The photo above is of the Chicago landscape at night.  I had the pleasure of seeing a similar image as I flew into Midway airport recently.  I was mesmerized as I looked out my window and could not peel my eyes off the glittering landscape below. During daytime one can usually discern the layout of a city by the blocks and ribbons of white and red lights on the road.  However, at night, cities frequently turn into patches of fuzzy yellow light and darkness.  Chicago is startling, for the logic of the city is actually more apparent at night than during the day.

This view illuminates Daniel Burnham‘s genius.  Chicago’s grid – not quite radiating, but rather flowing – from its central loop is traced by row upon row of perfectly aligned street lights.  The grid at once appears startling simple – straight lines conversing an entire city – and and overwhelmingly complex – thinking of how many people utilize that landscape, and for how many purposes.   Moreover, as a directionally-challenged individual, I love seeing straight streets, logically spaced, running perfectly north, south, east and west.  Perhaps it also arises from my love affair with Philadelphia’s Penn-laid grid.

In my opinion, cities are one of the greatest creations of man.  Cities themselves are organisms, incredibly complex and beautiful.  There is an astounding brilliance in the operation of a great city.  The grid of Chicago makes the city look both like a beautiful organism and an astounding machine.  Each city has its imperfections, but the night view makes Chicago glimmer.

Why are our highways built the way they are?  What makes driving safe, or at least safer?  Is speed alone dangerous, or is it contextual?

Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) is one part research investigation, one part history, one part psychological analysis, one part cultural analysis, and 100% fascinating.  As a fellow amateur transportation enthusiast, I admire Vanderbilt for his drive to self education on the systems we all participate in.

I highly recommend the book to the transportation enthusiast and casual reader alike.  The book does far more than describe our roads and how they work.  Vanderbilt shares dozens of fascinating tidbits that will amuse and amaze you and your friends.  More importantly, he sheds light on human behavior and American culture.  Roads in and of themselves are rather characterless; what matters is how we use them and how those roads shape us as individuals and as communities.

After all, is there really a difference between old suburban and city roads with their right angle intersections and roads and communities developed over the last 50 years with their sweeping gentle curves?  Is one safer than another?  After all, all roads with cars traveling on them are inherently dangerous.  Cars are multi-ton machines carrying delicate human cargo, all while moving at speeds evolution did not prepare our bodies to handle.  Our bodies are not evolutionarily designed to handle the challenges of observing our surroundings at those speeds, or handling the trauma of collisions at those speeds.

It turns out that the old roads are safer, with their definite intersections, because cars are forced to stop and look, rather than casually yield.  Similarly the straight roads typically leading to these intersections provide for better sight lines when looking down the road and anticipating oncoming traffic.  All of this means that our older, pre-automobile designed roads are actually safer – for both the driver and the pedestrian – than the road designed with modern cars in mind.

Vanderbilt peers inside the mind of the driver and exposes just how amazing it is that we can drive at all.  It is amazing what we can see when we are driving, and how we can coordinate our sight and muscle movements at the fast speeds of the interstate.  However, with such miracles come some real challenges.  This book will be sure to make you rethink not only how you drive, but why you drive, and how our policy shapes our communities.

Traffic does not preach and does not lecture.  Vanderbilt’s adventures with bureaucrats, scholars, and business people illuminates what makes driving fantastic, what makes it dangerous, and how our culture is shaped by an activity we largely all take for granted.


On a different note, I apologize for my extended absence from this blog.  My last semester of law school took control of my life.  I will be working rather than studying this semester and anticipate dedicating much more time to this blog.  Thank you for your patience and continued patronage.

