What are markets, really?

I just finished a book called Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the WorldIt’s an interesting book; I learned a lot from it, although I don’t agree with everything that he says (he has both a weirdly rosy view of certain cities, and a weirdly pessimistic view of the broader situation). The section of the book that I ultimately found most thought-provoking is part of a short preface to the section about Chicago where he introduces what he thinks a market is. I’m going to quote that five-paragraph section (pp. 254-255) almost in its entirety here because of how much it interested me.

It’s best to be clear about what we mean when we talk about a market. A market can be simply understood as a regular, patterned set of transactions between a group of buyers and sellers, which results in the predictable exchange of some mutually recognized value. That’s how we normally think about markets. This makes markets seem like generic exchange mechanisms but markets are anything but [sic].

The different markets within a city — whether for fish, houses, parking spaces, or engineering contracts — are defined by local and regional customs, laws, conventions, infrastructure, and spatial relationships. Many different forces in the city, not just its buyers and sellers, shape how each market works. In turn, each market determines which business models can thrive in a city. By constraining the types of business models that succeed in a city, a market also shapes the way the city itself develops….At their most mature stage of development, different local markets cluster activities together to create unique efficiencies and synergies in the physical form of a citysystem.

To explore the local character of markets, take the example of housing in a residential neighborhood. Theoretically, the housing market involves a generic product unit, a square foot of living space. The price for that unit is determined by supply, demand, and the cost of its production….But in reality, the nature of the product, its value on the market, and how the transaction is managed are all determined by dozens of local cultural, political, legal, and institutional factors. The cultural or social background of neighbors determines whether a home in this neighborhood secures a premium price. It also determines the allowable activities and income that can be derived from the building, such as whether an owner can operate a home business or rent units. Political and legal factors determine whether and how the building can be expanded on its lot and how much it will cost to do so….Institutional factors determine the availability and cost of finance, or whether owners have to look after their own water and sanitation services. These factors are part and parcel of the residential housing market. They greatly determine its prices and the nature of the building, its ownership structure, liquidity, and sales transactions. These local factors are not separable from the market. They define and govern it as much as the market governs the moments and ways that a city can pursue transformational change. To the extent that a city can shape its markets, it can also shape its own development.

Local markets are also socially regulated, even in free market economies. There are vast differences between the forms that a particular market takes in different cities….Each distinct market uses different buildings, supports different activities, and produces different externalities, such as waste streams and noise. These condition arise from historical compromises between different ethnic and economic groups and from political accommodations to religious, mercantile, labor, and government institutions. Conceiving a market that is void of culture, historical conventions, and institutions is a truly academic or ideological exercise.

To the extent that we manage national economies and multinational companies without reference to the diverse, evolving urban markets on which they stand, we welcome a world of economic surprise.

As with some of the other writing, this gets a bit incoherent in parts, but the basic notion here that even a free market is necessarily governed by its cultural, social, and institutional context is interesting to me. I generally tend to be a bit more of a free marketeer than a lot of people who are otherwise politically similar to me, and I often start my thinking about an economic issue from the basic idea that the cost of something is largely governed by supply and demand. When supply is low, and demand is high (see: Portland real estate right now) the price rises, and interfering in that process (by introducing rent control, for example) may have undesirable results by creating strange economic distortions. Brugmann’s contention, if I understand his argument here, is that a citysystem is necessarily an active participant in creating the conditions of a market, and reacting to them (as Portland City Council is currently being asked to do) is only changing the way that they are influencing them, rather than introducing a previously absent influence, and may be quite desirable from the standpoint of the wider well-being and economic dynamism of the city.

The concept Brugmann is illustrating of course has much wider applicability than Portland’s current housing crisis or even than real estate, but it’s a convenient example of why I was struck by this passage and wanted to pull it out for later, deeper consideration. My current conception of “free market” seems to be lazy and imprecise, and I’d like to think about how revising it would improve my understanding of the economic systems in cities, and especially the role of government, citizens, and culture in driving them.

