The Nishi project represents an interesting conundrum and opportunity. It is an opportunity because the land rests in a very unique location, adjacent to the university and within easy walking distance from downtown. The city and university have the opportunity to create a world-class development that can incorporate urban land use principles, innovation park features, and a mixed-use housing development all in one relatively small facility.
On the other hand, nestled between the railroad tracks and I-80, with obvious access issues on the already-impacted Richards Blvd, there are considerable circulation challenges.
As we discussed yesterday, one of the questions will be whether there can even be access to the UC Davis – with many people in the community and on council telling me that, without university access, this project is effectively dead. While Community Development Director Mike Webb was not able to get back to the Vanguard yesterday, the Vanguard has learned that there is a legitimate concern about putting in planning elements that require the approval of an outside entity like UC Davis.
Nevertheless, the Planning Element Steering Committee rated more highly a UC Davis-only access while the city has not put that forth as even a project alternative.
As I have written earlier this week, it seems to me that we have some very interesting opportunities that we could leap on, based on both the strengths and limitations. Among the disappointing aspects of the current design is the amount of space devoted to parking.
The challenges of the site, as well as its strengths, allow us to potentially think outside of the box. Observe that there are a large number of students who do not have a vehicle in Davis with them. These students either bike, walk, or take the bus to the campus. We have an influx of overseas students who will be coming to Davis and they will not be bringing a vehicle with them, nor will they be purchasing a car while they are here.
Nishi is perfectly aligned to allow for car-free living. Is this thinking really so outside of the box?
Recently I read an article, “7 Cities That Are Starting to Go Car-Free.” It notes, “Urban planners are finally recognizing that streets should be designed for people, not careening hunks of deadly metal.”
The author writes, “After over a hundred years of living with cars, some cities are slowly starting to realize that the automobile doesn’t make a lot of sense in the urban context. It isn’t just the smog or the traffic deaths; in a city, cars aren’t even a convenient way to get around.”
In fact, at Nishi, a car will probably be the least convenient way to get around. Jump on your bike and you can be at Mrak Hall in less than five minutes. You can be at Bistro 33 in five to ten. To get to campus by car, you would have to drive onto campus, find a parking spot, park and then walk to your destination. To go into town, you would have to drive out on Olive Drive, make a left under the impacted Richards Underpass, find a place in the downtown to park and walk to your destination.
This is the same thing that is happening in big cities. The authors write, “Traffic in London today moves slower than an average cyclist (or a horse-drawn carriage). Commuters in L.A. spend 90 hours a year stuck in traffic. A U.K. study found that drivers spend 106 days of their lives looking for parking spots.”
“Now a growing number of cities are getting rid of cars in certain neighborhoods through fines, better design, new apps, and, in the case of Milan, even paying commuters to leave their car parked at home and take the train instead,” they write.
“Unsurprisingly, the changes are happening fastest in European capitals that were designed hundreds or thousands of years before cars were ever built. In sprawling U.S. suburbs that were designed for driving, the path to eliminating cars is obviously more challenging. (And a few car-loving cities, like Sydney, Australia, are going in the other direction, and taking away pedestrian space on some downtown streets so there’s more room for cars),” they add.
The heart of Davis is really more of an urban environment.
Read the whole article to get a sense, but here are a few snippets.
- Madrid – “Madrid has already banned most traffic from certain city streets, and this month, the car-free zone will expand even further. Stretching over more than a square mile, the area will still allow neighborhood its own residents to drive, but anyone else who enters will be hit with a fine over $100. It’s one step in a larger plan to completely pedestrianize central Madrid in the next five years.”
- Paris – “Last year, when smog levels spiked in Paris, the city briefly banned cars with even-numbered plates. Pollution dropped as much as 30% in some areas, and now the city plans to start permanently discouraging cars. In the city center, people who don’t live in local neighborhoods won’t be able to drive in on weekends, and that rule could soon roll out to the whole week. By 2020, the mayor plans to double the number of bike lanes in the city, ban diesel cars, and limit certain high-traffic streets to electric cars and other ultra-low-emission vehicles. The number of drivers in the city is already starting to drop. In 2001, 40% of Parisians didn’t own a car; now that number is 60%.”
- Hamburg – “Though Hamburg isn’t planning to ban cars from its city center (as has been misreported elsewhere), the city is making it easier and easier not to drive. A new “green network,” which will be completed in the next 15 to 20 years, will connect parks across the city, making it possible to bike or walk anywhere. The network will cover 40% of the city’s space. The city is also covering up sections of the infamously crowded A7 autobahn with parks—so neighborhoods that were once hard to cross on foot will soon be more inviting.”
- Helsinki – “Helsinki expects a flood of new residents over the next few decades, but the more people come, the fewer cars will be allowed on city streets. In a new plan, the city lays out a design that will transform car-dependent suburbs into dense, walkable communities linked to the city center by fast-moving public transit. The city is also building new mobility-on-demand services to streamline life without a car. A new app in testing now lets citizens instantly call up a shared bike, car, or taxi, or find the nearest bus or train. In a decade, the city hopes to make it completely unnecessary to own a car.”
- Milan – “The smoggy city of Milan is testing a new way to keep cars out of the city center: If commuters leave their vehicles at home, they’ll get free public transit vouchers. An Internet-connected box on the dashboard keeps track of a car’s location, so no one can cheat and drive to work. Each day someone’s car stays at home, the city sends a voucher with the same value as a ticket on the bus or train.”
- Copenhagen – “Forty years ago, traffic was as bad in Copenhagen as any other large city. Now, over half of the city’s population bikes to work every day—nine times more bike commuters than in Portland, Oregon, the city with the most bike commuters in the U.S. Copenhagen started introducing pedestrian zones in the 1960s in the city center, and car-free zones slowly spread over the next few decades. The city now has over 200 miles of bike lanes, with new bike superhighways under development to reach surrounding suburbs. The city has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in Europe.”
- Chengdu – “A new satellite city planned in Southwest China could serve as a model for a modern suburb: Instead of a layout that makes it necessary to drive, the streets are designed so any location can be reached by 15 minutes on foot. The plans, designed by Chicago-based architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, don’t call for completely banning cars, but only half of the road area will allow motorized vehicles. The city will also connect to the larger, nearby city of Chengdu with public transit. Out of an expected population of 80,000 people, most will be able to walk to work in local neighborhoods. The project was originally planned for completion in 2020, but that may be delayed—it’s currently on hold because of zoning issues.”
As the article points out, “None of these cities are planning—yet—to go completely car-free. And it’s possible that may never happen; it’s likely that future cities will have at least a small fleet of self-driving electric cars on hand that can eliminate some of the current challenges around parking, congestion and pollution. But it’s also clear that urban planners are finally recognizing that streets should be designed for people, not cars.”
So why can’t we be forward thinking as well – why can’t Nishi look to go car free? Given its location, people will not need vehicles to do most normal things. Given the student population in Davis, there is a large contingent that do not have cars anyway – why not cater to them?
Then you solve your connectivity problem and take advantage of the unique location of Nishi.
—David M. Greenwald reporting