Thursday, October 23, 2008

How Copenhagen is becoming like Houston

Just came across this article on urban development in Copenhagen, Denmark, and how many parallels there are to what we face in Houston, where a decentralized city makes transit increasingly impractical. Excerpts:

In all the 37 years I have been traveling to and living in Copenhagen, it has always struck me that despite one of the best public transportation systems of which I am aware (in terms of coverage, efficiency, ease of use and affordability), and despite the fact that cars are at least twice as expensive as here in the States (the sales tax on cars is 180%), and despite the fact that gasoline is three to four times as expensive as here, and despite the fact that city parking is difficult, non-existent or prohibitively expensive (and parking fines severe) – despite all of this – rush hour traffic congestion is awful (a constant source of grief and complaint), and the endless streams of cars seem to contain, as in so many cities with lesser alternatives, lone drivers.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The city development plan was designed as a hand with five fingers outstretched – the palm as city center and each of the five fingers as a corridor of residential, commercial and retail development (along rail lines, of course) [sound like Houston's freeways?]. This was smart growth before the term had been invented. It worked, but what was perhaps unforeseen was that development would also occur in areas in-between and beyond the five corridors. As a result, Copenhagen has become, like so many modern cities, a multi-centered urban metropolis [sound familiar?]. In order to function in this post-industrial economy and society, residents and workers need to travel freely and frequently to many different points around the metro area, at different times of the day, for different reasons, for different lengths of time, for different purposes. Because the existence of the five corridors has created a defacto hub-and-spoke system, it is difficult and prohibitively time-consuming to use public transit for such travel (and ungodly in winter). So of course Copenhagen has become as car-dependent as Los Angeles.

Another piece of this picture is that Danes, being a free and intelligent people, prefer suburban living in detached single-family residences over enforced residential density, and prefer owning and driving their own cars over taking public transportation (if given the choice!). So despite a very leftist political orientation among elites, media, academia, government and public policy professionals (including urban planners), and despite a highly socialized component to its otherwise free-market economy, the Danish capital’s suburban job, business and population growth has been outpacing its urban growth for decades.


This of course is a problem. People are not behaving according to our plans! According to the report "Urban Sprawl in Europe? The Ignored Challenge," released by the European Environment Agency (based in Copenhagen, by the way), sprawl is affecting almost all of Europe’s cities: "If this trend continues, the European urban area will double in just over a century. Sprawling cities demand more energy supply, require more transport infrastructure and consume larger amounts of land. This damages the natural environment and increases greenhouse gas emissions."

The report identifies the key problem as too much local control of urban development decisions, and calls for "urgent action by all responsible agencies and stakeholders to realize common objectives," or in other words, centralized planning and control. Among the report's conclusions is this little chill-inducing nugget:

"The EU has specific obligations and a mandate to act and take a lead role in developing the right frameworks for intervention at all levels, and to pave the way for local action. Policies at all levels including local, national and European need to have an urban dimension to tackle urban sprawl and help to redress the market failures that drive urban sprawl."

It's all pointless, of course: sprawl is ubiquitous, natural, desirable, beneficial, and preferable. As Edward Glaeser (Harvard, Brookings) and Matthew Kahn (UCLA) document in "Sprawl and Urban Growth" (National Bureau of Economic Research), transportation technologies dictate urban form, and in the 21st century the dominant transportation technology is the car. Hence, the urban form of the 21st century is sprawl, or city living based on the automobile. Isn’t this a bad thing? Quite the contrary, per Glaeser and Kahn: "Sprawl has been associated with significant improvements in quality of living, and the environmental impacts of sprawl have been offset by technological change."

Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History (2005), would agree. He calls sprawl a logical consequence of economic growth and the democratization of society, a pattern of development that has provided millions of people with the kinds of mobility, privacy and choice that were once the exclusive prerogatives of the rich and powerful. Add Bruegmann, Glaeser, Kahn, Cox and Utt to the growing component of anti-anti-sprawl policy analysts such as John Carlisle (Capital Research Center), Peter Gordon (USC School of Urban Planning), Peter Huber (Manhattan Institute), Mark Mills (Competitive Enterprise Institute), Steve Hayward (Pacific Research Institute), Anthony Downs (Brookings Institution), and Harry Richardson (Cascade Institute).

This decentralization is a key reason commuter rail is, for the most part, impractical in a city like Houston with only 7% of jobs downtown. Instead, a network of express lanes with high-speed point-to-point commuter bus and van services is a better model, connecting every part of the metro with every major job center.

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At 9:28 PM, October 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About Copenhagen: Funny thing there, low-density residential living was always part of the master plan, and a quick look at Google Earth will see that.

The "problem" with the old master plans is they didn't see the vast increase in disposable income which would enable mass auto ownership, and so factors which were once a given - like 2-3km walks to the nearest train station - now become intolerable when compared against the private auto.

