Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It still has to be transit-oriented

Planetizen links to a post by Chuck Wolfe that synthesizes recent discussions by Jason King on the rise of "urbanism," Roger Lewis questioning "transit-oriented development," and Liz Dunn on supplementing WalkScore with a "JaneScore." Wolfe puts it all together to come up with "urbandwidth," which is just an awful, horrible word.

I'm trying to figure out just what's so awful about "urbandwidth." I think it's partly the stress mismatch that screams, "I'm a naive neologism!" Combine URBan with BANDwidth and you get the URB clashing with the BAND and you don't know which to stress. Is it some kind of ur-bandwidth, the rate at which Abraham received information? What is "bandwidth" doing in there, anyway? Is Wolfe arguing that information access is the critical measure of the value of a society? If so, why?

King is certainly right that people are using - and modifying - the word "urbanism" in all kinds of ways now, and that's good. I think that Dunn is right about WalkScore not telling you everything you need to know. It tells you about the availability of walking routes to important destinations, but it says nothing about their value, amenities or glamour. Lewis is also right that walkability is important.

There's more to livability than urbanism, though, and Lewis is quite wrong when it comes to discounting transportation-oriented development. I'll start with the "urbanism" issue. I've lived in cities for most of my life, and I love them. I don't believe that it's sustainable for most of the population to live in small towns or suburban sprawl, much less in individual houses in the middle of nowhere, even if that's what they say they want.

I do believe that there is room for some diversity in living styles. No matter how many people live in cities, there will still be some areas that we would consider "country" or even suburban. We can do that in a sustainable way. The key is getting people away from car-dependence, and that means high local density even in a context of low global density: suburbs built around streetcars and commuter rail, and country towns and villages built around train stations and bus stops.

There have been copycat movements for "new suburbanism" and "new ruralism" (PDF). As you would expect from something promoted by Joel Kotkin and Randal O'Toole, "new suburbanism" comes with boatloads of sneering populism and misinformation about cars and the desires of so-called real people. "New ruralism" started as a marketing term for a particular kind of retirement community, but at least it's not divisively attacking latte-sipping strawmen.

I agree that the term "transit-oriented development" is awkward, and I would be happy to drop it and "urbanist," but I can't get completely behind Lewis's walkability. There's no question that walkability is essential, but honestly I take it for granted. It's just the natural way of things, and any built environment that can't be walked in is a sick system. I think that if people manage to see their environment from outside the sick system they realize that, but I don't see any way to convince them other than by showing them. A campaign for walkable neighborhoods seems like a campaign for edible food or breathable air, but then again...

The problem with focusing so much on walkability is that sometimes people do need to go beyond walking distance. If someone lives in a walkable rural village, they can visit their friends, pick up the mail and get a pound of salami, all on foot, but the village probably can't support a clothing store. If someone lives in a walkable suburb with all their daily needs plus a bookstore, a movie theater, some restaurants and a few boutiques, sometimes they want to go to a poetry reading or listen to some reggae. Even in Greenwich Village, where you can be within a short walk of a mind-boggling smorgasbord of dining, shopping, work and entertainment, sometimes you want to go to, say, Carnegie Hall or the Museum of Natural History, or even to Bear Mountain, and you want to get there faster than you can walk.

Bicycles can get you a bit beyond the village: our rural resident can bike to the big town and buy a skirt, our suburbanite can get to the reggae club, and our New Yorker can go anywhere in the city and suburbs. But if the rural resident wants to go to a poetry reading, the suburbanite to a museum, and the urban resident wants to visit another city, it's a bit too far to bike.

Finally, it's great when there are good jobs within walking or bicycling distance, but often times that's not the case, especially for people with relatively specialized occupations. Some jobs involve lots of travel over wide distances, as well.

For everything like that, there's transit. If you focus exclusively on walkability and don't provide transit, there are governments and corporations that are providing all kinds of incentives for people to get to those places by car. Sure, in developing countries and in past centuries people have walked for days to get places, but when the most convenient option is a car, most people will use it.

Living without cars is necessary to sustain our environment. Walkability is necessary for car-free living, but it is not sufficient. We need transit-oriented development. If you don't like the name, feel free to come up with a better one, but you can't get enough people out of their cars without transit.


Anonymous said...

What about jobs? If you live in Nyack but work in New York City, 30 miles away, and drive there every day (300 miles each week), what is the point of Nyack being a walkable, moderately dense community? From an energy-consumption perspective, one might as well live in Spring Valley and drive everywhere.

BruceMcF said...


I live in a walkable small town. In a transition from a car-addicted transport system to a transport system with choice, this town could easily double its population by doubling its population density with stacked townhouse development near downtown ...

... but its just not complete without a transit link to some major shopping center and to some city ... even Cleveland.

A station on the Pittsburgh/Cleveland Ohio Hub line and some form of Express Bus connecting that station, downtown Ravenna, Kent, Stow to Cuyahoga Falls then downtown Akron and AkronU would give that ... both access to multiple employment centers as well as access to the kind of retail, recreational, services, etc., that can't be obtained in any walkable small town.

Alon Levy said...

It's actually easier to get people to take the train to work than to walk to other destinations. In New York City's suburbs other than the ones at the northern end of Jersey and in New York State west of the Hudson, almost everyone who works in Manhattan takes the train there. Like all other CBDs, Manhattan is so congested that people who'd otherwise sneer at transit rarely drive there.

Helen Bushnell said...

Here is the thing. If you can't safely walk to the nearest train station or bus stop, you are unlikely to use either.

Cap'n Transit said...

Absolutely, Helen. As I said, walkability is essential. It's a necessary condition for carfree living, not a sufficient one.

Helen Bushnell said...

I think that walkability often goes hand in hand with transit. People are more likely to take the bus or train if they can walk to a stop or station. Having trains and buses available can make people more aware of whether or not their neighborhoods are walkable.

And Nyack should at least have bus service to New York City. Doesn't it?

Unknown said...

While the work trip tends to be the longest trip people make, travel surveys shows that only a quarter of all trips are work trips. People then tend to 'chain' additional trips off either end of the work-trip, making stops along the way. Creating a walkable environment near either home or work enables people to make shopping/service trips without needing to get into an automobile.