March 15, 2011

Transit Tensions: Development Enhancer, or Mobility Tool?

I hope my professors will let me submit light rail prospectus analysis in multimedia:

An excellent series of accompanying blog posts at Transport Michigan gets to the heart of the issue:

Over the past decade, developers and city officials across the U.S. have taken an interest in downtown streetcar systems as a development tool. The model was the Portland Streetcar, opened in 2001 as a 2.4-mile loop connecting downtown Portland to a former industrial area just to the north. Rechristened the "Pearl District," that area boomed with new luxury lofts drawing Portland's growing professional population. Ironically, just as housing developers extended streetcar lines out to posh new residential districts a century ago (Woodbridge in Detroit is one such "streetcar suburb"), streetcars now offer cities and developers a potentially lucrative tool for facilitating the return of well-heeled residents back into the inner city. Transit advocates have long sought transit-oriented development to increase ridership, but streetcar advocates flip the phrase, proudly calling streetcars "development-oriented transit," although some Portlanders complain the district has grown too "hoity-toity" for their taste.
On a more fundamental level, though, when we lack regional rapid transit, and tens of thousands of transit-dependent Detroiters have to rely on unreliable, infrequent buses to get around, is it really appropriate for us to put real estate development that primarily serves newly arrived professionals before meeting the transit needs of the entire region, and especially those of the less privileged? This author's status as a twenty-something white guy from an affluent, educated background makes him a strong candidate for being one of those professionals, and I'm all for more housing in Cass/Midtown (though I think it's vital for it to be mixed-income), but I still think regional transit has got to be first.  [bold mine]

Mobility is part of equity. Planning for streetcars with local stops designed to spur development and boost property values without a pre-existing regional transit network smacks of boutique transit. Transit can have positive externalities, but only when it helps people get from point A to point B.

The issues of privilege, gentrification, and which needs transit serves are certainly at issue here, but equity concerns are not the only ones. A streetcar with an overly local focus, in the absence of good regional services, runs counter to the forces that generate lively and diverse city blocks: letting people move freely about the city. Cities are great because they have a wealth of different activities housed cheek and jowl: opera, sports franchises, boutiques, professional services, offices, residences. Attempts to cluster these into zones usually leads to a breakdown of the very diversity that generated the foot traffic that generated the diversity, you dig?

Human Transit recently weighed in on the importance of mobility vs. local place-making. The two elements should balance each other in any self-respecting city: the former about passing through, the latter encouraging staying around.

The trick is the dialog: keeping that pendulum balanced between transit that encourages people to, say, take the streetcar for all their local errands, and transit encouraging mobility. These are not mutually exclusive functions, but recognizing the different motives behind transit projects helps avoid imbalances. Too far to the local, and isolation/stagnation can ensue. Too far to the mobile, and you have a land of no-places (see auto-dependent freeway suburbs with replicated chain stores surrounding parking lots off 6 lane median-less arterials for what maximum mobility looks like).
The late 20th Century car-centered model led to the massive conversion of land area from placehood functions to mobility functions.  Transit's great virtue is that it provides a lot of mobility using relatively little space, so that more area can be devoted to places, both public and private.  ...
There is a strong current in New Urbanism, not without detractors, that does seem interested in abolishing mobility.  Patrick Condon's idea for Vancouver, for example, would cancel a single proposed subway line and instead replace all of the city's electric trolleybuses with streetcars that go the same speed as the buses do.  He would cancel a mobility-improving project and instead spend money in way that that may do great urban things but doesn't increase mobility at all.  Once his network was complete, nobody could get anywhere any faster than they can now. 
This makes sense only in a context where going places (even under renewable elecric power) is an objective evil.  Streetcars, in this vision, supposedly cause greater urban density to be built at livable neighborhood scales, so that people meet more of their needs close to home.  People spend most of their time in their own "villages" and others nearby.  They simply do not travel far across the city, and had better not be in a hurry when they do.
It's understandable that "urban village" is a winning concept right now.  We do need to increase the self-reliance of each part of a city, so that travel demand for many of life's needs can met closer to home.  The pendulum swung far the other way in the late 20th century, toward surrendering placehood to movement.  I support and eagerly participate in efforts to help it swing back.
But I think we can see what it might look like to swing too far in the new direction.  We stay close to home, and thus evolve transport systems that are useful for going short distances and useless for going long ones.  And the obvious retort to this is:  In that case, why live in a city?  Why not just live in a country village, or in a small city?


  1. I for sure dig the [diversity = foot traffic = diversity] argument, but to be honest it's not something intuitive (for me). I remember hours spent playing SimCity in which I displayed a manic focus on segregating the industrial, commercial, and residential zones from one another.

    So what, right? My computer tendencies are obviously less interesting than the claim -- which may or may not transcend my anecdote -- that there is a natural urge to cluster similar things, and embrace NIMBYism, and otherwise make policy mountains out of preference molehills.

    I think the (crazy-impressive) video is good guidance -- we need to think of creative ways of generating conversation en masse about where our assumptions lie and how we might put aside petty concerns in pursuit of larger policy successes.

    As you said, "the trick is the dialogue." Word.

  2. I'd recommend Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs for a fuller account of the diversity=foot traffic=diversity argument. The main thrust is that if you have a neighborhood of offices, there will only be people on the street at morning rush hour, lunch, and evening rush hour--streets will be empty come nightfall. Empty sidewalks/streets lead to a breakdown of the soft surveillance/accountability that occurs naturally in any well-populated public space. This doesn't necessarily invite low-lifes in, but it certainly makes yr average pedestrian want to be somewhere else. Contrast that to a street with retail/offices at street level, and residences/offices above. The mix of functions ensures that there are always people around, which makes for a more diverse and lively space. People attract people could be the crux here.

    Granted, industrial zones, warehouses, freight, airports, all these require some greater degree of separation by virtue of the space required for each to be effective.

    So ... I just re-read your comment and realize you weren't really asking for this explanation ... but I've already gone and written so I'm selfishly keeping it. But: I can add that much of what moved Jacobs to write that book was the exact SimCity tendency you described: city planners wanting to clear slums and hive them in massive apartment towers surrounded by lawns/landscaping, cluster all the city offices in civic centers like in SF, or the same with arts--like the Lincoln Center in New York. There IS symmetry and euclidean satisfaction to getting all the ducks in a row, but Jacobs makes a persuasive case that these clusterings truncate the city-ness of cities. Not necessarily that these choices make a city dysfunctional, just less vibrant and desirable to be in and around, and sometimes less safe. It's good stuff.