Thursday, July 05, 2007

What can Houston learn from LA's transit-oriented development failure? (+Tory rides transit!)

Tom managed to beat me to the LA Times front page story on the utter failure of dense transit-oriented development (TOD) there to get people out of their cars.
"Among the few academic studies of the subject, one that looked at buildings in the Los Angeles area showed that transit-based development successfully weaned relatively few residents from their cars. It also found that, over time, no more people in the buildings studied were taking transit 10 years after a project opened than when it was first built. ...

The reporting showed that only a small fraction of residents shunned their cars during morning rush hour. Most people said that even though they lived close to transit stations, the trains weren't convenient enough, taking too long to arrive at destinations and lacking stops near their workplaces. ...

The region's transit system is limited, experts say, because it was built on two assumptions that have since proved untrue: that most traffic was generated by commuting trips and that most people worked downtown.

Nowadays, people nationwide are driving so much to take their children to school, run errands and engage in other activities that these trips far outstrip commuting, according to federal transportation statistics. ...

Barring significant changes, this could mean that tens of thousands of residents will be clustered near train stations they only occasionally use. For most shopping, schools and jobs, they'll still get in their cars. ...

Two related studies, both conducted by UC Berkeley and Cal Poly Pomona, show that people who live near transit tend to use it more than people who don't. But the number is still minuscule compared with the number who drive.

Residents were more likely to use transit only if it took less time than driving, if they could walk to their destinations from the transit stop when they arrived, if they had flexible work hours and if they had limited access to a car."
Clearly, that set of criteria is going to really cut down the riders, especially in a city built around the car.

Tom also points to a USC urban economics professor that essentially says, "I told you so."

This backs up my assertions that TOD mixed-use is a fine lifestyle choice, but Houston should not kid itself that it will have any meaningful impact on transit usage or reduce the need for car and road infrastructure.

I recently had my own eye-opening experience with transit when I attended a tech conference in Boston. Coming in, I took a taxi from the airport to the Westin Waterfront right next to the new convention center, which is immediately after you come out of the tunnel from the airport. Total time: about 7 minutes to cover 3 miles. Very nice. $20, including tip and tolls. Not as nice.

Returning, I thought I'd try their new Silver Line, which had a stop not far from the hotel. Dragged my luggage about 5-10 mins to the stop. Spent a while figuring out their farecard machines (not at all clear), but only $2, which is very nice. Waited just a few minutes for the bus-rapid-transit to come up out of the subway tunnel. Very full bus, but it had a nice luggage rack with just enough space for my bag, and I was able to get the last available seat. The bus travelled a bit farther in its own right-of-way at street level, then retracted its connection to the overhead power wires to become a normal bus and go through the underwater tunnel to Boston airport. The whole way I was utterly amazed at the ability of the woman sitting across from me to stare into space and completely avoid eye contact with everybody - including me - on a totally full bus. I've heard that's a learned skill in transit towns. The bus had several stops at various airport terminals before getting to mine, and got so crowded with standing passengers it was nearly impossible to recover my bag and get off. Total bus time: 30 minutes to cover 3 miles! 45 minutes total travel time from when I walked out of the hotel. That's vs. a *seven* minute taxi ride. And I can't imagine what the travel time must have been for all the others on the bus connecting from all over the city - at least in the 1-2 hour range.

I think this is relatively normal for transit. Just read this story by a woman that took 2.5 hours on transit to an outlet mall in San Diego - when a car would be 20 minutes! And we wonder why more people don't ride transit in our time-crunched society. What do you think Metro's trip times to IAH and Hobby will be when the system gets built out? That's a heck of a lot more than 3 miles. That said, it was obviously a popular route. But I'll bet a lot of people on that bus were thinking, "Why didn't I just ask a friend to drive me?..."

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32 Comments:

At 7:11 PM, July 05, 2007, Blogger Ian said...

