Monday, November 7, 2011

Inefficient cities of the future

In response to my post on inefficient cities, Alon wrote that in Kampala his cousin observed, "The heavier vehicles take the space they want, and pedestrians get the short shrift because they're lighter than cars and if they don't make way they get run over." This is what happens all too often when there is not enough to go around - in this case, enough space to maneuver in the streets - and when the rule of law is weak. Might makes right, and the mighty happen to be the rich who can afford to buy big, heavy vehicles.

It doesn't have to be this way. In the Third World, if you go to places where there is enough street space, such as smaller towns, everyone shares. If you go to places where the rich can't bring their cars, like the narrow streets of the old towns, you can find a more equitable distribution of space.

Interestingly, in these inefficient cities even the rich with their big cars usually have trouble getting around. They may be able to get around a little faster and easier than everyone else, but they still get slowed down and frustrated.

As I wrote in the last post, Los Angeles and Houston have notorious traffic along those lines, but up to now they've been able to build lots and lots of roads to keep cars moving. Kampala and Cairo and Lagos cannot. And here's the problem for LA and Houston (and Las Vegas and Phoenix and Atlanta and Charlotte ...): some day soon, they will lose the ability to build lots and lots of roads. Once that happens, they will become as paralyzed as Cairo and Lagos.

For some, it won't matter. Vegas and Phoenix are so closely tied to the sprawl economy that if sprawl becomes impossible they will lose their reason for existence. People will leave, the cities will shrink, and if there is still a need for anyone to live and work there, they'll probably get around just fine by bike. But they are also heavily dependent on air conditioning and imported water, and if either of those break down the cities will become uninhabitable.

For others it does matter. As Kunstler has argued, coastal cities like LA and DC, river towns like Memphis and Cincinnati, and lake ports like Detroit and Buffalo, will see a resurgence. But the extent to which they function well depends on how well-adapted their transportation systems are for people without cars.

This is where rapid transit comes in. And it has to be rapid so that the transit passengers aren't stuck in the same gridlock as everyone else. The guaguas of Santo Domingo and the bach├ęs of Bamako have phenomenal ridership, but they´re slow, uncomfortable and unreliable during peak times. Streetcars in mixed traffic aren't much better. You need to have at least a physically separated transit right-of-way, and better a grade-separated one. Cities that either have enough of those already or can build them quickly will be in better shape than those that have built themselves around private cars.

Maybe you can see now how this is getting back to the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement. I'll follow up soon.


Steve Stofka said...

Cap'n--Firstly, the phenomenon you note can basically also be said as: Great places are driver-ambivalent at best, driver-hostile at worst. In other words, increasing focus on improving driver experience is a major place-destroying factor.

Secondly, while Kunstler is indeed accurate that post-oil resettlement patterns will shift us back to waterways and away from deserts, I have to disagree with some of his other claims (for example, the containerization revolution will continue to have the major effect of centralizing port facilities, which were once decentralized along the entire waterfront). Also, pace Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam as an important physical and symbolic water bank for huge swaths of the West will likely become important. It is not hard to see that he who controls the water (that is, the Colorado River valley) controls the interior West.

jamesinclair said...

Don't throw all of the third world into one generalization. Behavior of motorist/pedestrian interaction is not just based on allocation of space, but enforcement.

Cities in southeast asian and india are a clusterfuck, with no lanes, people going every which way, and generally, no respect for one another. There's simply no enforcement of laws, and the little enforcement that exists is quickly eliminated via bribes.

Then look at latin america. Lots of cars, but much more order. People stay in their lanes.

Take this picture of traffic in Sao Paulo. These folks may have an hour ahead of them to move a mile...

But they stay in their lanes, even though with chaos, 4 "lanes" of cars would fit. Compare with a picture of traffic in Jakarta, Bankok etc.

You can see the same with pedestrian interaction. Crosswalks are better respected and such, not because latin americans are "better" but because enforcement is serious. Hell, to get a drivers license in Brasil, you need to memorize not just the laws...but the fine/points for breaking said laws!

Indian drivers test:
"Heres your license"
US Driving test:
"At a crosswalk, should you a)accelerate, b)yield to pedestrian c)stop for 30 minutes"
Brazil test:
"Failure to yield to pedestrians at crosswalk will result in a fine of how much?"