Friday, June 26, 2009

Rep. John Mica (R) on Transit

Ranking minority member on the house Transit and Infrastructure Committee, Republican Representative John Mica has an interesting interview with PBS which gives me hope that Republican's may--at least temporarily--support public transit.

Here's Rep. Mica:

I became a mass transit fan because it’s so much more cost effective than building a highway. Also, it’s good for energy, it’s good for the environment...seeing the cost of one person in one car. The cost for construction. The cost for the environment. The cost for energy. You can pretty quickly be convinced that there’s got to be a more cost effective way. It’s going to take a little time, but we have to have good projects, they have to make sense – whether it’s high-speed rail or commuter rail or light rail. We got to have some alternatives helping people--even in the rural areas--to get around.
So cars are bad and transit is good? I think his simplification is excessive. Cars are incredibly useful in rural areas and areas with insufficient density to support public transit. As the density of an area grows, the space required by the cars so eats away at the area as a whole that those places are essentially stripped of their comfortable social spaces, leaving isolated enclaves of leisure, work and commerce.

There are places where cars make sense and transit doesn't. There are places where transit makes sense and cars don't. We shouldn't add components to a system that destroy it's performance (economic, social, environmental...).

If Rep. Mica is truly interested in transit, the one sure way to promote it is to provide incentives for projects that don't promote daily automobile use and penalize projects that encourage it.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Space Shift: A Historical Perspective

-Part I of a series-
Click here for Part II: Technology and Social Change
Click here for Part III: The Basis of Good Space

New Urbanists and the like often claim that the suburbs are built for cars, not people. In reality, suburbs were built by people and sold to people. We should be precise about what suburbs are and what they aren't. While they are great places for people to go for a walk or a bike ride, all serious transportation--going from one place to another--requires an automobile.

The hot topic in urban planning circles is "modal choice", the idea that people should be able to choose how they handle their serious transportation needs. Walking, driving, biking, busing or training; in the cities of the future, the choice will be yours.

This poorly thought out idea must be fleshed out before the economy starts whirring again. The climate crisis makes it imperative that we avoid another 50 years of disastrous built space. We're currently seeing the gradual shift of the dominant paradigm away from the vast suburban areas to something quite different. I propose that we mentally skip over the intermediate phases of this shift that are heavily influenced by our current system to see if the premises being adopted by today's society will result in a sustainable future. In the end, I hope it will, but we must throw off the shackles of our current schemes.

Around 100 years ago, the premise that drove the dominant paradigm of urban development rapidly shifted, just as it seems to be shifting today. It seems worthwhile to examine that century old transition and the parallels to what's happening today.

For most of human history, the dominant paradigm of urban development was driven by one simple premise that was shared by most of society: closer is better. This was certainly not a necessity, but instead was based around the idea that cities drove societal and economic growth so their size should be maximized. Since all transportation was slow, functional size could only be achieved with high density. Steel production was impossible during this period so there was a fairly low theoretical limit on the absolute amount of space per given footprint. A handful of the densest of these places still exist and function at densities well over 100,000 people per square mile (150 people/acre).

The early 20th century brought two major technological advances based on plentiful steel--the skyscraper and the automobile. The implications of these technological additions are too big to pass over, I'll first address the skyscraper.

With the advent of the skyscraper, localized densities virtually lost their theoretical limit. While before, perhaps 20 families could share the same door, now that number increased by an order of magnitude and beyond. Strangers would literally come in and out of your front door. The notion of community that had been an integral part of cities from the dawn of time was obliterated. This is why we associate community with "that small town feel" instead of a street bustling with conversation.

More technically, skyscrapers resulted in enormous populations of people being able to live in the smallest (geographical) places. Developers no longer needed to look outward to expand, they could simply build up.But a younger generation of developers had a different idea entirely. With the advent of the automobile, land on the outskirts of the city could easily be connected to the city itself, allowing residents of those outlaying areas to reap the cultural rewards of city life while inhabiting a countryside villa. And all of this could be done without any serious investment in transit infrastructure, which had been the precursor of successful development. As time went on, engineers discovered better ways to move people in their automobiles (paved streets, signals, lines on the road, highways...etc), extending the area around cities that could be converted to clusters of private villas.To sell these outlying areas, developers really only had to convince people to two things. First, having to drive to get to most destinations is a good thing and second, that enjoying the culture that another community creates is just as good, or even superior than enjoying the fruits of your own community.

The first sell was easy. Americans jumped at the chance to drive a car; to a person who may or may not have even ridden a house, the automobile was the 19th century equivalent of the jet pack. The second sell was less easy, and indeed, communities persist in the hearts of cities that have been there for generations.

Often times, communities left urban areas en masse to set up anew in the suburbs. These communities often fared poorly. Suburbs, by their very nature, provide a competitive advantage to the import and consumption of culture, not the generation of it. All except the most tight nit suburban communities fell victim to the ravages of corporate America.

To convince people to make these decisions, these developers created a premise that few Americans at the time could resist: "Bigger is better." Bigger lots, bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger garages, bigger appliances...decency knew no limit.

The intense efforts of these early sprawlers shifted the course of American society. By the end of the 20th century, national pizza chains hawk "Chicago style or "New York" style pizza and intense effort is given to the parking provisions of new developments.

Now that it has been taken to it's logical extreme, the grotesqueness of suburban sprawl has spawned a new movement, one that rejects the basic premise upon which it was founded. We'll examine that new movement--and the technology that supports it--in detail in the next installment.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Quick Update

Hannah and I are getting married in a couple weeks, so expect posting to be fairly light, though I will try to get at least one more post out before the big day. I'm starting a series that will attempt to address the emerging trends in urbanism, coherence is the goal!

