Q&A with Consulting City Planner Brent Toderian

Brent Toderian
Photo courtesy of Brent Toderian
After six years as Vancouver’s chief city planner, Brent Toderian [pronounced todder-in] launched his own international consulting firm, Toderian UrbanWorks, in 2012 to advise cities around the world on issues ranging from transportation to urban design. Earlier this year, he added the River City to his list of civic clients when he was tapped to consult the Downtown Sacramento Partnership after serving as keynote speaker at the organization’s annual State of Downtown event in February. We catch up with Toderian to discuss his thoughts on bringing more housing to downtown Sacramento, creating a more pedestrian-friendly and bike-forward environment, and making the central city a more desirable place to live, work and play.

Downtown Sacramento Partnership has retained you to advise them. Can you talk about the scope of the consulting that you’ll be doing here, and how long the role will last?

Our conversations have been open-ended, but there is an initial task to work with the Partnership to establish a livable downtown strategy that focuses on housing. Of all the various things that could have the most impact, the decision was that the best focus would be how to support downtown Sacramento as a place to live—not just in the form of encouraging more housing, but the kinds of amenities, designs and elements that make a great urban neighborhood. To create that kind of strategy, I think we’re talking months, not years, because we want to create a sense of urgency.

Why housing in particular?

Downtowns are incredibly complex ecosystems and there are no silver bullets, but the closest thing to a silver bullet for downtown health and strength would be more housing. One of the observations I had when I was in [Sacramento] was that I saw new housing construction. Some of it was very good, but in every case, I asked why not more?

Downtown is a neighborhood. It is many other things too, but if you want people living there, it has to be a great neighborhood. It’s the “contract” we make with the people who choose to live there. They are giving up the big backyard, the home theater system in the basement and the three-car garage. They are trading that for ubiquitous and accessible amenities—the ability to walk to the grocery store, walk your kids to school, walk to daycare, walk to parks and playgrounds, walk to the fresh bagel shop or to get sushi. They also want amenities like multimodal design—design that supports walking, biking and public transit to make it more pedestrian friendly and kid friendly. And it’s a bad trade if you don’t provide those things.

In many American cities, there has been success in transforming some of those big downtown surface parking lots into homes, but less success turning those blocks and streets into neighborhoods.

And many cities aren’t providing even the easy things, like investing in public realm design. If you’ve got big, one-way streets that are traffic sewers for cars, they aren’t very friendly for pedestrians. The easy things are to invest in the public realm—the walkable streets, the wide sidewalks, the tree-lined streets, the benches and the street furniture and the street character. The more challenging part is getting enough population that will support local grocery stores, and the real holy grail is often daycare and schools.

So, we’re not just tackling housing. We’re tackling all of the things that make it a great place for people to want to live, and a great place for builders to want to build. We’re hitting both the supply side and the demand side.

Historically, Sacramento has had a weak track record for building enough housing downtown. The area has been mostly inhabited by office buildings. So, while it’s been relatively busy during the day, it’s too often a ghost town after 5 p.m. because few people live there.

Don’t get me wrong. Having that employment downtown is a critical element in the ecosystem. It’s also critically important for attracting people to live downtown because one of the most obvious reasons to live downtown is that you can walk to work. So the future of working in downtowns is critical to that home/work relationship. And the long-term implications of the pandemic [in terms of] work-from-home are extremely important. Anyone who says they know the answer to that right now is either wrong or lying. So, we need robust strategies that will work no matter what the work-from-home scenario ends up being in our particular downtown.

Scientists recently estimated that there’s about a 20% chance of another Omicron-level wave of Covid hitting again in the next two years. But whether or not that transpires, many of the changes that you frequently talk about are ones that should be implemented regardless of what happens with the pandemic. They’re just about building better cities.

True. Well, we had many observations during the pandemic about how to make our cities’ blocks and streets better, but then, particularly in North America, we wrongly perceived them to be short-term fixes, instead of long-term no-brainers to make our downtowns more successful. Other cities around the world are much better at learning from crisis and changing to a new status quo.

