Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

Drew Austin: Against Transportation

More energy fed into the transportation system means that more people move faster over a greater range in the course of every day. Everybody’s daily radius expands at the expense of being able to drop in on an acquaintance or walk through the park on the way to work. Extremes of privilege are created at the cost of universal enslavement. An elite packs unlimited distance into a lifetime of pampered travel, while the majority spend a bigger slice of their existence on unwanted trips. The few mount their magic carpets to travel between distant points that their ephemeral presence renders both scarce and seductive, while the many are compelled to trip farther and faster and to spend more time preparing for and recovering from their trips.” – Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (1974)

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.

Modern industrial societies are addicted to mobility—something Ivan Illich points out in the passage above. Most of us have always lived within this milieu and it’s hard for us to equate less movement with better movement. Our cities embody the assumption that individuals will gladly bow to the demands of transportation systems. New York, Chicago and London all enjoy “strong centers” complete with roads and trains that can pump hundreds of thousands of people into their central business districts every morning and back out again every evening. An hour a day is generally a normal amount of time to spend commuting in these cities—I can live six miles from my job because the infrastructure exists to move me there quickly.

Interestingly, the strong-centered cities with great transit are paragons of urban form in western society. They certainly look great in comparison to the sprawling, decentralized megalopolises that have followed them. I can’t imagine wanting to live in any other kind of city, but the utopian in me wants cities where people spend less time moving from place to place. Christopher Alexander describes such a city in A Pattern Language, writing that the separation of residences and work create “intolerable rifts in people’s inner lives.” He suggests that cities use zoning laws and tax incentives to spread workplaces throughout cities.

Unfortunately, urban transportation is not planned in a way that favors less transportation. Individual agencies generally have one main task, and no agency can be expected to argue against its own existence. A transit planner would never decide that less transit ridership would benefit the city as a whole, unless transit planning was only one component of a broader job description.

Nevertheless, it might be a helpful first step to scatter workplaces throughout dense cities using the types of policies that Alexander describes, 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.

This post originally appeared at Where on February 6, 2009. Reprinted with permission of the author.

6 Comments
Topics: Public Policy, Transportation

6 Responses to “Drew Austin: Against Transportation”

  1. I’ll add a comment :)

    I think enhanced mobility has been a very good thing for our society. I might also add that jobs have already decentralized enormously. But the notion of better integrating employment into the neighborhood fabric is a good thing. Let’s not forget telecommuting as well, which is a great way to accomplish this.

  2. Wad says:

    I think the window of opportunity for telecommuting has come and gone.

    I’ve said that if a job doesn’t require going to a physical office and can be done anywhere, it will be done anywhere — particularly in the half of the world where people live on $2 a day.

  3. Danny says:

    Christopher Alexander has it wrong. Spreading out workplaces won’t reduce transportation demand because demand for transportation depends very little on the distribution of workplaces.

    If I decide that I want to live within walking distance of my workplace in a average density city (4000 people/sq.mi.), there will be approximately 1333 housing units in the area within walking distance (3 persons per household). But since vacancy rates tend to hover around 3% on average, that means that I only have 40 units to choose from. Even if we double density, I will only have 80 units to choose from.

    By using some form of transportation, and extending my housing search by 5 miles in two directions (lets say a rapid transit corridor, my calculation now reveals about 400 housing units to choose from. Doubling density gives me 800 units to choose from.

    By extending my transit search by 5 miles in all directions, I now have 3140 housing units to choose from, and 6280 in a double density situation. And that is just 5 miles! Extend it by 30 miles, and (assuming density remains uniform)and I have 113040 housing units to choose from.

    It is a simple and very observable fact that people will vastly extend their transportation requirements if it means they can expand their choices of where to live. The very existence of the suburbs is proof of that.

    There is a reason why employers such as Oracle, in San Jose where there are tons of available housing units, still has employees that commute from as far as Stockton and Modesto: Their employees can’t find a place to live that suits their preferences within the San Jose area.

  4. John says:

    Wad,
    I think that’s probably a huge overgeneralization. For example, my dad is a sales rep for a company based in Chicago, but lives in Columbus to serve those clients. They meet face-to-face maybe once a week, but in general he works at home. This situation wouldn’t work if my dad lived in India or anywhere else where people earn less than $2 a day.

    Danny,
    I think you probably mean that Oracle’s employees can’t find a place to live that suits their preferences AND budget.

  5. Danny says:

    John,
    There is an absolute limit to a persons budget, sure…but allocation within a that upper bound is almost purely a reflection of a persons preferences.

    In the case of Oracle, even their entry level positions pay well enough to live in a 2-3 bedroom apartment within a 10 minute drive of their office (Redwood Shores, not San Jose.)

    But if you desire a big front and back lawn, a 5 bedroom house with a 3 car garage, and money left over so you can take your family out to eat 4 nights a week…well then the Central Valley is the only place that “fits your budget”.

    If you want to see where someone’s true preferences lie, you look at the areas of their budget that are least flexible, as opposed to the largest amounts.

  6. anonymouse says:

    What about a family with two workers? Or when the kids start getting jobs, should they move away to follow the jobs, or stay in the neighborhood close to the family? It’s never as simple as one would think.

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