What comes out of the spaces

Sit quietly for now and cease your relentless participation. Watch what happens. The birds do not crash dead out of the sky in mid-flight, after all. The trees do not wither and die, the rivers do not run red with blood.

—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Space. Quiet?

Yesterday I wrote the first sentence from this quote on a yellow sticky note and put it on my mirror, to express the relationship I’ve been trying to have with advocacy for a few months now. Since it’s been a few months, I can see the results that are promised. The trees have not withered and died; people are doing much the same thing that they’ve been doing, and doing it well, without me. I’m happy about that. (Mostly. I’m a little disappointed, as control freaks are wont to be when they discover that surprise, they were never in charge.)

But my internal dialogue has failed to quiet itself, and sometimes has failed to not burst out into external dialogue, mainly in the form of being angry about the 20s Bikeway project (about which more in the second half) and in occasionally retweeting insightful things other people say, or posting one of the oh only six different things I’ve written in the past few months in a Facebook comment. Yeah, I’ve written six blog posts about advocacy topics in the last two and a half months. I always said I was going to continue writing in my blog, and mostly I’ve stuck by my resolution not to call attention to that content. If that counts as being quiet, though, it’s a very loud kind of quiet.

Still, it’s a quiet without the noise of meetings, blog posts, weekly emails, and even social events where I would normally vent my steam and debate my ideas and take inputs from other advocates. The amount of space that’s afforded should perhaps not be underrated. I’ve managed to slow down enough to learn the valuable lesson that my participation is optional for the community, and to start to shape some idea of what I can actually contribute, at this point in my life. One thing I know is that I am no longer a cheerleader and an understander and an obliger for the current system. Those people do a great service of celebrating routine institutional accomplishments, encouraging the tentative, and taking the moderate position. I did that happily for six years, and increasingly resentfully for the last year or so, but I can’t even with it anymore.

The System.

If I am nothing else I am a tireless student of systems and asker of questions. And when a system is sufficiently stacked against you, one rational response (not the only one) is to attempt change on the system itself, instead of attempting change within it. Portland’s spent many years with a huge core of its transportation advocates within the system — applying pressure to it to get the outcomes they wanted, but fundamentally working within the existing power structures to make that happen. And it’s done a ton of good. When the power structure is heading the right way, leveraging it makes sense. Some people are still outside the system being radical, but they look pretty extreme when power seems to be headed the right way anyway.

When the system stops heading the right way, as Portland’s has, the first response is questions and confusions and rumblings of frustration. I’m good at questions. “Why isn’t this happening?” “Why does this keep going sideways at the last minute?” I’ve been asking myself these questions, and though I wasn’t the first, I think maybe I have some answers now too.

You hear a lot about the city resting on its laurels. I think there’s some truth in that, but it’s not very interesting as a reason. If it were the reason, the problem would be easy to solve: demonstrate that the laurels acquired are insufficient to meet the ostensible goal (let’s pretend here that the city government accepts its goal of 25% bike modeshare by 2030) and move on. Clearly that isn’t happening, so let’s stop wasting time pretending this is the reason. This is a smokescreen for the real reason, which is political.

At present Portland city government in the transportation and planning areas (I’m not an expert on other areas), at both the political and policy levels, seems to me to be captured (in the sense of regulatory capture) by business associations, businesses, and neighborhood associations. Also, to a lesser extent, by the ire (real or projected) of residents with enough time to spend to vent their ire at politicians and show up at midday meetings to voice their opinions. Process is structured to privilege these stakeholders’ opinions above others (let’s say, people trying to get somewhere via their mode of choice), and process is also structured to be conveniently amorphous enough that if these stakeholders’ needs are threatened, the city can easily ignore whatever else might have been planned and do whatever those people want. If anyone in Portland’s city government wants to deny this, please feel free to try. I think it will be hilarious to listen to, at a minimum, and might reveal some interesting contours of the problem.

