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04.22.2013
Comment> Put the Pedal to the Metal
Steven Vance appeals to architects for help advancing sustainable transportation options in the built environment.
A convenient, well-designed bicycle parking area in Chicago.
Steven Vance

While riding a bike around Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood I spotted a recently opened big box store’s bike parking area. The glint off the stainless steel racks caught my eye. I pedaled over for a closer look and saw immediately that this was the best bike parking design for a building of its size in the city in recent years, and better than the setups at the big box company’s other stores. It was sheltered, close to the entrance, visible from the street, and incorporated easy-to-use racks. During my three-year internship for the city as a bike-parking planner, this little but significant part of urban infrastructure became part of my blood. Needless to say, I was impressed, but I was concerned, too, with the lesser designs at the chain’s other stores.

It was then that I wanted to better understand how architects—be they in-house or consulting—affect the promulgation and use of sustainable transportation, including shopping by bike. I called the company’s public relations department to uncover what led to this store having bike parking worth celebrating, but instead I got a boilerplate response that “environmental sustainability is integrated throughout our business.” They rebuffed my further inquiries so I kept looking for enlightenment on the connection between architecture and sustainable transportation.

An architect can too easily pick out bike racks from a catalog and place them on the building site within the regulations of Chicago’s zoning code. A city like Chicago demands more. Mayors, current and past, have committed Chicago to becoming a more sustainable city, one with greater use of bicycling and transit, more walking, and less pollution. In what ways can the architecture profession grow sustainable transportation?

The planning process for the Bloomingdale Trail.
Kate Joyce Studios
 

Don Semple, an architectural intern for Krueck + Sexton in Chicago, agrees that building additions like bike rooms, including complementary lockers and showers, is a great way to promote sustainable transportation. “My firm additionally promotes sustainable transportation through usage. We have a dedicated office bike available for any staff to use to get to meetings around town.” This level of sustainable transportation integration seems like small change when the city needs to get thousands of more people to drive less in order to meet its emission goals. Semple took the discussion further, emphasizing site selection. Krueck + Sexton typically advises clients on what land they should purchase, analyzing each site’s available transportation. “We try to push clients,” he said, “toward sites with greater potential transportation assets.”

Then there’s the situation in which the site has already been selected, which, during my research, seemed to occur more often than not. What can you do for an existing site? Carol Ross Barney told me, “You have to build the right team of engineers and planners.” As the founder of Ross Barney Architects in Chicago, Barney works on institutional and governmental projects, some of which are facilities and systems purely about moving people. “It’s like any collaboration,” she said. “You bring your ideas to the table, and you defend them. What’s exciting, though, is that any project that is or has a discrete transportation component is exactly the kind architects are always looking for because everything should be designed.” In essence, any building or site can be designed to make getting there (by bus, bike, or feet) easier or more comfortable.

I’d like to believe that this is what the architects at the big box company were thinking when they had to draw out where bike parking would go and how people would use it. Instead of engineering the space by catalog or a formula, they considered their customers’ comfort and perhaps convinced accountants that their design was worth the money. Or maybe the architect worked with an urban planner to recognize Chicagoans’ transportation needs, which may have informed them to install more capacity than they had before at other stores.

What if the project an architect has been hired to do is the transportation asset itself? How do you make it great and maximize its use? Ross Barney mentioned that you can correct and improve existing systems. Her firm worked on the Bloomingdale Trail project, that converts an elevated, abandoned rail line into a nearly three-mile long linear park and multi-use trail through several moderately dense neighborhoods. In a review of the design and planning process last year, I called it the best I’d seen in my six-year residence in Chicago. Ross Barney Architects crafted that process for the Chicago Department of Transportation. “We were asked, ‘Can you create a process that will constructively collect people’s opinions?’” The project connects to several bus and train lines, bike lanes, and parks, while running within feet of people’s homes. At several meetings, I watched residents bring their complaints and ideas directly to the architects and planners.

How does one strengthen the link between architecture and sustainable transportation? Ross Barney stressed the importance of relationships, which was evident in the Bloomingdale Trail project. “We designed a system that got citizens to contribute,” she said.

Semple believes that architects tend to be on the back end of transportation design. He says the days of Daniel Burnham are gone and city planning is often delegated to traffic engineers and politicians. “I would love to see a renaissance of architects being involved in large-scale city planning,” said Semple. “We bring more balanced sensibilities.”

The cooperative relationship between sustainable transportation and architecture must expand. Frequent collaboration will close the gap, moving the two professions beyond their previously narrow scope limitations and creating sustainable cities.

Steven Vance

Steven Vance is a co-editor of Streetsblog Chicago.