Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Time For an Urbanist “Tea Party”? by Jarrett Walker

[ You’ve heard me tout the writings of transit consultant Jarrett Walker before and his web site Human Transit. Well he’s well-versed in many things besides transit. His background in theater and the humanities I think informs a keen analytical eye he brings to the city generally and many other subjects. He attended the recent City Lab conference, and had the following thoughts in the wake of the discussion there. Think of it as additional commentary on local autonomy, in line with my debate a couple weeks ago – Aaron. ]

The "tea party" US House members who currently dominate the news are unlikely allies of urbanists.  But on one core idea, a band of urbanist thinkers are starting to echo a key idea of the radical right:   Big and active national government may not be the answer.

Images-5Last week, I was honored to be invited to Citylab, a two-day gathering in New York City sponsored by the Aspen Institutethe Atlantic magazine, and Bloomberg Philanthropies.  The event featured mayors and civic policy leaders from both North America and overseas as well as leading academics, journalists, and consultants.  

I expected the thrilling mix of new ideas, compelling stories, and quirky characters, but I got one thing I didn't expect:  A full-throated demand, from several surprising voices, for an urbanist revolt against the power of national governments.

Al Gore said it with his trademark fusion of bluntness and erudition: "The nation-state," he said, "is becoming disintermediated."  If you're not an academic at heart, that means: "National governments are becoming irrelevant to urban policy, and hence to the economy of an urban century."  

On cue, the New York Times published an op-ed on "The End of the Nation-State," about how cities are leaving nations behind.  Citylab also featured a terrific interview with political scientist Benjamin Barber, whose new book If Mayors Ruled the World argues for the irrelevance of nation-states in a world where cities are the real levers of economic power.  (According to Barber, the full title of his book should have been:  If Mayors Ruled the World: Why They Should and How They Already Do.)  When I spoke with Barber later, looking for nuance, he was full-throated in ridiculing the US Federal role in urbanism.   On this view, all the well-intentioned money that the Federal government doles out for urban goodies should be spent by cities as they see fit, or perhaps (gasp) never sent to Washington at all. 

Follow this logic and you might arrive at a radical urban Federalism, perhaps even one that could meet tea-party demands to "Abolish the IRS!"   Pay taxes to your city or state, and let them send a bit of it on to central government to do the few things that only a central government can do.  Push power downward to the scale where problems can be solved. 

You might even separate urban from rural governance in a way that enables both to thrive, each at its proper scale, replacing the eternal struggle between these necessary opposites that makes today's political discourse so inane.  The "size of government" debate is just a pointless and eternal struggle between urban and rural experience, both of which are right.  Living in cities means relying on government for many things that the rural resident provides for herself, so of course the attitude toward government is different.   But what's really logically different is the role of local government. Both urban and rural experience provide good reason to be suspicious of big-yet-distant national government, which can be as unresponsive to big-city mayors as it is to a Wyoming county official who just needs to get a bridge fixed.

At most of the urbanist and transportation conferences that I attend, though, any shrinking the national government role is met with horror.  And that's understandable.

In the US, the prevailing local response to declining federal spending is outrage and redoubled advocacy.  In Australia or Canada, two countries I work in extensively, working urbanists and infrastructure advocates seem to agree that of course there must be a bigger central government role in everything, with the US often cited as the model.  In the US itself, it's easy to see the current cuts in Federal spending as a disaster for urbanism and infrastructure.  It is, but it could also be something else: an invitation to governments that are closer to the people to have their own conversations that lead to local consensus about funding and solutions.

If mayors do end up ruling the world, it will be because the city, unlike the state or nation, is where citizenship is mostly deeply felt.   A nation's problems are abstract; if they show up in your life you're more likely to think of them as your community's or city's problems.  And that, in short, is why the city may be best positioned to actually build consensus around solving problems, including consensus about raising and spending money.  

And yet …

Before urbanists join the tea partiers in trying to shrink the national government, they have to grapple with the problem of inequality.  As sites of concentrated opportunity, cities are attracting the poor as well as the rich, and are thus becoming the place where inequality is most painfully evident.  But no mayor can be expected to solve a problem that exists on such a scale.

