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.

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