This is insane. I don't have time right now to write a full rebuttal to this ridiculous article, but let's start with one simple little fact: we've been building roads and highways for decades. We've spent billions upon billions of dollars funding infrastructure for automobiles and the type of development supported by automobiles. And now transit and TODs are supposed to catch up in 10 years? With a miniscule amount of funding compared to what we're STILL spending on the automobile? Tory, you're not thinking big enough. Bus, rail, subway, monorail whatever simply cannot be expected to become dominant for many, many years, EVEN if we cease funding for highways completely. It's a process. You build more transit, you build more connections, you devise more routes without transfers. . .this in turn gradually leads to forms of development that reenforce transit, that allow people to seriously consider alternative forms of transportation. Changing development strategies takes a LONG time. The automobile has had a LONG time -- and it's had a lot more funding.

One thing I can tell you: the current system is not working. The time people waste in congested highways is not working. The destruction of the natural environment is not working. It might be temporarily good for business because it boosts our "opportunity zones", but lots of people agree: what we currently have isn't working. How else would you explain over half of Houstonians approving a billion dollar plan to create a transit system that most of them will probably not be able to use? They're unhappy, and they want something better.

And even that was more than I have time to write. . .But one other thing I'd like to point out. Not too long ago, Washington DC had a choice. They could either continue on building roads like we do, or they could invest in a very expensive subway line. They went transit, and today they have one of the best systems in the country. Sure, they have sprawl, they have congestion. But when I've ridden the trains (subway and commuter) in DC, I guarantee that there are enough people riding them that if those patrons HAD been driving, congestion on DC's roads would have been FAR worse.

I say if DC can do it, we can do it. It's just going to take time and a lot of money, but we'll be better off for it.

 
At 8:19 PM, July 05, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Wow, Ian, if that's a partial rebuttal, I fear a full one! ;-)

I'll agree that what we're doing today has problems, but the personal vehicle seems to be what people choose, congestion and all. I'll stick by my assertion that wealthier people prefer a car if at all possible, and society is always getting wealthier. We may change the propulsion technology to be more environmentally friendly, but the car is not going away.

From what I've read, people pass multi-billion dollar transit packages for 2 reasons: 1) they hope everybody else will ride it so the freeways will be clear for them, or, 2) they visualize that it will wisk them faster to work in train comfort, but once they get reality (transfers, long trips and walks in unpredictable weather, hard to get around without a car during the day), they stick with their car. That's exactly what the LAT article shows. People are not cost-benefit transportation experts, and asking them to pass judgement on a transit investment makes about as much sense as having them select which weapons programs the Pentagon should invest in.

I've said this before: DC is a special case. It used tens of billions of federal tax money (no way DC metro could have afforded it on its own, as Houston would essentially have to), and the federal government declared by fiat that a few hundred thousand federal workers would work in downtown DC instead of heading to the suburbs, as private companies choose to do. And even after they built it, the private companies - as well as many federal agencies - *still* fled the core and set up in suburban Maryland and Virginia around the Beltway because people really *want* to drive their private cars rather than slogging in on a train and walking around central DC in the snow and rain, with no fast and easy way to get around during the day (like, say, a car would give you).

 
At 8:49 PM, July 05, 2007, Blogger Kevin said...

The bus had several stops at various airport terminals before getting to mine, and got so crowded with standing passengers it was nearly impossible to recover my bag and get off. Total bus time: 30 minutes to cover 3 miles! 45 minutes total travel time from when I walked out of the hotel. That's vs. a *seven* minute taxi ride. And I can't imagine what the travel time must have been for all the others on the bus connecting from all over the city - at least in the 1-2 hour range.

I think this is relatively normal for transit. Just read this story by a woman that took 2.5 hours on transit to an outlet mall in San Diego - when a car would be 20 minutes! And we wonder why more people don't ride transit in our time-crunched society. What do you think Metro's trip times to IAH and Hobby will be when the system gets built out?


Given the fact that we aren't building any rail lines capable of express service and we make many airport transportation decisions seemingly as not to offend Yellow Cab, I would guess any eventual IAH rail route would probably not be a whole lot better than the current "non-express" bus that Ken Hoffman once wrote about.

On the other hand, I've taken Chicago's blue line train from O'Hare to the Loop/Grant Park area any number of times, and it's pretty good -- generally about a 40 minute trip, by cars that are just sitting on the expressway most of the times I've gone. I would never even think of renting a car in Chicago. So transit can be a solution.