Add to that another oft-cited problem that I think is a real contributor: the current lack of low-hanging fruit. Portland is an okay place to ride a bike. It’s not a great one. I think that’s clear to anyone who’s actually spent any time riding a bike here. There’s some really nice stuff, a lot of mediocre stuff, and some downright crappy stuff (or absence of stuff). Getting from bad to okay wasn’t all that easy, and in the past there were actual people in city government who made hard decisions and did a lot of policy evangelism and political maneuvering to make some of that happen. But a lot of what was done was the easier stuff. And a lot of the harder stuff never got done. Talk to anyone about parking removal and eventually you scratch the story of Knott. One of the most lightly-traveled, lightly-parked collectors in the system, home to almost no businesses, yet parking removal was still a complete failure because of resident ire. I don’t even know what year this happened in, but it was pre-1996, since it’s mentioned in the ’96 master plan. So, the stuff to which there wasn’t much opposition got done, the stuff to which there was some opposition either had its advocates in city government, or never got done at all.

That hasn’t changed so much, but the balance of what’s available to do has shifted decisively to things that are hard, while the balance of what people in city government are willing to do has curled up into a ball of frightened roly-poly and gone to sleep. That includes intra-government negotiations (for example, negotiating with PF&R) as well as in citizen/government negotiations. Yet there are more people riding bikes, more bike parking, more bike tourism, and more competition for the title of “Least Sucky American Bicycle City” from other cities than ever. There’s been a material shift in the popular discourse about what constitutes acceptable bicycling conditions. Riders want more, advocates want more, and the city is giving less. This is a recipe for stalemate/stagnation (where we have been and are) followed by serious clashes of interests (where we’re rapidly getting to), not for the previous semi-agreeable coexistence of working in similar directions at different magnitudes.

The final factor in this situation is us (advocates): we seem to think that more of the same strategy will lead to different results (the definition of insanity). We seem to have forgotten that many of the people who’ve been working within the system recently once were cranks and radicals. The BTA, criticized these days for being too moderate, got its start suing the city for failing to live up to its commitments. When you’re willing to be a crank and a radical when you don’t get what you want, sometimes you get what you want. If you’re not willing to do that, it’s not a huge surprise that privileged stakeholders with lots of free time and lots of $$$ are outranking you on the priority list.

What has worked in the recent past will continue to limp along. Things continue to happen — the 50s Bikeway and the Williams plans were both passed, and both are decent, if not ideal. (Not passed without a lot of pain in the latter case, providing a great example of the way the stakeholder process normally privileges some over others.) And the non-controversial processes continue to hum along, which is great, and which I don’t want to dis in any way. I love me some SmartTrips and I love greenways; they’re good things and more of them is good.

But if we don’t make some serious changes, things we want to happen will keep not happening even though we keep participating in processes that are disguised as ways to make them happen. I quit the 20s Bikeway Committee because I could see this coming, and I couldn’t stand the frustration of sitting there watching it. That felt like a personal failure, but maybe it was only a failure inasmuch as it was insufficient: I should have encouraged the BTA to quit the process as well, the way that they once quit the CRC process (which was a similar procedural sham biased to produce only one outcome, and which was only eventually killed by repeated, persistent, loud, direct opposition, plus its own incompetence).

Revolution?

We may not need to have a literal revolution (except of our wheels), but we definitely need a substantive change in one or more of City Council, PBOT leadership, or city process — ideally all three, including multiple changes in city process — to change what’s happening. Unfortunately I don’t think the recent change in bureau heading (Novick/Treat) has actually made any difference, though I had initially hoped it would. The 20s Bikeway project convinced me that there’s no hope from that quarter. A city that thinks it’s a bike city and can’t get a direct bikeway placed on a route that’s explicitly designated as a through route (emergency response) and is the connection to the only freeway crossing nearby because of a tiny number of businesses that are somewhere between totally confused about the issues and totally irate about the notion of losing a tiny number of parking spaces in a plan specially designed to appease them in the first place is a city that is frankly schizophrenic on this point, because what it’s actually doing has an inverse relationship to what it claims to be doing and to what its goals say it’s supposed to be doing.

