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Engineer wants to build for people instead of cars


DAVID S. Thaler wants to create a comfortable habitat for human beings in Union Bridge.

Even though he has designed dozens of subdivisions in the two decades he has operated his firm, Mr. Thaler readily admits that most of those developments were designed primarily for automobiles rather than the people who drive them.

"Take a look at this picture," he says.

We are sitting in a windowless room in his Woodlawn office in Baltimore County. Up on the screen he has projected a color slide of a typical subdivision street. In the foreground is an intersection of a blacktopped cul-de-sac and a connector road. The street has no sidewalks and the grass runs right to the curb. The few trees in the picture are saplings. Dominating the vista: a car parked in a driveway.

"This is a very healthy habitat for an automobile," he says, "but not for a child."

Mr. Thaler claims that existing zoning regulations have forced him and other engineers to design developments to move traffic in and out as efficiently as possible. Instead of catering to human needs, engineers focus on the mechanical needs of the automobile.

"The tragedy is that if you want to do a lousy job, all you have to do is follow the rules. If you want to do a nice job, you have to throw out the existing rules," he says.

On the screen is a picture of a page from a traffic engineer's manual showing cul-de-sacs, connector roads and arterials that have been replicated across the country with depressing regularity.

'This is the book'

"We have done it by the book, and this is the book," he says.

With his curly hair, wire-rimmed glasses and bow tie, he could pass for a university professor. But Mr. Thaler is founder and president of a large civil engineering firm that has designed subdivisions, storm water management systems and landscaping in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Washington.

After years of designing 50-foot-wide curvilinear streets and corners with 15-foot turning radii, Mr. Thaler would like to design a development more like the towns and villages that existed before 1950.

He thinks that Union Bridge has a unique opportunity to create a development that accommodates people rather than cars.

Like Andres Duany, the architect who has designed the back-to-the-future developments of Seaside in Florida and Kentlands in Montgomery County, Mr. Thaler believes that towns and villages laid out on grids are more hospitable to people than the cul-de-sac layouts so typical of suburbia.

"Suburbia is a pattern of development that makes people isolated," Mr. Thaler says, flashing on the wall a slide of a featureless development in Leesburg that is a block from one of the most picturesque main streets in northern Virginia.

"Think about the typical suburban development," he continues. "It is a focused around driving. We get in our cars and drive to work by ourselves. We drive home by ourselves and jump into our houses and watch television by ourselves. . . . Mama is a chauffeur for her children and the children can't get to anywhere because they can't drive."

Mr. Thaler maintains that his plan for the Phillips property in Union Bridge is designed to solve some of those problems and give new homebuyers an alternative.

The streets are laid out to human scale. The entrance to the development will be a tree-lined street divided by a wide median.

Unlike most subdivisions where the main street traverses the length of the development and is wide, encouraging cars to speed, Mr. Thaler has purposely included T-junction intersections, forcing cars to come to a halt.

In his book, "The Geography of Nowhere," James Kunstler points out that such T-junctions are anathema to traffic engineers because they force traffic to stop. In the past, lots at the end of such intersections were reserved for important public structures such as courthouses, town halls, churches or colleges, Mr. Kunstler says.

For an identity

Mr. Thaler calls for a community health and fitness center to be the development's focal point and to provide the development with an identity that most subdivisions lack.

Proposed retail buildings would sit on the street rather than be set back in a sea of parking spaces. In Mr. Thaler's plan, parking would be located behind the buildings.

Putting people first and cars second is a revolutionary proposal today. Mr. Thaler finds himself fighting an uphill battle to get them accepted. "Like it or not, the age of the automobile-oriented subdivision made up of isolated single-family homes is near its end," Mr. Thaler says. "The future will require us to reconstruct American life into coherent neighborhoods and villages and viable cities."

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carrol County.

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