Chicago is much different than Houston, of course. And one interesting difference is that Chicagoans don't think buses are "icky" like so many Houtopians seem to. They're an integral part of Chicago's transit system, and complement the El. We could learn from Chicago, which has so far had the good sense not to copy Houston and do something ridiculous like laying light rail down Lake Shore Drive. :D

 
At 9:18 PM, July 05, 2007, Blogger Ian said...

Hehe, sorry :) I just got started and couldn't stop. But seriously though, transit rocks. And I think it has a serious role to play. But I've wasted enough of your blog space for one day :)

 
At 9:33 PM, July 05, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> transit rocks. And I think it has a serious role to play.

Well, I at least partially agree. I just think it has to be customized for Houston's decentralized, car-based environment - and that means point-to-point express buses/vanpools in a managed lane network, connecting all suburbs/neighbhorhoods to all job centers. It may not be as "cool" as rail, but it will be much, much faster for riders, and get them right to their buildings, which will go a long way towards building ridership - not to mention a heck of a lot cheaper than rail.

 
At 10:37 PM, July 05, 2007, Blogger John said...

Taking one transit trip in another town & drawing a conclusion is just plain silly. Let a former Bostonian fill you in.

My last four years in Boston I lived near Copley Square. The cab ride between home and Logan could take (depending on time of day, weather, and traffic conditions) anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours (this happened to me once) and could cost anywhere from $20 to $50.

Taking the T was about 30-40 minutes and cost $0.85 at the time, and barring some disaster on the rails, was incredibly reliable.

You happened to be in a location where the cab ride was a good option. At certain times, it could have been nightmarish, even from there.

So please, don't hold this up as an example of the trouble with transit. Boston's transit system is excellent. I went car-free there when I went to grad school & frankly, life was easier. It was like having a $400/month tax taken away not to have to pay a car payment and insurance every month.

 
At 10:42 PM, July 05, 2007, Blogger John said...

Regarding the wisdom of rail - it's unrealistic to claim that "train cool" doesn't play a role in it. But sometimes these things happen because people just want them. (Like publicly funded sports stadiums - they're crappy investments, but people like them, so we throw away our tax dollars on them.)

Kevin's observations about Chicagoans and buses are interseting. (The same is true in San Francisco, where rail is pretty small part of the transit.) Houston's buses are a good way to get around, and if more people rode on them, they might be surprised.

Reading it I thought of a friend in New York who told me he stopped taking the subway to work and started riding the bus. Why? "I was tired of going into a hole in the ground. It's nice to sit on the bus and see sunlight."

 
At 10:47 PM, July 05, 2007, Blogger John said...

One final note on the Boston bus - lots of people coming from other parts of the city don't even connect with that bus, because they take the Blue Line subway to the airport. When I lived out in Jamaica Plain I could get to Logan by riding the Orange Line and switching to the Blue line very quickly - and a cab was an expensive ordeal of sitting watching the meter tick in traffic.

Seriously, bad example. Boston is the only city where I refused to pick people up at the airport (when I had a car) because driving there was so hellish - I would ride the train to meet them there and escort them into town.

This was before the Ted Williams Tunnel, so the driving has improved a bit, but still - it's no picnic, from what I've seen on trips back.

Oh, and never mind what happens in winter when it snows.

 
At 12:10 AM, July 06, 2007, Blogger Ian said...

I wonder who the other Ian is...

Anyway, yes, cars are more efficient in most American cities because they've been constructed in this manner. However, the solution doesn't scale as well as transit, to say the least. Start factoring in the externalities of auto transit: fuel, pollution, carbon dioxide, traffic fatalities, resource wars, etc. It makes me wonder who is really getting the bargain here. Maybe I'll live to see the American development model recognized as among the worst mistakes of the 20th century?

 
At 7:43 AM, July 06, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> However, the solution doesn't scale as well as transit, to say the least.

This is true if you can convince employers and people to live and work in tight, dense, expensive spaces. Again, as people get wealthier, they're less interested in doing that. And the road network does scale quite well (and must connect every building built in any case, even if the users ride transit, because it still must accomodate freight deliveries, police, fire, ambulance, etc.), and certainly more affordably than the transit network (ex: NYC will spend $2 *billion* *per mile* to build new subway). A road network won't scale to let you concentrate 2 million jobs on a small island like NYC does, but people seem to be ok with lots of smaller, spread out job centers in modern cities, rather than the single mega-downtown. And that model totally dominates modern American cities these days.