For transit lovers and planners across North America, and perhaps around the world, Jane Jacobs — the great opponent of highway builder and ultimate mid-century planner, Robert Moses — has achieved reverential status.  I fall into that group; forever grateful that Jane acted to save Greenwich Village, and forever inspired by her insights in the Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Two generations of urbanists, planners, activists and legislators have been influenced by Jacobs’ startling review of the obvious.  With an eternally curious and unassuming eye Jacobs reintroduced the beauty and intelligence of mankind’s greatest creation, its cities.  At the same time, Jacobs who was anything but dogmatic, has become the tabula rasa to be written upon by the sustainability movement, in its varied facets.  Some people complain Jacobs is cited too often.

The new essay collection in What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs illustrates the breadth of her influence and the genius of her observation.   While Jane was not a transportation theorist her descriptions of how cities operate and what makes for successful urban planning (or lack thereof) directly implicates sound transit policy.  The way we lay out our streets, the way we get to and from work, and the way we integrate uses of buildings into blocks, neighborhoods and cities all influence how citizens ideally move and how their choices are influenced. (more…)

portland_streetcarIs there a correlation between successful public transportation systems and white population of a city? One of the most provocative and intriguing pieces of urban theory I have read in a while was posted by Aaron Renn of Urbanophile at New Geography.  Renn’s thesis is that what unites “progressive” cities that are dense and emphasizing public transit, like Minneapolis, Austin and Portland, is that they are incredibly white.

Renn points out that the average American city is 12.8% black, some cities much more so, such as Cleveland (29.3%), Nashville (27.4%) and Indianapolis (25.9%).  These cities are compared to said “progressive” cities, such as Austin (8.8%), Portland (6.0%) and Seattle (6.2%).

As the college educated flock to these progressive El Dorados, many factors are cited as reasons: transit systems, density, bike lanes, walkable communities, robust art and cultural scenes. But another way to look at it is simply as White Flight writ large. Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip? Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries and other mechanisms raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs.

In fact, lack of ethnic diversity may have much to do with what allows these places to be “progressive”. It’s easy to have Scandinavian policies if you have Scandinavian demographics. Minneapolis-St. Paul, of course, is notable in its Scandinavian heritage; Seattle and Portland received much of their initial migrants from the northern tier of America, which has always been heavily Germanic and Scandinavian.

In comparison to the great cities of the Rust Belt, the Northeast, California and Texas, these cities have relatively homogenous populations. Lack of diversity in culture makes it far easier to implement “progressive” policies that cater to populations with similar values; much the same can be seen in such celebrated urban model cultures in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Their relative wealth also leads to a natural adoption of the default strategy of the upscale suburb: the nicest stuff for the people with the most money. It is much more difficult when you have more racially and economically diverse populations with different needs, interests, and desires to reconcile.

Having lived and worked in Philadelphia, New York and Boston I have spent plenty of time pondering the different attitudes and expectations toward transit in those various cities.  Through those experiences I have come to the conclusion that transportation systems work best when there is investment and ridership from the privileged, educated and economically well-off, i.e. white people.

When public transportation is perceived as charity for those who are poor it will never be invested in and respected by those who throw their weight around cities; business leaders, government employees, professors and doctors. Rather, when public transportation is utilized by people throughout a city and when privileged people depend on transit to get them from place-to-place the system will be invested in and respected.

I am frequently taken aback at the differences between the MBTA in Boston and SEPTA in Philadelphia (beyond the propensity to strike).  In Boston public transportation serves such wealthy and privileged places as Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Massachusetts General Hospital, Newton, and Beacon Hill.  In Philadelphia, where most of the wealth resides outside the city or in suburb-like areas within the cities, the public transportation system primarily serves poorer black residents in North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia.  In Boston I’ve never seen anyone smoke on a platform or leave tons of trash behind on a train, whereas I see it happen all the time in Philadelphia.

Perception and attitude have as much to do with those riding the buses and trains as with those funding the buses and trains.  There must be a correlation between the two, where those invested see the dividends in daily experience.  Perhaps that is why systems like those in Portland and Seattle are succeeding whereas for those in Cleveland and Indianapolis transit may be seen as nothing more as welfare for those not strong enough to pull themselves up by the bootstraps for a car.

