As the automobile became the preferred method of travel in the United States during the 20th century, car oriented development became the dominant pattern of city design. Today it is extremely difficult or simply impossible to go about ones daily life without some reliance upon an automobile. Furthermore, in most areas of the country, the lack of one makes a person a second class citizen. For a variety of reasons, there has been a resurgence in the interest for mass-transit oriented developments (TODs). Proponents of this alternative method of city organization argue for its superiority over car oriented developments in efficiency, aesthetics, and livability (to name a few).1 Although there is something to be said for all of these reasons, here I will concentrate on an argument for TODs from the perspective of social justice. Typically arguments from social justice have been among the more controversial because they often involved some sort of redistribution of resources; in American politics it is often unclear how much the rich should be forced to give up in order to help the poor. I hope to bypass this issue by looking at a current public policy that seems to have wide-spread public approval, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and derive from it an argument for government sanctioned support of TODs. In section 1, I describe a number of public policies, including zoning, highway, and accessibility standards for the disabled and from these derive the moral basis for the government support of TODs. In section 2, I explain my argument in detail and address a number of initial concerns. Finally, in section 3, I address the most plausible objection to widespread TOD development – that gentrification could cause the poor to lose their homes. Continue reading Social Justice and Transit Oriented Developments
One common complaint raised about car-oriented transit is that it is fixated on ‘flow’. Conventional road projects are generally designed to move vehicles, with less concern for the local social dynamics affected by that flow. This means that a large (wide) road is deemed successful if it is able to keep traffic flowing at desirable speeds; when flow is king, the people outside the cars simply do not matter. There are many obvious reasons why this is bad for the community around such a road, but if flow is not the desired outcome of a transportation project then what is?
The question of what we want out of our transit systems gets far too little attention from those concerned about the politics of transit. Many people already ascribe to a view; they may think that flow is desirable (they don’t like to wait in traffic) or instead they might shake their fists at all the passing cars and think how all this flow is ruining their surroundings. But this typically degenerates into a battle between car owners and pedestrians, and these sort of battles rarely end in satisfactorily. It seems that when two large portions of our society are at odds about how to proceed, the only fair path is to rethink the premises that got us to such an impasse. The question I think we should be asking is why we want to build the transit system in the first place?
The simple answer to the above question just goes back to the idea of traffic flow; we want to build a transit system because we want to move people and things. But this doesn’t even seem like a step beyond the question for traffic flow; the fact that movement is important is assumed in the very idea of a transit system. The deeper question we want to ask is why we want to facilitate the movement of people and things; this challenges us to think about the sorts of things we value in life. Such a question also forces everyone to do a new calculation about the cost and benefits of various transit systems. At some point of efficiency, the transit system will destroy the very mode of living that we value; because it is not simply the movement that we value but something which that movement facilitates, it is possible for an increase in movement to lead to a decrease in quality of life. So, even though adding another lane to a road may increase flow (and thus be called an “improvement” in the eyes of the traffic engineers) it could actually harm everyone involved. At some point, being able to move across town a little faster is no longer worth it, especially if you have to destroy the town in the process.
The above is all very abstract, but it needs to be this way because I don’t know how much flow is worth in relation to quality of life. I suspect it isn’t worth much, but this should be an empirical question; we need to start thinking about how movement is necessary for a happy and fulfilling life.
Last week I visited the Washington DC area for the first time. I might have some more comments about my experience in the future but I want to start out with some comments about Silver Spring, MD. I will be living near downtown Silver Spring, so I wanted to get a feel for the area. In recent years, Silver Spring has undergone an urban revival of sorts. Before this time, the area was a typical (somewhat rundown) suburb of DC but a large amount of residential and commercial development along with its access to the DC subway system has made it a very walkable area on paper. There are a number of grocery stores, shops, cafes, restaurants (though most of these are of a chain variety), so that one doesn’t really need a car in order to live in this area. Again, on paper, this seems like a very happy place for a pedestrian.
However, when one gets down into the streets it becomes obvious that this city is still controlled by the car. Several wide and busy streets (highways really) bisect the downtown area bringing with them a ton of through traffic. At cross walks, this means that a pedestrian must wait for an extremely long time to cross most streets; preference is obviously given to traffic flow along these corridors. There also seems to be very little thought (or enforcement) of coherent and contiguous sidewalks. You will be walking along a sidewalk (The east side of Eastern Ave. in front of the Blair’s apartment complex comes to mind) and the sidewalk will simply end for no reason. I can’t for the life of me understand why this is acceptable. This trend gets even worse in other locations; there were many instances where a sidewalk only exists on one side of the street and the ‘sidewalked’ side will change as the street progresses. This means that one has to continually cross a typically busy road simply to walk down the street. In another instance a sidewalk would degenerate into a curbless extension of a small parking lot, so that there was nothing between pedestrians (squeezing next to parked cars) and traffic than a small line on the pavement. That sucks.
