Saturday, August 23, 2008

Cities are Born in Moments of Transition

In many discussions of the death of downtowns, the focus is on residents. Having fled to the car-oriented suburbs, the residents found driving and parking difficult in old downtowns built for pedestrians and streetcars, so they drove to the malls, and the downtown businesses either moved to the malls or died.

This is only partly true, and it ignores the cities' original reasons for existing. If you look at the history of almost any city, you'll find that it developed where it did because business was good, and business was good because transportation was good. Actually, because transportation was bad and good at the same time.

This may become clearer with an example, let's take New York. It's an ocean port city, and it developed because it was a good place for goods to be transferred from riverboats and pack animals to oceangoing ships. This means jobs for people doing the transferring, and for financial agents negotiating payments, and for people to fix the boats and care for the pack animals. Ocean port cities are also border cities, which means work for customs and immigration agents. There are tons of other ocean port cities: London, Alexandria, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires.

Paris is a river city. It developed where a major Roman road crossed a major river. That means ferryboats and later bridges, with tolls. Crossing a river is a good place for caravans to stop for rest and replenishment. It's also a good place to transfer goods from caravans to riverboats or vice versa. Cities also developed where two or more rivers came together. Other river cities include Saint Louis, Timbuktu and Istanbul.

Other cities grew up with other means of transport. Albany and Buffalo were canal cities. Chicago is a train city and a lakeport city; Pittsburgh is a train city and a river city. Albuquerque is a river city, a train city and a highway city. Havana, Hania and Honolulu are island port cities, good places for ships to refuel or wait out storms. Denver, Peshawar and Turin are mountain pass cities.

What all these places have in common is that travelers and traders had to slow down there, for one reason or another. Stopping was often a good idea, and sometimes mandatory. If they stopped, they almost always grabbed a bite to eat, often stopped for the night, sometimes got stuck for a long time, and occasionally settled down. In addition to the jobs I mentioned above, there were also jobs related to dining, lodging and, yes, prostitution.

Industries grew up in these places, because they are good places to get raw materials and ship finished products. Financial businesses too, because they're good places to make deals, change money, etc. Places that already have goods, services and lodging are good places for the entertainment industry, education, religion, government and other service industries.

As time goes on and transportation changes, may towns lose their original reasons for being. Not much canal freight goes through Chicago anymore, but the train tracks do, and so do the highways, and now the airports are major hubs. The shipping importance of Detroit declined over the years, but for a long time it had car manufacturing. Now that that's declining, there's not much left.

Transportation counts, and through transportation counts for more. This is where we get back to the failed downtowns of the 1970s and 1980s. They forgot this. They just assumed that everyone would want to go downtown, but they didn't remember why. Then they built bypass roads around their towns because the downtowns were "too congested." Almost always, a new mall was built out by the bypass, usually at the junction of two highways, and the downtown declined. The towns had had their transportation systems rearranged, often with their approval, to the point where they were irrelevant.

A case in point is Kingston, NY. At first it was a river port, then briefly a state capital, then a canal port, then a major railroad junction, and finally a highway junction. It had two "downtowns," the old Stockade area to the west (Uptown) and the port on the Rondout Creek to the east (Downtown). Then in the 1950s, it was blessed with a series of bypasses. First the New York State Thruway was built a mile west of the Stockade area; about that time, the East Chester Street bypass rerouted Route 9W around the Downtown area. The George Chandler Drive bypassed Uptown just a few hundred feet to the north, and finally, the Route 209 bypass made a big loop around the west and north sides of the city.

Beginning in 1960, no one with a car had any reason to go through Uptown Kingston. From south to north they could take Route 9W or 209, and from west to east they could take the Chandler Drive. Outside the city in the Town of Ulster, the intersection of Routes 9W and 209 became the center of a new, sprawling, car-oriented commercial district. IBM built a number of plants there, and then came a mall, then a bunch of strip malls, then a new mall, and finally a Wal-Mart. Uptown and Downtown, business after business closed. The only reasons to go to either center were the government offices, the bus station and a few specialty shops and restaurants.

I'm sure many of the merchants cheered the new bypasses, even as they were destroying the reason for their own existence. The lesson seems to have been lost on many urban planners and politicians, as well. Even those who long to revitalize downtowns don't seem to grasp the value of transportation transitions to the economies of towns. As long as people drive around the downtowns, they will not be stopping to buy things. Even if they go straight through the downtown, as in Syracuse or Hartford, if they're on a highway that gives them no reason to stop, they probably won't. And if they're going too fast to see the businesses around them, how would they know to stop?

Bringing industry back to downtown is a good idea. What's also good is to give people a reason to go through the downtown again, slowly, and to stop.


Alon Levy said...

It's not the transportation that creates the cities, but the cities that create the transportation.

New York is an ocean port, but so are Old Saybrook, Broad Channel, and Atlantic City. Right now the biggest port in the US is the Port of South Louisiana, which doesn't even have a city; it lies between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which have their own ports. Conversely, Los Angeles and Houston had no transportation-based reason to exist; they only developed their ports, road systems, and airports after becoming major cities.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for your response, Alon. New York has a better harbor than Old Saybrook, Broad Channel and Atlantic City. The Port of South Louisiana is commuting distance from both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, just like Elizabeth and Red Hook are from Manhattan.