In small-c conservative terms, of course, the problem is not income inequality but rather the declining credibility of a "ladder of opportunity" that convinces everyone that reasonable effort will improve their circumstances.  One reason to care about transit, walking, and cycling — for many points on the income spectrum — is that transportation can form such a formidable barrier to opportunity.

All through Citylab, hands were wrung about inequality and the need to Do Something about it, against the backdrop of a New York City mayoral election that is mostly about this issue.  A rent control debate, featuring New York City Planning Director Amanda Burden and economist Paul Romer, found no middle ground on the question of whether city policy can usefully intervene to help low income people.  Income inequality appeared to be one issue where cities can do little by themselves.

When I asked sociologist Richard Florida about this in the North American context, he pointed me to an article proposing that the US create a Department of Cities.  He has good ideas about how to keep this from being just another bureaucracy, but if income inequality is the big issue that only national policy can address, it's not clear that it should be tagged as an urban issue at all.  Cities are not where the problems are.  Cities are just where people see their society's problems most intensely in daily life, because they get out of their cars.  

The great city in the wealthy parts of the world cannot just be an enclave of success.  It will deserve the self-government that the mayors seek only if it relentlessly inspires, supports, and gives back to its suburban and rural hinterland, creating its own "ladder of opportunity" for access to the riches of urban life.  Only a few people can afford Manhattan or San Francsico, so those cities' money and expertise must focus not just on themselves but on making life in more affordable places incrementally more humane.  Turning Newark into Manhattan would just make it unaffordable, so some of the urgency must lie in less photogenic intervention that works for each place's price-point.  It lies in providing safe places to walk and cycle, and a safe way to cross the street at every bus stop, even in landscapes of drive-through everything that will be what many people can afford, and what some prefer.  

That's why I'm happy to be working not just in San Francisco but also in Houston, where affordability is a leading selling point.   It's why I'm suspicious of transit planning that defines an elite "choice rider" as the only important customer, including much of the transit-aestheticism that comes out of urbanist academia.  Where are the prestigious awards for the best affordable, scalable, but nonsexy intervention that made low-income inner-ring suburbia more safe and functional?  How do we build not just the shining city behind a moat (San Francisco, Manhattan, Singapore) but a chain of humane and functional places, at every price-point, that combine safety, civility and opportunity?

Where is the money in that?    If mayors ruled the world, I hope that would be obvious.  So let's hope they already do.

This post originally appeared in Human Transit on October 14, 2013.

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Vancouver: An Olympic Urbanist Preview by Jarrett Walker

Most of you probably know by now that I’m a huge fan of Jarrett Walker and his blog Human Transit. He’s a professional transit planner who is doing the best, independent minded writing on transit for a general audience of anyone I know.

I’m pleased to report that Jarrett has distilled some of his wisdom into a new book called, conveniently enough, Human Transit. I highly recommend this for a clear exposition of the various issues involved in transit development. Jarrett isn’t pushing a position, he’s helping to educate communities so they can make their own decisions about what’s right for them.

If you’d like, you can read the introduction online free. Check out also the table of contents and check out the dates on his book tour.

In the meantime, here’s a piece Jarrett wrote on his blog in advance of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver back in 2010. I hope you enjoy it. Aaron.


Over the next two weeks, we'll see a lot of Vancouver, one of the most remarkable achievements in 20th Century urbanism. If you're going to promote transit anywhere, especially in North America or Australasia, it's an important city to know about. 

What's special about Vancouver?  It's a new dense city, in North America. 

Vancouver is the closest North America has come to building a substantial high-density city — not just employment but residential — pretty much from scratch, entirely since World War II.  I noted in an earlier post that low-car North American cities are usually old cities, because they rely on a development pattern that just didn't happen after the advent of the car.   In 1945 Vancouver was nothing much: a hard-working port for natural resource exports, with just a few buildings even ten stories high.

But look at it now.

DSCN2055 Towers composed

Such sudden eruptions of residential density are common enough in Asia, but North American cities rarely allow them on such a scale.  There are many explanations for how Vancouver did it, but at its core Vancouver had a fortunate confluence of the three essentials:

  • Natural constraints that limited sprawl even in the pro-sprawl late 20th century.
  • Economic energy, especially in the boom years of the 1990s and early 2000s.
  • Planning and civic leadership.