> Start factoring in the externalities of auto transit: fuel, pollution, carbon dioxide, traffic fatalities, resource wars, etc

Yes, it definitely takes a wealthy country to support cars for transportation, but that's what we have. And if we're forced to switch to more expensive propulsion technologies to reduce some of those issues you listed, the vast majority will absorb the cost and keep on going - not switch to transit.

 
At 10:11 AM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

ian,

[W]e've been building roads and highways for decades. We've spent billions upon billions of dollars funding infrastructure for automobiles and the type of development supported by automobiles. And now transit and TODs are supposed to catch up in 10 years?

Please -- Boston has been investing in public transit all along. Many cities have been rebuilding transit infrastructure for the past 30 years. TOD has had plenty of time to show progress, and it hasn't.

Moreover, you can't fix this. Transit requires some wait time, usually in the range of 10 to 15 minutes. On your way to your destination, you have to make stops, which slows you down. If there isn't a direct route (and even with an advanced transit system, this will often happen) you will have to make a transfer, which adds more wait time. Finally, the transit station will usually not be right next to your destination, requiring you to walk further.

Bottom line: Transit is inherently inconvenient unless you live and work right next to a direct line, or the city you live in has such a high density that driving is impractible (and in that case, you should expect a long commute). People have long demanded personalized transportation choices; you're trying to herd them onto cattle cars that increase their commute times.

It is VERY telling that you cite Washington D.C. as a positive example. The truth is that D.C. has been bleeding transit share since before the Metro was built. That means that a larger percentage of D.C. commuters used transit when the system was bus-only; the subway has done little to stem the tide. Moreover, traffic congestion has spiraled out of control. That's your transit utopia -- an example of nothing more than failure.

 
At 10:27 AM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

On D.C. transit:

http://www.publicpurpose.com/pp84-wmata.pdf

 
At 12:27 PM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ughh Public Purpose = Wendell Cox. He and Randall O'Toole are paid by the Auto Industry. Does anyone get this????? What is "share" anyways. It's a word used by fake statisticians like Cox to fool you. Share of what? truck trips? boat trips? trips to get ice cream late at night? Those are all trips counted in the "share". As Ian pointed out, you can't compare a system that doesn't go everywhere to one that does. You can't put all coke on a store shelf and expect people to buy Pepsi if it isn't there!!!!

 
At 12:39 PM, July 06, 2007, Blogger Ian said...

Owen, if transit is "inherently" inconvenient -- I would argue that the automobile is only "theoretically" convenient. If you think we've seen the kinds of traffic congestion that might be expected to draw people to transit, well, you ain't seen nothing yet. Millions of people with millions of cars are going to be moving to Houston (and other cities) over the coming decades, and there's simply no way we can build enough highways to handle them. Can't be done. A lot of people won't have a problem waiting in an ever-growing commute, but some will. A lot will. They'll want an alternative. And suddenly waiting for a bus won't seem so inconvenient -- especially when riders are reading the newspaper or tapping into their work computers via wireless networking.

And *I* find it very telling that you claim Boston for your example, the same city that is currently trying to dig [intended] itself out of a multibillion dollar fiasco that was to benefit vehicular traffic? Do you seriously assert that Boston, or any other city, has given transit a serious chance to compete when the balance always seems to go to highways?

 
At 5:04 PM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

anonymous,

The article was only five pages. You could have at least noted where Cox's data came from.

The answer is that it came from WASHCOG, and the "share" is simply based on counting the way in which people enter downtown in the morning (i.e. seeing how people commute to work).

In any case, it's impractical for transit to go everywhere, and certainly not without numerous connections. If I have to transfer five times to get to my front door, I'm not using transit. Virtually everyone who can afford to drive is with me on that one.

 
At 5:13 PM, July 06, 2007, Blogger Ian said...

I'd also like to offer my opinion on DC. You're right -- despite its great transit system, the city is by no means a New Urbanist's wet dream. There is sprawl. Most people do indeed live out in Maryland and Virginia, but I believe this has very little to do with their preferred form of transportation. In fact, many people in DC would love to live in the city, in a dense, charming row-house neighborhood; they simply cannot afford to. . .

