Friday, March 26, 2010

Seeing is believing

I'm very flattered that Jarrett chose my post on the supposed convenience of cars for his quote of the week. And I appreciate that a number of people took the time to share their thoughts in the comments about the potential convenience of various modes of transportation. But I was actually quite shocked at how ill-informed many of the commenters were about life without cars, and how comfortable they seemed to be pontificating about it. I mean, this is the Internet, but still, they're transit advocates!

Jeffrey J. Early from Juneau argued that cars are better at "point-to-point" travel. WS seems convinced that transit can't take hikers to the Columbia Gorge. Ron and CroMagnon argue that cars are better at carrying things. Watson "suspect[s] that even in Manhattan taxis are faster than buses or the subway for the majority of trips outside rush hour." Anonymouse, Rhywun, Alon and I rebutted some of their points, but some seemed unconvinced.

The point of my previous posts wasn't that all modes are equally efficient at all tasks. They obviously aren't. My point is that you can't consider the vehicle without considering the infrastructure, and since most of the infrastructure is publicly financed, then you get into talking about relative subsidies. Some of the commenters acknowledge this, while still seeming to miss the point. Watson conceded that "cars aren't much use without roads." CroMagnon says, "if your destination is near some type of road." Jeffrey cautions, "unless you completely rebuild the city itself." Well, that is the point. If there are no roads, if we rebuild the city so that everything's within walking distance, then walking or trains would be more convenient.

The inability of the commenters to seriously entertain the possibility of alternate infrastructures was pretty amazing. Jeffrey J. Early says he lives in New York without a car now, and he's probably seen the Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village complex, where a population slightly larger than Juneau's lives in an area 1/26,345 the size. There might be some Stuy Town residents who are crazy enough to drive from one side of the complex to another to visit a friend or go shopping, but the vast majority will just walk.

WS and Watson have probably never been to the Cinque Terre in Italy, which were connected to other towns by boat and then rail long before any roads were paved. There, walking is the only real way to get from one part of a town to another, and the quickest way to get from one town to another, or to Genoa, is by train. If you want to transport something heavy you use a donkey, or maybe a wheelbarrow, or a boat. WS dismissed my example of the mountains near New York City and their numerous transit-accessible hiking trailheads, but I've been told that much of the Alps is quite easily accessible by train and cable car. Even in Albuquerque you can take a bus to some trailheads.

Watson, CroMagnon and Ron have clearly never lived in a place like New York, because they don't understand how "cargo" works. Ron doesn't have time to wait around for groceries to be delivered, and I agree. Honestly that's one of the reasons I've never bothered with FreshDirect. But lots of other people seem to have no problem, and often FreshDirect just leaves the food outside their apartment doors. Many people in New York have doormen (another part of the infrastructure), who can accept packages at all hours of the day. At many supermarkets, if you have food delivered you don't need to wait around for it, because the guy from the supermarket will walk back to your apartment with you pushing the shopping cart.

Ron likes to do one big shopping trip every week or two. But I'll bet he's never felt the luxury of living above a supermarket. You can go shopping every day, and it takes five minutes: grab some fruit, milk, cereal, dinner and tuna fish, check out and you're done. The best part about it is that you can decide what you're going to eat for dinner ten minutes before you start cooking, and the ingredients are always fresh. That beats a freezer full of Hungry Mans in my book. And you never have to carry more than ten pounds of food.

Getting big items like furniture or building supplies is a bit more difficult, but it can be done. You can take it in a taxi - even call a minivan taxi - or rent a handtruck from Home Depot. But you get it done, and it isn't that hard. It's a lot easier than having to go buy new tires or brakes or whatever for your car, and happens about as often (depending on your wealth, your taste in furniture, and the age and make of your car).

Given the right infrastructure, it really is more convenient to do everything on foot or by transit. Just because you can't imagine it doesn't mean that it's not true.


Ryan said...

