but when I am interacting with my fellow elected officials, I always wonder what I should be putting in their hands. Let's say that I'm not looking for Urbanism 101, but rather Urbanism 100 (for non-majors).
    Aimee Custis said Walkable City fits the bill, and Abigail Zenner followed up that Happy City "would be great for people who haven't thought about this stuff before."

    Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!


    DC like Amsterdam? We can only hope

    According to yesterday's Express, DC is starting to look a lot like Amsterdam, and not just because of marijuana. That's fantastic if true.

    The top of yesterday's Express story.

    Among the reasons the Express cites for DC's Amsterdamization are increasing bicycle use, the appearance of streetcars, and Georgetown's improving C&O Canal.

    Amsterdam is one of the world's great bicycling and streetcar cities. It's a joy to travel along its extensive bikeways, and even lanes where cars are allowed are amazingly bike friendly. And Amsterdam's huge streetcar network (with streetcars in both dedicated lanes and mixed traffic) is a case study in successful urban transit.

    DC's nascent bikeway and streetcar networks pale in comparison, but Amsterdam is a superb model for us to aspire towards.

    And while it's true that we can never hope to have as many canals (short of a disastrous global warming-induced flood), we can at least ponder what might have been had the history of Constitution Avenue turned out differently.

    Even more similarities

    Transportation and canals aside, Amsterdam's overall urban design is actually incredibly similar to DC's. We're both predominantly rowhouse cities, with plenty of brick. Even our street grids are similar: Amsterdam has a relatively small core with twisty medieval streets, but for the most part it's a city of straight streets and radial avenues just like DC.

    These scenes from Amsterdam wouldn't look all that out of place in Dupont Circle, U Street, or Adams Morgan, apart from how little street space goes to cars.

    Amsterdam, but could be DC. Photos by the author.

    Admittedly, Amsterdam beats DC in a lot of ways. But it's not Paris or Hong Kong, not so thoroughly alien. And DC is not Las Vegas. Amsterdam and DC aren't identical, but we're the same species of city, which means Amsterdam is better in ways that DC can practically emulate.

    Plus, we've got Amsterdam Falafelshop.

    Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


    Mercedes imagines passengers in driverless cars never interacting with the world outside

    Driverless cars still aren't ready for consumers to buy, but they're getting closer. When they do, they will reduce dangers and hassles of driving but will not magically eliminate congestion. And it would be a shame if automation totally isolated the riders from the places they travel through, as one concept from Mercedes does.

    Scale model of the Mercedes F015 concept car. Photo by the author.

    Electric and driverless car concepts made a big splash at this month's International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Two concepts from BMW and Mercedes show what is coming soon.

    BMW hopes to make parking easier

    BMW's foray into automation, called the i3, can't quite drive itself down a city street. But it can park. At the push of a remote, the vehicle can roll forward, without a driver.

    BMW i3. Photo by the author.

    That sort of innovation may not revolutionize cities as we know them, but it could have immediate practical impacts. A self-parking car could squeeze into tighter parking spots. That could make our parking lots more efficient, saving space and reducing drivers' desire to circle for a better spot.

    BMW hopes to continue developing the i3 until it can fully retrieve itself from a parking lot, sans driver. But manufacturers aren't stopping there. Other features include things like adaptive cruise control, lane-departure detection, and eventually full automation.

    Mercedes hopes to block out the outside world

    BMW wasn't the only car company at CES. Mercedes also made news, with its completely autonomous F015 concept car.

    According to Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz, the F015's futuristic design protects its driver in an exclusive "cocoon" of luxury.

    Mercedes' F015 concept car. Photo by lincolnblues on Flickr.

    With its F015 design, Mercedes strives to isolate passengers behind silvered slits of windows and extra-thick doors. Since the car drives itself, there's no need for anyone in it to bother themselves with views of the outside world. Instead, touch screen computer panels line the doors.

    Zetsche compared the car to an exclusive condo, contrasting it with a public subway car that anybody can enter. He recalled Margaret Thatcher's infamous comment that anyone on a bus beyond age 26 "can count himself a failure."

    Techno wizardry aside, Zetsche's comments and Mercedes' designs are troublingly antisocial.