Depending on your point of view, you can treat any of these terms as dominant.  Planners and civic leaders like to think it was their work that made the difference.  Economists can point to the huge influx of investment made possible by the city's unique positioning.  Geographers can emphasize how easy it is to avoid sprawl when you have so little buildable land.  I think they're all right.

Van zoom out The natural constraints jump out at you on the map.  Like many East Asian megacities, greater Vancouver has very little space.  It's hemmed in by waterways to the west, the US border to the south, and a massive wall of mountains immediately to the north.  Greater Vancouver can only sprawl eastward, into the narrow Fraser Valley, but this valley is also British Columbia's best agricultural land. 

The conflict between sprawl and agriculture, of course, was the impetus of Oregon's famous 1972 land use laws.  But flat land around Portland is still fairly abundant compared to the tiny ledge where Vancouver lies.  This may be part of why Portland never built to Vancouver densities, nor achieved Vancouver's intensity of transit and low levels of car dependence.

(Significantly, too, Vancouver has no urban freeways, just a disconnected network linking some of its suburbs.  Traffic in Vancouver is, in my experience, exactly as bad as it is in Los Angeles.  Neither city ever achieves true "gridlock," because at a certain level of congestion people just stop driving.  In a dense city, there will always be exactly as much congestion as you make room for.  If you want less congestion than that, you want congestion pricing, and I expect Vancouver will get there soon.)

Natural constraints also drove economic energy because Vancouver's site is so unique.  As Canada's only Pacific city, Vancouver is the natural focus of Canada's interactions with Asia, as well as the only peer for the West Coast cities of the US.  All that uniqueness can be intimidating. Although its crossroads location and soaring skyline suggest a big city, Greater Vancouver is only 2.1 million people.  Visitors expecting a major city are sometimes surprised that the cultural institutions are not what you'd expect in Toronto or Sydney or Los Angeles, and have to be reminded that Vancouver isn't a big city — just a very dense city in a unique and spectacular place.  

Eng bay bch There's also the uniqueness of its climate.  Along with parts of adjacent Vancouver Island, Vancouver forms what we might call the Canadian Riviera: the only part of Canada that spends most of winter above the freezing mark.  Vancouver is thus the focal point for all the tropical longings of a frigid nation, a dynamic expressed not just in the absurdly abundant planting of the one palm tree hardy enough to grow there (the furry Chinese WIndmill Palm, Trachycarpus fortunei) but also in styles of beach-front architecture and design that recall Miami or LA.

But it's not Miami or LA.  Vancouver's winter is like that of adjacent Seattle, but gloomer and wetter.

DSCF4926 The one Vancouver winter that I've endured included not just 29 consecutive days of rain but also a heavy ceiling of gray cloud that lasted for months.  This photo is of a nice winter day; most days the clouds were much lower.

Summer Olympics in Vancouver would have been a safer bet, because summer is three months of perfect sunny days and endless sensuous evenings.  But Vancouver is lucky.   For just the two weeks that the 2006 Winter Olympics were running in Torino, Vancouver's skies were brilliantly clear and cold, and the same happened just last week.  So I won't be surprised if the world sees a similar miracle in the weeks to come.

But this is a transit blog …

A city as dense as Vancouver needs a lot of transit.  There are at least four interesting transit-related stories that I hope I have time to explore over the next two weeks:

  • DSCN1552 Skytrain is North America's most extensive network of driverless metro technology, and a powerful focal point for highrise development along most of its length.  It's also a huge viaduct, mostly open underneath, and not always pleasant to walk under.  I worked on several projects to improve and redevelop blighted station areas, and I'll talk about some of these.  There's also an interesting debate about whether to build one more Skytrain corridor across the inner city, or try something else, like light rail.
  • Granville Mall downtown is an important shopping and entertainment street that also tries to function as the main "transit mall" for the trolleybus network that covers most of the inner city.  I worked DSCN0895 cropon a plan for the mall in 2006 as well, at the same time as I was working on the more ambitious downtown transit plans of Minneapolis.  The mall has been torn up for the last two years while the new Canada Line subway was built under it.  It's just re-opened, though the buses haven't been put back there yet.  As always with Granville Mall, there are lots of opinions about what should happen next.