The most critical change in thinking that must occur nationwide is that transit is neither progressive nor liberal, but sound policy for all people regardless of race or class.

Curitiba Bus

Recently I was reading an old Scientific American article about urban planning in Curitiba, Brazil.  The 1.8 million resident city in southern Brazil is a mecca of urban solutions, especially as related to transportation.  Much of the city’s visionary accomplishment is due to the leadership of former mayor Jaime Lerner, who is an architect and urban planner.

According to that Scientific American article:

Most cities grow in concentric fashion, annexing new districts around the outside while progressively increasing the density of the commercial and business districts at their core.  Congestion is inevitable, especially if most commuters travel from the periphery to the center in private automobiles.  During the 1970′s, Curitiba authorities instead emphasized growth along prescribed structural axes, allowing the city to spread out while developing mass transit that kept shops, workplaces and homes readily accessible to one another.  …

The details of the system are designed for speed and simplicity just as much as the overall architecture.  Special raised-tube bus-stops, where passengers pay their fares in advance (as in a subway station), speed boarding, as do the two extra-wide doors on each bus.  The combination has cut total travel time by a third.  Curitiba also runs double- and triple-length articulated buses that increase the capacity of the express bus lanes. …

To build a subway system would have cost roughly $60 million to $70 million [in 1996] per kilometer; the express bus highways came in at $200,000 per kilometer, including boarding tubes.

This bus rapid transit system carries 75% of the commuters to work every day.  To get a better picture of how this system operates I recommend the short documentary below.

Curitiba was fortunate to still be developing while they built much of their transit system, something cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas can still to some extent take advantage of.  However, I am enamored with the philosophy of both the bus rapid transit system and the tubes servicing them.

I firmly believe that what frequently makes subways more attractive than buses is their permanence and hence perceived reliability.  Having buses that more closely resemble subways and having permanent stops not only creates permanence, but creates efficiency.  We have all been on the bus and sat there waiting for all the passengers to feed their money into the fare box.  By allowing people to pay before boarding there is a huge efficiency advantage over most bus systems in the US.

Curitiba Bus TubeOf course most buses tend to pick up curbside where there is no room for something as large as a Curitiba tube.  However, the potential for a dedicated lane is not dependent on new systems.  Every city has thoroughfares that are essential to traveling through the city and many of them are multiple lanes.  Dedicating one of those lanes, even walling it off such that regular traffic cannot access it would make buses much more desirable.

Currently most buses not only are crowded but go slower than the speed of traffic due to stops.  If buses had dedicated lanes they travel much faster than the rest of the traffic as they will not have to compete with cars.  Imagine as opposed to building a 2nd ave subway in Manhattan one or two lanes of 2nd avenue was just dedicated to rapid transit buses.  Now this isn’t as advantageous in New York, which already primarily travels underground, but you get the idea.

Red LIne to Alewife

Boston media and popular conversation within the city loves to pick on the transportation workhorse of the region, the MBTA.   The T always seems to be held to a very high standard and praise is hard to come upon, especially in the Boston Globe or Boston Herald.

Sunday, the Globe “investigated” why it costs so much to operate the MBTA.  It was far from a positive article, focusing on the costs of the silver line and all-too-briefly discussing the value of per-mile costs versus per-passenger costs.  The data was haphazardly taken from the National Transit Database run by the FTA.

The federal data reviewed by the Globe focus on operating costs and do not take into account debt, the system’s unmet maintenance needs, or chronic problems finishing projects on time and on budget.

But conclusions based on day-to-day operating costs are controversial in transportation circles. The T can look efficient or expensive compared with other agencies, depending on the type of transportation analyzed and how costs are broken down.

Calculating what it costs to run an hour of bus service, for example, yields a different ranking than calculating the cost of running that bus for a mile. Other variables include differences in trip length, size of train cars, and regional cost of living.