The key point in this whole discussion is how much we take for granted the fact that infrastructure influences or enables lifestyle. And I'm not talking about those suburban lifestyle centers. Much as you don't so much as have children than become a parent you cannot expect to move from the suburbs to a dense urban environment and expect to live by your same habits. And the reverse is true, painfully I'm afraid. I grew up in the burbs, but as an adult I've lived in Kenmore Square in Boston, Dupont Circle in DC, North Beach in SF and the East Village in Manhattan. I've never owned a car and I live just as well as anyone else in this country. It is a different lifestyle for sure, but one that is very freeing. I have no concept of what traffic is, how much gas costs, or the stress of finding parking. I can skip the gym and not feel so bad since I walk everywhere and carry a bag or two of groceries home a couple times a week. My subway commute is half of what it'd be in a cab, but I go through shoes faster than a set of tires. I've never bought a car stereo, but I have $100 headphones. On the rare occasions that I need to leave the city, I've got zipcar close by and a rental desk nearby.

I can't hop in the car and drive off to Home Depot to grab a bag of fertilizer on a whim, but neither do I have to. The infrastructure of public parks that is so lacking in the suburbs, substitutes for the lawn I do not have. And any loss there, is more than made up by the people watching I gain. One of the gross failings of the suburbs that so rarely gets attention is the fact that it overvalues private space at the expense of public space and public life. We are social beings by nature, and a traffic jam does not count as social interaction.

So the discussion of what lifestyle is better or worse will never be settled. It comes down to lifestyle choices. And I love the way I live, but know I could never do it in the suburbs. The infrastructure just would not allow it.

saosebastiao said...

Possible, yes. Easier or more Requiring a creative imagination to envision it almost certainly proves that it is not easier or more efficient. Even in countries where transit has every advantage in the world and individual autos have every disadvantage in the world, there still exist cars, trucks, planes, boats, taxis, etc. They can't all be irrational status symbols.

I love transit, and I definitely wish there was more of it. I hate owning a car and the problems that come with it. But there is an efficiency break-even that exists with transit that doesn't exist with roads. If the total number of travelers from Salmon ID to Meeteetse WY is one every 12 weeks, then no transit situation will ever be easier or more efficient than a road.

Transit has a form of inverse efficiency. The more people that take it, the more efficient it gets. At some point, there is a break even in terms of cost...where it costs more to provide than the benefit it provides. Roads have a directly proportional efficiency. If you don't use the road, very little maintenance is needed, if you use it a lot, a lot of maintenance is needed. The break even point is so minimal that it practically doesn't exist. For this reason, an unused or rarely used transit system is a waste of resources, but an unused or rarely used road isn't.

Chewie said...

Excellent, excellent post, and a big LOL on "[t]hat beats a freezer full of Hungry Mans in my book."

NYC proves the point perfectly. Much of the city was built densely, with mixed uses, lots of transit, and no off-street parking, and it makes a huge difference in how people choose to get around.

Really, there are ways around not owning a car and most people in America have never had the chance to see how well it can work when the infrastructure is in place.

Even in LA we're starting to move in a less car-dominated direction and in the neighborhoods where that is advancing most rapidly the change in transportation patterns is already apparent.

Duncan Watson said...

I have lived and worked in Manhattan, West New York (NJ), Munich (Germany), Tel Aviv (Israel), Portland (OR), Seattle Burbs.

Living without a car is much easier than owning a car in Manhattan. Grocery shopping is done every other day and meal delivery is so convenient (more infrastructure). In fact if you are out of town for any period of time you want a friend to come and clear the menu piles out from your entryway. Subways are easily faster than cabs except at bar-closing times. Don't forget how common food carts are. Cost for breakfast from a cart was $1 in 1995 for a buttered roll and cup of tea. Compare to $3 at Starbucks for just coffee at the time. Lunch was similarly cheap and easy. No need to go outside your commute route, food was everywhere.

Hiking and climbing are easier with a car somewhere in your circle of friends or a zipcar (infrastructure). I used to drive when I lived in NJ for my friends in Manhattan. I would pile 4 adults + climbing gear into my CRV and drive to the Gunks in New Palz, NY (2-3 hr drive). Note, it is possible to get to the Gunks by Greyhound, and then use the shuttle that goes from the climbing store in New Paltz to the base of the Gunks. That is more of a 3 day style event though, not a day trip. Camping at the Gunks is available. The Gunks are a world class climbing destination, arguably the best on the Eastern Coast. Rumney, NH is another destination, as is the Del Water Gap. Climbing (Bouldering) in Manhattan is also available at Central Park and a few locations in the Bronx.