The US is a bit ahead of Europe in this regard, since we all had cars fifty years ago. As a result, this is built into the models - we don't expect people to walk anything over 1/2 mile to a train, and only 1/4 mile to a bus - and influences the design heirarchy of U.S. transit systems.

It's also why METRO has confined its most expensive, infrastructure-heavy transit modes to areas which are already dense enough (or rapidly moving in that direction) to support them. But then you already knew that :)

At 12:47 AM, October 24, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

I think this overstates the case of declining transit in Copenhagen. Copenhagen has 32% share of bike commuters. If you throw in another 20% walking and rail, Copenhagen still has over 50% of trips that are not by car. Yes, share of autos has increased there from 1950 - 2006 or so, but does that really make Copenhagen like Houston? I was able to bike from the suburbs into downtown Copenhagen when I was there. Try doing that from Memorial into downtown Houston on a Monday morning rush hour (which is incidentally one of Houston's easier rides into downtown by bike). It's great biking weather, folks! Come on and give it a try! Then you can tell me that Houston is just like Copenhagen!

At 9:42 AM, October 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was playing around in Google Earth the other day looking at the English countryside (if you can find it) around the edges of London.

If you look at London's overall major road network, you see something very similar to Houston. London has an inner loop about the size of our I-610. Then there is another loop about he size of our Beltway 8. And when I say size, I mean diameter.

Then, the suburbs of London spread for miles out. You think Brookshire is far out for a Houston suburb and would be sprawl? Look at London and you would still have miles to go to get out of suburbia.

The point I'm working towards is that Houston is an extremely young developed city compared London in terms of transit vs level of development. The amount of rail transit we are pushing on our region is at an extremely pre-mature state compared to London. We don't need that much now. London was approaching the current size of Houston when freeways were first introduced. It's early rail ventures were to encourage sprawl. In the late 1800s people were moving nearly 30 miles and further from the city center of London and used rail to get into the city. Inner city rail became a necessity since so many commuters were coming into the city from far flung places and needed to get around the inner city.

So here we are in Houston with about 5-6 million people in our spread out region. We are approaching our physical limit of sprawl soon like London the region will begin to densify. London's sprawl would be similar to development stretching from past Conroe to past Rosenberg, Brookshire, near Angleton, past Alvin, and past Baytown. In that region, the greater London population is 4-5 times than the regional population of Houston. This fits in to the 20 million people in the Houston area numbers that often get thrown around. We haven't begun to sprawl.....

The advantage we have over London goes to a point that Tory has made often is that we have spent a lot of our early transportation energy on having an efficient (and wide) freeway and major thoroughfare system. This will serve us well into the future versus the many cramped streets in London. Commuter rail transit will come to Houston, but it won't be needed for many years. Internal LRT is something that we can realize now because of the increasing density in the loop.

The critical aspect is that no future plan should focus on reducing road construction to focus on rail transit. Several cities in the US and in Europe demonstrate this folly. Portland, Oregon is a good example. Minneapolis, Minnesota is another one. In Minneapolis, the focus on rail transit diverted millions of state transportation dollars that would be used for road maintenance and repairs. A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) pointed this out for the neglect that caused the bridge failure there and other sections of major roads being neglected.

Planners assume that if the roads don't improve then more people will use transit. The reality is people keep using the road but just complain more about it.

As much as planners think they can encourage people to move to transit through various incentives and disincentives for driving, traffic will always exist. The freedom of having a car will never get replaced by transit for many sections of our society.

At 2:02 PM, October 24, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Very interesting and thoughtful analysis, kjb.

At 8:06 PM, October 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kjb, I disagree that we are reaching the limits of physical spread. Because suburban Londoners had to rely on fixed-route transit, and so because you couldn't get critical mass of most of the the economic specializations in those days without being in the center city, many workers had to have direct contact with the core. Not only has Houston already substantially separated out - just talking white-collar because the revenue there has been able to make the concentrations specially distinct, but not exclusive to them at all - the lawyers' part of town, the doctors' part of town, the engineers' part of town, the rocket scientists' part of town, the chemists' part of town, and the commercial part of town; but get this:

Much as you and I no longer are milling in the street among the wagons to conduct the basic commerce of daily life, as people in the classic urban age had no choice but to be - we're only doing it at our leisure - most of the metropolitan populace from here on out no longer has to have direct contact with the legacy urban fabric - they'll only do it for pleasure. Last year I was giving some thought to what regional development and ecology look like, how they reinforce, when the majority of citizens only go inside the loop, or the beltway, or the grand parkway, once every few weeks or months. I imagine that John Jacob is really worried about this, because in a 10M+ urbanized area without the social entrenchments of the historic metros, the supply chain could very easily be long enough (that is, only a few inner trunks need frequent access to central functions, while all the many outer branches don't) to allow it.

At 8:09 PM, October 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Jacob, Texas Coastal Watershed Program:


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