  •  The microferries on False Creek are an interesting example of extremely low-cost waterborne transit, probably the lowest unit costs imaginable in the developed world.  They're fun to ride, and the waterway they use is pretty calm for the most part.  I've often wondered why this model didn't catch on more widely in river cities.
  • Finally, Vancouver is also an example of really good transit geography.  If you were trying to design a city that would not just use transit but also use transit resources efficiently, you couldn't do much better than the City of Vancouver.  I'll explore this issue a bit in another post.

I hope you enjoy whatever glimpses of Vancouver you see on television in the next two weeks, if you're not lucky and hardy enough to be there in person.  Like San Francisco and Seattle, its natural setting is so spectacular that even people who live there sometimes stop and stare as though seeing it for the first time.  The uniqueness of the site is one aspect of Vancouver's achievement that not all cities can replicate.

But many cities are in places that are different but equally special.  Just around the Pacific, I think of Seattle, San Diego, Honolulu, Auckland, Brisbane and Sydney as all equally blessed with unique and spectacular sites where people already want to be.   If that specialness is recognized and valued in your culture, then Vancouver outcomes are possible.  All you need is the leadership, the economic activity, and above all the relentless aggressive intention to make it happen.  The result can be a great city, and a remarkably sustainable one.

Jazz fest at yaletown

This post originally appeared in Human Transit on February 12, 2010.

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

How Urbanist Visionaries Can Muck Up Transit by Jarrett Walker

[ Again, if you if you are interested in transit issues and aren’t already reading Human Transit, you need to get over there now. I’m very happy to be able to reprint this recent piece discussion how people often conceive of transit working versus how it actually works – Aaron. ]

Architects and urban visionaries play an incredibly important role in a leadership-hungry culture.  They have to know a little bit about almost everything, which is hard to do.  But for some reason, certain segments of the profession have decided that the basic math and geometry of transit isn't one of those things they need to know, even when they present themselves as transit experts.

To see what I mean, I encourage you to watch this short video from Gensler Architects in Los Angeles.  It's a concise summary of all the crucial mistakes that you'll need to confront in much "visionary thinking" about transit.  (If Gensler takes down the video, read on.  I've inserted enough screenshots from it that you can follow.)

The five most common "visionary" mistakes about transit, all on display in the video, are:

  • Disinterest in costs and efficiency.   Visionaries do need to set aside cost and efficiency for part of their brainstorming phase, because by doing so they might come upon an idea that's efficient and affordable in a completely new way.  But they don't have a coherent idea until they've brought those factors back in, at least at the level of order-of-magnitude reasonableness. Sadly, some urbanists scoff when I use the word efficiency, assuming that this means I've lost touch with human needs, aspirations, aesthetics and values.  In reality, efficiency means how much of those good things you can have in a world of limited resources.  Even in the arts, we speak often of the efficiency or economy with which an artist achieves an aesthetic effect.  (The Gensler video, for example, is efficient in displaying all five of these fallacies in only five minutes.)
  • Fixation on transit technologies as though they were the essential distinction between different  mobility outcomes.  For more on this, see here.
  • Confusion about scale.  Because visionary thinking often focuses first on a prototype – a tiny example of the hoped-for transformation — it often goes too far without thinking about scalability.  Sure, this cool idea works in one suburb or in one cool building, but that says very little about whether it would work in a whole city.  Gensler's particular error about scale is …
  • Confusion about "flexibility," a dangerous slippery word.  Gensler imagines that a demand-responsive style of transit, in which you make a request on your phone and the transit system somehow deviates to meet your personal needs, is scalable to a vast, dense city where the transit system is already very crowded much of the time.  More on this below.
  • Ignorance about what's already working, leading to premature demolition fantasies.  Gensler seems unaware of very high ridership and efficiency of the existing transit system across the core of Los Angeles. This allows them to jump to the conclusion that the system should be replaced instead of incrementally improved.

So watch the Gensler video if you can, but you can also follow along via my screenshots and comments below.  You'll see these mistakes again and again in the urban visioning business.

0:27 Gensler states the question as "Get LA on transit HOW?"  No argument with the question.