L.A. and Houston may be counterexamples, and there's no question that cities do create demand for transportation. But that's not incompatible with the pattern of transportation creating cities. The general principle that transportation influences development is very widely accepted, wouldn't you agree?

Alon Levy said...

It's accepted, but transportation advocates often carry it too far. Transportation offers an opportunity for a city, but it doesn't create it by itself. It definitely doesn't sustain it. The problem with transportation is that it's like oil: it's a resource that can't go anywhere. It doesn't promote any economic activity, except those that are associated with it as a resource. When that transportation corridor declines, the city dies.

The Port of South Louisiana may be located close to New Orleans, but it's not its main job center. Either way, New Orleans has been economically dead for decades. Conversely, New York expanded its economy beyond its port, so Manhattan is still its center even though the area's port activities are centered on Elizabeth and the Erie Canal is dead. I could give you tens of examples of cities that died with their resource (e.g. St. Louis, Montevideo), as well of cities that developed without an important resource (Rome, Sao Paulo), or developed with one but transcended it (New York, Chicago).

Joel Garreau did an exercise with some students once, about which cities would rise and fall in this century. One of the themes was global warming, and the students understood that it would hurt cities located on the coast. Still, they refused to write off New York and Tokyo. Low relief or not, they're so important economically that if nothing else succeeds, the business executives who run them will build dike systems. They wouldn't do it for the Ganges River Delta, which has far more people; they'd only do it for cities with 13-figure GDPs. The moral of the story is that the best way to guarantee development isn't to be on high ground or close to an important crossroads, but to innovate and diversify the local economy.

CityLights said...

I immediately thought of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where, of course, the Earth was destroyed to make way for an Intergalactic Bypass.

What happened when the highways and bypasses were built is entirely natural and supports your theory of travelers having to slow down in certain places. The resulting sprawl is not some abnormality; it is the effect of wide roads and fast cars.

So I don't think the solution is to make cars go, slowly and wastefully, through downtown using its existing infrastructure. Either get rid of the car altogether or engineer enough wide roads and parking garages in downtowns as to make driving there worthwhile. Atlantic City and Scranton followed the latter approach.

Alon Levy said...

I'm not sure I'd present Scranton as an example of urban planning success.

CityLights said...

I guess it's a stretch to call it urban planning, since it only involved building a mall and a parking garage downtown. To the Scranton locals it was a success because it reduced the number of empty storefronts. It was the best that could be done under the circumstances, until there is significant new residential/commercial construction downtown or the passenger railroad is revived.

Alon Levy said...

Going back to the post's subject of highway bypasses, I decided to take a look at some cities in the US and compare highway bypasses to edge city development.

First, in the New York area, let's look at where the edge cities are. The three biggest are White Plains, Stamford, and Edison/Woodbridge. Of these, Edison predates the highway system and even much of the rail system; Thomas Edison worked out of there for a while. White Plains is located close to I-287, but away from all the major intersections; Tarrytown, Elmsford, and Port Chester are all better served by highway. Stamford is served by highway, but, again, not so well as Bridgeport.

Second, let's examine three pairs of cities: New York and Chicago, the two most CBD-centered metro areas in the US; Miami and Philadelphia, the two least CBD-centered metro areas; and Washington and San Francisco, which have edge cities almost as big as the traditional downtown (Tysons Corner for Washington, and Silicon Valley for San Francisco).

Of these, Washington has the most convenient beltway. However, all of the six cities have highway bypasses; if anything, Miami has the fewest. Tellingly, while San Francisco has a bypass connecting North Bay and East Bay, Silicon Valley is hard to reach from the rest of the Bay Area. The reason it became so important isn't transportation, but the proximity to Stanford, which encouraged its professors to engage in industrial research.

Cap'n Transit said...

Alon, it's quite possible that large urban areas like the ones you discuss behave differently. They've already got economies that thrive on "knowledge work," which doesn't require heavy shipping. They also all still maintain significant working rail infrastructure, and the "edge cities" you mention are all at the intersections of major railroads and major highways.

I know I used New York and Paris and many other world-class cities in my examples, but I was articulating a theory that I put together based more on smaller cities, those in the 50,000-500,000 range, places like Kingston and Hartford. In those cases, there's not enough of a population of "city people" to keep jobs and shops downtown.

Citylights, wide roads and parking garages are anti-urban and pedestrian-unfriendly. If you don't believe me, take a walk around downtown Stamford or White Plains. They feel like places that people pass through, not places where they want to hang out.

Alon Levy said...

Small cities usually exist because some big city needs them. For example, Croton-Harmon was the northern limit of electrification on the New York Central's Hudson Line, so it spawned a railyard with extensive repair shops, creating a strong-looking local economy. When the NYC folded, the city went to shit, and now its development is strictly as a New York City suburb.

It's true that Edison, White Plains, etc. are all located close to highways and rail lines. But so are other cities. My point is that as far as transportation infrastructure goes, these aren't the most favored locations. The reason they grew the most is that they were the best poised to transition to a knowledge-based economy.