Thursday, February 16, 2012

Transit planners, sprawl and "quality of life"

In my post on the Law of Transportation Inertia (people in cars tend to stay in cars), Joel Azumah captured the thinking of many transit planners when he commented, "I love park-and-rides. They aggregate commuters that want a better quality of life." Joel may not have a formal degree in transit planning, but as one of the most innovative transit providers in the country I would say he is certainly doing transit planning. I disagree with his statement here, but I can understand how he gets to it.

By saying that suburban drivers are "commuters that want a better quality of life," he is channeling another Joel - Joel Kotkin. The idea that suburban park-and-rides are anything but a necessary evil is permeated with Kotkinist ideas: the suburbs offer better quality of life than the cities, the suburbs are the dynamic future, the car brings freedom. Most of all, Americans want the suburbs, they want to drive.

Of course, I've got a lot of problems with Kotkinism, mostly because it's incompatible with my goals. Other transit advocates may have less of a problem, maybe because they have different goals, because they know something I don't, because I know something they don't, or because they haven't thought things through.

A Kotkinist transit planner believes that transit is good, but so are cars. Any government action that makes it harder to drive is social engineering and must be avoided. Thus, the Kotkinist transit planner's job is to allow the suburban driver to partake of the benefits of transit, without challenging his or her suburban lifestyle in any way.

While people like Joel Azumah actively believe that transit is compatible with sprawl, others may adopt this kind of Kotkinism as a purely practical stance. Someone who believes in transit may go along with the cars because they feel that any transit is better than no transit, and maybe that the cycle will take care of the cars eventually. A hardcore Kotkinist may go along with the transit to keep the masses quiet and to co-opt the transit advocates.


Mike Hicks said...

But, by "better quality of life", did he mean "quality of life in the suburbs" or "quality of life afforded by using transit"?

Nonetheless, I still hate park-and-rides.

jazumah said...

Both. People want to live in a place they perceive as a high quality environment for their families. However, they don't want to fight their way into the city everyday with their cars. It is expensive and stressful. Many park & ride customers can afford not to ride transit, but they choose to do so. So they are trying to achieve the best of both worlds.

I understand the concerns about sprawl, but quality city management is becoming hard to find. NYC's infrastructure is deteriorating and no one has any interest in fixing it. The city's school system is weaker than most of the surrounding suburbs. The cost of living is bonkers. Sadly, NYC isn't the only city with these problems (most of the older cities are struggling).

Demand for park & rides are going to go through the roof when Iran is struck because fuel will spike to $6/gallon. With today's land use patterns, it is the fastest and cheapest way to keep the suburbs mobile while reducing energy consumption.

Alon said...

Joel, do you find that concentrating suburban commuters at one destination outweighs the cost of having to run strongly peaked buses?

jazumah said...

Alon: Yes. Instead of running a separate park & ride and regional service, you can broaden the span of park & ride service. That would allow you to use some buses more than once or to add the early & late buses for flexibility. Park & riders that use services with a narrow span will drive in if they think their schedule is going to change. The extra buses will reduce that tendency.

Denn said...


One of the important things to remember, People don't generally crave "suburbia". They crave quality. As the suburban experiment was pushed forward, countless amounts of wealth were taxed out of downtowns, and used to subsidize suburban expansion. This included infrastructure, and schools as well. Now, imagine if we truly had a "pay as you go" system in place. A system that doesn't include subsidies wouldn't include suburban development at all. People in the suburbs couldn't afford to maintain all that infrastructure. They'd rapidly go bankrupt without the transfer payments. If the federal highway system was indeed only funded by petroleum taxes, less than half of it would have been constructed to begin with, and it would have been removed in short order do to the financial liabilities. You should always remember, Kotkin, and those that follow him are not grounded in reality, in any way at all. I know quite a few suburban dwellers, NONE of them crave it. They live there, because they don't have a choice. Current zoning systems, with parking minimums, minimum lot sizes and such create extremely inflated prices for residential property in good walkable neighborhoods, while artificially depressing prices in auto-only development.

Denn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Kennedy said...

I kind of like the perspective that Jarrett Walker talks about with density. He points out that by some measures, one could say that Los Angeles' transit system operates in a more dense area than NYC's--but that's because NYC's includes all the way into the Hudson region, north and central Jersey, Connecticut, etc.

Living in Rhode Island as I do now (the second densest state after New Jersey), and having grown up in Philly area, I'm familiar with the idea of "average density" and how it doesn't really tell you anything about a system overall. Parts of Jersey really do have some decent transit, at least by national standards, but what's really needed is to have small hubs of higher density, not necessarily high overall density.

I guess what I'm getting at is that people who like suburban life really don't have to totally give up their preference for low density. You can have some high density nodes in the midst of the suburbs, which can make it possible to do transit without park & rides. That could also be essentially what makes it possible to go back to a traditional life where there's actually some farm land near towns and cities, too.

Alen said...

tri-state area is proof that suburbia and transit can co-exist together