    Many car drivers already exhibit a "windshield perspective", where the outside of the car seems like an entirely separate, and somehow less real world. That perspective has all sorts of negative effects, from promoting road rage to encouraging snap judgments that magnify social biases.

    By taking the next step and literally blocking the outside world from motorists' eyes, Mercedes will surely exaggerate the effect. The world will be out of sight, out of mind.

    Will driverless cars cure congestion?

    It's still an open question whether autonomous cars will improve congestion or worsen it. On the one hand, they'll eliminate much human error and potentially use road space more efficiently. On the other hand, if more people use cars more often, congestion will likely get worse.

    In the meantime, taxis may offer an instructive example.

    Like with autonomous cars, travelers can hail taxis whenever they want, and with taxis one need not cruise around for parking. Nonetheless, outside CES at the Las Vegas convention center there was plenty of taxi congestion.

    Cabs were simultaneously numerous enough to clog the streets and insufficient to serve everyone waiting for a ride. A colleague reported standing in line for 40 minutes until he could get a ride. Even queued up in a line and ready to go, cabs simply could not move fast enough to load all passengers in a timely manner.

    Queuing like at the Las Vegas taxi stand isn't a problem driverless cars will solve. They may reduce some congestion by eliminating cruising for parking or by forming platoons on the highway, but at some point, everything comes down to geometry.

    Anyone who's ever tried to catch a cab at DC's Union Station during a busy time of day knows exactly what my colleague experienced.

    Meanwhile, I walked around the corner from the convention center, waited five minutes, and took the bus.

    A viable alternative to driverless cars. Photo by the author.


    Ten little cities near DC with awesome urbanism

    Central cities are booming all over the US as Americans rediscover the benefits of walkable urbanism. But the boom isn't confined to only big cities. Smaller cities are also enjoying a renaissance of their own.

    Here are ten little cities near DC with genuinely great urbanism.

    Frederick photo by Gray Lensman QX! on Flickr.

    Frederick, MD: With stately historic buildings, fancy restaurants, rowhouse neighborhoods, and the best riverwalk in the region, Frederick is a bona fide quality city.

    Hagerstown photo by J Brew on Flickr.

    Hagerstown, MD: Less fancy and more blue-collar compared to Frederick, Hagerstown's solid core of 19th Century streets is more like Baltimore than DC.

    Cumberland photo by Dave Olsen on Flickr.

    Cumberland, MD: If Frederick is a mini DC and Hagerstown a mini Baltimore, Cumberland with its sharply rising hills and narrow valleys is a mini Pittsburgh.

    Annapolis photo by Charlie Stinchcomb on Flickr.

    Annapolis, MD: With its baroque street grid, 18th Century state house, and as the home of the Naval Academy, Annapolis was an impressive town years before DC existed.

    Winchester Handley Library photo by m01229 on Flickr.

    Winchester, VA: Winchester has a successful pedestrian mall, and the most gorgeous library in Virginia.

    Charlottsville photo by Ben G on Flickr.

    Charlottesville, VA: Charlottesville's pedestrian mall is even more successful than Winchester's, while the University of Virginia contributes The Corner, an interesting student ghetto neighborhood, and Thomas Jefferson's famous Lawn.

    Staunton photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

    Staunton, VA: 19th Century warehouse town sister to nearby Charlottesville's academic village.

    Fredericksburg photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

    Fredericksburg, VA: Similar in size and scale to Old Town Alexandria, if it were 50 miles from DC instead of right across the river.

    York photo by Joseph on Flickr.

    York, PA: Probably the most substantial city on this list, York is a veritable museum of 18th, 19th, and early 20th Century buildings. And its surrounding Amish countryside offers an object lesson in sharing the road.

    Gettysburg photo by Tom Hart on Flickr.

    Gettysburg, PA: The battlefield is justifiably more famous, but downtown Gettysburg is a charming little place, often overlooked.

    Not enough? Don't miss Ellicott City, Manassas, Leesburg, Martinsburg, Warrenton, Front Royal, Culpeper, Harrisonburg, Brunswick, Harper's Ferry, and many more.

    To qualify for this list, I excluded cities large enough to have tall buildings downtown (sorry Baltimore, Richmond, Harrisburg, and Wilmington) and any city close enough to DC be accessible via Metro (Alexandria, Silver Spring, Kensington, etc). Otherwise the list is essentially subjective.

    Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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