Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Silicon, I will fear no car.

31 May

After spending the last few months in Mountain View, CA, it is nice to be back home in Atlanta.  I feel more at home here, where government and society are a little more dysfunctional.  I’m not accustomed to the organization and general niceness of  northern California.    Blue skies and green grass get monotonous after a while.  I prefer Atlanta, where the smog is a different color everyday, no two consecutive blocks are paved with sidewalks, and pedestrians are kept in their rightful place at the bottom of the socioeconomic/transportation ladder (right behind fire hydrants and telephone poles).  No seriously, it’s good to be back home.

There are a lot of good things to be said about Mountain View, CA (and Silicon Valley in general).  Despite the fact that the entire South Bay area is a haven for traffic and cars, they still manage to make walking a respected and easy way to get around.  How did they do it?  By managing their parking.  Remember this picture of arguably Atlanta’s most walkable neighborhood, Midtown?

Land 100% Dedicated to Parking in Midtown Atlanta

The red squares show land that is 100% dedicated to car storage (a.k.a parking).  Dedicating this much land to parking not only lengthens the distance that people must walk between locations, but it also makes the walk less pleasant.  This is because vast parking lots do not provide shade and force pedestrians to always be on guard for cars entering and leaving the parking lots.  

Shown below is a similar shot of downtown Mountain View, CA.  

Land 100% Dedicated to Parking in Downtown Mountain View, CA

What’s important to notice is here is that while the parking is still present, it has been strategically placed.  The main street of downtown Mountain View, Castro Street, is completely devoid of parking lots and decks.  Instead, the parking is placed behind the many businesses that line Castro Street.   By moving the parking off of the main commercial street, shops are allowed to build closer to one another making walking much easier along this street.  With this type of setup, people will park once and visit many destinations before returning to their cars.  This is unlike much of Silicon Valley (and Atlanta for that matter) where people will literally drive across the street because all the parking forces buildings to be no closer than 1000 yards apart.  The park-and-walk setup of Mountain View is a great compromise between those who love to drive and those who love to walk.  You can drive right up to the back of your destination and park very close to the door, but the front door and the main street belongs to pedestrians.   Below are few shots around Mountain View.

Castro street in Downtown Mountain View, CA

Here a a single parking spot has been replaced with outdoor seating for 18 people. Talk about efficient use of space!

Taking a leisurely stroll through Silicon Valley.

A parking deck viewed from Castro Street. Parking decks and lots are not allowed directly on Castro Street to improve walkability.

Walk OR Drive to the performing arts center.

The library. These people know how to live.

No car necessary. A train to the next town. Very nice!

No pedestrian paradise is complete without it’s hipster coffee joint. Literally everyone in this place is working on a startup.

It’s amazing how simply arranging the location of parking lots in a thoughtful way can create pockets of walkability in an otherwise hostile environment.  Probably the best example of this model in Atlanta is Tech Square,  where the two main parking decks are located one block from 5th street, allowing the street to be dominated by pedestrians without fear of being mauled by cars.  (See the Google Street image below.)  I hope to see more of this type of development in my town.

Mountain View as a cool place with much of what I look for in a city or town, but for some reason, when I talk about what I look for in a city (walkability, bike friendliness, compact design), I am often accused of being a socialist pinko.  Why are any of these things socialist?  Is it ironic that a place that closely matches with what I want lies at the heart of Silicon Valley, the home of Facebook, Google, and the world’s richest company, Apple?  I thought that biking, walking, and transit were anti-capitalist business killers.  I guess I’ll never figure it out.


10 Responses to “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Silicon, I will fear no car.”

  1. Daniel June 1, 2012 at 4:12 am #

    The technology represented by cars and lorries means that less the state intervenes to manage and control development and land-use, the less of a traditional ‘town’ is going to emerge at the end of the process. It’s just a case of what people prefer: a free-for-all versus organisation and rules.

    • dedwards8 June 1, 2012 at 10:28 am #

      Yes, but is not as simple as one method of development being better than others. Different people, prefer different types of living (suburban, rural, urban, town, etc.). However, land values in walkable, urban areas indicates that the supply of walkable areas is low compared to demand. I would like to see more walkable areas built to help lower the cost of living in these few rare places.

  2. Antonio Borghi June 1, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    Very nice post, a smart mix of objective evidence (city maps) and subjective reflection (pedestrian point of view). And nice to read indeed! I like to do something similar in my walkabouts in European cities. Saluti!