0:51  Transit is divided into a set of vehicle types, and these types (light rail, metro, bus) are confused with "methods" of transport.  For more on the absurdity of treating bus/rail distinctions as primary, see here.


0:53  "We have only these methods.  What if we added more?"  An interesting question to which transit experts (and economists, and engineers) have a very good answer.  The more competing systems you establish in the same market trying to do the same thing, the less well any of them will function, and the less investment any one of them will justify.




0:56  They now begin to analyze vehicles in terms of distance, sustainability, flexibility.  What's missing?   Cost!  Efficiency!  Some things are just wildly expensive relative to what they deliver.  Darrin Nordahl has already been down this path, evaluating technologies by discussing only their supposed benefits.  That's not evaluation, it's either aesthetic rumination or marketing.  (Neither of those are bad things, but they have to be identified as what they are.)


1:20.  They talk about distances but their graphic is talking about speeds.  These are fair for personal modes but absurd generalizations for the transit modes. When your notion of "rail" conflates light rail, heavy metro rail subways, and 70 mile-long infrequent commuter rail, the word "rail" means nothing relevant about speed or travel distance, or any other transit outcome apart from capacity.  (Note that the earlier claim "we have only these methods" implies that these three kinds of rail are the same thing in every way that matters.) 

Likewise, if you think buses have an ideal distance, you're unclear on the role of local buses vs Bus Rapid Transit vs long-haul expresses, all of which are very successful in Los Angeles.  Gensler imposes a "technology first" frame on the data, thereby concealing almost everything that matters about how transit gets people where they're going.

In transit, the real speed distinctions within transit are usually not direct results of technology.  Speed is the result of how often you stop and what can get in your way.  See here.





2:00.  Staggering incoherence in comparing input (bus service) to an unrelated output (total ridership including rail).  What's more, the numbers are misleading.  Per the 2011 APTA Fact Book, Los Angeles MTA has America's 3rd highest total boardings and 2nd highest total bus boardings.   In the context of its starved resources and the vagueness of public support for it, the Los Angeles bus system is working brilliantly.

2:26.  Here is Gensler's biggest mistake:

Gensler 1

Gensler 2

Which of these two networks would you rather travel on?

Gensler has mistaken metaphor for logic.  They think that "liberating" bus routes has something to do with liberating or enabling people.  The idea is barely explained and totally incoherent. 

Today, in our supposedly "inflexible" system, you'll find a bus going down a major boulevard with maybe 60 people on it.  Some of them want to go somewhere straight ahead, some want to go to somewhere ahead and to the left, some want to to somewhere ahead and to the right.  Fortunately, they are in a high frequency grid system, which will take all of them to their destination, either directly or via a connection to a north-south line, probably by a path similar to what they'd have followed if driving.  So this huge number of diverse people making diverse trips are all moving toward their destinations on a reasonably direct path.  This is the extraordinary power of the high-frequency grid.  So instead, Gensler proposes bus lines should twist and turn just because somebody with an iPhone wants them to?

Personal technology has great opportunity to better inform us about all transit services, and it can transform the convenience of transit at low-demand places and times, by influencing the operations of low-ridership, low-capacity services, such as demand-responsive buses and taxis. 

Quite possibly, personal apps will allow demand-responsive service to replace some low-demand fixed-route buses, which is fine with most transit planners.  Those low-ridership buses run mostly for social-service or "equity" reasons, and if there's a more efficient way to do that, I expect many transit experts would be all for it.  It would let them concentrate on the high-ridership, high-capacity services that can achieve a great deal of personal mobility and sustainability, very efficiently. 

Successful high-capacity frequent transit needs to take on more of the rigidity of subways, in order to spread the benefits of subways (which we can't afford everywhere) more widely.  That means it needs to be even more frequent, reliable, legible, permanent, and reinforced with infrastructure investment.  Fortunately, within limited resources, many transit agencies are now trying to do that.