In Munich, I was able to get to the Alps without a car though I more often car pooled with my partners. The other infrastructure in the Alps are the alpine huts. A great help for hikers, climbers and other alpine activities.

In Tel Aviv, I biked to work, no decent transit and I was leary of buses due to bombs. Cycling to work in Tel Aviv was rough due to the combative driving of taxis and the high chance of theft. My bike was stolen from within the office stairwell by a messenger most likely. It was locked. Shops were walking distance though and I walked to work for a while as well (until I had a new bike). Grocery shopping was a daily activity and I also ate out a lot. Delivery was not very easy. It was more a eat out locale. Apt sizes were small and similar to Manhattan.

Portland was easy. The MAX (light rail) made everything simple and close. I commuted by bike and often mixed modes to get places. I was able to get to the gorge by taking the Max as far east as it would go and then taking a bus to troutdale. I would ride from there. Additionally I would take climbing gear with me and climb at the site 20 min from troutdale. I can't remember the name. Easier than NYC for close climbing but not as good as the Gunks. In Portland I tended to shop near the max and then come home. It was easy to carry 4-6 bags of stuff when I wanted to and pick up 1-2 bags as needed.

Grocery shopping is different in Urban areas. You shop daily and use the ubiquitous delivery and take-out as well.

Chad said...

Modern societies need roads, if only for emergency services: Police, firefighters, ambulances, Hazmat. Unless you're envisioning a city where every emergency room is within walking distance. Would the fire department dispatch on trains or bicycles?

I am seriously trying to entertain the possibility of alternate infrastructures.

If others are incapable, as you say on the Human Transit site, of "imagining a transit system that offers the same level of comfort, flexibility, privacy, protection from bad weather and extreme temperatures, and ease of travel in groups and with children, as cars do" then you're implying that you are capable. OK, prove it.

How do you have mass transit with vehicles at exactly the temperature one likes?
* How do you have mass transit with vehicles with seats at exactly the height one likes, without making adjustments every ride?
* How do you have mass transit with vehicles with seats that are comfortable, but not dirty with stains and other foreign substances?
* How do you have mass transit where one can choose to ride in complete silence or with music blaring to every corner of the vehicle?
* How do you have mass transit that lets one personalize an environment with trinkets, air fresheners, cups, loose change?

And these are just questions about comfort. What about flexibility, privacy, no standing around waiting?

People care about these things. What is your vision of mass transit infrastructure that addresses people's preferences?

By the way, a lot of people don't find driving stressful or a maintenance headache. They *like* driving cars. Driving is one of their great pleasures in life. What place do these people have in your vision?

Jonathan said...

Chad, modern societies need airports, too, as well as roads, but the number of people who insist on owning and operating their own aircraft is not so large (in 2008, there were only 614,000 licensed pilots in the US). Does the inability “to personalize an environment with trinkets, air fresheners, cups, [and] loose change” keep you from flying commercial airliners?

Duncan Watson said...

Transit in Manhattan is already more convenient than driving in Phoenix.

The statistics don't support your land of happy drivers. Drivers are in general the most stressed, angry people around. (numerous sites - here is one on road rage [ ])

Having working useful transit doesn't mean the extinction of driving. Arguing that position is know as "the straw man" technique and one of many bs debating tactics.

Anonymous said...

All arguments in favor of automotive primacy evaporate in the event of $100/bbl oil. It's not just subsidies that have made the auto-centric infrastructure possible. It's been cheap energy.

Chad said...

Jonathan, most people aren't on airplanes every day. And when they are, they don't typically enjoy it. Cars, on the other hand, are part of people's day-to-day lives, and they place much greater importance on them.

Duncan, a 2006 Pew Research Center telephone survey says that 69% of American drivers like to drive:

Also, who said anything against useful transit? I'm simply interested in Cap'n's vision of "a transit system that offers the same level comfort, flexibility, privacy, protection from bad weather and extreme temperatures, and ease of travel in groups and with children, as cars do." If Cap'n has a vision, then I think we'd all like to hear it. I think a vision that addresses all these issues is essential for improving transit usage.

Funding all types of transportation infrastructure is key.

Chad said...

Festoonic, experts have been fretting about peak oil for over 150 years:

Yes, someday oil will run out. But it won't happen overnight. Oil won't run out soon and when it does we'll be living in a world with new technologies and new priorities.

