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.