Contrarian Thinking: Against Transportation

As the two chambers of the Congress haggle over the stimulus plan (see The Transport Politic‘s handy comparison of transpo-related spending in the House and Senate bills), we’ll take a moment to step back and look at the bigger picture, courtesy of Streetsblog Network member blog Where. They have a post entitled "Against Transportation" that poses these questions:

SUBWAY.jpgPhoto by truffes via Flickr.

Urban transportation: What are we going to do about it? Fewer cars? More mass transit? More bikes? Fuel taxes?

It’s tempting to try solving transportation problems with more transportation. The sight of rush hour traffic jams in cities, or the experience of riding an overcrowded bus or train, suggest the need for increased transit capacity. As a short term solution, that may indeed be the best remedy. In the long run, however, it’s more like supplementing a junk food diet with a few healthy snacks.

Instead, Where cites the work of Christopher Alexander and asks us to imagine this: 

[I]t might be a helpful first step to scatter workplaces throughout dense cities…along peripheral transit lines or within walking and biking distance of neighborhood residences. A lot of work disappeared in 2008 and plenty more is sure to vanish in 2009. If and when that work comes back, it doesn’t all need to end up downtown.

Your thoughts?

Also on the network today: Greater City: Providence notes the shoddy quality of new highway infrastructure in Rhode Island, Milwaukee Rising asks why Wisconsin’s governor can’t rein in his road-happy DOT, and the National Journal asks, "How Will We Pay for the Transportation We Need?"

  • Larry Littlefield

    “[I]t might be a helpful first step to scatter workplaces throughout dense cities…along peripheral transit lines or within walking and biking distance of neighborhood residences.”

    I think that’s the wrong answer.

    Job turnover is enoromous. One third of all the jobs at any one point in time are in places of business that did not exist five years prior. And that is over and above people changing jobs.

    What makes New York what it is is the large job market in Manhattan. New Yorkers can change jobs multiple times over their lives without having to move, or drive. They just get off at the next train stop.

    If jobs were dispersed, that next job might only be accessible within a reasonable commute time by automobile.

    People could, of course, move from Brooklyn to the Bronx, when their job moved from one borough to another. But that would eliminate another advantage of New York living — the ability to forge a network of friends, acquaintances and social institutions in a neighborhood.

    Rather than disperse jobs, it may be possible to disperse work in some industries, through part time telecommuting for example. I’d love to be able to work from home on the days I don’t ride the bike. But if I want the next job to be accessible by bike or transit, a central location is required.

  • Tom

    Scattering job locations throughout the metro area rather than downtown may actually cause more congestion. Because jobs and job locations are less permanent than the workers homes, there is a good chance that people will eventually be crossing the metro area to get to work. When all jobs are centrally located downtown, changing jobs doesn’t change your commute that much.

    While it would be ideal that everyone could live withing 2 miles of work. (Something I experienced for two years before my last job change.) A change of employment might require a long commute accross the metro area. It is unrealistic to expect people to move across a metropolitan are everytime they change jobs.

  • garyg

    Scattering job locations throughout the metro area rather than downtown may actually cause more congestion.

    It doesn’t. Congestion tends to decrease as density decreases. Decentralization of jobs will tend to reduce congestion and reduce commute times, not increase them. New York has terrible congestion and the longest average commute time in the nation because a vast number of people who live in the outer boroughs and suburban areas need to converge on a hyperdense concentration of jobs in lower and midtown Manhattan.

  • rex

    Illich rocks. He was my first introduction to anarchist thought a long time ago. It is too bad a bunch of people with bad haircuts and poor manners gave anarchism a bad name shortly after this book was written. I highly recommend reading the Energy and Equity referenced in the Where post. Even if you do not agree with all of his thoughts, gaining a little insight into the connection between energy consumption and social justice is a worthwhile exercise.

  • rex

    Whoops sorry about the poor html. can’t teach an old dog new tricks I guess.

  • “Decentralization of jobs will tend to reduce congestion and reduce commute times,…”

    But it will also tend to increase VMT and to reduce the mode share of transit, increasing gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

    Consider that the streets around the typical suburban office park are less congested than the streets of Manhattan, but the people who work in Manhattan drive much less on their commutes than the people in the suburban office park.

  • But I agree with the basic point of Against Transportation – that we would be better off consuming much less transportation. America’s per capita VMT has doubled since the 1960s, and all that extra traveling has provided no benefit except enabling sprawl and has had huge environmental costs.

    But note that workplaces were more centralized in downtowns in the 1960s than they are today.

    Incidentally, Illich’s Energy And Equity is available at http://www.cogsci.ed.ac.uk/~ira/illich/texts/energy_and_equity/energy_and_equity.html

  • garyg

    But it will also tend to increase VMT and to reduce the mode share of transit, increasing gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

    The claims that it increases gas consumption and emissions are highly dubious. In any case, given that jobs are in fact decentralizing from inner cities to suburbs, and transportation usage has shifted dramatically from transit to autos, the benefits of such decentralization seem to outweigh the costs.

