Against Transportation

“More energy fed into the transportation system means that more people move faster over a greater range in the course of every day. Everybody's daily radius expands at the expense of being able to drop in on an acquaintance or walk through the park on the way to work. Extremes of privilege are created at the cost of universal enslavement. An elite packs unlimited distance into a lifetime of pampered travel, while the majority spend a bigger slice of their existence on unwanted trips. The few mount their magic carpets to travel between distant points that their ephemeral presence renders both scarce and seductive, while the many are compelled to trip farther and faster and to spend more time preparing for and recovering from their trips.”

Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (1974)

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Urban transportation: What are we going to do about it? Fewer cars? More mass transit? More bikes? Fuel taxes?

It's tempting to try solving transportation problems with more transportation. The sight of rush hour traffic jams in cities, or the experience of riding an overcrowded bus or train, suggest the need for increased transit capacity. As a short term solution, that may indeed be the best remedy. In the long run, however, it’s more like supplementing a junk food diet with a few healthy snacks.

Modern industrial societies are addicted to mobility—something Ivan Illich points out in the passage above. Most of us have always lived within this milieu and it’s hard for us to equate less movement with better movement. Our cities embody the assumption that individuals will gladly bow to the demands of transportation systems. New York, Chicago and London all enjoy “strong centers” complete with roads and trains that can pump hundreds of thousands of people into their central business districts every morning and back out again every evening. An hour a day is generally a normal amount of time to spend commuting in these cities—I can live six miles from my job because the infrastructure exists to move me there quickly.

Interestingly, the strong-centered cities with great transit are paragons of urban form in western society. They certainly look great in comparison to the sprawling, decentralized megalopolises that have followed them. I can’t imagine wanting to live in any other kind of city, but the utopian in me wants cities where people spend less time moving from place to place. Christopher Alexander describes such a city in A Pattern Language, writing that the separation of residences and work create “intolerable rifts in people’s inner lives.” He suggests that cities use zoning laws and tax incentives to spread workplaces throughout cities.

Unfortunately, urban transportation is not planned in a way that favors less transportation. Individual agencies generally have one main task, and no agency can be expected to argue against its own existence. A transit planner would never decide that less transit ridership would benefit the city as a whole, unless transit planning was only one component of a broader job description.

Nevertheless, it might be a helpful first step to scatter workplaces throughout dense cities using the types of policies that Alexander describes, along peripheral transit lines or within walking and biking distance of neighborhood residences. A lot of work disappeared in 2008 and plenty more is sure to vanish in 2009. If and when that work comes back, it doesn’t all need to end up downtown.

(Photo from Flickr user truffes.)


Patrick said...

I agree that the polycentric metropolis is the future of urban form. Adapting existing infrastructure, and especially transit to a more flexible form of development is essential.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

This is along the lines of my general idea of "Market Urbanism" - that too much subsidized transportation leads to sprawl, and coupled with restrictive zoning causes all kinds of messy problems.

Before giving incentives for businesses to locate in sub-optimal places, I would abolish density and use restrictions, then remove taxes and bureaucracy that prevent small businesses and home-based businesses from getting started.

By the way, someone referred me to that Illich article too, and I've been meaning to read it...

Drew said...

Thanks, glad you liked it.

Ivan Illich is incredible. I added the link to the full text of Energy and Equity in the post, and also here:


Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I've heard it said that philosophical fragmentation of the whole into disparate parts is an essential feature of modernity, and that the modern invention of the commute is how this fragmentation is achieved geographically.

Dave Feucht said...

It's interesting to note that even in larger cities, they used to be arranged more or less in neighborhood units, where each unit had it's own market, it's own theater, it's own playgrounds, etc - all within a few miles of each other, allowing people to live and work within easy walking or biking distance. The more central areas of Portland, where I live, are still arranged that way, and everything I really need to do on a daily basis is within about 2-5 miles of my home, so even biking to work 5 miles is only a 20-30 minute commute, depending on how hurried I am - but I also *enjoy* the commute, it's not just a means to get where I'm going.

I think if we started re-structuring the core parts of our cities, and even the suburban areas, to be more self-sufficient neighborhoods like this, it would cut our miles traveled immensely. Even if you had to commute farther to work, then at least you wouldn't have to go 10 miles to the grocery store, and another 10 to go out to eat or to a movie or whatever.

It's also interesting to note that the vehicle miles traveled per person per year in Portland is currently at about the same level it was in 1992 (it's gone up and down a bit between then), whereas the US average has been climbing steadily since then and only experienced a slight drop this year. I think the layout of the city has a lot to do with that, as for many people, even if they drive, they don't have to drive far to get what they need.

John said...

Good post. I love the Christopher Alexander reference.

Walking and biking should definitely be the first and second-best transportation mode choices. The scattered employment, or mixed use development, would definitely aid this.

However, what if someone can't always live in the same neighborhood in which they work? This especially becomes a problem with two-income households. Many couples choose to live halfway between their two places of employment. Then they would ideally need to turn to the third-best transportation mode choice, transit. Ironically though, while a city with homogenous employment density woudl be great for walking and biking, it wouldn't be so great for transit. Transit needs small areas with dense employment within walking distance of stations to be successful.

Maybe the better answer then is not a homogenous employment density in a city, but more "downtowns," more employment centers to be geographically close to more people, but all tied together by transit radiating from all directions instead of the existing radial transit services we rely on today.

Dave Feucht said...

That's actually a lot like how Tokyo is laid out - it has several downtowns which are main transit hubs, then smaller town centers which are smaller transit hubs, and then town areas which are built out from the smaller town centers that are accessible by bike or walking or buses. It seems pretty ideal for a city that size. However, for cities more of the size of Portland, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, etc - I don't think there are enough people for multiple city centers really - or at least (for Portland anyway), the centers of the suburbs maybe function as the multiple city centers, which then have links to the center of Portland itself. Some planning is starting to be done with respect to connecting transit centers in the suburbs with neighborhoods via bike paths and such, so you could feasibly bike to the transit center, and then take transit into Portland, and then bike from there to your final destination. I think mixing the modes of transportation like that is a really great way to tackle mobility for outlying areas.

Anonymous said...

We have subsidized transport largely because of class prejudices. At some point in the past, CEO's and the people who mop the floors had to live within walking distance of the same office. Transport allowed us to segregate populations, subsidizing transport, both transit and cars, accelerated this process by allowing not only the rich to separate themselves from the poor, but the middle class to be whisked away on a magic carpet to the 'burbs.

In addition to class segregation, transport, and the increased energy input required, increased the need for social controls. Increased social control and institutionalization forms the basis of much of Illich's other work. It is good stuff, but it will bend how you look at things.

In addition to Energy and Equity several other Illich texts are available at: http://www.cogsci.ed.ac.uk/~ira/illich/texts/