Archive for June 2011
The New York Times has come out with two fascinating pieces on transportation since Sunday: one describing European cities’ efforts to roll back car dominance; and another describing Florida Rep. John Mica’s efforts to promote SunRail, a commuter rail effort that would connect DeLand and Poinciana in central Florida via downtown Orlando, although not connected to Disney World or other amusement parks.
While there’s a lot to note in these two articles — the phenomenon of a Republican supporting non-automobile transportation is remarkable in itself — what stands out from considering them together is the importance of careful consideration of how the entire network works together.
The Times notes that European cities are taking steps such as pedestrianization of streets, congestion pricing and shrinking parking in order to make the streets friendlier to pedestrians and to drive up the usage of mass transit. American tourists in Europe often comment on how convenient and reliable European intercity rail is, but a key factor in why the experience is so pleasant is the integration between intercity rail and intracity public transit — the train station is generally not your final destination in London or Paris or Berlin, but the local network makes it easy to get there. By comparison, in Chicago, which has a very robust transit system by American standards, the connectivity between Amtrak at Union Station, the various Metra commuter rail terminals and the L is rather poor. (On the other hand, Chicago’s airports are fairly well-connected.)
Viewed against the prism of European integration of intercity travel and intracity transit, the SunRail project seems to be lacking in this dimension. Intracity public transportation is weak in many of the cities along the route that it serves, and while Orlando will be upgrading and improving its bus service to better integrate with the system, other communities along the route will continue to be auto-centric suburbs with poor intracity connections. Furthermore, some of Florida’s communities, including Orlando, are among the most pedestrian-unfriendly and, indeed, dangerous-for-pedestrian places in the entire nation.
My concern is that if SunRail is built and fails to meet ridership projections or bring anticipated benefits, then this will be taken as proof that alternative, non-automobile-centric forms of transportation as a whole cannot work, when its integration into the greater network is a significant factor. Urbanists and sprawl apologists alike tend to have an undue focus on glitzy showcase projects, whether these are rails or roads, which obscures the fact that no method of transportation functions in isolation. Part of the reason European rails are extensively patronized is because the cities they connect have made pedestrian- and transit-focused efforts for a more seamless experience.
Ultimately, you have to start somewhere, of course. Effective intercity transit and walkable neighborhoods don’t spring up out of nowhere (but neither do twelve-lane highways and culs-de-sac), but are a product of overall planning and examination of both the big picture and the small details. I hope that if the SunRail commuter project goes through, that a corresponding amount of effort be spent on improving infrastructure for users off the train. I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that urbanism and transit are wholly incompatible with American cities, but I do believe that a lack of consideration of the entire user experience can be damaging to the cause of furthering these worthy goals.
I’m a city guy: I live in a city, and I care deeply about them.
I believe that cities are grounds for social interaction, laboratories for economic growth, collections of unparalled cultural institutions and repositories of amazing food, haut cuisine and hole-in-the-wall ethnic delicacies alike. The walkable, dense neighborhoods with buzzing street traffic that they possess are some of the most pleasant and popular places to spend time in the entire country. The aesthetic appeal of skyscrapers straining toward the clouds is unmatched, and the lively city boulevards teeming with people virtually pulse with energy.
Cities also offer terrible congestion, pollution and heat islands; staggering levels of segregation and dysfunctional school systems; rampant political corruption; woefully maintained transit systems and overburdened highways and roads. We like to think that we’ve long since moved past tenements, but the condition of some American inner-city housing is nothing short of shocking. And most center cities in America and indeed in the Western world are profusely bleeding people and have been doing so for the last fifty years.
Nevertheless, despite all of these flaws, I still love them.
A bit of introduction on my behalf, to give some context of where all this comes from: I’m from the suburbs of Los Angeles. Growing up, I didn’t really have a conception of what city life was like. I had no idea that there were really places where people walked more than to and from their car, or that rail was still a viable form of transportation, or even that culs-de-sac were not the overriding residential organizational principle everywhere. Then I went away, to the Northeast where I first saw New York, “the city” par excellence, and then to Chicago, where I am know. I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along that journey the city began to exert a hold on me; I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, but it just happened.
So I’m hoping to use this space to ruminate on the city and subjects that are close to my heart: urbanism and walkability; density and sprawl; transportation, both public and private; land use; cities I visit; and to point out interesting pieces, projects and anything else city-related that comes to mind. I’m partisan when it comes to what I think cities can look like — I believe in walkable urbanism — but at the same I’m also cognizant of choice and that fundamentally cities are composed of individuals, couples and families who choose to be there. Out of necessity, I’ll probably write a lot about Chicago, since it’s where I am now. My goal, though, is not for this to be a blog about Chicago, but a blog about cities in general. I’m a city guy, after all.