  • Boris

    I think it pays to look at it on a case-by-case basis, but specifically for New York, multiple downtowns would be a blessing. One reason for that is that they already exist, but are not served by transit nearly as much as they should be, forcing people to drive. For example, Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center has no express bus service or direct connection to Queens, so people from Staten Island and Queens have a much harder time getting there than to a Manhattan job farther away.

    Concentrating all jobs in Manhattan virtually guarantees long commutes for everyone, because most of us either live far away from our jobs or have limited means of getting there by public transit, since the subway and express buses mainly connect the outer boroughs with Manhattan, not with each other. We should give people the choice of living closer to work before worrying that they might have to move more often.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “We should give people the choice of living closer to work before worrying that they might have to move more often.”

    I think that choice is up to people who invest in commercial property and start businesses.

    The city has already upzoned Long Island City and Downtown Brooklyn for large-scale office development, and has extensive tax breaks as-of-right in those locations. Outright subsidies have been provided in places such as MetroTech and Jamaica.

    Moreover, there has been a massive boom in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens over the past decade or so. Most of it is in self-employment. You can see it in the spreadsheet attached to this post.

    http://www.r8ny.com/blog/larry_littlefield/it_s_even_worse_than_you_know.html

    Much of it is the result of the capture by these boroughs of consumer spending by their residents that used to flow to the suburbs. The growing number of large national chain stores (give Atlantic Center some love) and the re-occupancy of local commerical streets each played a role. The expansion of the media industries outside Manhattan also helped.

  • James

    I think the idea of scattering employment centers across the boroughs makes a lot of sense. While the city’s core is heavily developed – Manhattan has two downtowns, for pete’s sake – the boroughs are underdeveloped in comparison. The boroughs function the way inner suburbs do in other municipalities in that they are primarily residential outposts. There’s no reason why each outer borough shouldn’t have its own well-developed central business district, or potentially more than one. Of course, Manhattan will always be the primary core. Still, NYC is a vast city and for people to be making epic transit commutes from Far Rockaway or Bayside all the way to Midtown for work, just because that’s the way it’s always been, is nuts. You wonder why the boroughs are car-crazy… there’s your answer.

  • rlb

    “it might be a helpful first step to scatter workplaces throughout dense cities”

    The problem with this statement is that cities in the US are for the most part not that dense any more. So if you start dropping down workplaces into these semi dense cities, people are still going to be coming from the surrounding areas to work there.
    The second problem with this statement is that when the cities were dense, they were quite small, so the idea of scattering workplaces throughout doesn’t really heighten convenience (St. louis 60 sq miles – Cleveland 80 sq miles – Pittsburgh 55 sq miles). That’s the magic of density. Lot’s of people able to go lot’s of places without having to go very far.
    Now the typical inhabited density in US is so low that it would never be considered a city, and putting an office there is what happens now anyway and people drive there.

  • Rhywun

    No matter where the jobs go, you have to pay for infrastructure to get there. And spreading them out requires *more* infrastructure, because the average miles traveled per person will be higher. So the question is, do we fully fund the current inadequate infrastructure, or spread out and spend even more on infrastructure that doesn’t yet exist?

  • anonymouse

    I think there is definitely such a thing as too much density, but also that none of our cities in the US have reached that point. Midtown might be coming close, but I think it’s got some capacity yet if transportation and infrastructure were planned more intelligently. And if you want to see a polycentric city with employment scattered throughout a fairly densely populated metropolis, well, there’s Los Angeles.

  • garyg

    No matter where the jobs go, you have to pay for infrastructure to get there. And spreading them out requires *more* infrastructure, because the average miles traveled per person will be higher

    But congestion and commute times will be lower. And that seems to be the tradeoff most people prefer. New York is clearly an anomaly. There is probably no other city in the world with such a dense concentration of jobs in such a small geographic area. Certainly, there’s no other big city in the U.S. like it.

  • Andy

    LA is not a fairly densely populated metropolis, unless compared to other auto-dependent US cities.

    LA and a great deal of suburban sprawl represent how not to achieve a desirable polycentric city: Too many roads, too little transit, and a hellish pedestrian experience.

    An intelligent, hands-on approach could utilize plenty of existing infrastructure. For example, most transit lines are filled to capacity in the peak direction but virtually empty in the opposite direction.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    The term in vogue to describe LA is “dense sprawl.”

    To wit:

    The urbanized area in and around Los Angeles has become the most densely populated place in the continental United States, according to the Census Bureau. Its density is 25 percent higher than that of New York, twice that of Washington and four times that of Atlanta, as measured by residents per square mile of urban land.

    More at WaPo.

  • rlb

    “the most densely populated place in the continental United states”

    I guess that’s opposed to the 1 square foot ‘place’ where I am standing which has a density of roughly 25 million persons per square mile.

  • @ garyg

    What are these benefits? Enabling the 50,000 fatalities caused by automobiles in the US every year? Its a form of population control right? It must be mobility then. Is mobility itself an actual benefit? Who benefits from mobility other than oil companies and car makers? Accessibility is what people really need and density is part of providing accessibility.

  • But congestion and commute times will be lower.