Ah HA! you say. He finally admits it: people can't afford to live in TODs, so they choose sprawling subdivisions. End of story, right? Not at all. In fact, it's just the beginning, and the full story encompasses oh so much more than simple transportation issues. It involves demographics. . .and racism. Anyone who has taken the train into DC from BWI has probably noticed that there is a lot of dead area right around downtown DC. Well, it's not quite dead area -- it's a very poor area. And, probably not irrelevantly, a very black area. Look at the census maps: these areas in the heart of DC would be perfect for transit-friendly development. More development -> more supply -> lower prices -> people move into the area. But it doesn't happen, because people are scared of these areas. And they despise the minorities that dwell there.

It just so happens that this is the case in so many urban areas. In Houston, for example, most people I know who live out in Katy or Clear Lake would LOVE to live near downtown, live the urban lifestyle full of variety and excitement. But they feel they simply cannot in good conscience send their kids to evil inner-city public schools filled with poor, minority students.

So here's my assertion: Tory, you're wrong. People DO want to live in the city, Houston, Washington, Boston, wherever. Many of them would have no problem taking the bus or light rail to work; many of them would even like to. But there is a lot of fear, a lot of racism. . .and maybe perhaps a dose of good parenting mixed in. Transit may not be a truly viable alternative until we can fix our bucketload of social issues, but I think we all agree tha we NEED to fix those issues. And then a transit-friendly community is just a stone's throw away. . .

Obviously there's more to it. But you can't simply boil it down to "people love their cars." It's true, they do. But there is SO much more going on.

 
At 5:20 PM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

Ian,

Owen, if transit is "inherently" inconvenient -- I would argue that the automobile is only "theoretically" convenient. If you think we've seen the kinds of traffic congestion that might be expected to draw people to transit, well, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Granted, but congestion is more easily avoided and can be managed. HOT lanes, congestion pricing, carpooling, infrastructure enhancements, etc., can manage congestion through engineering and controlling demand. Park-and-rides and perhaps BRT can be used on the transit end.

Moreover, if density reaches a certain threshold, rail transit may become practical. However, you have to reach New York density levels for that to be the case.

A lot of people won't have a problem waiting in an ever-growing commute, but some will. A lot will. They'll want an alternative. And suddenly waiting for a bus won't seem so inconvenient -- especially when riders are reading the newspaper or tapping into their work computers via wireless networking.

I disagree. If the time it takes to catch a bus is comparable to driving, people might use the bus. However, that's very rarely the case.

Besides, do you want to know where the commutes are the longest? Check this source:

http://www.arbitron.com/national_radio/travel.asp

Note that Washington D.C. has the sixth highest average commute in the nation. The truth is that higher commuting times tend to correlate with reliance on transit and a failure to invest in freeways.

As for Boston -- the big dig aside, they have not invested much in freeways. According to Transact, the number of freeway lane miles has actually DECREASED since 1990. Congestion, of course, is worse than Houston.

 
At 5:28 PM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we'll all be singing a different tune if oil gets to $100 / barrel before we've figured out how to run our cars on electricity or some other new tech.

One thing Americans love greater than their "private automobiles" is their money.

I agree with those that say TODs should not be expected to compete with highways at this point. Transit has not been the focus of development as other infrastructure has, and I think it would basically take the equivalent of Eisenhower's Interstate program to put transit on an equal footing with autos.

 
At 5:47 PM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

ian,

If you think that the reason people don't want to move into downtown is racism, you're not thinking clearly. There are bad neighborhoods, poorer schools, etc., in downtown areas. We can discuss the racial dimension of these social ills, but the fact is that when a family thinks of moving into the inner city, they're not thinking about race, they're thinking about standard of living and safety.

Honestly, if inner-city neighborhoods were entirely white but suffered from the same problems, do you really think the middle class would be clamoring to move in?

 
At 5:50 PM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

ian,

On a final note -- even people who like the urban nightlife tend to prefer a more sedate, suburban lifestyle for raising children. They also would prefer to haul their children around in large suburbans than cram them onto trains. They want privacy, big backyards, and the safest neighborhoods. A high density inner-city area can never provide this.

