Nothing seems right in cars

Today, Bruegmann and Ohland debate modifying public behavior. Previously, they discussed Smart Growth, and the social tensions over urban sprawl. Later this week, they'll debate environmental concerns, and more.

Mass transit: why the masses abandoned it but some yearn for its returnBy Robert BruegmannGloria,

For two centuries now, as one mode of urban transportation has succeeded another, ordinary citizens have benefited from an extraordinary increase in mobility and choice. Less than 200 years ago, the only way most citizens had to get around the city was walking, which severely restricted their geographic range. From the horse-drawn omnibus to the street railway to the cable car to the streetcar to the bus to the private automobile, each succeeding wave of innovation in transportation modes dramatically enlarged the speed of travel and the range of choices enjoyed by ordinary citizens in their working, living and playing environments.

There have always been those who, rather than celebrating this wonderful enlargement of human possibilities, have been affronted by the problems caused by the new technologies. In the name of civility or decorum or aesthetic sensibilities or more practical concerns, these people would restrict the mobility of ordinary citizens and turn the clock back rather than forge ahead with solutions to the problems. In the 19th century, for example, the steam railroad tore neighborhoods apart, drove huge viaducts through people's backyards, belched smoke into the air, created a din in the streets and killed or maimed countless people unlucky enough to get in its way. As a result, many citizens, particularly from elite groups that already were comfortable in their situations, fought furiously to bar the railroad from entering their city or complained loud and long after it had been built. The duke of Wellington expressed this sentiment perfectly when he excoriated the railroad as only allowing "common people to needlessly move around."

Of course, in the end, the more practical solution was not to stop the construction of railroads but to work on solving the problems, whether they were technological ones involving the locomotive power or logistical ones, such as eliminating grade-level crossings. Today, we face a similar situation with the automobile. In recent years, travel times have increased along with the congestion of our roads, and this has brought a heightened awareness of the problems of energy use, pollution and the challenges faced by people who either can't or don't want to drive.

The idea that the best way to solve these problems is by remaking our cities at higher density to discourage the use of the automobile and to make it easier to run traditional trains and buses is not just a confusion of ends and means. It is a symptom of a fear that human ingenuity can no longer solve our problems by moving forward, solving problems and creating more opportunity for everyone.

Rather than put as our goal a reduction in vehicle miles traveled, we should instead be looking first of all to maintain or increase mobility for all citizens. This will, of course, involve major changes to our current transportation system that we have clearly outgrown. Public transport can and should play an important role in this, but given the low densities of our cities, the scattered locations of homes, jobs and other activities and the enormous gains in efficiency provided by private transportation, it is highly unlikely that traditional buses or trains will supplant private transportation in any significant way.

In fact there has never been a moment with greater possibilities to forge ahead with the transportation systems of the future, whether public or private. The technology to tap new fuel sources, route and control traffic more effectively, build new rights of way underground, explore privately funded toll roads and congestion pricing, deploy smaller and more flexible vehicles (on-demand or rented by the hour), jitneys or personal rapid transit systems all suggest the possibility of significant breakthroughs that could resolve some of the transportation woes we currently face.

During the 20th century, Los Angeles exhibited to the world a new, more decentralized and democratic kind of city, one that provided good jobs, an unmatched standard of living and an unprecedented degree of social, economic and physical mobility to millions of people who came from all over the world. Now other cities, from Phoenix and Las Vegas to Shanghai and Shenzen, are pushing forward with this exploration. Los Angeles could reinvent itself once again with new technology and new ways of doing things, or it could decide to abandon the race and attempt to return to older, more familiar urban forms. The latter choice might be reassuring to some current residents who wish to protect their existing way of life. It is not likely to achieve that goal, however, and it is quite likely to reduce opportunities for everyone, especially the millions of newcomers who will continue arriving in the city for generations to come.

Robert Bruegmann is professor of art history, architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His most recent book is "Sprawl: A Compact History," published by the University of Chicago Press in 2005.