Comparisons between transit agencies are “anecdotal at best,’’ said Jonathan Davis, deputy director and chief financial officer at the MBTA. “Our numbers are certainly in line with our peers for operating in an urban environment.’’

This particular article, while critical, seemed to at least cut the T some slack given all the monetary, upkeep, and transit pressures in moving 1.2 million people a day.

While the issues of debt, choices in vehicles used, services provided and cost of maintenance are beyond my knowledge I do wonder how much of any transit system’s economic and service success is based based on the landscape.

Anne Whiston Spirn, currently a professor at Harvard Business School, has emphasized landscape literacy throughout her urban planning career.  So much of the landscape determines how we build and how we design successfully.  Moreover, when we spurn the will of the land, we frequently pay the price.  Much of that landscape determined in Boston how the roads were laid out and where.  That landscape and those roads define the transit system.  I am convinced that the MBTA is less efficient than it could be because the roads are not straight and there are very few easy ways to get from one part of the city to the other.

The roads do not define the debt crisis but I will be intrigued to look at whether systems that have an easier time hewing to straight lines, such as the Manhattan portion of the MTA, are more efficient due to the layout of the system.  The lessons of older systems that impose transit upon existing landscapes have much to teach us about building new transportation systems where cities are still flexible and imagined.

Stock pricesI wish I could claim credit for this idea, but I cannot.  Today in a class of mine the idea of car vehicle or vehicle mile traveled cap and trade was briefly bandied about.  Cap and trade is the basic idea of setting some sort of limit on the use of a commodity and then giving permission for those who use the commodity to trade their allotted value of that commodity such that those who see the allotment as a surplus can trade to those who are in greater need of that commodity.  The idea is to spur innovation in use of environmentally hurtful products such as oil and coal, generally.

In the case of an automobile cap and trade either car ownership or vehicle miles traveled could be regulated.  In my opinion it would be far more effective to cap and trade the vehicle miles traveled than the cars themselves.  One author suggests how to pull off such a system:

Such a “cap and trade” (CAT) system would establish a mileage threshold and allow vehicle owners who drive fewer miles to use them later or sell them to vehicle owners whose mileage surpasses the allowable threshold. Credit and debit amounts would reflect relative fuel-efficiency based on EPA gas mileage ratings or similar manufacturer data. Administered most effectively at the state level, such a program would generate massive government revenue to research alternative energy sources. Reducing fossil-fuel consumption comes down not only to increasing miles per gallon (MPG) but to reducing miles driven per vehicle (MPV). Reducing MPV saves oil more directly than either the technological improvements that impact CAFÉ standards or increased gas taxes.

However, such a cap and trade program is effective and efficient only if it is coupled with a variety of other transit investments including new public transportation resources.  In addition, such a cap and trade system would be effective for encouraging re-engineering of zoning plans that facilitate sprawl and low urban density.   Without giving people better options of where to live and how to get around such a cap and trade program is simply a tax for those who live further away from their place of employment.  However, encouraging people to move closer to the central and regional cores of metropolitan areas is a relevant goal in itself.

Such a system, by making driving less desirable, also drives down our reliance on oil, always a good thing for political, social, economic and environmental reasons.

Of course, my notion right now is exceedingly vague and specifics would have to be developed on just what the cap on vehicle miles traveled would be, whether to create such a system at the federal or state level, how commercial vehicles would be allotted credits and by what means the vehicle miles traveled credits could be traded.

I personally would suggest establishing higher credits for commercial vehicles like delivery trucks and tractor trailers.  We cannot get rid of vehicles like FedEx trucks or bakery delivery vehicles.  However, you will find little love lost from me regarding 18-wheelers.  The sooner we can get a percentage of that freight off the roads onto the rails the better, if you ask me.

America needs to shed its auto infatuation.  That automobile is a tool and a useful one, but it should not be the source of daily existence for hours a day.  Getting people to live more densely, to utilize alternative transportation options and to be less dependent on oil all could be accomplished by a VMT cap and trade system.

jane jacobsrobert moses

Howard Husock wrote a book review in the latest issue of City Journal discussing Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint, and Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch.