 
At 5:56 PM, July 06, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> So here's my assertion: Tory, you're wrong. People DO want to live in the city

I have never said that they don't. But when they look at the value equation, which is not just schools (although definitely the dominant factor), but $/sq.ft and new construction, they pick the suburbs almost every time. We do have a townhome boom in the core (typically nonfamily households), but note that even though we have a very dense, frequent bus network-grid inside the loop, almost none of them ride transit. They still choose their car for convenience, speed, and comfort.

 
At 6:02 PM, July 06, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> I think we'll all be singing a different tune if oil gets to $100 / barrel before we've figured out how to run our cars on electricity or some other new tech.

Why would moving from $70 to $100 change behavior when going from $20 to $70 made no dent in driving whatsoever? That's a mere 50% increase when we've already had a 250% increase.

Don't forget the US has the highest GDP per capita in the world. When world oil gets expensive, we can pay for it far easier than Asia, Africa, South America, or even Europe. Price brings demand back in line with supply, and the demand drop will come from elsewhere before here.

 
At 6:34 PM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

Sorry folks, but I have to put and end right here and right now about the "we simply can't build our way out congestion" argument.

The latest six year federal appropriations bill for transportation (which includes roads and transit) is about $350 billion. That is about $60 billion per year. Now that sounds like a lot of money (and it is), but in fact the yearly federal appropriations for the Armed Forces, on Social Security transfer payments, on Medicare and on Medicaid, all dwarf those laid out for transportation by a factor of at least 8 times. In fact Congress actually appropriates more money on the Department of Agriculture (and that includes farm subsidies) and on federal monies for public education than it does on transportation.

Source:

http://www.gao.gov/financial/04frusg.pdf

This link is the FY 2003 and FY 2004 federal budgets. Go to page 65 of the document. Generally not much has changed from year to year on federal appropriations in a while.

Similar budget trends have been happening in state capitals where spending on "social" items like education and government funded medical provision (not to mention prisons) have been chewing through budgets in ever growing amounts. Arguably, that is why state and local governments have been forced to consider such ideas like toll roads to help pay for mobility projects because state and federal appropriations are getting ever scarcer, leaving the issue to local governments to do what they can to deal with the matter.

It used to not be this way. Back in 1960, a full 25 percent of the state budget of Texas was devoted to transportation. What we have seen in the past half century is the general explosion in social spending and away from infrastructure improvements.

Pointing that however is not the same as saying "we can't build our way out of congestion". In 1980, the mean commute time throughout the country was 21.7 minutes. By 1990 it was 22.5 minutes and by 2000 it was 25.5 minutes. What has happened is that America has seen an increase of millions of vehicles on the roads, but only a 5 or so percent rise in the number of vehicle lane miles available. Hence the congestion problem.

Quite frankly, the whole mantra of we can't build our way out congestion, which started in the 1980's, and is being advanced by groups which could be labeled together as a "congestion coalition", has gone on for too long without being challenged. The matter is simply a matter of money and priorities. This needs to be made clear to the public.

One other topic I'd like mention here. This past week I was in the Borders Books at Kirby and West Alabama when I picked up a beautifully done book on Historic Houston. The book has nearly 200 pages of black and white photos of Houston's history since the mid 19th century. The book concentrates on Houston's history before 1950, but there are photos from the modern era.

Amongst other things I discovered that our City had a population of 300,000 in 1930, already boasted more than 35,000 cars, and had sprawled out to 68 square miles. That amounts to an average population density of about 4,500 per mile, not too much more dense than the density we have today. Note that all of this happened before the enactment of the Interstate Highway Act.

The book has several photos of Main Street traffic jams from the 1920's and 1930's that are almost touching to behold. It also has a photo of a failed monorail experiment dated from 1955, as well as a rail line which ran from Houston to Dallas in the 1930's which no longer exists. The book chronicles how fast we made the transfer from a society of horses and wagons to trolleys and street cars, then to private vehicles.

I would strongly suggest that developers, governments and planners of the early 20th century era were simply confronted with the reality that untold thousands of people were buying motorized transportation. Having never experienced something like this in human history, they were trying the best they could to deal with the matter. The reason for saying this is that one thing I have discovered in my occasional browsings of urban literature throughout the 20th century is that the current generations of planners and government officials get very very picky with what previous officials and planners did. The seemingly look for error after error and are convinced that they are out to avoid the "mistakes" (as they see them) made by previous generations. Then they in turn make what are seen as errors and the cycle seems to repeat itself with the next generation picking over the current one.