To do that, we first have to change our own approach, because we aren’t going to get those kinds of changes made with magic fairy dust. Those are changes to disempower the powerful, and you don’t get those easily. So personally, I’m done being nice, because being nice doesn’t get you anywhere in an adversarial political system when the people in power don’t want to do what you want them to do. And I’m done pretending that I think that the current process isn’t total bullshit, because it is total bullshit, and I want it to change and I’m going to be loud about how it’s crap and needs changing. If we can’t get the political muscle to get it to change, well, then, we’ll keep losing fights, but I’d like to go down fighting on the battlefield where the battle is actually taking place, not laying down my arms at a safe surrender point 10 miles off. Note to PBOT: I’d like to see you adopt the same philosophy, plzkthx.

I’ll be back when I’m ready. It might be soon.

Vision Zero and enforcement?

When you’re walking and riding around and you see people in 2-ton vehicles doing things that are dangerous to you, I think it’s natural response (especially for rule-followers like me) to think “Someone should stop them from doing that.” Often what they’re doing is already illegal, so it’s natural to think that enforcement by the police would be the way to fix the problem. And indeed, enforcement is one of the “three Es” of traditional traffic safety problem-solving: engineering, education, and enforcement.

You know what, though? I think it’s usually listed last for a reason. Enforcement for street safety is about fear: not doing something for fear of the consequences. And police enforcement is the wrong consequence for dangerous drivers to be afraid of, in my opinion. I want people to drive safely because they care about their fellow human beings, because they understand what it’s like to be the one out there walking or riding, because they know it won’t benefit them, won’t get them anywhere any faster if they try to cut corners (figuratively or literally). Fear has a place in this as well: I want people to fear the social disapproval of others who do feel that propelling a two-ton metal object around at high speed is a privilege that only the deserving should have. Fearing the police seems like a last resort.

Enforcement is important, because there will always be people who will try to get away with anything they can get away with, and because if there are no penalties for dangerous driving, then there’s little motivation for those people to change. And enforcement is entwined with the cultural change that would be required for people to feel the way I described above. Something being illegal and having heavy penalties reinforces a social sense that it’s unacceptable. But the equation goes both ways. Something has to be seen as unacceptable before it can be assigned heavy penalties.

Education is lovely, but I think the main burden here has to fall on engineering. We know how to create streets that are safe for people. If streets are designed for low car speeds and provide plenty of space for walking and biking, people will respond to the system, speeds will go down, more people will walk and bike, and the culture will become open to the notion that safe, slow driving is required, not optional. You stop at a stop sign before you get to the crosswalk because your neighbor’s child might be walking out in front of you any minute, or because you know how you feel when cars come too close when you’re walking. And you can stop at the stop sign and still see the intersection, because parking near corners isn’t allowed and so you have good visibility from the stop line.

Otherwise, stiff penalties for most types of routine dangerous driving, outside the more extreme cases, really are punitive, because drivers are largely responding to the system they’ve been provided. It sounds awful, and it should — I suffer the consequences of this every day, and so does everyone else who doesn’t go around dressed in a steel shell. But if the system is built with wide streets and gentle curves that encourage high speeds, if parked cars are allowed to obstruct visibility at corners, if walkers aren’t protected at crosswalks by one or both of traffic control devices (stop signs or signals) or very slow speeds, if cars can veer into and cut across bikeways on major streets, the system is telling drivers that these dangerous behaviors are acceptable, and drivers are hearing it. Sending mixed messages with heavy enforcement efforts and high penalties won’t solve the real problem: we have to fix the system.

The emotional challenges of advocacy.