I came across this website called Streetsblog today that shows examples of good bike lanes. If you go to the link you will notice that they are all separated from traffic by some sort of divider. This is often ignored in America; here a bike lane is just an extra small lane that is set aside for cyclists. The idea is that a bicycle belongs in the street just like any other vehicle, and that extra accommodations (beyond a slower lane) for bicycles are simply unnecessary. Madison is a perfect example of this; most bike lanes here are either in the parking lane or between the normal lanes of traffic and the bus lane. This makes one feel extremely vulnerable most of the time; either you are dodging parked cars (and their doors) or have cars and buses motoring past you on either side.
There is a feeling among many cyclists that even though there may be bike lanes on some main streets, the unsepereated traffic makes it far too dangerous to actually use the lanes. And this is considered to be an adequate bicycle accomodation by those who design streets. It seems to me that if we actually want to make cycling a practical method of transportation we need to build infastructure that makes it safe. Simply drawing lines doesn’t do that. The lines only accomodate the cars by getting the slower bicycles out of the way.
I’ve just finished reading a book about ecological city building by Richard Register. In Ecocities, Register proposes that the current methods of city planning, which advocate single use zoning and great distances, are horribly inadequate. The cities most of us live in are zoned such that people live far from where they work and shop; each human activity has its own area in the modern city; this makes car travel the most practical method. There are of course some exceptions (if one lives in Manhattan, for example, it would be quite easy to never leave the island) but for the most part, this is an accurate model of the suburban city.
It doesn’t take too much effort to realize the problem with the single use zoning. It is tremendously inefficient. Most people travel with their car every day to and from work; they are not using the space that the automobile provides; in order to simply move themselves, they have to bring along something that weighs a ton or so. Why do we agree to live with such an arrangement? Well, suburbs promise to be pleasant, for one; after all, cities can be rather stressful places to live. And it seems like a good idea to have a plot of land to oneself (though it seems like this land is so often wasted by planting huge tracts of grass….). Compound this with the abundance of cheap energy in the form petroleum and you get the current trend for civilization to sprawl over all the landscape. Driving to far off places is cheaper than buying land in the polluted and noisy city, so it is hard to see an argument against such a sprawl.
Register seems to think that the main problem with our current arrangement is the way it ruins lives, both animal and human. It devastates ecosystems as well as creates a dangerous and violent environment in which heavy objects (automobiles) whizz through the air at great speeds. People also become emotionally separated from each other because of their great physical distances from one another. I think these are all good reasons for hating cars (though I’m not sure the last one is so true, given how much New Yorkers despise each other) but the most pressing concern originating from the petroleum induced sprawl is the imminence of ‘peak-oil’ .
Reaching ‘peak-oil’ means that we have reached the point where petroleum production will begin to decline. This is built into the concept of a finite resource like fossil fuels; we will someday run out. This is why they are not sustainable sources of energy. Fossil fuels are truly amazing in most respects. In case you haven’t stopped and thought about it, try to imagine how much it would cost you to have your car towed across town by a team of animals. Beasts of burden are very expensive to feed and take care of, but this could be accomplished for a few dollars using an internal combustion engine. With this in mind, it isn’t a stretch to consider the cultural and technological boom of the 20th century to be a result of petroleum. And now imagine the disaster that could ensue if it is used up.
In my opinion, Register’s most important point (one that is also expressed by other people concerned about peak-oil) is that we must re-structure our cities in order to survive after oil is gone. It will no longer be economical to drive to work if you live 30 miles away; therefore we need to build communities that are ‘walkable’, in which you could walk to work, to the store, and home again. He also would like to see extensive use of bicycles in his ‘ecocities’ but they should not be the primary method of transportation. He advocates a major movement of people from the suburbs and non-productive rural areas (places not involved in agriculture) to inside the city. This would cause the density of cities to increase dramatically, though he wishes to mitigate this problem by ensuring that architecture produces cities in which people would want to live. This includes numerous natural spaces and gardens that would also have the effect of increasing biodiversity. To get an idea of what this would entail, I calculated the density that would result from the current population of Madison moving into an area similar to (though quite a bit larger than) Register’s vision of an ecocity; I found that the density would be about 12,000 people /square mile. This is similar to the density of a city like Chicago.
Whether the sort of population density envisioned by Register would be desired by people is not clear. He seems to portray this arrangement as some sort of Utopia; I have my doubts as to whether people are capable of creating such places (there certainly are few examples in history of society working this well). However, I do not doubt that a radical increase in density will be required given the coming scarcity of transportation fuels. I don’t think it is likely that we will be able to completely replace our current levels of fossil fuel energy with sustainable sources, and therefore, a radical reduction in energy consumption is almost certainly necessary. But how do we accomplish this without displacing large populations who will be short of food and other resources? I’m not sure that we can shove density down the throats of citizens who are, for the moment, enjoying very cheap energy. Hopefully, people will slowly come to realize the unsustainable nature of suburban living and migrate to communities that have all the necessities of life within a reasonable distances. If this does not happen, and there is a sudden oil ‘crash,’ then it might be best to obtain a nice piece of land and a whole lot of guns; because if large groups of people are not prepared for the sudden drop of energy availability, and must fight to survive, things could get quite ugly. This is clearly what Register hopes to avoid.
I have many other thoughts about this topic, but hopefully this serves as an adequate introduction. There are other voices in this debate, including the more moderate ‘New Urbanists‘ who have been far more successful than Register. I’ll certainly see what they have to say as well.