Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Alley Oop!

I'm always excited to discover a new twist in the vocabulary of road networks. On my way out of Uptown tonight, I somewhat accidentally managed to drive down a very narrow alley. "Hmmm," I wondered, "this is a very weird road. There are no lane markings or addresses; in fact, all the buildings fronting this road appear to be the backs of buildings! Odd!"

Of course, silly me, I was driving down an urban alley. I have indeed read about (and seen pictures of) this type of road, but had rarely encountered in my visits to various cities. (To be fair, I do distinctly remember one such urban alley in Philadelphia--quite cool!). The basic idea is that rather than have driveways and garages take up valuable frontage space on main roads, you move residential vehicular access to a small alley that runs in between roads (and connects directly to the backs of garages and houses). It's really quite an impressive innovation: it permits urban dwellers more direct, private access to their homes, makes it easier to keep a car in the city, and preserves the quality of experience on the urban road itself.

It is this last point--the quality of experience of the urban street--that I want to emphasize. As I've said many times, the central problem (challenge?) facing urban development is what to do about the automobile. Cars are anathema to cities in many ways. They take up huge amounts of space, and require that roads be far wider than is necessary for other forms of transport. Cars also have to be parked somewhere, and that means extra lanes for parking, as well as driveways that add another ten or so feet to lot widths. The practical result is that homes--and the people who live in them--are pushed farther apart from each other. The quality of life of cities is predicated on proximity to one's neighbors! For better or worse, that is what makes cities feel like cities. The feeling of being closely packed in with a multitude of humanity is what makes Chinatown in New York different from Chinatown in Cleveland.

The urban alley makes it possible to build homes (and businesses) more densely, by relocating the car to a separate street. Driveways are now located behind houses, so there is extra room on the main street for buildings and people. Urban alleys show great promise as an urban planning tool to promote dense, urban neighborhoods.


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