    Only if you happen to live near your job. Not so much if your job is on the other side of the metropolis from you. Congestion will be higher because (a) a larger percentage of people will need a car (because transit is less effective in sprawl) and (b) those extra cars will be driving more miles.

    The urbanized area in and around Los Angeles has become the most densely populated place in the continental United States,

    That’s a hilariously misleading statistic I’ve seen thrown around by the car crowd and other anti-urban types, achieved only by the fact that large amounts of the region are too mountainous to build on. The fact is there are scarcely any “centers” in the region and the freeway network can’t keep up with the all the cars that are required by everyone.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I think Chris in Sacremento’s point is that as a Metropolitan area L.A. (Lost Asses to jazz musicians based in NYC) is actually more dense than NYC or Chicago (the only possible competitors in a “whose density is more dense” contest) when viewed as an overall metropolitan center. That may or may not be true as to me it is a function of what defines a metropolitan (county, transit authority, tax center of gravity). And, there is always the squishy issue of “sustainability”. Even if Lost Asses has a more dense metropolitan area is there any real reason for it to be there? In the end it is located in a desert on the most critical earthquake fault in the US, one of the more critical in the world, stealing their water from Mexico, basically a creation of World War II military industrial complex political needs.

    OK, even if LA is more dense as a total metropolitan area (I don’t really buy it by the argument by the way), will Lost Asses continue to be so after the next earthquake, flood, tornado, brush fire, drought? And should the rest of the US (or California for that matter) continue to subsidize disaster relief for Lost Asses?

  • A paid organized ride sharing system could have a huge impact on our current transportation problems. Here is a post that lists America’s Five Biggest Transportation Headaches and Five Proposed Remedies. The government thinking is that we can spend our way out of this, but there is a better way:

    http://www.pay4rides.com/2009/01/transportation-headaches/

  • anonymous

    Ideally, yes, you would want everyone to live, work and shop 90% of the time within walking distance. One major problem however, besides zoning issues, is that when one changes jobs in the same area one tends not to necessarily change residences, since changing residence includes extra immediate costs. There is also the issue of housing costs sometimes being more expensive near workplaces, though that depends on the specific case.

  • garyg

    @gary fisher,

    What are these benefits?

    Lower housing costs; faster, more convenient and more flexible transportation; less crowding; greater privacy; more green space; etc. The benefits that have been drawing people away from inner cities and into the suburbs for 50 years.

    @rhywun,

    Only if you happen to live near your job. Not so much if your job is on the other side of the metropolis from you.

    It’s true in general. Researchers have studied the relationship between congestion, travel times and population density. As population density decreases, so do congestion and travel times.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The benefits that have been drawing people away from inner cities and into the suburbs for 50 years.”

    I believe that trend has started to go into reverse, aside from cities when institutional arrangements and social conditions as a result of that 50 year trend make urban living unviable.

    Suburbs are now in surplus, the way viable urban neighborhoods were 50 years ago. Viable urban neighborhoods are in shortage.

    Let’s see which of those 19 million vacant housing units in the U.S. stay vacant. I expect lots of suburban and exurban areas are going to experience something like what older cities did in the 1970s.

  • garyg

    believe that trend has started to go into reverse

    I think you’d have a hard time showing that with data.

    Suburbs are now in surplus, the way viable urban neighborhoods were 50 years ago. Viable urban neighborhoods are in shortage.

    There’s a general housing surplus in both suburbs and dense urban areas. There are plenty of condos for sale in downtown high-rises, many of them purchased by speculators hoping to flip them for a quick profit and getting burned when the housing bubble burst. Demand may generally have fallen more in suburbs than in central cities over the past couple of years, but almost all areas are hurting. And those recent declines must be viewed in the context of the prior run up in prices to relate them to the long-term trend.

  • And if you want to see a polycentric city with employment scattered throughout a fairly densely populated metropolis, well, there’s Los Angeles.

    Yep. And consequently the cost of constructing a mass transit system with the capacity and speed to connect the many economic centers and serve the population which is “sprawled densely” is enough to consume the FTA New Starts budget for the next 20 years.

  • Wad

    Damien, just because the costs are high doesn’t mean the projects aren’t worth doing at all.

    L.A. has only L.A. to blame for not building a high-speed, high-capacity urban rail and bus network. These problems had been manifest ever since the days the last streetcars ran.

    The logic of “Since we can’t serve everyone everywhere, we must build nothing nowhere” is only self-defeating. We must bear the costs and burdens for the failures of our previous generations.

    We have the money, time and knowledge not to have to throw the time bomb to our kids and grandkids the way our grandparents and parents did to us.

    We have infinite demand but a very limited amount of supply. So, we build the projects that have the most ridership potential, then when those succeed, we fill in the rest once everything settles. We only need a few projects to develop a network effect for everything else to succeed. In fact, those have already been built.

  • How desperate the anti-transit trolls have become! They got NUTHIN’.

    Since when is anti-transit contrarian? Wake up, streetsblog, we pro-transit folks are the contrarians.

    The Middle East, Africa, and Caspian regions are suffering terribly and will suffer more because we cannot get any traction.

    The ice caps are melting and the human race is still fighting for the privilege to sell and burn more fossil-fuels.

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