Having ones head in the sand about oil: Bad
Thinking the sky is falling about oil: Also bad

Barb Chamberlain said...

I just discovered your blog thanks to a mention on StreetsBlog.

I'm a year-round non-driver: I bike commute most of the year and switch to transit when it's too snowy/slippery/dangerous (meaning the drivers will hit me--I'd be fine otherwise).

In my mid-sized regional city (Spokane, WA) transit isn't quite as ubiquitous as in a major metro area, but I do dream of that day and some of us are working toward complete streets and more transit-oriented development to reduce car dependence.

I've used transit in New York, DC, and Portland and can't imagine why I'd need a car in a city with a full transit network. This, despite having grown up in the wide open West where one's driver's license is a rite of passage second only to the legal drinking age (for me, voting age was a bigger deal).

I underwent a psychological shift as I entered into bike commuting, from "I ride my bike to work once in a while under perfect conditions" to "I ride my bike to work pretty often" to "I'm a bike commuter." That shift also took me out of "I'm a driver."

I still value good streets--boy, do I, since I'm bouncing over them on a bike saddle and I'm my own shock absorber. I fully appreciate the need for a street network that gets groceries to the store and ambulances to hospitals, along with getting the bus to the stop 3 blocks from my house.

The things that are clearly so important to Chad (from his comments on this post and the other one)--control, privacy and all the rest--simply aren't worth the hassle factors of regular car use for me.

I don't see him valuing TIME--the time it takes to drive oneself during which you can't do other things like get exercise (biking) or read (transit). With current schedules I know it takes me longer to use transit to get to work than it takes to drive, but I can use transit time to read or check emails and I save money. I also happen to LIKE interacting with the people in my neighborhood and along my route.

The other point missed by some of the negative commenters is that every single one of us who chooses to use transit or bike is one less car on the road in front of them at a stop light, or competing with them for parking. I've seen estimates of the increased load if everyone currently using other means of transportation switched to a single-occupancy vehicle and it's mind-boggling. We're GOOD for drivers, not BAD for drivers, so why are they sometimes downright hostile?

Inspired by the Design Impact blog, I went through an analysis of a bike day vs. a car day on my blog ( It would be interesting to see your comparison of the time usage, hassle factors and costs for a transit day vs. a car day.

Co-chair, Bike to Work Spokane, @Bike2WrkSpokane

Chad said...

Barb, please be careful with your assumptions. I don't own a car. I depend on buses, subways, streetcars, and walking for mobility.

Just because I am satisfied riding transit doesn't mean everyone is or should be.

And just because I choose to ride transit doesn't mean I'm dismissive of its many, many disadvantages. My friends and family do care about control, comfort, and privacy. I don't want to take the option of driving away from them.

Yes, I want more buses, faster service, better vehicles, better infrastructure. But I'm not willing to take away from others for my own peculiar desires.

Also, I like to think I value time. I certainly value reading. There's just something about a bus and subways that isn't conducive to burying oneself in a book. In a bus, there's the roaring engine, the swaying, the potholes, crying children, patrons needing to get by you, the fellow patrons with earphones that bleed noise all over, boisterous and vulgar passengers. Subways, while better, give us clanking rail switches, screeching brakes, and long dark tunnels. It's all a mood thing--sometimes it's easy to read, other times you zone out looking out the windows. In cars though, you can listen to audiobooks. Even better, you can run several errands in a row--many of which simply cannot be done comfortably or time-efficiently via transit.

I encourage increased transit usage, but I'm not going to do it pretending that transit can be all things to all people. This is why I look so forward to hearing Cap'n's vision for what mass transit can be. How can we appeal to personal preferences to advocate for higher ridership?

Cap'n Transit said...

I appreciate that, Chad. I am thinking all these comments over. In the meantime let me just point out that you can listen to an audiobook or podcast on transit; in fact, I regularly listen to NPR or PRI podcasts on my phone when I'm too tired or motion-sick to read or write. Because these are MP3 podcasts, I can listen to them on the subway too.

Alon Levy said...

Duncan: while foreigners are sometimes leery of Tel Aviv's bus system, locals keep taking the buses. I rode line 5 to school every day back when the Second Intifada was beginning; it was frequent enough to compensate for the lack of speed.