The great irony, of course, would be if we end up creating more suburban sprawl because everyone’s working from home, and then that exacerbates the climate emergency. We know that sprawl generates significantly more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than infill or downtown development—significantly more. [For example], if we’re not driving to work, that’s just one trip. If all of our other trips are car trips because we live in the suburbs—which is car-dependent—instead of walking or transit trips, that will just make things worse.

Unfortunately, Sacramento didn’t learn as many lessons from the pandemic as even other American cities did, and if we did, the lessons were mostly short-lived. After the pandemic started, cities everywhere were racing to put up protected bike lanes—in part because essential workers were not riding public transit because they were afraid of Covid, but also to give people more ways to get around outside, for both recreation and for exercise. But that wasn’t happening here. We also closed some streets and implemented some “slow streets” to give residents more space outdoors, but the closed streets have been reopened and slow streets are completely gone. 

I don’t need to tell you that even the language we use is problematic, right? “Reopen those streets.” Well, they opened them back up to cars and closed the streets [again] to people, right? The idea of reenvisioning and reprioritizing streets as public spaces—how easy that is if you’ve got a culture for it—is a clear example of low-hanging fruit for improving downtown, because it’s actually hard and expensive to create more permanent amenities, and yet it’s remarkably easy and cheap to rethink the street as an amenity. The only thing [Sacramento] has to do is let go of its obsession that streets are primarily places for cars. And so, open the streets for people instead of thinking that you’re closing the streets by prohibiting cars.

A cartoon showing a street clocked by cars in comparison to a street with bike lanes where just as many people can get around faster

Cartoon by Dave Walker

In 2017, I wrote an essay about the fact that Sacramento had the fewest number of protected bike lanes [those with a physical barrier to separate them from vehicular traffic] of the biggest 40 cities in America, because we had zero. And now six years later, we’re up to only 5 miles of protected bike lanes, whereas other large West Coast cities, like San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle all have 30 to 50 miles of protected bike lanes. We’re supposed to add 5 more miles this year, but we’re way behind the curve. You spoke about the need for multimodal amenities, and it appears we have a lot of ground to make up.

Well, it’s a good conversation in terms of whether you’re leading or following. When it comes to protected bike lanes, the magic word is “network.” If you have a disconnected or non-network approach to your bike infrastructure, chances are you’ve got a lot of unsafe parts of your trip. You need a network that connects origin and destination with multiple options that provide choices. Imagine designing a city where you had just a few roads for cars. 

One of the things that I’ve heard from the city over the years is that the lack of protected bike lanes is primarily a funding issue—that the city is not investing in protected bike lanes, so the public works folks in City Hall need to apply for state and federal grants and hope they get some. What would you say to a city that’s not investing in protected bike lanes, whatever the funding situation?

The space for cars gets automatically paid for [in the form of streets]. And the investment in bike infrastructure—because that’s what it is, an investment—becomes a nice-to-have if you have money left over. This thinking is typical. It fails to recognize investment versus cost; it fails to recognize value creation and cost savings versus cost. Safe and protected bike infrastructure is an excellent investment for cities. And by the way, it’s not much money. It’s a rounding error in most transportation budgets.

The real reluctance is reallocating space [removing car lanes or parking to make room for bikes]. You need to do two things to get a good network of safe and protected bike infrastructure. You need to reallocate budget and you need to reallocate space.

We often talk about the budget part of it, like that’s the barrier. It is not a barrier. I’ve not seen a single city where the cost of bike infrastructure is a real barrier. It is often used as an excuse. And I work for some of the richest cities in the world and some of the poorest cities. The money involved is never a barrier. What’s usually the case is that there’s a real reluctance to reallocate or reprioritize space, because you’re talking about taking something from the cars, when what you’re really doing is providing the opportunity for more trips using less space [since bike lanes take up far less space than roads and can move many more people] and creating fewer emissions, et cetera.

And study after study has shown that, in general, there is increased revenue for retailers on streets with separated bike lanes rather than those with street parking. And anyone who finds that counterintuitive, that’s because we always overestimate the number of people who can [patronize businesses] by car and we always underestimate the number of people who come by walking, biking and transit. Remember, people tend to take up those parking spaces for a long time.