This next statement may blow a lot of people off of their rocker, but I think one lesson to be had here from reading this book is that the whole FUD over whether a low density, modern day city won't survive in its form is ultimately nothing to worry about. Yes, you people read that statement correctly.

Why? Because we humans ultimately have to adapt to our environment anyway and even if future generations find themselves in a world with depleted fossil fuels, they will adapt in one way or another - period. Clearly the majority of our predecessors didn't worry too much about whether the world was going to run low of energy resources for low density development, otherwise they would not have built the ciites that they did. Heaven knows the historical record is full of accounts of people who predicted that the world would run low (or out) of resources. If they didn't worry (and in effect they left those issues to us to deal with), then why should we? Moreover, if we do run low of resources, then we or our children will be given the signal by the market that energy is expensive (denoting that scarcity) and the market will queue people to take action accordingly, whether by innovation and invention or by conservation. No forceful intervention will be necessary.

Even so, we don't know what form our future cities will turn out like. Who knows? Maybe our decendants will decide to keep the low density development that we have today and ride their bicycles 5 miles to work? Don't laugh too hard. I spent 17 months in China 15 years ago and witnessed untold thousands of Chinese in the country town I lived in doing just that every day I was there. One thing I can say for certain is that the public, having achieved enough wealth to live a single family home type lifestyle, will have to be dragged kicking and screaming back to a dense, single central core area type city. They just won't put up with that unless they are absolutely forced to.

I think that what is important is that we leave our children with a society that is able to handle challenges as they come. Do we leave them with enough wealth, knowledge, and the appropriate market signals for them to come up with solutions which would allow them to achieve and to live a reasonably good life which would be sustainable forever? That is a far more important thing to consider rather than having hot headed arguments over whether we live in an "undesirable" or "unsustainable" world which we have today.

Enjoy your day everyone! :)

 
At 6:50 PM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory,

As to my point on $100 / barrel gas, I do not mean to imply that we cannot afford it. At least not most of us. (Just like our health insurance and private schools :). I mean that most of us do not like it, and at some point around $5 a gallon or so, people will be fairly angry. In other words, as the price of commuting goes up, our support of transit alternatives will also increase (just like health care costs).

Also, interesting article in the Chron today - DC actually has the highest downtown occupancy rates outside of Manhattan. It is not for poor transit options but lack of downtown office space that companies are looking elsewhere. And this is because DC restricts the height of their office buildings.

Thanks,
Anon

 
At 8:38 PM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Houston, all standard-of-living advantages of the suburbs are 100% about money. Not race, availability of schools, crime, etc. Unlike Manhattan, which simply cannot offer the amenities of suburban life, inner Houston offers all the suburban comforts, but at a higher price. Anyone who lives in the suburbs for such reasons is voting with his wallet, nothing more.

Like the suburban lifestyle? There are suburban-type neighborhoods inside the loop for those who can and desire to pay for them. Like low-crime areas, maybe with a neighborhood police force? That can be had for those who can and desire to pay for it. Don't like HISD? There are dozens of very good private schools inside the loop for those who can and desire to pay for them. Want to live in a racially homogenous area? Inner Houston has neighborhoods composed of mostly black, brown, white, yellow, red... you name it.

Want all those things pre-funded by property taxes at $85 per square foot? In that case you'll have to live in the suburbs. It's all about dollars.

 
At 9:33 AM, July 07, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Anon: people will be angry, but I think they'll accept it (just as they did at $2 and $3 gas). Maybe they'll buy more fuel efficient vehicles. Great! And you're right - they may scream for transit alternatives, but how many will actually ride it is another question entirely. Studies show that transit ridership has not increased noticably across the country since $3 gas, even in cities with excellent transit systems. A little at the margins, sure, but not nearly as much as you might expect with a doubling of gas prices.

As far as DC, I'm not surprised a *lot* of companies and lobbyists want to be a close as possible to the decision makers for $2 *trillion* of annual fed spending. But even if you dropped the height restrictions tomorrow and allowed a skyscraper building boom, the vast majority of outside-the-beltway employers have no interest in moving downtown. Boston, Chicago, Philly, and SF are examples of cities with downtown centric transit and no downtown building restrictions, but most major employers stay in the burbs.

