Mees 1: “Density as destiny” is a convenient story

One of the most interesting points that Mees makes  early on is that the story of “density as destiny” where transit is concerned is convenient for a lot of people on both sides of the spectrum. Road-builders who’d like to keep building roads can say that they have to, because density is insufficient for effective transit. Transit agencies that are providing poor service can use low density as an excuse for doing so.

He touches a little bit on the issues that changing density raises: “large increases in the density of big cities take many decades, and may be politically impossible in a democratic society.” This is one of Portland’s current controversies: people who aren’t interested in transit and would rather have money spent on roads, and who definitely don’t want density, can stop both density and transit investment by having a fit only about density.

Mees’ hypothesis is the opposite:

Transport policy itself has a bigger impact on transport patterns than urban planners have realized, and suburbs don’t have to be totally reliant on the car. Planners who insist that car dominance can only be addressed by impossibly large increases in density may actually be entrenching the problem they are trying to solve.

He shows a counterexample to the idea that density is destiny in his story of Sternenberg and Bauma, a small village and its nearby town in Canton Zurich, Switzerland. Bauma has around 1,000 residents and has half-hourly trains from 6am to midnight and all-night buses on Friday and Saturday. Sternenberg, with a population of 300, has seven buses a day, which coordinate with the arrival and departure of the train at Bauma, going to onward services at regional centers and into Zurich City. The transit modeshare in Sternenberg is higher than Portland’s (the city of Portland): 19% (plus 10% walking and cycling). This is mindblowing when you think of entire towns and cities in the US that have no public transit whatsoever, or have quite useless transit, despite being many times the size (and as Mees the Australian reminds us, Americans are not alone in this).

One interesting bit from this story that Mees doesn’t spend much time on is that the population of Sternenberg is beginning to increase after many years of decline, and that much of this increase comes from people commuting into Zurich and suburbs (and that this is a general pattern). This is a case of high mobility by transit — something I like to think of as good — causing a kind of population sprawl. Mees isn’t so worried about this because his point is that relatively sprawling populations don’t have to impede good transit, and transit sprawl is usually a bit ‘better’ than auto-driven sprawl, but in general terms enabling urban depopulation and long-distance commuting decreases accessibility. It makes it more difficult to meet daily needs other than commuting by non-auto modes, which is reflected in the relatively high (for Zurich) car use in Sternenberg.

From my personal angle, interested in community building as I am and having lived in a sprawling metro area, it also impedes community formation and seriously burdens workers. When your friends live 2 hours away by train, you can’t run over for a quick cup of tea, and when you’re spending 2 hours a day commuting, you aren’t spending those hours with friends and family, being active, cooking, pursuing hobbies, or anything else you might like to do. In this view, the success of Sternenberg potentially comes at a price, something that is frequently, but not always, overlooked.

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