When Jump bikes came to Sacramento in 2018, they were wildly popular. In fact, Sacramento was second only to Paris in terms of usage for them. The problem was, because there were virtually no protected bike lanes here and the streets felt too dangerous, people were riding them on the sidewalks. I’ve personally gotten hit several times while walking on the sidewalk by people who didn’t know how to ride an electric bike or scooter. But it’s hard to blame them for not wanting to risk their lives on the streets. 

There’s a school of thought that says no city should be launching a bike-share system—electric or otherwise—until they have a safe bike infrastructure, and that doing so is irresponsible. I have always considered it a bit of chicken and egg. Sometimes launching bike-share can be a helpful catalyst for safer infrastructure. But you have to time them well together.

READ MORE: Can Electric Bikes Help Save The Planet? – Brent Toderian and other experts discuss the e-bike revolution

You spoke earlier about car sewers. Can you elaborate?

Yes. If your streets are wide and they’re multilane and one-way, then they’re just a very fast way to bypass downtown. They are not for the downtown. They don’t help the downtown. They are for people looking to get through the downtown without even seeing anything, like signs for stores, on the way. We often call it an “unforgiving” network. If you pass someplace and say, “Oh, I want to go back and get to that,” when you’re in a one-way system, it can take you 20 minutes to get back to that spot you just passed. Because if you miss a turn, the system punishes you—that’s why we call it an unforgiving network.

There are all sorts of reasons why one-way streets are bad for downtowns. They were designed by traffic engineers to be a bypass with one goal in mind—to get people through downtown as quickly as possible. Downtowns benefit from people engaging with them. So why would we ever see [wide, one-way streets] as something that was meant to help?

A definition of success is actually to get people, particularly when they’re on foot or on a bike, to see something they want to check out, and to stop and go in and shop. I often talk about “sticky streets”— streets that make you want to slow down and enjoy the street. Sticky in the sense that it’s making you stop and engage with the [store] window, engage with the sidewalk, engage with the neighbor that you run into. Teflon streets are the streets that make you slide through that downtown as quickly as possible. And that doesn’t do anyone any good.

In your State of Downtown talk here earlier this year, you showed some tweets on the overhead projector from people in Sacramento who were skeptical that civic leaders here would listen to your advice. How do you get through to those civic leaders—the politicians, the city manager, and others who control the budgets? 

In my experience, success or failure is dependent on a culture of leadership—a culture of action rather than excuses. That is what differentiates the successful cities from the less successful cities. The cities that listen to my talk and say, “That makes a lot of sense,” but then come up with a thousand reasons not to do it are the cities that have been languishing. I often talk about the eight most unhelpful words in the English language, which are, “We could never do that in our city.” I think that to make a difference in your city, you have to be more impossible to ignore. You have to change the discourse, and have a conversation with a combination of bluntness and truth telling, combined with great storytelling and strong data. I think we all have to be more persuasive. We all need to do better at breaking through the noise.

But what I’m inspired by is this feeling that there was a real pre-pandemic momentum here—that downtown had found its mojo. I’ve worked with many downtowns where the first goal has been to stop the bleeding. The fact that I think Sacramento starts from a place of relative success and a level of momentum, notwithstanding the pandemic’s impact, is a good thing.

During the [February] trip when I gave the speech, we had several days of tours and meetings. I commented about the number of local stores that I saw there. Downtown [Sacramento] hasn’t been taken over by chains, and that’s a remarkable asset. Many cities would kill for the authenticity that comes from that. But you have it, and it’s just a matter of preserving it in the context of change. So there are advantages that I did not expect to see, and I came away very impressed.

There seems to be a real opportunity to deliver a very specific, strategic, scalpel-like strategy that can take downtown to the next level, and that’s what’s interesting and excites me. And if a blunt, honest conversation can happen, that can help change things. That’s what I see here, which is why I’m interested in helping.

This interview has been edited for length, flow and clarity.


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