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American Cities and Public Transportation

From both my personal observations since I came to Columbus, Ohio two weeks ago and numerous comments and articles on the Internet, it seems to me that the vast majority of American cities are built with the car as the primary means of personal transportation in mind.

This, of course, is probably stating the obvious to most Americans on this board, but what I want to say is that cities built around the car are not an inevitable law of nature, but a conscious design choice in city planning. Most American cities saw much of their expansion during a time when gasoline was cheap and plentiful, and to the people of the time, going everywhere by car was a sign of their newfound wealth - and they couldn't even conceive of even wanting to travel by any other way.

But now that the days of cheap oil are apparently over - and it is unknown whether they will ever be back - this is going to be a huge problem.

Commuting to work, or even just shopping for groceries by car, will become increasingly expensive, thus putting even further strain on the already shaken American economy - and this problem won't go away easily even once the economy recovers, since oil prices likely will still be high. Clearly, something needs to be done here.

To my mind, there are two main options. One is improving public transportation. There seems to be a strong stigma among many Americans - especially among those who have never lived in a city with a good transportation system before - against public transportation as a "poor man's transport" and as being slow and inefficient. And after my experiences with the local bus system in Columbus, I can understand that. But again, that's not something inevitable but merely the result of a lack of political will. A larger number of European cities - and quite a few cities in North America as well - have a widespread and efficient public transportation system with frequent stops along major routes throughout most of the day, to such an extent that even people who could easily afford to commute by car will take the bus because it is more convenient - and cheaper. Yes, such a system will likely require some subsidies to set up. But when compared to the subsidies that are used to expand the streets and freeways, would it really be that more expensive? And let's not forget the added benefits of reduced traffic and cleaner air...

The other possibility - which would involve a lot more effort than the first one - is to redesign the overall physical infrastructure of the cities. From what I've seen, American cities are often extremely wasteful when building new neighborhoods. Yes, all those enormous lawns look pretty, but do people really need them? What do they actually do with them, especially when they have no kids who could play around in them? In the end, they just contribute to the sprawling nature of the city and increase the distance to anywhere where you might need to go. Shops where you can buy groceries often tend to be clustered together at locations far from many homes, instead of being spread out through residential areas, again increasing the distance between your home and your destination. Conversely, there seem to be few, if any bicycle lanes that would make it easy to travel medium distances - and it's often just about impossible to simply walk to a nearby neighborhood without walking alongside a street that doesn't have any sidewalks.

Cities like Copenhagen - which has a population density lower than that of many American cities - have succeeded in restructuring the way they operate so that one-third of all people commute to work via public transportation, and another third commute by bicycle. I am sure that with enough effort and political will, many American cities could achieve similar results - and this option is increasingly looking better than the alternative. Mind you, I'm not arguing for abolishing the car - it still has its uses from time to time, and I am sure that most of those Copenhagen commuters still own one. It's just that I think it is important to offer genuine alternatives, so that the inhabitants of a city have the freedom to choose what mode of transportation they will use.

Some links of relevance to this topic:

Copenhagenize - Life In The World's Cycling Capital
Common Urban Myths About Transport

What are your own thoughts on this?


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2008 04:05 pm (UTC)
I completely agree with you, but I would also point out that rising gas and oil prices do cause inflation of prices to use public transit.
In Portland, OR right now for a short commute it costs 1.75 for a ticket that will cover a few mile area and last for a couple hours. For a ticket that allows you to travel around in all metro areas for a couple hours it costs 2.05. There are price increases all the time. I know it might not seem like much, but my partner and I end up spending $160 per month going to work and school. Much less than the expense of a car, I know, but it isn't difficult to see that for many poor people who rely on it, even public transit will soon likely be unaffordable.

I like your ideas about breaking up the shopping centers and spreading out shops throughout the area.
Apr. 13th, 2008 06:34 pm (UTC)
When I read you're quoted prices I had to chuckle, mostly because it's another one of those reminders that costs don't really always carry over sensibly over borders. Here in Oslo, Norway, a one-hour ticket which allows travel for the entire city proper, is 22 NOK, or about $4.4 with the current excange rate. A month-pass costs 720 NOK, or $144.15. Student and child month cards are 430 NOK and 360 NOK ($86 and $72) respectivly. Now comparing Norwegian and American prices becomes kinda silly without considering income and such, but I always get a chuckle when I hear americans complain about prices.
As for how common public transit usage is here in Oslo? I don't know the numbers, but for people of my generation (20-somethings), there are quite a lot who never seen the point in getting a car or a drivers liscence (my self included).
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 13th, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
Yeah it's a very big factor. Norway is one of the most expensive countries you can find, but we're also one of the richest. So it more or less balances out. Although we go a little shopping mad when go abroad. ;)
Apr. 13th, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
Forgot to log in, the comment above was mine. ;)
Apr. 13th, 2008 04:31 pm (UTC)
One issue you haven't considered is zoning in the cities. The reason all of the stores are clumped together away from homes is that is the only place they are allowed to be. Stupid and wasteful, but that's what happens when a government decides who can build where.
Apr. 13th, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC)
Zoning was originally a solution to the problem of industrial pollution. Get the factories away from the houses.