The video is full of entirely laudable and familiar green ideas, but then we get to this …

  • 3:23  In Gensler's Los Angeles, every transit trip must be reserved.  Do you really want to have to make an appointment with a single vehicle and driver, because that's the only way to make any use of all the buses swarming around you on unpredictable paths?  Or might you prefer a simple frequent transit corridor where so many buses are coming all the time, in such a predictable pattern, that you can take any of them, and are thus almost guaranteed a vehicle soon even if one breaks down?
  • 4:20  "What if we had PERSONAL service?" they ask?  Well, the extreme of personal service would be low-ridership system in a tiny town, where the driver has time to learn everyone's name.  Is that what Los Angeles wants to be?   Or would you rather live in a city where you can get anywhere you want to go easily, starting right now, without making a reservation, and even with the option of spontaneously changing your path or destination, just like motorists do?  

To me as someone who values my personal freedom, flexibility, spontaneity, human dignity, and travel time, Gensler's Los Angeles would be a hell-world worse than Blade Runner.  Fortunately, it's also mathematically impossible.

We've blown up transit networks before, of course, and Gensler's vision should remind us of what was thought about cars vs. transit in the 1940s.  Like personal technology today, cars were just so wonderful for the individual that we just assumed the world could be made in their image.  (The technical term for this idea — that the world will bend to reflect my emotional needs and enthusiasms — is narcissism.)  So we made a deep investment in a car-and-highway technology that could not possibly scale to big cities.  Gensler proposes the same mistake:  Because our iPhones are so cool, they assume that the city, at every scale, can be reinvented around them.

For a more positive vision of the future of Los Angeles, one that begins by noticing the city's strengths and looking at how to build on them, see here and especially toward the end of an interview here.

This post originally appeared in Human Transit on July 17, 2011.

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Jarrett Walker: Los Angeles – The Next Great Transit Metropolis?

[ I’ve touted Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit site before. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it is definitely worth a look. Jarrett has some of the best and most unbiased writing on transit out there, from a professional in the field. Here’s a sample of what you’ll find – Aaron. ]

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's campaign to accelerate the construction of rail transit in his city is deservedly in the news, not just for his own persistence but also for the excitement it's generating in the Obama administration, in Congress, and in other cities who would love to see a precedent-setting response.  But it's also very useful and inspiring to transit planners working overseas, like me.

Image via The Transport Politic

When I talk about North American public transit to people here in Australia or New Zealand, I don't talk much about New York or Boston or other old cities where the depth of urban history approaches that of Europe; Australians and New Zealanders already know Europe better than most Americans do.  I talk a bit about Portland, because of its land use laws, extensive light rail, and special downtown.  I talk about Vancouver, becuase of SkyTrain, and its growth management, but above all because of its dramatic densification over the last few decades. 

But when I really want to surprise them, and shift their thinking, I talk about Los Angeles.  Educated Australians, like educated Europeans, have mostly been there as tourists, and they remember it with the kind of fascinated delight that could just as well be called horror.  Even if they haven't been there, they know it as the car capital of America, the city they'd least think of as the next great transit metropolis.

DSCN2625 Los Angeles may still seem hopelessly car-dominated today, but it's fortunate in its urban structure, in ways that make it a smart long term bet as a relatively sustainable city, at least in transport terms.   Two things in particular: (a) the presence of numerous major centres of activity scattered around the region, and (b) the regular grid of arterials, mostly spaced in a way that's ideal for transit, that covers much of the city, offering the ideal infrastucture for that most efficient of transit structures: a grid network.

Because Los Angeles is a vast constellation of dense places, rather than just a downtown and a hinterland, it's full of corridors where there is two-way all-day flow of demand, the ideal situation for cost effective, high quality transit.  In this, Los Angeles is more like Paris than it is like, say, New York.  Much of the core area between downtown and Santa Monica is covered by a braid of major boulevards, all with downtown at DSCN2425one end and the naturally dense coastal strip at the other, every one a potentially great transit market given appropriate protection from traffic.  Near the coast, the massive dense nodes of Westwood/UCLA and Century City (and to a lesser extent Santa Monica and Venice) offer further anchoring to the western end of these markets.  On a smaller scale, similar anchors are found throughout much of the region.  While gathering people to a transit stop will still be difficult, it will be especially easy to grow an everywhere-to-everywhere network in Los Angeles, becuase of these patterns.