  3. hoogator June 1, 2012 at 8:31 am #

    Excellent point about parking. I was fortunate to live in a place where walking and biking were the primary modes of transport for 30% of all the workers. How did the city manage it? An elaborate (and effective) park and ride system. All the parking was located just outside of town and buses ran every 10 minutes from each of five massive lots into the city center. Frustrating for some, but it helped keep traffic down.

    I have had to literally force myself to just park and walk since moving back to the US. It’s incredible how difficult (ironically, “convenient”) we make it here sometimes.

    Love the blog. I did my PhD in transportation studies.

  4. David June 1, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    I enjoyed the description of Mountain View. I grew up in Virginia and experienced the lack of walkability there. I currently live and work in Salt Lake City and find it to be extraordinarily bike and pedestrian friendly. That is in large part why I live here.

    It is also interesting you mention a lot of people accusing you of being socialist for wanting better bike/ped/public transit access. After all, I’m a (get ready and gasp) conservative/libertarian. But I love public transit. I think cities are more efficient for a post-industrial knowledge based economy. I also love nature and the environment.

    The question, I think, has less to do with socialism versus libertarianism, but a question of what a community and its elected leaders believe in terms of how to structure their city. Here in Utah, two cities, Sandy and Bountiful, both are extremely conservative Republican, but one, Sandy, strives to control every little aspect of a building project, even down to the color of the brick and stucco and the shape of the cornices, the other, Bountiful, is far more open to individual expression. The difference is even sharper when one considers how Sandy is very vehicle centered, whereas Bountiful is very bike/ped friendly. Again, I think it has less to do with ideology and more to do with what the community at large values and who they elect into office.

  5. Andrew McConachie June 3, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    What could possibly be more socialist than America’s subsidized road network?

    One often hears the argument that Amtrak must break even to be viable. But interstates have never broken even. And even the Pennsylvania Turnpike loses money each year.

    Regarding Silicon Valley and development. Like most of America I get the distinct feeling that most people don’t want to admit they live in a dense urban environment. Everyone wants a ranch style home on one floor. There’s no place for poor people to live because no one wants to build up. Everyone wants to continue in their misguided antiquated belief that they live in a suburb of San Francisco. So housing prices stay high and many people have to commute long distances.

    Meanwhile the blob of tract homes and over watered desert lawns continues to eat into the beauty of the Californian landscape. Paving everything in its path and forcing fatter and fatter people to sit in their cars for longer.

    I really do like your blog and read it regularly. But I think you’re being a bit too easy on Silicon Valley. The only people enjoying the walkability of Mountain View are those that can afford to live there. Most of the people that commute there do it by car and probably never even see the downtown.

  6. Anastasia June 4, 2012 at 3:12 am #

    First paragraph…hilarious

  7. Josh W. July 30, 2012 at 9:06 am #

    Hey I really appreciated this follow-up to your earlier post. However I do have one thing to mention, and that’s about the walk score. I had actually never heard of this before and it seems really cool. However, I think it does have to be taken with a grain of salt. For instance, I entered the address of a multiplex movie theater in Chesterfield Virginia, where I’m from. This cinema lies behind a massive parking lot that borders a busy four lane road connecting a major thoroughfare on one end and the highway on the other, the only way to get to the theater. There are other big-box stores nearby, but you face the same walkability problem you mentioned in your post about segregated parking lots. And to cross the aforementioned four lane road on foot to reach the stores on the other side would be suicide since there are no sidewalks, no designated pedestrian crossings, and no traffic lights. Essentially no one ever walks to or from this cinema. Nonetheless this address gets a score of 57, “somewhat walkable.” Compare this to a score of 62 for 1 infinite loop, cupertino california (Apple’s HQ) which, while very dominated by parking lots, nonetheless has transit nearby, sidewalks aplenty, and even a couple of people walking around on the streets.

    • dedwards8 July 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

      You are exactly right about that walk score. I don’t think it is very sophisticated. I think it only looks to see how many grocery stores, schools, shops theaters, etc. are near you. I don’t think it takes into account the availability of sidewalks or the presence of large roads much at all. Living in Atlanta this is also a problem with our leaders. People say, what’s wrong with walking? It’s only a half of a mile to the store. Sure it’s only a half mile, but I have to cross a 15 lane interstate, maneuver 2 extremely dangerous on-ramps where drivers pay zero attention to pedestrians, and deal with narrow, crumbling or non-existent sidewalks. I’d rather walk a mile through a park than a half mile down 10th Street and across the interstate. Distance is only about 50% (maybe even less) of what constitutes real walkability.

      It’s nice to hear from you Josh. Are you stateside?

      • Josh W. August 6, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

        Good to hear from you too. I am in Germany working toward a PhD.

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