My grandfather remembered London before the automobile. Horses were a lot nastier than cars!
Apr. 14th, 2008 07:35 pm (UTC)
There is a movement in the US towards reworking the zoning laws to more easily allow mixed-use...
Apr. 13th, 2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
In my part of suburbia, the closest grocery shut last month. It's now over an hour's walk to the nearest grocery shop.
Apr. 13th, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)
My friend, a graduate student in Urban Planning, imagines a sustainable America where the urban planning is rendered obsolete by gutting and overhauling how real estate is taxed and zoned.
Apr. 13th, 2008 07:28 pm (UTC)
The other possibility is, of course, cheap renewable fuel sources, which we really only don't have due to the incestuous relationship between oil companies, car manufactuerers, and government.
Apr. 14th, 2008 04:16 am (UTC)
And what sort of fuel sources would you suggest, especially for personal use? Hydrogen and biofuels are the only things to come to the top of my mind, and both have shown some rather discouraging side effects.
Apr. 13th, 2008 09:26 pm (UTC)
This, of course, is probably stating the obvious to most Americans on this board, but what I want to say is that cities built around the car are not an inevitable law of nature, but a conscious design choice in city planning.

Actually, that's completely backwards. If you don't have extensive government efforts to prevent cities from growing in ways that favor travel by car, and almost everyone has cars, then you get cities set up for cars. Even with European-style gas prices.
Apr. 13th, 2008 10:22 pm (UTC)
There was recent speculation in The Atlantic that many of the more recently built suburban areas might become slums, between the collapse of the real estate boom and high oil prices. They might do even worse than urban slums, since those builders were at least built sturdily.

Toronto has major issues in regards to sustainability. Many of its suburban areas are becoming increasingly poor and dislocated from a well-off core and southern area, public transportation seems to be trying to become more organized, and bike lines are problematic (I bike, I know).
Apr. 19th, 2008 01:02 am (UTC)
Toronto also has the problem that anything the city decides can be over-ruled by the non-elected, very non-transparent Ontario Municipalities Board. Look at the trouble with trying to create a neighbourhood hub, with good public transit, bike access, walking paths, etc, where a developer decided they wanted to put a big box store with acres of parking lot. In an urban site that already has traffic problems. City said "no", OMB looks like it will say "yes", and has thrown in another parcel of land while it's at it.
Apr. 14th, 2008 01:17 am (UTC)
Since you used links I provided to illustrate things, you obviously know my thoughts already :)

As you say, cities didn't just grow this way naturally, people made them so by their decisions; their decisions in political affairs, and in the market.

Nobody would create vast residential zones if people protested about it and kicked them out of office. Nobody would build these huge sprawling houses and suburbs with no shops or workplaces for great distances if people didn't buy them.

To say that it was people's choice does not mean their choice was good and sensible. But it does mean that they can change their mind and do something differently.
Apr. 14th, 2008 08:19 pm (UTC)
Cars & Cities
Regarding the city design you've essentially got it backward. Our cities didn't develop this way from intentional city planning, in fact there is almost no city planning as you'd see in Europe going on in vast parts of the U.S., they developed because there WASN'T extensive city planning to prevent it.

It's also not so much stigma & status as a personal freedom thing. A car is the ability to just hop in and go wherever you want, no waiting no dependence on others you can just do it and screw the rest of the world. When you use public transportation you put yourself at the mercy of another, give them a measure of control over your actions.

Europe and America have different mindsets, it was obvious to me with only a couple short stops this was the case even though pinning down exactly where the differences lay is harder. I think this is one of the bigger examples of it, when you approached the use of cars you went straight to status and class issues. Whereas for Americans cars have more to do with individual freedom, the freedom to range across the land as you will.
Apr. 16th, 2008 03:57 am (UTC)
I should also point out that it's much easier to establish extensive mass transit systems when your continent has been ravaged by two World Wars in 30 years than when you need to go knocking down peoples' perfectly good homes. Our cities COULD seize property through eminent domain for the purpose of creating proper rail lines and such, but it would almost certainly mean political suicide.

Also, there's the American obsession with the car to contend with, as you pointed out.
Apr. 18th, 2008 05:56 pm (UTC)
There is a third option
Increase the supply of oil.

Coal liquefaction.

Not pretty for the environment, but...

As you note, the other two solutions will require lots of political will and lots of money. We need time to change the way we do things over here, and the higher oil prices go, the less economic freedom we will have to bring change about in transportation/city replanning, or alternative energy sources.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )


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