The low-end but extensive network of frequent limited-stop buses, the Metro Rapid, grew from this geography, and someday, the busiest rail transit lines in the American West will prosper from it.  One of the most interesting long-term questions about Los Angeles is how to fit high-quality transit to a city of great, wide boulevards — another crucial feature in which the city resembles Paris.  Sooner or later, most of these boulevards will need to give over two lanes to crowded and efficient transit services, which will move far more people per hour than car lanes do.  But there is much fun and quarrel to be had working out the details.  (Light rail or buses?  Side lanes or center lanes?  Stations configured how, in what relation to the streetscape?  Local or rapid stops?  The questions abound.)

DSCN2381 Densities in many places are lower than ideal, but Los Angeles, more than any city in the world, has a virtually inexhaustable supply of infill opportunities, even if typical middle-class and wealthy suburbs are set aside.  If a divine hand prohibited the paving of one more square inch of California, the Los Angeles region would keep growing without a pause. 

Finally, of course, Los Angeles has built a strong consensus about the desperate need for transit, and this is the story that impresses foreigners.  Every television viewer in the world has seen images of Los Angeles and what life is like there.  And one thing they've all been shown, over and over, is that this is a city for cars, a place where cars mean freedom, and your car is your most important fashion statement.  When I tell them that the popular mayor of Los Angeles is spending major political capital on a campaign to accelerate transit development in his city, to the point of demanding a complete rethink of how the Federal government funds transport projects, eyebrows shoot up.  It's one of those little jolts that can change our notion of what's possible, wherever we are.

DSCN2661 If I ended there, Los Angeles transit advocates would ask me why I don't talk about everything that's still wrong.  Do I tell people that Los Angeles still struggles with institutional tangles between the countywide MTA and the cities, especially the municipal bus companies?  Do I even make clear that Mayor Villaraigosa doesn't control the transit agency, and has nothing like the presumptive powers that Ken Livingstone wielded in London?   Do I go into the ways that the Los Angeles transit system, while deeply dependent on connections, still charges for transfers on single-trip rides (though not on same-day round trips), a petty legacy of security problems around transfer slips?  Sometimes, for audiences who want to delve, I do go into those details. 

But most great cities look better from a distance.  The compromises and hesitations built into the Metro Rapid diminish but don't erase the importance of the Rapid as a precedent for creating a lot of new mobility fast.  The unfortunate transfer penalities don't contradict the wisdom and efficiency of the grid system.  The compromised alignments of some light rail lines don't undermine the case for rapid rail investment, nor for the balance between heavy rail, light rail, and busways in the reDSCN2630gion's plans.   There are very few inspiring transit services, anywhere in the world, that don't look more problematic to the locals who deal with them every day.

The big-picture Los Angeles talking point is still an inspiring one:  The most aggressive mayoral transit advocacy in America is coming from the nation's most car-oriented big city.  And because film and television will always tell this city's story to the world, the rise of transit in Los Angeles will be a globally resonant event.  Is anyone studying how film and television images of how people travel in Los Angeles are evolving over time?  Those things really matter.

This post originally appeared in Human Transit. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Jarrett Walker: Learning, Again, From Las Vegas

[ I’ve touted Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit blog before. It is an incredible resource for non-dogmatic analysis of transit issues from a professional in the field of transit design. He also does more general writing about cities from time to time, including this piece, which is reproduced with permission. If you like this piece, you might also want to check out Creature of the Shade, his personal urban travel blog. – Aaron ]


Tired of arguing about streetcars?  Let's take a break and talk about something we're more likely to agree on — Las Vegas! 

While the city plays a crucial role in American culture as a test-site for exotic street names, I suspect we'd mostly agree that it's not going to be a leader in sustainable urban form anytime soon. While the grid pattern of the city has some advantages (more on grids soon), Las Vegas has a particularly bad habit of building blocks of apartments in places where efficient transit will never be able to serve them, and where basic commercial needs are still too far to walk, thus achieving all of density's disadvantages and none of its benefits.

But there are surprises.  I just completed my annual trip to Las Vegas, to see family there, and thought I'd update this 2007 item from my personal blog about this capital of churn:

All urbanists are supposed to hate Las Vegas.  Sprawling, car-dependent, water-wasting, Las Vegas is almost gleefully unsustainable.  Yet walking the Strip last month, and driving it again late at night, I was forced to refine my disapproval.  In its energy the Strip reminded me of giant tropical annual plants, like the banana tree, which are designed to burn themselves out and collapse in short order.