I was having a hard time last summer and fall with getting back to riding my bike more, and with doing advocacy and encouragement work for bicycling. I didn’t — don’t — feel safe riding anymore, and I felt frustrated about the barriers to bicycling, so I didn’t feel comfortable encouraging people, and I didn’t feel that advocacy work was providing much return for the effort I was putting in. Everything seems stuck to me, like nothing is changing. Cycling is still dangerous and stressful in too many places. There’s a lack of vision within many parts of the city transportation staff; there’s stiff political opposition to policies and projects that advance bicycling and urbanism.

I am still in the midst of dealing with those feelings, but slowly, different experiences have inspired the return of the slow burn of conviction I’ve had for years: that the transportation menu for our future cannot mostly contain cars and the wide roads, highways, and freeways that we desire for such powerful beasts. And that because I believe that so strongly, I must, in the end, find the inner resources to go on working for it.

The first was this simple line, posted by a member of an online community I belong to, about something else entirely:

Nobody feels like they are doing a good job in advocating. Nobody.

That was the moment when I stopped feeling guilty for feeling that I was doing a terrible job, guilty for thinking that my job was hard. Advocacy is actually difficult. By its nature, you are almost always working against the status quo and for the underdog. You almost never get everything you want, and you have to work very hard to get what you do get.

Second: last week we watched Lincoln at a friend’s house. It’s an inspiring movie for any number of reasons, but for me, at this moment in my life, it’s best summed up with:

The greatest measure of the nineteenth century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.

The process of moving the law forward is a messy one (laws and sausages are things you don’t want to see made). Even if we achieve great things, they may have been achieved in not-so-nice ways. I love and hate the process of moving from the crystalline clarity of the idea to the real details of how to achieve it in the current political climate. My mind is an engineering mind, and it likes that which is Correct and Effective. Politics is usually neither. But my heart believes in community input; it believes in consensus; it believes in the wisdom of crowds: that ideas are made better by more people examining them, that achieving something that people don’t buy into isn’t forward progress, that winning hearts and minds is as important as meeting budget needs and drawing lanes of the correct widths.

Finally, today I was reminded, in the person of Gabby Giffords, that there are a large number of people who share my devotion to the slow but determined method of achieving progress. Whatever issue they hold dear, they will go on pushing it forward:

Our fight is a lot more like my rehab. Every day, we must wake up resolved and determined. We’ll pay attention to the details; look for opportunities for progress, even when the pace is slow. Some progress may seem small, and we might wonder if the impact is enough, when the need is so urgent.

But every day we will recruit a few more allies, talk to a few more elected officials, convince a few more voters. Some days the steps will come easily; we’ll feel the wind at our backs. Other times our knees will buckle. We’ll tire of the burden. I know this feeling. But we’ll persist.

We can get tough and win elections. We’ll support our allies. And those who stood in the way will face a powerful advocacy community standing between them and re-election….

We will seize on consensus where it exists, on solutions big or small. We will fight for every inch, because that means saving lives. I’ve seen grit overcome paralysis. My resolution today is that Congress achieve the same. How? Step by step…

A politician to admire, and to emulate. (She likes bikes, too.)

Finally, riding home last night (it was chilly, and raining lightly) I saw the beauty of the quiet night and the slight fog, felt the strength of self-sufficiency, of resisting the cold and rain. These increasingly rare (for me) moments of joy and freedom are inevitably connected with all the ones that have gone before, and remind me of what I love, have always loved, about riding. Bicycling shouldn’t have to be a black diamond endeavor, and you don’t have to resist the rain and cold to be legit (there’s far too much mythology about toughness as it is) but as long as those barriers exist, I might as well make that work for me, make it part of my strength, not part of my fear, or part of the hassle. Because that feeling of freedom is worth it. It’s what I want everyone to have.

 

Mees 3: Have your cake and eat it too?

The quote that first caught my eye from this chapter was:

However, the same citizens who are most concerned about sustainable transport are often the fiercest defenders of leafy, low-rise neighborhoods.