 
At 10:57 AM, July 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the last six years or so, Houston and its suburbs have really started to blossom. Houston is one the leading cities in the United States right now. There should be some investment in light rail lines, but they are not and never can replace our cars and the road system.
A limited light rail system serving the Galleria area, downtown, and the Medical center should be the priority. Perhaps an extension to UH might be justified. Lets have a good and solid but affordable and well managed light rail system for the inner city. Lets perfect it and study how it works and how it doesn't, build up ridership and then expand it in future years ONLY IF it can be justified.
We don't want to be like Los Angeles and suffer a depressed economy and falling standard of living because we were irresponsible and mismanaged our street system. Somehow Los Angeles has the worst traffic congestion and the worst road system. People and businesses are really suffering over there.
The system of roads in Houston is obviously working in a spectacular fashion. Lets keep Houston moving and prosperous by maintaining our road system. Light rail is OK in SOME places and in a LIMITED and APPROPRIATE amount, but we must not adopt the fanciful notion that it can replace our cars and roads. GO HOUSTON!!!

 
At 5:01 PM, July 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Owen -

Do you still work for Reason?

 
At 8:06 PM, July 07, 2007, Blogger Ian said...

Why is it that everyone on my side is anonymous? This isn't fair!

 
At 11:37 PM, July 07, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...

anonymous,

No, I was only officially with Reason for about three months before I entered law school.

 
At 11:17 AM, July 13, 2007, Anonymous random_thoughts said...

I don't post here very often but I am an avid reader. One thing I think happens a lot on this website is that so many people ignore externalities and other costs and overly simply the "free market" in their quest to ballyhoo it as the panacia for all the area's problems. The assertion that people "want" to live in the suburbs is a classic example.

There are so many other costs and externalities that effect the housing supply it is simply too east to point to the number of new homes going up in the burbs and say "That is what people want!"

First, not sure if people have noticed but the housing market hasn't necessarily been that strong recently and most of the weakness is concentrated in the burbs. I know me personally you couldn't pay me to buy into one of those cookie cutter places. Second, there are things that effect the housing supply that have nothing to do with costs at all. Perfect example is what is happening in Phoenix right now. Despite the huge dive in the sprawl-style, single family stucco boxes, there is a boom in the construction of new high rises (well a Phoenix sized boom). Most of the recent buildings are already at capacity. But one thing that is holding up and downright shutting down some of these projects is the fact that there are no available construction cranes. There is such a boom nationally (and internationally) in high density construction there simply aren't enough cranes in the world right now (and free marketers please don't tell me that if this was true more cranes would simply pop out of thin air - they take a LONG time to design and build).

Finally, as a former DC resident who took METRO everyday while I lived there I would like to state that I never thought taking METRO was inconvenient or a hassle. Sure, some times it might have taken a little longer than if I would have driven. But there was just as much of a chance that it would be quicker. All you need is one accident or a random traffic jam and you were praying for METRO. I often flew out of BWI to catch Southwest and I almost always took the MARC trains from Union Station. This is because sometimes it could take over 2 hours to travel about 40 miles up I-95 to reach the airport. The train was a reliable 45-50 ride. Easy and I didn't have to worry about parking. I also took public transportation for other trips...say I wanted to go out or hit happy hour, take METRO (look mom, no drinking and driving). If I wanted to visit the museums downtown, I took METRO. You didn't have to worry about traffic or parking and you got a little exercise in the process. Given that Houston is one of the fattest cities in the country, that is something this city shouldn't discount.

 
At 7:51 PM, July 17, 2009, Anonymous Mikes said...

It took decades to kill transit in American cities, and it will take decades to bring it back.
Just because results are low now does not mean you stop building a good transit network.

In cities where transit is intergraded better with development, transit does a great job at attracting riders.
Look at Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where daily ridership is higher than that of Houston, despite Calgary only having a metro pop of about one million.
The key to this? Transit is provided to all neighbourhoods even in suburban areas, seven days a week. There is a LRT system that is just as fast as driving, etc.

Build it right and they will come.

 

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