The metaphor is wrong as ecology — plenty of unsustainable destruction is bound up in Las Vegas’s cycles of revision — but the admiration I have for banana trees, their ability to hurl themselves to tree-size without any of the trappings of permanence, resembles the feeling of walking a Las Vegas Strip where virtually nothing is 10 years old, where everything is an endless novelty, and where today’s new towers are dwarfed only by construction cranes promising an even bigger tomorrow.


A generation ago, every student of urbanism or architecture read Robert Venturi’s 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas.  In a now-familiar attention-grabbing move, Venturi sought meaning in a place that the intelligentsia had scorned, in this case the hotel-casinos, parking lots, and enormous flashing signs of the Las Vegas Strip. Las Vegas, he argued, heralded a new but perfectly legitimate aesthetic, one that we had all better study to be ready for the future.

The book made me notice that I give my own environmental values a veto over my sense of beauty and ugliness, at least as applied to cities. To me, a hot-desert city designed to waste water and oil was simply delusional, and there was no point in arguing about the aesthetic merits of a delusion. I resented Venturi lumping me in with a paper-tiger intelligentsia that condemned Las Vegas as ugly, but if asked I’d have said yes, any human landscape that conditions its citizens to think of scarce resources as free would never appear beautiful to me in aggregate, no matter how beautiful parts of it might be. 

I don’t always conflate the true with the beautiful, and the delusional with the ugly; I’m receptive to fantasy in literature and film, and I did a degree in theatre after all. But a city is an act of collective imagining, one that conditions its citizens to unconscious habits even more than mass-media do. An efficient city with no imagination is dull, but one founded on delusions about the capacity of its land is suicidal, and I don’t entertain aesthetic comparisons between different kinds of suicide.

Although Venturi intended Learning from Las Vegas as an aesthetic study, the book is typical of much anti-environmental writing on urban issues. The standard move in these works is to treat environmental concerns as though they were aesthetic ones, and then take a long view in which these aesthetic arguments look narrow and culturally contingent, as aeshetic arguments always do.  This move — ridiculing environmental judgments as though they were aesthetic ones — is sadly common these days; Robert Bruegmann's book Sprawl: A Concise History is an especially painful recent example.

But back to Las Vegas. Seen from the air, its sprawl clearly signifies permanent car dependence on a massive scale. But in its heart(s), and its face to the world, Las Vegas has rediscovered pedestrian scale, and swept Venturi into the ashheap.

Las_vegas_3Of the major Strip hotels that Venturi studied in 1972, every single one has now been demolished and rebuilt on a larger scale, and even today the working hotels are haunted by cranes promising still larger towers in the future.  (I wrote those words in 2007, but they're still true in 2009.  The lead-time for development is so long that it will take another year to see the full stop to construction that you'd expect the crash of '08 to induce.) 

The old Strip was a standard car-based fantasy: each hotel/casino complex was its own unrelated composition, situated up to 1/4 mile from the street behind a vast parking lot.  Today, the parking has been moved to structures in back, so that the hotels can reach toward each other with walkways and courtyards to create a vast continuous pedestrian realm. Competing hotels find that they both come out ahead if people can walk from one to the other, and even further ahead if they plug into public transportation, including both the sexy casino-funded monorail and the unremarkable but jam-packed double-decker buses, called "The Deuce," that ply the street. The effect is an extraordinary massing of pedestrians typical of San Francisco, New York, and other similar bastions of the urbanist left.

Las_vegas_2 (The 24-hour nature of the economy also ensures 24-hour transit service, an unusual feature in a city of this size.)

There’s plenty to dislike about Las Vegas, but as I walked the Strip, I had to acknowledge that it was reaching out to me, welcoming me as a pedestrian. This new principle of design, more than the ostensible new preoccupation with “family” entertainment, is what makes the Strip seem so much less sleazy than the place Robert Venturi and I both knew in the 1970s.  Even I contributed to the new economy, buying a latte and a margarita in the course of the afternoon.  I’d never have done that if I’d had to drive there.  

This post originally appeared in Human Transit.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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