Jane Jacobs was the great self-taught urban philosopher and activist who wrote the Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she took the lessons she learned from Greenwich Village to expound upon the value of organic urban life, where planning and government have  a limited but instrumental role.  This stood in direct contrast to the most powerful man in New York, the unelected Robert Moses, who built many of New York City’s highways and housing projects.

Husock makes many notable points, including this one:

But good cases can make bad law, and the successful defense of Washington Square Park and the West Village can lead too easily to the conclusion that neighborhood preservation, by whatever means necessary, is always correct—and that opponents of development, by definition, occupy the moral high ground. Thanks partly to their efforts, New York City has not opened a new subway line since 1942, has no easy transit link to its airports, and enforces a system of legally dictated rents that allow affluent tenants to stay forever in cheap apartments and insulate themselves from neighborhood change. Some would even extend such rent controls to commercial properties, thus interrupting the cycle of decline and rebirth that marks dynamic cities.

Neither Moses nor Jacobs had a perfect philosophy.  Any transportation advocate recognizes the need for eminent domain at some minimal level and that good transit can help organic growth.  Think about how commercial and residential centers grow around particular subway stops or how other areas decay when city planners choose to move a bus line or close a light rail stop.  In this day and age there is no such thing as truly organic transit.  The days of paving over old walking and cow paths are over and transit now is a matter of government and the community working to make transit systems and routes that work with and for the community.

Moreover, Moses and Jacobs stand as historic examples of the long-lasting effects of making (or not making decisions in planning).  Moses radically changed the city and Jacobs prevented some of his other attempts and set the tone to make sure that other Moses-like projects would never occur.  In this day and age of 24-hour media we forget that our policy decisions have a longer lasting effect than the day or week they are put into place.  A policy decision, especially one as large as where or whether to build a highway or subway can have ramifications for decades if not centuries.

As we finally begin to give transportation infrastructure its due in the 21st century, we are best served to remember that any decision on transit–whether it is high speed rail, improving our highways, investing in more subways, efficient cars or something else we are bound to imagine–those decisions do not solve only current problems.  Those decisions will have ramifications today and for centuries to come.  Transportation grants should not be handed out for efficiecy’s sake or for mere stimulus effect, but to establish and preserve productive, creative, economically thriving centers of American life.

radical cartography subways

The above image comes from the fantastic website Radical Cartography.  The project artists there create wonderful maps of everything from subway systems (including Boston) to North American rail to census data.  The above map is of North American Subways, and the creators explain thus:

At a glance, many metros seem to be comparable in scale, but what separates New York from Baltimore is density: station-to-station distance, line overlap, and linkages.

Most systems are organized as a hub with spokes; the two notable exceptions are New York and Mexico City, both of which are more like nets.

This particular map is telling because, as the creators point out most systems work to funnel workers toward city centers but do an abysmal job of getting people from one place to another on the periphery without going through and back out of the center of the core.

The map is fascinating as it is telling about how people not only get into respective cities but what life is like once they are there.  My bias is to believe that subways are a sign of an active downtown and that people potentially live in the urban core.  This clearly true of New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago and an interesting sign about life in Houston or Cincinnati or Phoenix.

However, cities without transit will not improve their downtown areas just by building subway lines (though it certainly cannot hurt).  Cities like Phoenix and Vegas were built around highways and an automobile driven life, and do not have the urban density necessary to support a strong subway system.  It is no coincidence that New York and Mexico City lead the pack of urban transit systems, they are both incredibly dense cities.   In order to make subways or elevated lines or lightrail lines work again it must be part of a comprehensive urban planning project, where areas are rezoned to produce dense urban centers for both residential and commercial purposes and where people have incentive to live their lives relying on public transportation first and automobiles second.

(H/T to my partner at eartotheground for the link)


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