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Monday, July 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Transportation

Getting There: Prominent urban thinker gives Spokane transportation a mixed grade

Brent Toderian. (Stuart McEvoy / Courtesy image)
Brent Toderian. (Stuart McEvoy / Courtesy image)

The riots and uprisings of Paris are to thank for the French capital’s wide boulevards.

Between 1827 and 1849, Paris saw barricades erected on its old, tiny streets eight times by unemployed workers. Three of those times, revolution followed.

As republics, monarchies and emperors swapped the keys to France again and again, those in power knew they had to do something. The streets had to be widened to make such barricades impossible and, more benignly, the roads had to mapped, something never done as the medieval city grew over the centuries.

Not every historian agrees that the wide, tree-lined boulevards and great roundabouts of Paris were built solely to make the city riot-proof. Even fewer would liken them to the wide one-ways in downtown Spokane.

But Brent Toderian, a former city planner in Vancouver, B.C., and Calgary, as well as a prominent urban thinker and consultant, draws more than one connection between Spokane’s streets, war and revolution.

“I can shoot a cannon down any of these one-way streets,” he said at a roundtable meeting at Spokane City Hall last week. “As far as I can tell, you don’t have a parking problem. You don’t have a capacity problem. I haven’t seen congestion. Your traffic problem is you’ve got too wide of roads. Your parking problem is you have too much surface parking.”

Toderian, who now runs TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, was in town offering his “constructive candor” thanks to an invitation from Jim Frank, the developer behind Kendall Yards. Frank brought him in to critique his development, but Toderian widened his gaze beyond Kendall Yards to encompass downtown and the city as a whole.

In short, Spokane received mixed results from Toderian. He liked the Spokane River gorge, Riverfront Park and the many old buildings downtown. He didn’t like the plethora of newer buildings around the core, the lack of downtown housing, the wide streets, the abundance of surface parking and the deficit of bicycling, walking and transit infrastructure.

“You’re not much worse than many American cities,” he said. “But you’re also not much better.”

Like nearly every other American city, Spokane is designed around the automobile, Toderian said. It’s time to change that, but that change doesn’t have to be done with heated rhetoric about a “war on cars” or pitting bicyclists against motorists. Instead, Toderian pushed for sound arguments backed with data and the right use of words.

“From a communication perspective, it’s one of the most counter-intuitive conversations you can have with your constituents, that more parking isn’t necessarily good, that wider roads just induce more driving,” he told the 20 or so city planners, mayoral advisers and downtown decision-makers gathered on the first floor of City Hall.

Counter-intuitive and hard as it is, it’s a conversation that must be had.

“In Vancouver, most people drive. Half of trips are by walking, biking and transit, which is the highest in North America. But even those people still drive,” he said. “You have to get away from the conversation about whether most people drive. When you design a city for cars, it fails everyone, including drivers.

“‘Including drivers’ is the most important part of that sentence,” he added. “When you design a multi-modal city that makes walking, biking and transit enjoyable, it works better for everyone, including drivers.”

That’s the hardest part. Bring up the need for more and better bikeways in Spokane, or a dedicated lane for transit, and howls of outrage peal from some motorists, as if the new protected bike lane is just a harbinger of the government seizing automobiles and condemning everyone to a life of pedestrian-ism.

Just the opposite, Toderian said.

“Everything I talk about with mobility is about freedom,” he said. “Freedom of choice. This is literally more options. That works better for everyone, literally. Nobody is going to be forced out of their car.

“Every time I do a public lecture, I always have a lady or gentleman in the front who says, ‘Don’t you know I absolutely need my car?’” he said. “As if I’m trying to force them to get out of their car. I always say, ‘That’s great. I ‘m not going to debate or challenge your impression of needs. If you need your car, it’s better for you if he rides his bike, and she takes transit and he walks. Because if you’re all fighting for the same amount of space, your car can’t move very far. That’s geometry.’”

Toderian said the “false narrative of cars versus bikes” and similar arguments are “fake news.” The arguments are fake, but the results of transforming a city’s transportation system to accommodate more than the automobile are very real.

“We have more information and data about the ripple effects of multi-modal in cities than ever before and it’s all true,” he said. “What I know for sure is if you put in the infrastructure and do it right, you will get more people walking, biking, taking transit. But if you don’t, you won’t. It’s really simple.”

By way of example, Toderian pointed to the suddenly ubiquitous “trolleys” of Vancouver, foldable shopping carts with wheels. For years, he’d snap a photo on the rare occasion he’d see somebody with one and share it with his 50,000 Twitter followers, hoping his virtual persuasion would make the carts more popular. It worked, at least in his hometown.

“In Vancouver, everybody uses them to get around. They appeared in Vancouver a few years ago. They seemed to almost pop up overnight,” he said. “That simple technology says I can just wheel home my groceries and I can still walk in my neighborhood.”

“I don’t say trolleys will save the world,” he said. “But it can just take something simple like that. If you divert 20 percent of your trips to the grocery store from within the neighborhood, just 20 percent, what effect does that have on your parking? What effect does that have on greenhouse gases, public health? If you get even a ten percent shift on that, the effects are staggering.”

After just a few days of Toderian touring around Spokane, tweeting out his observations and “constructive candor,” Kendall Yards’ Frank was convinced: his development would change. Also on Twitter, Frank said he would push for greater building heights, work to reduce trips made by vehicles and create a strategy to reduce automobile ownership. He would do more to make walking in the city core – on both sides of the river – a safer and a better option for more people. He would aim for greater density in his development, and do more to make Kendall Yards affordable for everyone who wants a house.

And though he didn’t say as much, odds are we’ll see Toderian’s “trolleys” for sale in the grocery store in Kendall Yards in no time. They’re not revolutionary cannonballs, but the way Toderian tells it, they could change the world.

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