We need more choicesBy Gloria Ohland Bob,

I agree with you that the answer to our problem, however the problem is defined, is all about providing more mobility and choice. But I would argue that sprawl has severely restricted choice so that the only way that it's possible to get to school or work or the grocery store is by car. This situation has severely restricted the mobility of poor people, young people and older Americans, as well as all those who would prefer not to drive all the time (whether because of concerns about the environment or because they see more benefit in making investments that will appreciate over time, such as in property or a college education, than investments that rapidly depreciate, like cars).

Sprawl has created vast single-use suburban neighborhoods—homes over here and everything else way over there—dissected by wide, heavily-trafficked roads and gigantic surface parking lots, with long commercial corridors of strip malls and big box retail fronted by parked cars. Sprawl has leveled everything, including trees and natural landforms, and covered it with asphalt so that we can accommodate the ever-increasing demand for automobiles. While the population of this country increased 41 percent from 1969 to 2001, the amount of vehicle miles traveled increased 193 percent. In the last 50 years the amount of urban land has quadrupled. Gargantuan growth like this can't provide for quality design or architecture or building materials. Instead we build the fast-food equivalent of architecture for our population on the go. And what about global climate change? What about sustainability? We'll get nowhere in addressing these issues with sprawl.

There is little mobility or choice in a country where sprawl is the dominant growth pattern. Traffic isn't going away—we can't build our way out of congestion, though we certainly have tried. Families can no longer get by on one or two cars once children reach driving age—they need three or four or more cars, which exacts a significant toll on the household budget. Cities and suburbs are no longer fun places to walk around in because they're not about the pedestrian streets and sidewalks. Public places don't provide the kind of intimacy or intensity of uses or visual variety or shade or quality streetscape that makes walking interesting, pleasurable or safe because our streetscape is all about cars. Our cities have become so vast that it's impossible to create quality places at this scale. We get drive-by architecture with blank walls on the street because buildings are intended to be viewed from the freeway at high speeds.

This, Bob, is why it's so hard to get people out of their cars. People really have no choice but to drive.

Moreover, the single-family home in the single-family neighborhood is good for a homogenous population of single families. But as I pointed out in my earlier discussion about demographics, there aren't very many families anymore. While the vast majority of U.S. households used to be families with a mom and dad and more than one child living in the same household, this demographic group now comprises just 22% of households, and it's shrinking. More and more households are childless or headed by single parents; single adults comprise 41% of households. All the demographic groups that are increasing in size are the same ones that have historically preferred higher-density housing and mass transit. Moreover, the "creative class" of workers—the college-educated, tech-savvy, 25-to-35-year-olds who are coveted by cities everywhere because they are adaptable and (compared to aging baby boomers) relatively inexpensive—have shown a marked preference for city living, especially in 24-hour cities with transit.

But the market has recognized these changing demographics and tastes. This is why there are 96 residential projects underway in downtown Los Angeles, a neighborhood where very few people have lived for the past 50 years. This is why even ultra-low-density sprawling places like Plano, Texas, and Salt Lake City, Utah, have begun focusing on building walkable, high-density, transit-oriented downtowns. Almost every region in the United States is either expanding an existing rail system or building a new one. Cities that are too small for light rail are considering streetcars—there are at least 60 new streetcar systems planned. And I agree with you that we need every possible kind of transit option: more bike paths, much better provisions for pedestrians, jitneys, bike cabs, maybe even rickshaws.

It is all about choices. This is about providing for urban as well as suburban living, for high-quality public transit as well as the private automobile, for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as motorists. I believe that single-family neighborhoods should be preserved, but that all along our rapidly expanding public transit system we should provide people with other housing options in mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods that are convenient to transit. Let there be lofts, live-work spaces, row houses, town homes, condos, granny flats and the whole spectrum of housing choices that provide for more sustainable and high-density choices in addition to the conventional single-family home and garden apartment. Let diversity reign across the land!

Gloria Ohland is vice president for communications for Reconnecting America, a national nonprofit organization that works with the public and private sectors to promote best practices in development-oriented transit and transit-oriented development (TOD). She is co-author and co-editor of the award-winning Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century; The New Transit Town: Best Practices in TOD; and Hidden in Plain Sight: Capturing the Demand for Housing Near Transit, a national market study funded by the Federal Transit Administration and released in 2005.

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