This is a particularly pertinent note for Portland, especially right now in light of the discussion around the code allowing developers to build apartment buildings without on-site auto parking (one of which I’ll soon be living in!). These buildings, which allow greater density and improved urban form, including a better pedestrian environment without ugly parking lot gaps and ‘blank faces’ on buildings, are fiercely opposed by inner SE homeowners who believe it destroys the character of their neighborhood and clogs their streets. (Let’s leave aside for now that the former is completely subjective and the latter is false based on research by the city.)

These same neighbors, to stereotype just a little, also recycle, compost, shop at New Seasons, have chickens in their backyards, collect water in rainbarrels, buy Priuses, and have a school in their midst called the Sunnyside Environmental School…in short, they care about the earth on a personal level. But heaven forfend someone should try to change the development pattern so that it’s better for long-term sustainability. That, to them, is “like a rape.” (Yes, someone really said that, and yes, it makes me want to throw up.)

So, are these neighbors super lucky? Yes they are. Because Mr. Mees is here to tell us that you can have your leafy low-rise neighborhoods and your public transit too, if you design your transit cleverly!

The bulk of the chapter is devoted to dissing other possible solutions, like road pricing and electric cars. He’s unsurprisingly down on electric cars, saying:

The global effect of a large shift to electric cars would be to increase greenhouse emissions, since coal is still the main source of power.

He’s also surprisingly down on road pricing, saying that while it’s been a modest success in reducing car travel into city centers, it motivates people who can afford it to continue to drive, because they can just buy their way out of congestion. If you can’t buy your way out of congestion, you just have to live with it, and you’re more likely to actually seek out alternatives.

Vancouver reduced journey times by promoting congestion, while the other Canadian cities increased them by planning for higher speeds.

This is also pertinent for Portland, since our land-use rules and urban growth boundary tend to create greater congestion within the boundary, but they also shorten journeys, leading to an overall reduction in travel times. Vancouver saw the same effect, simply by failing to build more roads further out — when congestion is a factor in the central city, people choose to live closer in and select transportation alternatives. So even though my life would be easier if we could clear out some of the cars from downtown at 5pm, maybe I shouldn’t really be wishing for that — unless it’s because they’re riding bikes instead.

Finally, Mees tars public transit with some of the same brush as cars, particularly low-occupancy buses:

A bus with half a dozen passengers will be no more efficient, in greenhouse terms, than if the passengers travelled in cars at average occupanies…Walking and cycling produce no greenhouse emissions and are the only truly sustainable travel modes.

I’m with him there, but only up to a point. Jarrett has made a case that the purpose of public transit is to extend the reach of the walk, and if walking and cycling are the primary local modes, public transit is the necessary long distance complement unless you want to have tiny towns and cities, and also keep everyone’s car in a giant lot on the edge of the city, which sounds pretty expensive and dumb to me.

So, we can have our leafy low-rise neighborhood and our public transit too, but we can’t have our auto incentives and our transit incentives too:

The only way to produce mode shift is to combine transit incentives with auto disincentives.

Mees 2: Was auto dominance inevitable?

One of the most interesting myths that Mees spends time debunking in this chapter is actually not that auto dominance was inevitable (since I didn’t believe that to begin with) but the idea that American public transit declined and died because of a conspiracy by the auto industry. His analysis is that the tram industry had serious problems at the time that it was purchased, converted to buses, and then dismantled by GM. There’s no disagreement on the latter points, but earlier reports from the government and other sources show that the tram companies had been privately run with an eye to the short-term profits of their owners, and were in dire financial straits by the time the takeovers occurred. In Los Angeles:

By the 1920s, it was clear that the Pacific Electric system would need substantial investment to modernize equipment, segregate servies from traffic congestion, improve level crossing safety, and duplicate single track sections. Cross-suburban routes to complement the mainly radial network, and extensions to new growth areas, would also be needed to compete with the car. But Pacific Electric lost money in all but one of the years from 1912 to 1941.