Saosebastiao: sure, cars exist everywhere. And so do subways. It doesn't mean much. The question is what proportions they exist in. So when you have Hong Kong with 46 privately-owned vehicles per 1,000 people, and the US with about 700, there's a big difference.

BruceMcF said...

"Possible, yes. Easier or more"

How easy would the car be without the enforced provision of parking spaces? How efficient if you had to park a variable distance up to half a mile from your destination, or from your home?

Indeed, given that the private car sits doing nothing but depreciating for 90% of the time and well over half of car trips are less convenient and efficient than using a well designed public transport system in a well designed suburban village or urban neighborhood, the "efficiency and convenience" is focusing on a minority of uses of the car ... for which a share car system is likely more convenient and efficient than having to own thousands or tens of thousands of dollars worth of metal when going to the lumberyard.

saosebastiao said...

I'm not in disagreement. I think most suburban areas can be comfortable and yet dense enough to support sustainable transit. But not everybody lives in suburbia.

The key is that ridership needs to exceed a certain amount to break even on its use of resources. While it is easy to envision a world where public transport can do everything for us, it is difficult to imagine a world where public transportation can be easier or more efficient than individual autos for 100% of uses.

Alon Levy said...

Well, 100% is not really necessary. Take Hong Kong, again, or Singapore, or the urban parts of Japan. The issue at hand is that in some cities, for example LA, the transit-car convenience split is 10-90, and in others, for example Hong Kong, it's 90-10.

saosebastiao said...

Well that was the implied conclusion given Capn's post. If that wasn't what he meant, then he should be more careful about words that are absolutes, like "everything".

I'm under the impression that transit can reasonably and sustainably take care of well over 50% of our transit needs as a nation, but there are a lot of barriers to that that don't seem to be coming down any time soon.

Cap'n Transit said...

Again, Saosebastiao, I am not talking about "easier or more efficient" in this post. I am abstracting away from the notion of "efficiency" and attacking the notion of "convenience," because it's important to understand that convenience is a matter of investment.

Maybe a trip to Venice is what you need. Please send me post cards of any tasks that you feel would be easier by car given the existing infrastructure.

Alon Levy said...

Um, Venice is a tourist trap with the economic importance of New Orleans, lying in a metro area that's predominantly car-oriented.

Cap'n Transit said...

Um, that's still 90,000 people, many of whom can go a long time without a car.

nathan_h said...

"Yes, I want more buses, faster service, better vehicles, better infrastructure. But I'm not willing to take away from others for my own peculiar desires."

Yet others have been taking away from transit and giving to automobiles for over a century; it isn't possible to correct their lopsided allocations without taking something back. We have limited resources, one of which is land and much of that is being wasted on automobile storage. Another resource is funding for infrastructure building, and we can not significantly enlarge the amount invested in scalable transportation without withdrawing support from our failed experiment in a mass-automotive lifestyle.

It's fine if some transit riders (or even personas) choose to haul themselves onto a cross in support of their motorized brethren's unabated pillage, but the rest of us peculiar 5.2 million New York subway riders (etc.) may choose to support our own interests, and even, what we believe to be the long-term interests of our country and civilization.

Barb Chamberlain said...

Chad, thanks for clarifying that you're a transit user. Your remarks didn't suggest that. I shouldn't have assumed, as you note.

Going back to the original point about what each of us defines as "convenience," for me cars provide less convenience for most of my transportation needs. I wouldn't have said that before becoming a bike commuter--I would have assumed just the opposite because I had no experience to teach me otherwise.

As long as public policy and design privilege one transportation choice over others, we erect barriers in the way of people finding out for themselves what forms of transportation are truly convenient (and enjoyable) for them.


Barb Chamberlain said...

Just ran across this blog post and had to share it here:

Brief quote:
"In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency for people to over-attribute the behaviour of others to personality or disposition and to neglect substantial contributions of environmental or situational factors. (Actually it isn’t quite fundamental, as collectivist cultures exhibit less of this bias.) People are generally more aware of the situational influence on their own behaviour."


Cap'n Transit said...

Yes, Barb:

Barb Chamberlain said...

And now of course as I read the comments on that Psystenance blog post more closely I see Cap'n Transit commented there. Missed it in my mad enthusiasm. :D