Reviewing Transport for Suburbia by Paul Mees

Those who follow me on Twitter have been subjected to a lot of little quotation gems from Paul Mees’ 2010 book Transport for Suburbia recently. There’s so much to say about his book that I hope to do a series of posts on it, but since it’s apparently not a widely-read or -known book, I want to do a high-level overview first.

I was expecting the book, given its title, to be about public transit in suburbia. It really isn’t, sort of like Tim Ferris’ The Four-Hour Workweek isn’t exactly about a four-hour workweek (but the title sounds good). The central thesis of the book is that the importance of very high residential density is overstated as a requirement for effective transit, and that overemphasizing its importance is a good way to make sure that effective transit never arrives since massive increases in density are slow, if they happen at all. Mees puts much greater emphasis on transit working with the existing environment to create its own effectiveness, with particular focus on designing effective transit networks within metropolitan regions, as well as the governance structures that help make designing such networks possible. This is a great topic for anyone who cares at all about transit, but if you live in Portland it’s especially interesting since we have a regional transit agency that’s much-under-the-gun, yet far better than most US or “Anglosphere” (as Mees likes to call it, being an Australian) transit agencies at providing effective service.

His overall point is excellent and not heard very much — it’s clear that the book is written with the slightly contrarian air of exploding a popular myth. And he has the writing chops to back that up, bringing some seriously awesome snark that I didn’t expect from such a staid-looking book, marshaling excellent anecdotes, and touching on a number of other minor contrarian opinions (like the proper place of Park and Rides in a good transit system). Where else will you see transportation outcomes blamed on the koala and transport planners with PhDs reduced to ‘gibbering wrecks’ by a bus station? It’s also nice to read a book that’s not written by an American for once; he draws his examples from around the world but particularly focuses on Canada and Australia where an American would probably use American cities.

If you’ve read Human Transit, some of Mees’ points will sound quite familiar, and Jarrett has also written some posts that use Mees’ book as starting points, such as his Las Vegas post and The perils of average density. These are good reading, and cover the substance of my major objection to Mees — he takes some basic density numbers, shows that they don’t correlate with transit modeshare, and declares that therefore density is not important for transit. He fails to discuss urban form and connectivity almost entirely, thus failing to capture the difficulty of walking and the loss of transit effectiveness in cul-de-sac land compared to well-connected but not especially dense neighborhoods (like much of Portland’s east side). He also fails to do any fine-grained density analysis and any careful apples-to-apples comparisons where different city densities have the same transit service, to see whether density would affect the outcome in that case, because that’s not of interest to the point he’s trying to make. That selectivity puts some significant limits on the quality of his analysis.

But he does show many compelling cases of effective transit in relatively low-density environments that serve to make his point: straightforward measures of average density being low are not in themselves an excuse for poor or failed transit, as much as some policymakers would like to pretend they are. Governance matters — he has a nicely-laid-out chapter addressing the major types of transport governance that have been tried, and which ones are the most effective, as well as a number of stories of failed systems with various kinds of governance. And network design  and policy matters. I appreciated his mode-agnostic approach (like Jarrett, he’s certainly not an idol at the altar of any particular transit technology) but was somewhat surprised by the amount of attention he devotes to pulse systems. Jarrett spends more time discussing high-frequency networks that allow timetable-less transfers, and I had developed the impression that pulse systems were mostly a sort of stop-gap, the last option before your transit network really sucks. But Switzerland uses them with great success, and apparently they’re more common in cities than I thought, during off-peak times, for bus-rail feeder lines, or on low-ridership lines.

Where Mees really fell down for me was in his chapter on cycling. It’s blatantly obvious that he only takes cycling marginally seriously as a regular transport mode or complement to transit. He either has never relied on it, or never combined it with transit (either bike-and-ride or transit one day, bike the next) the way I do. While he’s quite happy to make walking and transit into natural partners, the bike doesn’t get the same respect. That was disappointing for me. I don’t expect transit planners to think that bikes on board is a good idea, but I do expect them to understand how living without a car can mean being multi-modal rather than transit-dependent, and that’s one test Mees fails.

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