A report by engineering consultants suggested the implementation of a multi-modal system, with exclusive-ROW rapid transit supplemented by interurban trams and suburban buses. But it would have meant pumping money into the unpopular and fiscally unsound private railway companies, and was eventually abandoned in favor of an entirely public-section solution of building radial freeways, on the grounds that Los Angeles’s dispersed development pattern was more suitable for the automobile — even though that pattern was largely created by the tram network.

People disliked the railway companies because they had been providing increasingly poorer service for years and trying to raise prices as well. That doesn’t bode well for today’s transit agencies trying to get money to provide better service — but at least they don’t have the image of greedy private companies!

As a contrast to the perfect storm of economic and political factors in LA, and a supporting piece of evidence that auto dominance wasn’t inevitable, Mees also tells the story of a decline which was a conspiracy, that of Auckland public transit. It was a conspiracy not of the auto industry (there is none in New Zealand), but of government officials and planners: the Auckland City Engineer, the national Transport Minister, and a professor of Geography at Auckland University, who with other road supporters, created a stacked committee, referred an earlier rail and public transport plan to the committee, and declared Auckland unsuitable for public transit, despite the fact that at the time it had the majority share of travel into the city centre (58%). Again the justification was the dispersed nature of the Auckland area. They cited Ernest Fooks’ figures giving Auckland a density of only 4 people per acre, below even LA.

The only problem is that Fooks, in his book X-Ray the City, provided these figures exactly to demonstrate the fallacy of calculating density based on urban boundaries, which are arbitrary and don’t represent an entire built-up area. Portlanders know that our city includes Forest Park, which is entirely uninhabited by humans. LA and Auckland suffer from the same effect in the calculation of average density: large undeveloped areas. As the same committee had only four years earlier calculated the actual urbanized area of Auckland, it’s difficult to write this off as an innocent error.

The use of density is revealed once again as a convenient story. It’s a classic case of the fallacy of assuming that because A is correlated with B, A must cause B, and completely ignores other potential relationships and confounding effects, such as different policies and political environments that played a large role in transit investment and operation.

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.

Drawing the wrong lessons

I was reading an interesting Atlantic Cities article someone linked to on Facebook: Survival Lessons from an Ancient City. It made me think of Strong Towns (which isn’t mentioned in the piece, sadly) but it also made me think about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of efforts to extend light-rail systems to far-flung suburbs, as in the Bay Area and other regions. (The wisdom of such extensions in Portland has less to do with the question of far-flung suburbs — as ours are not especially far-flung — and more to do with the transit authority funding issues.) One of the presentations I heard at Towards Carfree Cities in Guadalajara was from an activist who didn’t think that these types of extensions were a good idea, because even though they are, in some sense, better than building freeways, they still tend to shift development to the edge of the city or metro area, making the city/metro area spread out and reducing density, and requiring more infrastructure and travel time (and thus making it less resilient to crises). Interestingly, the author seems to consider these systems a positive effort:

Finally, Denver, Phoenix, and Dallas are trying to re-knit the suburbs with the cities using light rail to generate development along corridors rather than continuous outward development.

It’s true that if you are going to develop outward, it’s better to do so in corridors, because at least the development is concentrated, but I think the author’s positive opinion about this may ultimately result from it being hard to get out of the mindset of thinking that developing outward is basiclly required (an attitude unfortunately shared by Oregon’s sprawl control measures as well). I really appreciated the activist in Guadalajara who was willing to take the radical position that it isn’t a good idea to do it at all, no matter what mode you are using, because it made me question that mindset, and ultimately come to understand his perspective and become skeptical of suburban rail extensions as good uses of resources. I’m not anti-extension in general, but with the limited resources that we currently have in terms of funding, doing one thing means not doing other things, and I’m not sure that many suburban rail extensions stack up with regard to their long-term ROI, due to these resilience issues.