Stay tuned!


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On Masdar

Most of us only know Abu Dhabi as the far off destination for Garfield's nemesis Nermal. The capital of the UAE is easily eclipsed by the towering skyscrapers and artificial islands of the next door city-state Dubai. Dubai has comparatively few oil reserves and they have been prudently investing (or so they think) their oil revenue in a tourist infrastructure that is second to none. Abu Dabi, on the other hand, sits on around a tenth of the known global oil reserves.
The ruling family of this tiny fiefdom made a decision to diversify their economy and they have been diligently working to attract international educational and research institutions. The leaders seem to have fully bought into the idea that green technology is the future and as a way to guard against falling demand for oil--I'm holding my breath)--they've made a major investment by way of a functioning demonstration project of a car-free city called the Masdar Initiative.

I had the chance to sit through several presentations on Masdar and was able to get a hold of several images used in them. All in all, Masdar is by far the most impressive undertaking by any developer that I'm aware of. Their discussion about sustainability is more than mere lip service to the green movement, and although their plan is far from perfect, it is a genuine step in the right direction.There is a lot to talk about when discussing Masdar, but I'll try to keep it focused and. It will be necessary, of course, to provide a bit of background on the development.

The development will be constructed on stilts, about 12 feet above grade. This allows for freight delivery, emergency access and simple public transportation installation in the public basement--eliminating the need for wide streets. Narrow streets, once common throughout the world, are of particularly well adapted to this area of the world, where temperatures exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

The development is integrated into Abu Dhabi with large parking structures (15k spots for residents and 15k spots for visitors), buses and a proposed rail system. Within the development, which will hold around 50k residents and another 50k workers on about 1500 acres, mobility is provided through a PRT system designed by 2GetThere.This is certainly not the sort of car-free development proposed by JH Crawford, rather this scheme has a massively implemented personal--yet public--transit system. There will be dozens and dozens of PRT stops, removing any need to travel by foot at the street level and in my opinion, obliterating the idea of local character.While the designers seem to have solved scores of problems associated with cars, they have failed to correct a significant drawback of auto-based transit--universal access. While we generally think of access as a good thing, auto-based access leads to people's desires to build cul-de-sacs and wall off communities. When you create the type of universal access shown in Masdar, you homogenize the entire place. You don't allow little crevices to develop their own local culture. Borders are impossible to define because they can be so easily crossed underground and out of sight. I'm not opposed to the similar effect that mass transit has on limited areas around transit stops, but when the closest stop is never more than 175 feet away, you alter the urban fabric for the worse.

On to some better things. I'll skip over the freight delivery, garbage collection, emergency access, and climate orientation strategy--though they were all handled in an impressive fashion. What I'd like to focus on is the platform that Masdar itself is built on.I like this a lot. There are an outrageous number of highly technical issues associated with cities. We bury most them underground, but some of them--most notably transport--are done at grade. Working under the soil is difficult and expensive. By building on a platform, we can establish a different bifurcation between the technical and the social city. Free from onerous technical requirements, users--not just developers--could construct buildings on a scale to their liking.

Just as importantly, by constructing a platform, we can create an additional bifurcation between the city and the country. Urban areas lie on the platform, rural areas lie off of it. Suburban-esque densities would never be built on such a platform because those areas of high infrastructure quality would create scarcity, the true driver of density. When the city needs to expand, more platform is built. Especially in seismically stable regions, the cost would not be so great.


Monday, June 1, 2009

GM Bites the Dust

Today brings news of GM's long awaited bankruptcy. Now that the public seems to own a major manufacturing operation, perhaps we'll get into the business of building things the further the public good--trains, buses, etc...

The great irony of this whole situation is that the strategy that drove GM under was an unrelenting focus on heavy vehicles at the expense of their lighter, passenger counterparts. In my mind, heavy cars are the only cars that should exist in the country.

Of course, GM wasn't just selling half ton chunks of steel to farmers, loggers, miners, construction workers... etc. They were marketing these vehicles to ordinary (sub)urban dwellers, who had no other use for them then towing their outlandishly large boat 150 miles each weekend (why not rent out some marina space?).

I'm not opposed to cars and I'm certainly not opposed to big powerful ones. Millions of Americans need a car to do the work they do--not just a car to get there. While Michael Moore thinks "It will take a few years for people to get used to the new ways to transport ourselves"--I suspect we need abrupt changes in virtually every area of our society to make our urban areas function normally without the car, and it will probably take a few years just to start.

Our expensive and unwieldy legal system leaves too many disputes outside the law and any other enforcement mechanism--the car spread us out to avoid those disputes. Our corporate system has identified every conceivable way of externalizing their costs to the society as a whole--the car brings people from miles around to big box stores. Most importantly, we have created a built environment on the basis of profit alone--and nobody noticed because you can't see the sad looks on people's faces through the windows of their car.

Somehow, this made sense in America, the land of unlimited land and opportunity. But it seems like we are running into the design limits of the infrastructure that our predecessors left to us. Freeways are getting to expensive to expand and maintain, water systems need rebuilding, schools are crumbling and the electrical grid is dying. It's time to forget the frontier.

Now we have the chance to revisit our built space, take stock of what we have and what we need.

Most of all, we need to find a way to live that does not encumber future generations with debts that they cannot manage and damage they cannot restore. I can't see how driving a car to work fits into that.